As pickleball players, we have all likely heard about the 3rd shot – the shot executed by the serving team after the serve (shot #1) and subsequent return of serve (shot #2). So with the serving team hitting shot #3 – typically either a drive or drop – it’s the receiving team’s turn to hit the fourth shot in the rally. But what shot should now be hit?
The “Proper” 4th Shot in Pickleball is Dependent Upon What your Opponents Hit for their 3rd Shot
For the sake of this discussion, let’s assume the player returning serve was able to hit a fairly deep return (shot #2) and join his/her partner at the non-volley line as the 3rd shot is being hit by the serving team. The appropriate shot selection for the 4th shot is now dependent upon what your opponents hit on their third shot.
If your Opponents Drive the 3rd Shot Hard
If the serving team opts to drive the 3rd shot with significant pace straight ahead, the returning team – who is now positioned at the non-volley line – should punch the volley firmly straight ahead at the feet of the player who just executed the drive.
Because both shots (the drive by your opponent and your volley) have been hit hard with pace, both players on the serving team will likely not be able to advance all the way to their own non-volley line. As the team with the positional advantage on the court, you want to maintain that positional advantage and keep your opponents as deep in the court as possible. Therefore, continue volleying the ball deep and firmly at their feet.
The shake-and-bake occurs when one player (your opponent who is driving the 3rd shot) drives the ball hard with pace while his/her partner “crashes” forward and to the center of the court hoping to poach and pick off a weak 4th shot. To avoid the shake-and-bake, avoid the middle of the court with your 4th shot and make sure your volley is firmly hit with intention.
If your Opponents Drive the 3rd Shot with Medium Pace
Sometimes your opponent will drive the 3rd shot – yet take a bit of pace off the shot. Similar to a hard-hit third shot, you should attempt to keep your opponents as far back in the court as possible.
This is not the time to hit a soft dink shot into the kitchen. Doing so merely invites them forward to the spot on the court they strategically want to be. And by bringing your opponents forward you have surrendered your positional advantage.
Instead, keep them in the midcourt or backcourt as long as possible where they will still be on the defense.
If your Opponents Drop the 3rd Shot
We’ve all likely heard of the phrase, “3rd Shot Drop.” And if your opponents are students of the game, they will likely leverage this shot in their own game. If your opponent hits a “good” third shot drop – one that allows them to get to the non-volley line and force an upward-hitting and awkward 4th shot – resist the temptation to retaliate with a hard shot. Instead, give your opponents their due and your respect and counter with a soft dink – preferably cross-court – that keeps both you and your partner “safe” on the next shot.
If your opponents hit a 3rd shot drop, however, that’s “pretty good” or “average,” you will want to still keep them back if possible. Don’t respond with a soft/short dink shot if they can’t get all the way up to the non-volley line.
If, on this average third shot, you are able to take the ball out of the air, you may want to hit a backhand or forehand roll (topspin) volley that keeps them back. When executing the roll volley, it’s important to make sure that you are aware of how far forward your opponents have gotten as they attempt to position themselves at the non-volley line.
If they have stayed completely back at the baseline, you roll the volley so it lands near the baseline. If your opponents, however, have crashed forward, that roll volley that would have landed at or near the baseline is now chest-high for your opponents to pummel! Be careful.
If your opponents have hit a higher (loopier) drop shot that is descending in front of you or your partner, the best shot may very well be one in which you take a step backward, let the ball bounce and make contact with the ball a little higher so that you can drive or roll the ball after the bounce. Although you will be giving your opponents a little more time to advance forward, you will be in a much better hitting position (higher versus lower contact point).
Not much gets written about pickleball’s fourth shot in the rally. When executing that 4th shot from the non-volley line, your team will – in almost all cases – have the positional advantage on the court. Don’t give up that advantage by hitting a soft dink unless the serving team earns it. If they do earn it, respect that and work the dink shots.
See you on the courts!