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Pickleball singles strategies - tips to dominate the game

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Rahul Datta

Updated on: Feb 28, 2024

Two players in the middle of a game of singles pickleball

Singles pickleball is fast-paced, challenging, and a ton of fun once you get the hang of it. With no partner to rely on, playing pickleball singles really tests your own pickleball skills, gives you an excellent workout, and is a great opportunity to work on the weaknesses in your game.

Read on for my best strategies for singles pickleball, as well as a ton of tips to help players of every skill level dominate the game.

Pickleball singles strategies for beginners

Serve deep and ready

Hit your serves as deep as you can with plenty of power to keep your opponent back toward their baseline. This stops them from hitting a dangerous return.

It's worth the risk of hitting a few balls out to keep the pressure on. This is because a short, easy serve gives your opponent a great opportunity to dominate the point.

Brandon Mackie preparing to serve in a game of pickleball
Brandon Mackie preparing to serve in a game of pickleball

Serve from near the center

Serving from the center "T" of the court means that you're in the best position to reach a full range of returns. It also gives your opponent less opportunity to hit their return at a tricky angle.

Learn more about pickleball serving rules

Deep return-of-serve

When receiving a serve, try to return as deep as you can. Aim for the opponent's baseline (and their weaker side if possible). Again, of course, the trick is to keep the ball from landing out.

Player prepares to hit a return in a game of pickleball
Player prepares to hit a return in a game of pickleball

Vary your shots

As in any sport, it's crucial to keep your opponents guessing. Try to vary the direction of your shots to test their skills and keep them on their feet.

Tip: if you really want to boost your training sessions, consider investing in a pickleball machine. The best ones can be programmed for all types of shots, so you can target weak areas in your game.

Limit your lobs

Lobs in pickleball should be used sparingly in the singles game, and only when your opponent is right up at the kitchen line. As you progress to a more advanced level, you can start to bring in more lobs.

They're a tricky shot for beginners, though, so I wouldn't recommend them just yet if you're new to the game. Once you're comfortable with the basics of playing pickleball, you can move on to more complicated shots like lobs.

Brandon Mackie hitting a lob in a game of pickleball
Brandon Mackie hitting a lob in a game of pickleball

Hit and recover

Once you hit a shot, aim to return to the "ready" position in the middle of the court. This gives you the best chance of hitting an effective return and stops your opponent from catching you off guard.

Tip: why not try a few pickleball lessons to help you put these strategies into practice?

Take a beginner lesson

Take a beginner lesson

Book a private or group lesson to learn the basics. See who’s available in your area!

Find a nearby coach

Pickleball singles strategies for intermediate players

Do more passing shots

Passing shots are a deadly weapon to have in your shot arsenal in singles pickleball.

When your opponent moves forward towards the kitchen line, a passing shot aimed deep down the line is perfect to make them really stretch and force errors. Make sure to practice your passing shots and you'll soon see the results.

Get to the kitchen line first

To control the singles game and win more points, you should try to get up to the kitchen line as quickly as possible while pinning your opponent to the baseline with deep returns.

By getting up to the line, you give your opponent less chance to hit a ball past you. You also give yourself a better position to attack.

Brandon Mackie at the kitchen line during a game of pickleball
Brandon Mackie at the kitchen line during a game of pickleball

Develop a compact stroke

There's generally no need for big backswings and long follow-throughs in pickleball. This is especially true of the singles game. An efficient, compact stroke saves your energy and makes for much quicker reaction times.

Move your feet and bend your knees

Good footwork is a crucial part of your performance on the court. Mastering this and correctly bending your knees are two things that many players often neglect in their practice routines.

Being quick and light on your feet is an essential part of progressing your game and scoring points. Keeping your knees bent gives you a low center of gravity. This in turn improves your stability and makes you faster to react while generating more power on your shots.

Check out our list of the best pickleball drills, where we include some great footwork exercises.

Do some aggro-dinking

Aggressive dinking in pickleball (or "aggro-dinking") is a way to apply maximum pressure on your opponent—something that good players should be doing all the time.

The idea is simple. Rather than allowing your dink exchanges to become easy back-and-forth ball passes, always keep an eye out for an opportunity to force an error from your opponent.

Brandon Mackie preparing to dink in a game of pickleball
Brandon Mackie preparing to dink in a game of pickleball

Why not hit the ball at their feet, send it wide, or attack their backhand? Anything you can do to keep the pressure on will help you to score more points.

Find the perfect paddle

Find the perfect paddle

I've personally tested over 80 paddles. Take the quiz to see which ones fit your game best.

Serve big and deep and return deep

I covered this in the beginner tips above. However, any intermediates should follow up a deep, powerful serve with regular hard, long return shots. Even if you miss a few and send them long, you'll win more points overall if you can serve and return deep most of the time.

Read our list of the best intermediate pickleball paddles

Pickleball singles strategies for advanced players

Play the soft game

Singles pickleball involves a lot of fast, powerful shots. However, as you progress to an advanced level in pickleball, you'll notice soft, control skills coming into play more and more.

A well-placed, controlled shot can catch your opponent totally off-guard and win you the point. Even if it doesn't, it'll give them a shock and leave them guessing at your next shot. That unpredictability in your strategy is always a plus.

Check out our list of the best pickleball paddles for control

Track your shots

On your return of serve or third shot, chase the ball up the court as you hit it. This puts you between your opponent and the rest of the court, giving them less space to aim for since you're covering all angles.

Hit behind your opponent

Consistently aiming behind your opponent during a rally puts constant pressure on their returns as they are being pushed backward. This puts them off balance and gives them less time to recover between returns.

Take advantage of your opponent's momentum

Use your opponent's speed against them. This is an awesome skill to master. It involves being able to monitor your opponent's movements while also hitting an effective return shot.

If you see that they're committed to heading in one direction, slam the ball to the opposite side of the court. If they're static, aim for the largest open space on the court. This will make them really work to reach the return.

Brandon Mackie reaching to return a shot in a game of pickleball
Brandon Mackie reaching to return a shot in a game of pickleball

Hit higher third-shot drops

A common mistake that many beginner-intermediate players make is to always go for a killer third-shot drop. Too often, this can end in them hitting the ball into the net.

In advanced singles pickleball, you need to be patient. Let some third shots go high. Over time, this patience will pay off.

Know when to come up to the kitchen line

For advanced players, getting to the kitchen line quickly is crucial, and picking your moment becomes an art form. The first player to get established at the kitchen line will have better control over the play and is more likely to win the point. It's as simple as that.

Learn more about pickleball kitchen rules

How does pickleball skinny singles work?

The skinny singles variation of pickleball (or "mini-singles" as it's now officially called) has just been officially written into the USA Pickleball rulebook in 2024. It's played the same as normal singles, but using only half the court. This way, it's less demanding on the players' fitness.

In skinny singles, you can play in two different ways. Whichever version you choose, both are great fun and they make excellent pickleball drills for practice sessions.

"Down the line": the court is divided lengthways down the middle, with you and your opponent playing directly across the net from each other.

Graphic of the 'down the line' variation of pickleball singles

"Cross court": the court is divided diagonally. This is the official mini-singles format.

Graphic of the 'cross-court' variation of pickleball singles

How to read your opponent's shots

Drilling and practicing to improve your skills and consistency are the best ways to win more games. However, if you have any hopes of going pro in pickleball, you need to learn how to read your opponents effectively.

In singles pickleball, you only have one opponent to study, which makes it all the easier. Here are my tips for doing just that:

Pay attention to your opponent's body language

Closely watch your opponent's body language as they move around the court and hit shots. You'll often be able to tell if they're winding up for a big drive, or planning a sneaky short dink.

You can also observe their form. For example, do they look like they're getting tired? If so, try upping the pace. Get them moving around with shots to the corners and deep drives to the baseline.

Observe your opponent's shot patterns

As you play through a few points with your opponent, analyze their patterns of play.

Do they always go for a soft dink in certain situations? Do they regularly hit drives high and out of bounds? The more information you have on their playing patterns, the more advantage you'll have over them.

Anticipate your opponent's next move

It's always better to anticipate rather than react. As you play with your opponent, observe their body and paddle position to preempt their next move. If you see them go for a backhand, shift to that side to cut off their angle.

When you predict an opponent's shots, it flusters them. This helps to push them out of their comfort zone and force errors.

How to train for endurance

Singles pickleball is known for being more energetic than doubles pickleball. It demands a higher level of fitness and endurance since you have to cover the court on your own. The best way to boost your performance in singles pickleball is to train your body harder.

Cardiovascular exercises

Playing pickleball is great exercise in itself and a great way to burn calories. However, in between pickleball sessions, there are plenty of exercises you can do to improve your on-court performance.

Running and jogging are both accessible, free cardio workouts. Anything that gets the blood flowing and the lungs pumping is beneficial.

Graphic showing how many calories are burned when playing pickleball
Graphic: "Calories burned when playing pickleball"

Interval training

Pickleball is all about "stop and start" fitness. Unlike soccer where you have 45 minutes of running, pickleball often involves a couple of minutes of dashing about followed by a break.

That's why High-Intensity Interval Training (HIIT) is ideal for singles training. It mimics the demands that pickleball puts on your body. HIIT has also been proven to boost cardio-respiratory fitness.

Endurance drills

Sometimes, the difference between the loser and winner of a point in pickleball is purely down to stamina—especially at higher levels. Any drills or exercises that increase your stamina will help your chances of staying the course and dominating your opponent.

Bottom line

That wraps up my pickleball singles strategy guide. I hope these tips help you to improve your game and make your court time more enjoyable.

If you have any other tips and suggestions for the singles game, message us on our socials. We always love to hear from you.

In the meantime, check out the sessions on your local courts and find a singles game near you to try out some of these strategies. See you on the courts!

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About the author
Rahul Datta
Rahul is the Community Manager at Pickleheads. He loves working with and developing the pickleball community and is an aspiring professional pickleball player with 5 pro wins on the APP Tour to date.
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