Pickleball has been around some 50 years or so. Tournament pickleball, at least on the level of a national tournament, dates back to 2009, and the first USAP Nationals. True pro tournaments began in fits and starts around 2013, depending on what you call a true pro tournament.
If we look at the game as it was played in 2009, at the time of the first Nationals, we would recognize it as pickleball, but not particularly good pickleball. Indeed, videos of the time show play that would, if translated to today, maybe approach the 4.5 level, if we are feeling charitable.
Fast forward to the years 2015-2017. We now have prize money tournaments. The level of play has improved, but is nowhere near the level of 2023. The very best players of that time frame would lose in the first round of any pro tournament. Indeed, they would struggle to win a 5.0 event.
What has changed? How is the pro game of 2023 different from the pro game of 2015-2017, less than 10 years ago? There are several striking differences, but the one I would submit as the biggest development in the game is the use of topspin. A top level game of 2016 involved third shot drops, dinking, speedups, and counterattacks. But, the skill level and methodology of the exchanges was markedly different. I would submit the biggest difference relates back to today’s use of topspin.
Watch the pro game today, and we see things that were almost unknown/unused in 2016. Take, for example, one of the simplest and most prevalent shots, the forehand topspin dink. No matter who we watch on the men’s side, we see a constant and simple use of the topspin forehand dink — whether it is Ben Johns, Riley Newman, Julian Arnold, or any of a host of other top pros, we see a steady diet of forehand topspin dinks. On the women’s side, we see the near universal use of forehand, crosscourt, topspin dinks. It is perhaps the most important shot for a woman pro to master, due to the fact women pros play right side in mixed 90%+ of the time. Accordingly, women pros need to use the forehand, crosscourt, topspin dink constantly in mixed doubles, and quite often in gender doubles. Even playing left side, a dink to the middle typically results in the left side player returning it with an inside-out topspin forehand dink to the left side opponent’s backhand.
Watching gold medal matches from the 2015-2017 time period reveals a very different game. Dink rallies are much shorter. Dinking skills are much weaker. Cut forehand dinks are often utilized.
The same is true when we look at other shots. Today, we see an emerging and an increased use of the forehand topspin third shot drop. Christian Alshon, for example, hits this shot on pretty much every third he hits. Other male pros use it with great frequency. It is also becoming a staple of the women’s pro game. Once again, because of the influence of mixed doubles, the forehand, crosscourt, topspin third shot drop is a crucial shot for women pros to master. It directs the ball to the female opponent in mixed and creates nice poaching opportunities for the male partner. Contrast that with play from 2015-2017. Then, cut shots off the forehand and backhand were the staple of the third shot game.
Areas where heavy topspin is not yet widely prevalent are on drives and lobs. Drives and lobs are often hit with a measure of topspin, but not heavy topspin. Contrast how tennis forehands are hit with how pickleball forehand drives are hit; tennis groundstrokes are much more often hit with very heavy topspin. Same with lobs. Lobs are hit today, at times, with some topspin, but rarely with a motion intended to maximize the topspin.
The development of a heavier topspin game in pickleball is no doubt related in large part to paddle technology. Paddles today, with carbon technology, are much “spinnier”. The measured spin rates on paddles is much greater today than just a few years ago, and those numbers are only likely to increase further.
So what does all this mean for the future of pickleball? In my opinion, the increased use of topspin is still in its early stages. Moving out 5-10 years, I think we will see topspin become more prevalent and the introduction of very heavy topspin will begin. I expect the spin rates on paddles to increase, and players will take advantage of it. I think we will see drives being made with more wrist/whip action, creating more topspin and drives that are more about the resulting dip than about the speed of the drive.
I think the topspin dink is here to stay and will be universally used, working its way down the skill level tree. Indeed, I think the backhand topspin dink will become more popular, perhaps through increased use of the two-hand backhand. I expect we will see the use of backhand topspin drops, something rarely seen today (Riley Newman being a trendsetter here).
Watching the 3.5-4.0 level players today, we do not see anywhere near the same use of topspin. This again will change in the coming years. As pros demonstrate the efficiency of any technique, eventually less skilled players will imitate it, albeit without the same success rate. Expect to see amateurs at all levels incorporate more and more topspin in their game.
The bottom line is topspin in pickleball is here to stay. Keep a tape of a pro match from today handy, to play in 2030 and compare the two. My prediction is the 2030 match will look as different as a 2016 match looks to us today — similar game, but with subtly different techniques. That difference will be the constant use of topspin and the use of very heavy topspin. I look forward to seeing you in 2030 to discuss it.