It's time to change our outdated view on Pickleball Singles.
You are probably reading this the title of this blog post thinking...
"Okay FAD, we get it. You love singles. But you are way younger, faster, and more athletic than me."
And unless your name happens to be Ben Johns or Tyson McGuffin... you'd probably be right in saying so.
But I want to stop you right there. My intention for this article is not to convince you that you can become a top pro singles player or even become a singles player at all (although I do highly recommend it).
I want to talk to you about the game of singles. More specifically, how it has evolved over the past 3-4 years and why it is now more deserving of your attention.
First, let's start with some Pickleball history.
In the past, singles was primarily a game involving three, maybe four shots per rally. A serve, a return, a passing shot. If the passing shot missed the points was over, if the passing shot was good, the point was over. Boring.
Occasionally some magic would happen, the passing shot would be covered, a volley would be hit, the now rushed opponent desperately looking to score a point would hit a drop into the kitchen and approach the net. Rarely.
Even imagining myself in this very situation just a few years ago, as much as I hate to admit it, I would never hit a drop into the kitchen. On a 3rd? Too much opportunity! On a 5th? Not enough time! On a 7th? Are you kidding? A singles point lasting more than five shots? Rarely.
Then it slowly started to change. You probably didn't notice. Myself, an active singles player at the time, barely noticed the subtle difference.
What did I see? Or rather who did I see?
His name is Marcin Rozpedski, and you have probably heard of him. He is a 6-time major champion and the only singles player to win all three majors in the same year.
While studying Marcin's game from a distance, I started to notice his shot selection. Especially in the "5th ball" scenario I mentioned above. He didn't rush; the pressure was there, his opponent hit a great volley. But he didn't rush, he never rushed. For me, this was astonishing; I ran full speed every point. I always rushed, even when I didn't have too.
This calmness under pressure gave Marcin the ability to place his shots more accurately. So instead of going for another all-out passing shot on his 5th, he would push the ball to a neutral area on the court. Strategically this worked miracles for his game. It kept him alive in the point, it bought him time to reposition, and it allowed his opponent to make a mistake.
It turns out that most of us weren't used to making a 5th ball volley and for a while at least didn't know what to do with it. Marcin wasn't necessarily hitting 5th or 3rd ball drops into the kitchen yet, but it didn't matter; he was winning in dominant fashion.
Enter Ben Johns. I remember watching his game for the first time at the 2016 US Open. Super talented with super-fast hands and flat groundstrokes that effortlessly cut through the air. He was good, but by no means was he the Ben we all know today.
Later that year, I noticed Ben implementing the same "no rushing" style I saw in Marcin's game. Always calm, always making precise choices with shot selection. Except there was a difference, he wasn't pushing the ball when rushed, like Marcin. He was using angles to place and drop the ball into the kitchen, like doubles. Sometimes he even did it on 3rds! Which was unheard of in singles. Not only was it working, but somehow it felt impossible to defend. I didn't understand why it worked; I just knew that it did.
Around this time, Ben would go on to win his first singles major at the US Open. I only mention this because I believe it was vital for the growth of singles as a whole. Ben coasting, through the draw using this new strategy, caught the attention of the top singles players. Almost all of us starting adopting this strategy and working it into our games. I began to notice even some of the most aggressive players in the game, hitting drops into the kitchen occasionally.
This was just the beginning. Over the next few years, Ben and Tyson McGuffin completely separated themselves from the pack. They each utilize their unique takes on this strategy, which has since been dubbed "The Cat and Mouse Game."
The modern singles game.
Today, singles is a completely different game at the top level. It is dynamic, versatile, and incredibly strategic. Boring 3-4 shot rallies are mostly a thing of the past with more exciting 10-11 shot rallies taking a primary role.
The players at the top of the game have learned to use skills formerly thought to be reserved only for doubles. The 3rd ball is no longer a risky all or nothing attempt; it is merely the start of a point. The game is played at the net, just like in doubles. The return is followed in, and the server will aim to move in as soon as possible.
The thing about singles is that the pickleball court is pretty big. There is a lot of space to cover, and sometimes your opponent hits a shot so well that you won't be able to cover it. It is one of the most frustrating feelings in the world, and yet it is that exact fact that makes the strategy of the game so captivating.
It's kind of like a chess match played at high speed. If you make one wrong move or place the ball incorrectly, the point is over, checkmate. In doubles, we often talk about the importance of ball placement, and naturally, that is just as important (in fact, even more so) in singles. The difference in singles is that the dynamic position of the player is just as crucial.
In doubles it is relatively easy to approach the net. You simply hit a drop into the kitchen and both players move straight forward into position at net. In singles, you don't have the luxury of a partner to help you cover the court's width. You can't just move straight forward; you have to move methodically and strategically.
Approaching in singles is different. Let me explain the common dilemma. You serve, now you are probably thinking, "The court looks huge, I will just hit the ball into all of that wide-open space." But there's a problem. Your opponent followed their return into the net. Now, the court looks a lot smaller, and to make matters worse; you feel rushed. Facing this pressure, you will likely experience the fight-or-flight response and make a split decision based purely on survival.
How do we prevent this chain of events from happening? Mind control. No, not controlling other people with your mind but controlling the thoughts occurring inside of your brain. Learn to keep the facts of the game in the forefront of your mind. The net height, court size, and most importantly, the kitchen's dimensions do not change. Focus on the three things that do physically change: your position, your opponent's position, and the position of the ball.
Watch the top pro players move around the court. It almost seems like they know where the next ball is going before it's even hit, right? Can they read minds? Well... Kind of.
Anticipation - The visualization of a future event or state. This visualization is the magic of the top pro players. It comes from a combination of experience, knowledge of opponent, risk management, and, most importantly, the dynamic positions of the ball and players. This kind of skill takes years of practice to master, but you can benefit from it with only a few minutes of training. Seriously, you can improve your anticipation through active visualization. You probably already know how to do it. Think about that one friend that you play with every week and where they hit their favorite shots. Now practice that same visualization with your opponents, and you'll be anticipating their shots in no time.
Physical movement and shot selection. You are probably thinking, "The mindset stuff is great dude, but if I can't move well, what good is it anyway?" I get it, I really do, singles involves more dynamic movement, and that can be intimidating at first. But remember if you can control your mind, you can control shot selection, and if you can control your shot selection, you can control your movement.
Here is a relatively simple concept to keep in mind when you feel pressured and rushed. If I can make my opponent move, it gives me more time to move. This notion completely flips the typical, instinctive mindset of "I feel rushed and pressured; I need to make my opponent feel more rushed and pressured."
How do I make my opponent move? First thing, get rid of all of your "singles shots" and free your mind all of your preconceived notions about the singles game. Watch, study, and analyze the top pros and try to emulate their shot selections in slow motion.
Play your typical doubles game, but play it from the middle of the court instead of the middle of your side. Pay attention to your movement and learn which positions and situations frustrate your opponent the most. If you position yourself incorrectly, don't kill yourself running after the ball in a panic, trying to make up for it. Stop, make a mental note to correct your position on the next point, and feel the difference it makes. You will eventually build good habits and learn how to play singles in a controlled way that you enjoy.
My intention in this article is not to convince anyone that they need to try singles or that singles is better than doubles. My goal is just to open your minds to the world of singles strategy and help you understand the differences of the game. Far too many people write off singles as boring without even giving it a chance. I am here to tell you that the game has evolved substantially at the top level. Whether you are an active singles player or not, I think singles is deserving of your attention. Once you understand and learn to appreciate the strategies, you might even be entertained!
I hope that you enjoyed this elaborate breakdown. Pickleball singles is something that I have a ton of passion for and something that I am greatly missing during this quarantine period. I hope that all of you are doing well and doing your best to stay home and stay safe.
Thank you for reading, and I look forward to your questions and comments below.
I will respond to every single one.