A while ago, I wrote an article for the USAPA newsletter discussing how people practice pickleball. One of the folks who gave me input was Vic Avery, and during research for that article he offered some other thoughts, too. One was about backhand shots. He said, "I had a serious problem in singles because of a weak backhand on groundstrokes. Once, while watching Pat Kane 's backhand, I saw he used a totally different technique from mine. I was using the tennis style: square your body to the court (facing the side fence) and use mostly arm for the power (a sweeping motion in a plane parallel to the ground). Opponents found it easy to read the direction and speed of my shots. I tried his method—punching it by:
- straightening your arm and getting wrist action at the end,
- contacting the ball almost straight in front of you, and
- having the paddle travel in an arc perpendicular to the ground, from low to high.
Vic's reply caused me to start thinking about the different backhand techniques I have seen in play and to wonder about the evolution of pickleball strokes that are separate and distinct from those we brought with us from tennis, racquetball, or other sports. I was also curious about the backhand particularly because many players say they find it more difficult than their forehand strokes. So I asked a sampling of players again: “tell me how you handle the backhand in pickleball.”
Rock Kane wrote, “Whenever I can, if I know someone is going to my backhand, I try to get quickly into a position to be able to use my forehand which is my stronger hit.” Many players agree with Rock, saying their forehand strokes are stronger than their backhands. Certainly, if you have time to get into position for a forehand stroke and it won't pull you so far out of position that your next return might in jeopardy, I'd agree that taking a forehand would be preferred by most. Rock continued, “Also, when reaching for a backhanded shot, I slip my hand to the end of the paddle [handle] to give me more paddle hitting surface in the reach.”
Dick Lewis said his baseline backhand is “very similar to the tennis groundstroke.” He went on to say, “The backhand shot should be easier then the forehand.” I mentioned that this goes counter to what most people say, although I have always felt that backhand and forehand should both be equally difficult (or easy, depending on your point of view). I asked him why he thought the backhand should be easier? His answer, regarding the backhand from the baseline: “You need to turn sideways to the net. By doing this you already have your arm back and in the proper position on the backhand” [because you don't have to take as much backswing compared to the forehand groundstroke].
Dick then described a number of ways to hit the ball (imparting topspin, hitting the ball flat, and cutting for backspin, which he says is the hardest shot but very effective against lower-level opponents). Lastly, he described “a different backhand shot where you bring your arm forward and snap your wrist at impact to the ball. The shot would be similar to the flat shot. With practice this can be the easiest of all backhand shots.” He and Vic are speaking the same language.
I asked him, “What about the backhand ‘pops' that are done from the non-volley-zone line?”
“While at the net, you would have a continental grip, which is where the "V" between your thumb and index finger would be in the center of the grip. The paddle is held in the ready position, which is chest high. The quick backhand would be hit by twisting your body to the left, if you were right-handed, and slapping the ball, moving the paddle forward. The paddle should never be taken back further then your peripheral vision. An example would be, facing the net, taking the paddle back as far as you can see without moving your head.”
Finally, we discussed the shot he described with the flick of the wrist. I told him I've seen this done up at the non-volley zone, too. He agreed, but said he uses it only with high backhand overheads.
To put a wrap to this research, I called Vic back, and we went out to the court together so I could see just what he meant in action. I photographed his movements for his original “tennis-type” stroke as well as the new strokes, both at the baseline and the non-volley zone line. Here's what he showed me and what he explained in more detail.
The picture on the left shows the backhand stroke Vic started with. The paddle swings through fairly flat, parallel to the ground. Vic hits the ball forward of his body with his wrist locked through the entire swing. As with all strokes from the baseline, it is important to make room for the shot: step back or forward, as necessary, in preparation for the movement of the shot itself.