As the game of pickleball changes and new technologies are constantly advancing in the game, we are seeing players develop new shots and new strategies to gain a competitive advantage. What used to be a slow grinding game, is now turning into a faster-paced slugfest. The traditional pickleball players are getting frustrated and the former tennis players coming into the game are having a blast banging their way through matches. But what is the more effective strategy for playing pickleball and when should we choose to play the new and faster-paced game? Here we will look to answer these questions.
1st off, it all comes down to hand speed.
Most players coming into the game, (yes, even the tennis players) have trouble with the hand speed needed to counter well and sustain firefights. This is a skill that must be learned and takes hours of drilling to be effective. When I first started playing the game three years ago, I fell in love with the slow aspect of the game and wanted to dink on every rally. I would often face players who didn’t feel the same way I did about dinking and often sped the ball up at me when I least expected it. Even though I felt like I was the better “pickleball” player, they were simply beating me. It wasn’t long before I figured out I needed to learn how to attack and counter. I needed faster hands to force the bangers to play my game; the game I knew I could beat them at. If you are a great dinker, but your opponents know they can speed the ball up at you and win points, you are at a tremendous disadvantage…and your dinking will be useless.
Let’s take a look at how this has developed in the pro game.
Over the past several years, Ben and Collin Johns have dominated the men’s doubles draw. With Ben being the best player in the game and Collin being hands down the best setup man in the game, they seem at this point to be untouchable. That was until last year when Riley Newman and Matt Wright decided they would test their skills against the Johns brothers by partnering up long-term.
Matt Wright is known for having some of the best hands in the game and Riley is known for being the most aggressive. So how was this going to change the future of Ben and Collin and their dominance in the game? Well, like many expected, the hands and aggression of Matt and Riley began to prove effective against the Johns brothers. Matt and Riley had a run where they took several PPA championships away from Ben and Collin in 2022 and looked to be a real threat to the legacy that the Johns were leaving on the men’s game. But as we know, champions make adjustments and they figure out solutions. What did Ben and Collin do? They began working on their hands.
Many believe that the sport is moving toward a more aggressive approach and that this style of play will produce the top players moving forward. In the last PPA tournament, Riley and Matt played against the Johns brothers at Desert Ridge in Arizona and accounted for 85 percent of the speed-ups and lost in 3 straight games. The aggression obviously wasn’t the best policy to win this match. The difference here all came down to the hand speed of the Johns Brothers. While Matt and Riley sped up 85 percent in Arizona, they lost 57.5 percent of those speed-ups. Of the 15 percent that the Johns Brothers sped up, they won 71 percent.
Let’s look at these same numbers for the PPA Championships last year in Vegas in which Matt and Riley won in 5 games.
The percentage of speed-ups between the two teams is actually identical. Matt and Riley sped the ball up 86 percent of the time and the Johns Brothers only sped up 14 percent of the time. So it’s evident that the strategy of aggression between the two events didn’t change. But what did? Of the 86 percent speed-up rate, Matt and Riley won 57 percent of those attacks. Ben and Collin only won 41 percent of their attacks.
Two things happened between the 4 months these two events took place. The Johns brothers began working on developing their hands and countering ability, and they started making better decisions on the balls they attacked (They actually became less aggressive!) The difference, however, was their ability to counter Matt and Riley’s attacks and increase their winning percentage on those counters from 42 percent to 57 percent. So what do these numbers tell us about how we are to develop our game in this fast-paced era of pickleball? Here are three things.
- Be consistent. When it comes to our serves, returns, third shots, resets, and dinking, we have to be consistent. When we limit our unforced errors in these areas, it forces the points to be won in the attacking and countering hand battles.
- Make good attacking decisions. If we are going against players who don’t have good hands or don’t counter well, we have the ability to attack more freely; as we will win a majority of these battles. However, when we are playing against players with better hands, we must be more selective with the balls we attack. This often means waiting for a higher ball to speed up, or being able to move our opponents around so we can attack them while they are out of position or off balance.
- Develop your hands. If you don’t develop faster hands and better countering ability, you will be on the receiving end of this aggressive style of pickleball. Quicker hand speed will neutralize points and make your opponents second guess whether they want to attack you or not. Fast hands will force a slower and more strategic game. Trust your hands and be ready to attack as your opponents’ hand speed allows.
Faster hands have been the difference between The Johns brothers winning and losing against Matt and Riley as of late; not their attacking ability or volume. Don’t feel like you have to be a more aggressive player to be the best, you just need to develop the skills needed to handle aggressive players and the patience to attack at the right times for you and your partner. Ben and Collin aren’t the most aggressive players when they step on the court, but they are the ones taking home the most men’s doubles championships. Don’t let someone tell you that you need to be more aggressive than your opponents. Hold tight to the three points listed above and you will begin developing a well-rounded game that will give you the advantage against most players!
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Written by Mitchell Johnson