The slice is a little technique that’s easy to learn, and befuddles beginning, intermediate and even some advanced players. There is a risk that your game will suffer a bit while you learn this technique, but that is short-lived, and the advantages become clear almost immediately.
The classic and expected play in pickleball is to serve to the backcourt, return the serve with a long backcourt volley, and then the third shot is a dink from the back, to barely clear the net, and fall short, ideally within the non-volley zone.
The best place for a slice is a modification of that second shot – the return of serve. Slice the paddle under the ball so it spins backward. To make this work better, bend your knees and get low. Get close to the floor, so your paddle slides under the ball, giving, a longer time of contact, where the paddle imparts as much backspin as possible.
When you first see the slice in action, the result appears quite weird. The ball falls much closer to the non-volley line than the opponents expect. It seems to rapidly, illogically lose its forward momentum in mid-air. It might also curve quite noticeably to one side, typically toward your outside. So if you slice it with your right hand, it goes strongly and strangely to your opponents left.
What makes this slice so effective is that beginners and intermediate players almost always misjudge it, and their return fails into the net. To my surprise, when I started playing with this return-of-serve, almost everyone, even many advanced players, continually returned it into the net.
You would think that it is easy to notice a slice being hit, yet still, most players have to learn to respond to it properly. So, you can win many games until they learn. Even when they do learn, the defense is weaker than if they only had to return a flat shot or a topspin.
So how do you defend against the slice?
If you can hit the ball when it is higher than the top of the net, you can do anything you want, almost as if it had no spin. However, when you return a high slice, it will tend to go higher than expected, leaving you in a defensive position.
But if the slice was well-executed, in other words, low, then in most cases, you answer a slice with a slice. You will find that getting ‘under’ the ball to slice it, puts you in just the right position for its tendency to fall short. Returning a slice with a slice also keeps the ball low and close to the non-volley line.
The slice has another very nice effect: It is the ideal drop shot. Just like a flat return or a topspin, it can just barely clear the net. But unlike those other strokes, it drops shorter than expected. So, it is also a good response for the third shot. Where you’d normally do a flat drop shot, you can instead use a backspin drop shot. The only danger is that if you don’t get it right, the ball will be too high over the net, and will be immediately smashed by the opponent.
Advanced players have no problem with smashing a short backspin. Therefore, when playing with experts, for returning a serve, you’ll want to make sure your slice is a long shot to the backcourt, and you probably won’t want to use it after the return-of-serve at all.
Another situation in which the slice will not help you is in a neighborhood where everyone has already experienced the slice. It is inevitable that when a group of people play pickleball long enough, someone will start to experiment with the slice. Seeing this early success, everyone who plays pickleball in the same place will learn to slice also. More importantly, they will learn how to respond to the slice. For instance, in Southern Oregon, where I was the first to experiment with the slice, I had great fun confusing everyone. When I came to the Oregon coast, my slices had no effect at all. Everyone on this part of the coast has been quite familiar with the slice for years.
When you first start slicing, you’ll have variable results, of course. Some of your balls will go way too high. Some won’t slice, resulting in a much-too-powerful shot that goes out of bounds. So, you don’t want to use it in a championship if you are inexperienced. You might play with it in non-competitive situations, or when you are up many points in a game.
I have found out from personal experience that other players will react in various ways.
Some will start copying you. It won’t take them long to learn how it’s done.
Some will get quite upset. The first two or three times they surprisingly hit what should have been a good return into the net, they’ll just be a bit confused. But then they can start to get frustrated, or even angry. One player proclaimed arrogantly, “You shouldn’t practice that shot.”
When I asked why, he replied, “You probably couldn’t ever perfect it!” Interestingly, I had already perfected it to where it was working 90% of the time – better than standard flat and topspin shots. Actually, several have told me it is a low-probability shot. It is not. You may be told it is illegal. (None of the people where I play have accused me of any sort of illegality, but I can imagine it could happen.) I suppose the response would be something like, “Oh? In what way is it illegal?”
According to the official USAPA rules, there is nothing illegal about spins. The only thing you can’t do is modify your paddle to enhance spins. You can’t sand it, drill holes in it, coat it with rubber, or anything like that.
As a serve, the slice is difficult to perform legally. As you know in pickleball, you need to serve with an underhand stroke with the paddle below your waist and below your wrist. I have managed to serve a slice (legally) a few times, but haven’t really had the response I expected. I’m not sure whether it’s because the backspin just isn’t strong enough, or because there is some other dynamic in play when returning a serve that makes it easier to respond to the backspin.
I haven’t completed my experiments within the non-volley zone. So far, I have not found any use for a slice in the softer shots. The ball doesn’t seem to spin enough to have an effect, or I cannot control the ball sufficiently to impart a backspin while keeping it low and gentle. And, as you know, when the ball is high enough for a powerful hit, but not high enough for a smash, you’ll definitely want a topspin.
If you’re playing with beginning or intermediate players, they will struggle with your slice for a while, but in time they’ll learn to respond. However, you can stay one step ahead of them. As you continue to hit slices, learn to impart more and more spin. Those players who have returned your earlier slices will have to struggle all over again with ones that have a more severe spin.
One final point about the slice: You can do it with a backhand, and you can do it with your non-dominant hand. With a little patience, these variations are as easy to learn as the basics.