Returning a Lob
A lob is a ball that goes very high, typically landing toward the baseline, or the rear of the court.
The first thing you should know about lobs is that they are the cause of more injuries than any other thing in pickleball. Beginners, especially, will try to run backward quickly enough to return the lob, and they’ll inevitably fall over their own feet. Humans are not built for running backward, and we don’t work well in that mode. When one falls while running backward, we don’t have the ability to throw our arms out in front to break our fall, so we often hit our heads, and that can result in serious injuries. At minimum, it stops play for everyone and is embarrassing. More about falling backward…
So, as a beginner or intermediate player, be prepared to let some shots go. Let the opponents win the point. It is better than killing yourself.
The proper way to get to the back of the court quickly is to run in a C-pattern. Turn around so you can run forward to the back of the court, and once you get there, continue your turn so you are facing the net again. Although seemingly more complex, this is actually smoother, and gets you to the back of the court sooner than trying to run backward. You might practice this a few times during warm-up, before you start playing, or between games, so you’ll do it reflexively, subconsciously, when the time comes.
In most cases, when you get to the lob, let it bounce. That will give you more time to return it accurately. In a few cases, you might be able to return it as a smash from the back of the court, but this takes more skill than most of us have until we are quite experienced.
So, the best way to return a lob, is with a lob. Lob it back. This gives you time to return to a defensive position, and at the same time, is an offensive move that makes the opponents move out of their ideal positions near the kitchen. It is important to focus on getting it close to the opponents’ baseline. If it is too close to the kitchen, they’ll smash it.
In doubles, who should run back for a lob? Usually the person who is in the opposite court of where the lob is going. In other words, if the lob is sent to the right half of your court, the player on the left should run behind the player on the right to return it. That will be more successful for three reasons:
It is not straight back for the player who gets it, and therefore easier to run to, even though slightly farther away.
The player on the side to which the lob was sent has been in a defensive position near the kitchen in case the return hadn’t been a lob, and is not as ready to move back.
The player who stays in front will be able to stay in position and available in case your return lob does not end the rally.
With practice, it becomes routine for the player on the opposite side of the centerline to run back and handle the lob. This consistency becomes important to eliminate confusion. It is not helpful for both players to run back, since that leaves no one to defend the kitchen line. Plus, when two players run back, they’ll either crash, or both fail to hit the ball.
If the player who has run back has traveled well past the centerline, then it is usually appropriate to yell “switch.” When this happens, the teammate moves to the other half of the court, and the one who returned the lob moves straight up to the kitchen line.
If you are a beginner, you may have trouble responding to a lob. The usual thing people say about it is, “too much time to think.” That’s not really the problem. The problem is the brain is very good at calculating trajectories from the top of the arc in which a ball moves. Yes, our brains use a very small curve at the top of the ball’s motion in order to make necessary calculations for hitting it back. When the top of the arc is high in the air, it is hard to understand it clearly. So, let the ball bounce. That will give you a new arc to focus on. One that will be lower and more normal, and therefore easier to respond to.
Wind makes lobs difficult to place accurately, and even more difficult to return. More than one good player has been seen swinging at nothing, missing the ball entirely, as it’s descending trajectory was changed by the wind. You can use this to your advantage on a windy day.
Try to stay calm, and actually allow yourself more time to ‘think’ just before you return it. Generally, there is more time than you think, and you can use that time to your advantage. Or, to simplify: Stay calm when returning a lob.