As the sport of pickleball continues to grow, many players are coming into pickleball with tennis backgrounds. The tennis experience varies from novice to very experienced players. Former and current tennis players are learning pickleball for various reasons, and I hope everyone will have fun learning and enjoying this great game called pickleball. Please remember these are my observations and suggestions through my experiences in both games and there are always exceptions and differences of opinion.
Although there are similarities in both sports, there are also several significant differences. I have taught over 600 different pickleball players in my 2.5 years of being PPR Certified at the Professional Level of Instruction. I would say about half have had some form of tennis background. I have been fortunate enough to enjoy working with all of them. My teaching experience has been very rewarding and has led me to design and regularly offer a special 2.5-hour clinic on this topic to address the large number of tennis players learning pickleball.
For this article, I would like to talk about three main differences that I see in teaching former/current tennis players the game of pickleball.
1) Come up to the Non-Volley Zone (NVZ) line versus staying back!
a) In doubles pickleball, tennis players tend to want to hit the ball and stay back near the baseline typically tending to do long volleys back and forth across the court. Some are super good at both forehand and backhand drive shots (groundstrokes) and that is a great shot to have in your pickleball game. However, that drive shot should be used in a timely fashion and not be the go-to shot on many hits in pickleball. It is essential to join your partner up at the NVZ line right after hitting the Return of Serve (ROS) in pickleball. Hitting a ROS that keeps your opponents back, gives you enough time to get up to the NVZ, and forces a decision on who hits the third shot is what I believe most players should do every chance they get. This gives a huge positional advantage to your team. By staying back after hitting the ROS the other team can quickly hit a hard groundstroke right back to your feet and now you and your partner are in a "pickle." Staying back after hitting the ROS can take that positional advantage away from your team and give it to your opponents.
b) In pickleball, the drop shot is super important and also super hard to master. If done well it gets you and your partner up to the NVZ to join the two players on the other side of the net and "neutralizes" the game. This is the goal and desire for you and your partner to get to the NVZ and play from there. Many tennis players do not typically do this naturally as they tend to stay back and hover around the center of the court near the baselines. Even though the drop shot is used in tennis, the number of times used is much less than in pickleball so it is essential to develop this shot from anywhere on the court. Pickleball players need to work their way up to the NVZ using the third, fifth, and sometimes 7th shot.
2) Serve and Step Back- not Serve and Step In!
I observe many tennis players serving the ball and stepping into the pickleball court- sometimes taking two or three steps into the court. I believe this is something to avoid all of the time because the ball can be returned very quickly to your feet and now you end up in a defensive position trying to hit a very difficult shot in the game (the third shot drop). I teach "serve and step back" with your eyes focused on the return serve so you are ready for anything that comes back your way and you are always behind the ball. This gives you or your partner a great chance to hit a good third shot. You really do not want to get caught stepping back while hitting the ball in pickleball.
3) Playing at the NVZ Close to the Net - Versus Only Rarely Playing to the Net!
a) Pickleball is played regularly at the NVZ and that requires a variety of skills that I do not regularly see from tennis players. Differences such as having light paddle grips for dinking and placing the ball, having patience playing at the NVZ, having short quick strokes, and a super-fast reaction time to discover and capitalize on a ball that stays high on a dink. These are necessary skills in pickleball and do not necessarily come naturally to tennis players. In addition, having the ability to block really hard drive shots that are hit directly to you is important in pickleball and many tennis players are not used to balls being hit really hard to them from a short distance.
b)The last important difference that I have seen in teaching is that tennis players tend to have very tense grips, locked wrists, and deliver long, time-consuming strokes. I think most pickleball players would agree that having short, quick strokes with lots of fast wrist action does them well. It is also very important in pickleball to be able to positively deal with a ball being hit right at your chest. Some tennis grips actually cause a person to have to move their arms, paddle, and even parts of their upper/lower body to deal with these hard-hit balls. This may be ok at the lower levels when players have more time but at higher levels when balls are hit super hard and there is almost no time to react, paddle grips become important. In addition, better pickleball players will test one's ability to hit a shot at the NVZ directed at their forehand hip area. Better pickleball players will be able to handle those but certain kinds of tennis grips will not allow your body to get to those spots rapidly enough to deal positively with those quick hard-hit balls.
There are certainly other differences between the two sports, but I wanted to share what I believe I see the most from tennis players learning pickleball. I hope this article has been instructive and informative for both tennis players and pickleball players and I wish everyone great fun and success in both games.
By Marc F. Austin, GAMMA Ambassador, and PPR Pro Pickleball Instructor