Do you have a strong serve or a couple different strong serves? Do you serve just to get the game going and worry a lot about just getting it in? In this blog, I want to share with you what I believe "Weaponizing the Serve" is, how to do it and why. Perhaps I can motivate more players to develop stronger and more offensive serves.
When I started playing I attended a couple of camps run by current professional pickleball players close to four years ago. At that time they were teaching us to just get the serve in, try to keep it deep, and get the rally started. So, I worked on hitting deep serves but not at the risk of hitting the ball out of bounds or into the net giving up my team's potential to score points. Then I was taught how important the drop shot is and I started working on hitting good drop shots (especially third shot drop shots). BUT, I quickly realized how hard it is to hit good drop shots, especially when I was serving to get the rally going and my opponents were crushing the ball or putting hard to deal with spins on their return of serve. This made it very difficult to hit good third shot drops. I started thinking, "why am I not putting pressure on my opponent on my serve and how did that turn into them putting pressure on me and my partner to hit arguably the hardest shot in the game (third shot drop)." In other words, my opponents can easily make it hard for me and my partner to hit the hardest shot in the game. I did not think this was a good strategy as I was working on getting better in the game. It did not make sense to me when the serve is the only real-time in the game where the server has full control of what he or she does to be offensive! So, I started working on what I am calling now, "Weaponizing the Serve''.
Simply put, "Weaponizing the Serve" is being able to execute powerful, well-placed serves to put pressure on your opponents so they have a hard time hitting the return of serve where and how they want to, making it easier for you and your partner to hit a good third shot.
How to Execute
One way to serve offensively is to place the serves in vulnerable places for your opponents to hit a good return of serve. One should make them move, reach out, lunge, and go to their backhand. If you hit a serve to your opponent's backhand and they do everything to run around and go to their forehand, this is a huge "tell" and I suggest hitting many shots during the game to their backhand. By serving a strong, well-placed serve at the beginning of the game you can easily tell whether your opponents have backhands or not. This can be huge in competitive play. In the photo below, you can see four specific areas on the court where you should practice your serve. I am assuming right-handed players but if you are serving to a left-handed player then the deep-back makers can move over to the centerline instead of the sidelines. Please note that serving at vulnerable areas on the court is not easy. I am suggesting to practice serving to those areas as much as you can and soon you will see how effective your serve will become in gameplay.
Another part of "Weaponizing the Serve" is to develop a lot of pace on your serve keeping it low at the same time. Developing a hard, low, and deep serve to those back areas of the court can really be a huge "Weapon". For the side areas near the net, I would suggest putting a spin on the serves so the ball hits and spins away from the court making these serves very hard to return.
At this point, I want to address the potential to hit these offensive serves into the net and out of bounds. At first, this will happen perhaps more than one would like, which can lead to frustration. This is why I suggest practicing these serves until you get more comfortable with repeated accuracy. Then once you start using those serves in the game you will become successful and wow! the light will go on and you will see instant positive results at any level in this game. There is more risk of course in hitting a bad serve but I strongly believe hitting a weaponized serve out of bounds or into the net once in a while is worth the benefit of putting pressure on every serve to get better third shots to hit. Aces on the serve are rare but do happen as well. In other words, I think the gain is far better than the risk once a player gets good at it.
You want your opponent on their toes worried about your serve and how to handle it. You want to test their focus every chance you can and the serve is a great place to start. You want to make it as easy as possible for you and your partner to hit the hardest shot in the game. The aggressive serve is to set up a great or a high percentage third shot! If you do this you will also notice how many short slow high bouncing returns are coming back to you and your partner so you can get "easy" drive shots which you probably would not have gotten had you not put pressure on your opponent with a weaponized serve.
I hope I have given readers another perspective on the serve and how to approach the game a little differently. Please consider practicing and developing offensive serves and I think you will enjoy the fruits of your labor.
By Marc F. Austin, Team GAMMA Ambassador, PPR Pro, USA Pickleball Association Ambassador in Maryland