The sports of tennis and pickleball have a lot in common. As an instructor, I feel the biggest common denominator of both sports is having proper understanding of and being able to execute high percentage play. If you are a regular reader of my column, you know I’ve said it before, “Unforced errors are our biggest opponent.” Most unforced errors are usually related to improper stroke fundamentals and bad strategic positioning, a subject which I covered in a previous column, “Fundamentally Speaking,” (April 14, 2016).
In advanced/professional level tennis, even with the huge groundstrokes that players have in today’s game, the server still has an advantage of first strike opportunity, especially with the first serve, because they have a second serve to fall back on. Players on this level can go for more on the first serve and are attempting to offensively dominate the point from the first strike of the ball.
Having the luxury of two serves in tennis means we have two separate percentage values, one for the success of our first serve and another for our second serve. However, in pickleball, because we only get one serve to get the ball in play, we only have one percentage value for our serve, and because we can only score points when we are serving, the percentage of that shot needs to be very high.
In advanced/professional level pickleball, players don’t necessarily try to take control of the point with the serve or with the return. These two shots are basically (even on this advanced level of play) getting the point started and seeking out the third shot opportunity, to take offensive/strategic control of the point, a subject that I covered in a previous column, “Third Shot Opportunity,” (January 22, 2016).
Now, that’s not to say that advanced level pickleball players can’t force a weak return with a good serve, or really pop a strong return from a weak serve. Either way, players at this level rarely miss either one of these shots!
So let’s discuss what percentages we should be expecting and demanding from ourselves as tennis players and as pickleball players.
On a professional level of play in tennis (believe it or not) an acceptable first serve percentage is anywhere in the mid to upper 60%. If a player is up into the mid to high 70%, they are considered to be having a good day serving. However, if a player on this level is not able to sustain a second serve average in at least the mid 80% range, it’s going to be a tough day on the court, because even at 80%, the returner is applying pressure and trying to attack and take control of the point with the return. And in tennis, the percentage of second serves won or lost can often be the determining factor of a match. As recreational tennis players, if we can achieve the percentages of the pros,our game will improve.
In pickleball, our percentages in both serving and returning need to be somewhere above 90%!
I know that sounds quite high, but let’s remember, when I am the returner, my opponent is not able to challenge or pressure me with the serve as they can in tennis and along with that, as the server, I am not trying to hit aces with a serve, I am just wanting to get a good deep serve into the court and attempt to force the returner to hit a weaker/shorter mid court ball, which will give me a chance at that third shot opportunity.
Advanced/professional level pickleball players have achieved these percentages (90%+) and rarely, if ever, do they lose a point because of an unforced error, prior to the third shot of the point. Like in tennis, as recreational pickleball players, if we can achieve the percentages of the pros, our game will improve.
Once we have conquered these percentages in our serve and our returns and we are able to apply the third ball opportunity strategy, we must now focus on and improve our dinking skills up at the kitchen.
Unfortunately, most beginner to intermediate level points I see played in pickleball do not include a lot of dinking. Players at this level are still making too many unforced errors on the first three to five strikes of the ball and are not finishing the points out by executing strategies in the kitchen. However on the advanced/championship level of play, nearly every point is finished being played in the kitchen, with soft delicate dink shots, followed up by a volley/spike put away shot. Some of these dink rallies can last for fifteen to twenty hits or more! Once again, the reason this strategy is taking place is because players at this level have achieved the percentages of serving and returning.
With all of that said, be sure to keep all aspects of your game up to speed. You don’t want to get yourself into a situation where you have conquered the serve and return percentages and then find yourself being weak in your ability to efficiently and effectively execute dinks on a confident high percentage basis, a subject which I covered in a previous column, “Dominate the Dink,” (June 10, 2016).
So take the time to work on your strokes and strategies and achieve the high percentages required to be a confident and aggressive player.
Wayne Clark is a certified professional tennis instructor with over 25 years experience coaching players on all levels of the game. Wayne is also qualified in pickleball instruction. He has been the head instructor at The Marco Island Racquet Center since 2001. The Racquet Center offers clinics, private and group lessons for both tennis and pickleball. Coach Wayne’s Island Kids Tennis juniors program runs year round and has classes for players from kindergarten through high school. Contact Coach Wayne by email at WClark@cityofmarcoisland.com, by phone or text at 239-450-6161.