Considering pickleball? What to expect if you’re a tennis, squash, badminton, or racquetball player
By Nich Rush
In the spring of 2014, I was competing in a badminton tournament, when one of my former coaches started talking to me about his new sport – pickleball. He went on to explain that he had transitioned to it because he needed a sport that was slower and easier on his body while still offering an outlet to fulfill his competitive drive. A few years later, while I was coaching badminton lessons, I heard the sounds of a ball being hit coming from a nearby gym, and went to investigate. Some of the players there knew me as the Badminton Pro at the facility and invited me to join them for a few hits. That Saturday morning in 2018 was my first time playing pickleball and as a former racquetball player, former tennis coach, former squash coach, current tennis player, current competitive squash player, and current competitive badminton player/coach, I decided at that moment that I would add competitive pickleball to my playing and coaching mix!
As a racquet sport enthusiast with about 40 years of playing and coaching experience I have made it my mission to help grow and promote the game of pickleball, especially amongst other current racquet sport players. I have decided to focus on this group because the grassroots side of pickleball, by players who don’t have previous racquet sport experience is already huge and well supported. Whenever I see players on either the squash, racquetball, tennis, or badminton courts, my goal is to leave them with the idea that pickleball is worth trying and adding to their mix. Too often, the first reaction I get is similar to what my first reaction was when I learned that pickleball was something I could transition into when I needed something slower and easier on the body, the eye roll. Pickleball can be more than just this and I have found it to be much, much, more. My sales pitch, to these prospective players contains words and phrases like: exciting, technical, opportunities to hit hard, long rallies, easy to pick up/adapt, strategic, and most of all, really fun.
The court, the racquet, and the objective
Each of the racquet sports has elements that transfer directly into pickleball. An easy place to start is a comparison of the racquets. Squash and tennis racquets are about 27” long, with badminton racquets ranging between 26”-27” in length, and racquetball racquets measuring in at 22”. The pickleball paddle is the shortest of the group and has an average length ranging from 15.5”-17”. Another significant difference is that the paddle does not have a string bed. However, I have found that the basic stroke action of the racquet sports is generally quite similar and transferable to pickleball. I have also found that adapting to the shorter paddle length is not a significant obstacle. The size of the court, and how this is relevant to existing racquet court players, is often overlooked, when comparing the racquet sports to pickleball. The pickleball court measures 44’ x 20’, the racquetball court is 40’ x 20’, the squash court is 32’ x 21’, the badminton court is 44’ x 20’, and the service court area of a tennis court is 42’ x 27’. The first part of my sales pitch is that players can expect to feel comfortable on the court and while armed with their, relatively short, paddle. As an added bonus, I also tell them that with their existing footwork and court coverage skills, they can expect to be in the right position to make contact with the ball and not leave areas of the court exposed or vulnerable to attack most of the time.
Attack? It’s at this point that players give me a confused look. They are thinking “there’s attacking in pickleball”? Like the other racquet sports, pickleball is a game where the objective is to score more points, faster than the opponent(s), until you get to the desired total. Unlike pickleball, in the other sports, the player or team that holds service is generally in a more advantageous position at the outset of the rally. Conversely, in pickleball, the receiving side has the first opportunity to attempt to dictate play and vie towards establishing an offensive position, or in other words, set up the first opportunity to attack, most of the time. In all the racquet sports, including pickleball, most of the final attack shots in doubles get executed from a position that is closer to the front of the court or the net position. In some instances a single powerful attack shot from a position closer to the mid court is also possible (i.e. smash off of a short lift in badminton, swinging volley in tennis closer to mid court, mid court kill in squash or racquetball, strong driving groundstroke in pickleball from inside the baseline). In doubles pickleball, 3 of the 4 players start the rally at their respective baselines, and as they are all trying to reach the net, while not leaving themselves vulnerable in the process, court coverage and understanding the need to build a rally are two fundamental skills that other racquet players can directly transfer to pickleball.
The shots, the strategies, and the positioning
All the racquet sports, including pickleball, have approximately the same 4 categories of shots: Serves, Returns, Volleys/Strokes, and Kills. Within these broad categories, there are different types of shots that are sport specific, but in general, serves initiate play, returns begin a rally, volleys/strokes maintain and are used to establish/vie for control, and kills finish the rally. There are two main strategies used to score points in pickleball and both involve at least one team controlling and maintaining their position at the net. In one strategy, the team that reaches the net first, becomes the attacking team and proceeds to place their shots in a way that prevents the other team from reaching the net. The net team then looks for an opportunity to end the point. The defensive team tries to mount a counter attack. For both teams in this strategy there can be tension, excitement, opportunities to hit very technical shots, and there can also be opportunities to his the ball really hard. In the other strategy, both teams have been able to reach the net and both teams then vie for control and the opportunity to attack by carefully placing shots in the forecourt area (known as the kitchen) and if possible, with timely volleys/strokes to the open areas of the court, or with timely shots directly at the opponents. In this type of strategy placement and consistency of shots is very important, players must show a high degree of patience, and at the same time they must be ready for a sudden opportunity to attack. Deciding which shots to use, when to use them, and where to place them, while preparing for potential return shots, are skills that other racquet sport players will also be familiar with and will be able to transfer to pickleball.
Tennis players have so far, been, easiest group to sell my pitch to, especially during summer. The court surface of outdoor pickleball is the same as the tennis hard court. The potential wind variable is also something a tennis player will have experienced. The tennis player who is playing pickleball can use the same types of strokes for the return as would be used in tennis. Also, once at the net, the tennis player should feel comfortable executing volleys and overheads. The use of spins (topspin and backspin) in returns, volleys, serves, and short groundstrokes (i.e. dinks or net shots) are directly transferable for tennis players on the pickleball court. Body position at contact point is also transferable from tennis to pickleball. Brad Dubeck, Head Tennis Pro and owner at Clear Lake Tennis, who plays tennis and pickleball, commented to me recently that tennis players should be able to modify the doubles tennis strategy of pulling teams apart using spins to create openings between players and apply it to pickleball during dinking rallies. In this way, according to Brad, he is able to force his opponent away from their base, which then creates an opening through which he or his partner are able to execute a set up attacking shot or a final attacking shot. Brad and I agree that tennis players should be able to transfer many of their skills to pickleball.
My experience with squash players thus far is that most have preferred to try pickleball indoors before trying it outdoors. The squash stroke is very technical and the skills required to execute many of the squash specific strokes like boasts, drop shots, and shots from the rear court that are behind players are directly transferable to serves, returns, and strokes like the 3rd shot drop, the dink, and kills in pickleball. As well, as was the case for tennis, body position at contact point is directly transferable from squash to pickleball as the hitter often has their body turned before striking the ball and should be able to lead with either their non-racquet leg or the racquet leg depending on the situation. Trevor Borland, Head Pro at the Winnipeg Winter Club, and Junior National Coach, believes that squash players should be able to apply most of their skills on pickleball court and that the adaptation will be adjusting stroke power while considering the boundary as there is no front or back wall in pickleball. He adds that the finesse and touch required in squash can only be a benefit as players try pickleball. Though in squash there isn’t an opponent across the net my experience has been that the skill of preparing and reacting to how balls come off the front wall is related to defending against and executing volleys in pickleball.
An advantage that badminton players have over other racquet sport players is that the exterior boundary of the badminton court is the same as the pickleball court. As a result, the badminton player can cover the court well. The skill of court coverage and familiarity with the interior court dimensions (except that the kitchen line is a few inches further from the net than in badminton) is also directly transferable to pickleball when considering doubles positioning. My observations as a pickleball player and as a badminton coach who specializes in mixed and doubles has been badminton players with a sound understanding of doubles are able to maintain an advantage when they reach at the net and on the entire court via rotation/positioning. Also, that they have a good understanding of when the backhand stroke has advantage over the forehand stroke (particularly at the net). The areas where badminton players will need to focus their attention is on developing deep forehand serve returns, being patient at the net with dinks, and allowing some balls to drop into the kitchen while not following the instinct of trying to hit net-rolls on every dink or drop. Overall, once some of the attacking instincts of badminton can be subdued, badminton players should be able to transfer their net shot, smash, and driving skills directly to pickleball.
Racquetball players have an advantage to other racquet sport players in that the paddle length is only a few inches shorter than the racquetball racquet and so the adjustment period is brief. As with squash, racquetball does not have a net, and so one of the first adjustments that Jennifer Saunders, 24-time Canadian National Racquetball Champion and current High Performance Director at Racquetball Canada, had to make was learning to hit the ball with a higher trajectory while also having it stay inside the court boundary. Similarly, Jennifer also mentioned that in racquetball there isn’t a true out and so she had to learn to let some balls pass her so that they could land out. The racquetball player will find that their stroke and footwork skills are transferable to pickleball and that their understanding of body positioning and racquet face angle at contact point will allow them to make adjustments quickly. As has been my observation from playing with and against Jennifer, I can see her racquetball stroke as the foundation of her pickleball stroke and how this skill benefits her execution of the main pickleball shots: serves, returns, volleys/strokes (especially when contacting the ball low as in dinks and returns), and kills.
Overall, I think that pickleball has a lot to offer players from other racquet sports. Pickleball is exciting, requires skilled shot making, has long rallies, and is quite enjoyable both indoors and outdoors. In my opinion, having a background in all the racquet sports, I can see and understand how all of them have elements and skills that are directly transferable to pickleball. In this way, I don’t think that pickleball should only be promoted as an alternative to the other racquet sports when players can’t handle the demands that those sports place on their bodies (i.e. high impact on shoulders in badminton and tennis, or the high pressure on knees and joints in squash and racquetball). Instead, I would like to see some recreational or semi-competitive tennis, badminton, squash, and racquetball players add pickleball as a sport they do regularly or in their off-seasons.