Return of Serve Strategy & Tips for Controlling the Point

The return of serve is an important moment during a point in pickleball. Learn to approach it with a strategic mindset and set yourself up to control the point.

Return of Serve Strategy and Tips for Controlling the Point
Photo by chadpryan licensed under (CC BY-NC 2.0)

Goal of the return of serve in pickleball

Before getting into some actual tactics for hitting your returns, it’s important to understand what you’re trying to accomplish with your return and why it matters:

  1. Getting to the kitchen
  2. Making the third shot challenging

Get to the kitchen

There’s a good chance you’ve heard this before, but it’s worth repeating anyway:

In pickleball the team that controls the net has the advantage.

Because the serving team has to wait for the third shot to bounce, the receiving team has the opportunity to secure the net before the serving team can hit their third shot. This actually means the serving team is at a disadvantage when starting the point.

But there’s an important caveat – they’re at a disadvantage only if the receiving team makes it to the kitchen and is ready to receive the third shot. This is important – as the receiving team, if you don’t make it to the kitchen before the third shot, you’re forfeiting your advantage. You’re allowing the game to transition to more of a neutral state and giving your opponents a free pass.

A Challenging Third Shot

Getting to the kitchen is your first priority during the return of serve. But beyond that, you want to make it difficult for your opponents to execute their third shot (the first shot being the serve and the second shot being the return of serve).

Why? Because you’re already in an advantageous position (you are at the kitchen line, right?). You want to press your advantage and put pressure on your opponents.

Whether it’s a drop or a drive, hitting a quality third shot is hard enough, even with an easy return of serve. Assuming they’re playing smart, the receiving team is poised right at the kitchen line, salivating over the idea of getting a high ball that they can attack.

The third shot is significantly harder to execute if the return of serve isn’t an easy ball.

Because the margin for error is relatively small for the third shot, making it even just a little more challenging for your opponents to hit means they’re significantly more likely to make an error.

With the goals of:

  1. Getting to the kitchen
  2. Making the third shot challenging

in mind, here are some practical tips that will help improve your return of serve.

Pickleball return of serve tips

1. Give yourself time to get to the kitchen

There’s really no excuse for not making it to the kitchen after your return of serve. You know that’s where you need to be (it’s a fundamental part of pickleball strategy) and should be ready to move quickly after hitting your return. Don’t saunter up to the kitchen like you’ve got all the time in the world.

If you need some extra time to get to the kitchen because you’re less mobile or the serve was particularly good, hit a lofty return with a high arc. A high arcing return will give you extra time to get to the kitchen compared to a ball with a flatter trajectory. You can also buy some more time by hitting it deep in the court.

A lofty returns makes the third shot easier for your opponents but remember, your first priority is getting to the kitchen.

2. Hit your return with forward momentum

Another tip to help you get to the kitchen quickly is to try to hit your returns with a bit of forward momentum. You don’t want to be running when making contact with the ball – that’ll impair your accuracy – but you do want to be stepping into the shot as you hit the return.

Stepping into the shot will not only help improve your accuracy and power, you can use that forward motion to help carry you to the kitchen.

Contrast this with standing still or, even worse, backpedaling while hitting your return. In both these cases, you either have to start your body moving or totally change directions – not ideal.

To make it easy on yourself and so you don’t even have to think about it, stand a few feet back from the baseline while waiting for the serve to be hit. This will put you into a position where you’re forced to move forward to hit your return.

The big caveat here is that you need to be ready to move quickly and receive a short serve. If you’re not able to move quickly, standing far off the baseline might not be the best approach but you can still make an effort to step into the ball while hitting the return.

3. Target the weaker player

Before the first serve is hit in a competitive game, you and your partner should already know which player you’re generally going to hit most of your shots to. Typically, the weaker player.

Hitting your return to the weaker player means they’re more likely to make a mistake and is less dangerous for you and your partner.

Use a bit of judgement with this tip if you’re in open or recreational play. While it’s smart pickleball, you don’t want to totally brutalize a new player and discourage them from continuing to play. In a competitive environment though, play smart and exploit your opponents’ weaknesses.

4. Hit it deep

Hitting the return deep furthers both the goal of getting to the kitchen and making life difficult for your opponents. Not only does give you more time to run to the kitchen, it’s also a lot harder for your opponents to accurately hit their third shot when close to the baseline.

On top of fulfilling your two main goals, hitting the return deep keeps your opponents back, which solidifies your advantage at the net. All around, a good idea.

5. Aim for their backhand

Most players have a weaker backhand than forehand. Aiming for your opponent’s backhand will require them to either take the third shot with their backhand or force them to run around the ball so they can hit with their forehand.

Both of these options will make their third shot harder and may also open up areas for you to attack if they move out of position to use their forehand.

6. Give it some spin

Putting a bit of spin on your return can add that little extra something that causes your opponent to hit their third shot into the net or too high into your smash zone.

While an experienced player can typically handle a moderate amount of spin without too much trouble, it’ll still make their third shot less than ideal. And you may just catch them off guard if they’re not fully focused. Where spin really shines, though, is against newer players that haven’t yet learned to read spin on the ball or are still learning how to compensate for it.

7. Change it up

Hitting a return that is deep, powerful, or has lots of spin can complicate life your your opponents. But decent players will learn to adapt if you keep giving them the same return.

If you’re making the third shot challenging for your opponents that’s great, keep doing what works. However, if you feel they have a handle on your return try changing things up to throw them for a loop.

If you regularly hit to their backhand, try targeting their forehand. Or try a deep lofty return if you normally hit your return low and with power. Hitting a series of returns with heavy topspin then throwing in a one with backspin can catch even experienced players off guard.

Keep them guessing and continue to make their third shot challenging.

8. Get it in

You can implement all of the above advice but it won’t do you much good if you regularly hit your returns out.

You don’t want to try to do so much with your return that you make an error. You don’t have to be perfect, but you do want to be hitting the majority of your serves into play. The reason I don’t say get them in 100% of the time is because there’s a good chance you’re not putting much pressure on your opponents third shot if you get 100% of your returns in.

It’s also important to factor in how challenging your opponent’s serve is. If they hit an excellent serve that’s hard to return accurately, don’t be afraid to dial it back and return the ball more conservatively. You’re better to keep the ball in and give them an easier third shot than hitting it into the net and conceding the point.

Remember, your goal is not to win the point on the return. You’re just trying to secure your advantage heading into the third shot.

Wrapping Up

The return of serve is a great time to put some pressure on your opponents and get the point moving in your favor. Be mindful of your goals for the return and utilize these tips to make the most of the opportunity.

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