CJ Johnson Headshot
CJ Johnson
Tony Roig
Tony Roig

Who Is The Best Pickleball Player In The World?

There are a lot of amazing athletes playing pickleball. Who do you think is the best pickleball player in the world?

Anna-Leigh Waters?

Yup, she’s arguably one of the world’s best pickleball players, but she’s not the best.

Then you must mean Ben Johns?

Nope…he may be the current number one, but he’s not the best.

Oh, I get it. You’re talking about GOATS. Simone Jardim.

You’re right, she will go down as one of the best pickleball players of all time, but it’s not her either.

You play against the best player in pickleball in the world every time you play a game.

But you probably do not recognize that player on your court.

We are not talking about a pro player standing across the net (though if you have that opportunity, cool beans). We are talking about the single best player – even better than the best pro players in the world: the net that divides every pickleball court in the country.

Here is the thing. The pickleball net beats everyone: you, us, the pro pickleball players.

Everyone.

Yet you keep playing with the best pickleball player in the world. The net

Ok, now that hopefully, we’re all in agreement that the best player in the world is not a human ☺ how the best human pickleball players deal with the net, so it does not beat them.

Let me ask you a question. You can choose one of these two outcomes (there are only two you can choose from):

    1. You can pop the ball up high so your opponent can slam it back at you (the dreaded “pop up”).
    2. You can hit the ball into the net.

What would you choose if these were the only two options available?

Think about it for a minute before proceeding.

Hopefully, you took the pop-up over the ball into the net. In case you chose option two or were unsure, think of it this way:

    • If you hit the ball into the net, the rally is over. 100% chance you will lose that rally.
    • If you pop the ball up, then, while not a great situation, a few different things can happen.
      • One – your opponent can miss the smash shot. (Haven’t we all had this happen?)
      • Two – even if they hit the smash over the net, you have a chance to defend it. The chances of you losing the rally are less than 100%. A much better option than hitting the ball into the net.

Yet when we play, we often chance the best pickleball player in the world because we are desperately trying to avoid a pop-up.

We too often choose a low ball trajectory – barely clearing the net – because we want to avoid the pop-up at all costs, including, apparently, the cost of hitting the net.

Quick side note here – pop-ups are not caused by the height of your shot over the net. Pop-ups are caused by the depth of your shot. To see a visual depiction of the differences, check out this video.

Now that we are thinking more clearly about the net and are intent on avoiding it let me give you some tips for avoiding the net, including specific heights for some of your shots. Use these tips to help avoid net errors when you are playing pickleball.

But first, let’s consider how pro pickleball players deal with the net. We are looking for clues that we might apply to our own games. And in this aspect of pickleball, there are plenty.

What do the top pickleball players in the world know about the net?

Pro pickleball players know they cannot beat the net. So what do they do? They hit their third shot drops many inches (often enough a foot or more) over the net. They hit their fourth shot volleys high over the net. Their dinks? They do not even think about toying with the net.

Want to see a disappointed pro player? Don’t look for it when they miss that “easy” putaway. Look at them when their third shot drops into the middle of the net. The reason they are so upset at that particular miss is that they have control over that part of the game. They can decide how much clearance to give themselves on those shots.

At the 2022 Pickleball Summit, we asked Collin Johns (top 6 professional pickleball players in the world if you do not know him) to tell us what makes his game so successful and a lesson we could all learn from his play.

He said that his shots are not that different than those hit by highly rated non-pro players (4.5+ level players). What makes his play less susceptible to error is understanding the obstacles on the court, mainly the net. When Collin is in trouble (stressed or pulled out of position), he gives himself even more margin for error over the net. He does not, as most players do, try to dink the ball back aggressively and low.

Players like Collin do not tempt the net to interfere with their shots. They give it the ample respect it deserves. In 10 games of pro pickleball, Collin only missed one dink into the net (this information is thanks to Jim Ramsey). That is an insane figure when you consider the number of dinks the pro players hit during a game, plus the fact that Collin handles most of the dinks when he is playing.

This figure illustrates just how much respect the top players in the world give to the net. They do not expect to win every rally they play – if they did, the game would be boring. But when they lose a rally, they expect it to be that their opponent beat them then. Not that they beat themselves by dumping a ball into the net.

Now that we perhaps have a better appreciation for the net and its import let’s dive into how we can use this information to better help us play. Specifically, we are looking to reduce the number of errors we make by taking the net out of play.

Reduce your errors against the best player in pickleball, and you’ll play YOUR best.

A friend of mine explained it in a way that made it pretty clear. Break the end of rallies into three broad categories: out balls, net balls, and winners (do not have to be clean winners). Imagine if you could remove net balls from your game. You would see a (roughly) 30% improvement.

While the numbers my friend shared are inexact, the conclusion remains valid: remove the net from play, and you will see a significant reduction in errors with the resulting improvement in your play.

Your Serve and Return of Serve

These two shots are the ones over which you can have the greatest control in terms of avoiding net errors. The reason: neither shot can be volleyed by your opponent. The serve must bounce, and the return of serve must also bounce before they are hit.

As a result, these shots cannot be slammed by your opponent.

What does that mean to you? It means you can hit your serve and return of serve high over the net with no disadvantage.

We recommend you aim your serve and return of serve about 4 feet over the net. As a matter of course.

If you need more time after your return of serve to make it up to the NVZ line, you can aim your return of serve even higher. Check out this video.

There is simply no reason to aim your serve or return of serve lower than 3-4 feet. My partner, senior pro pickleball player Sarah Mitten uses the term “length” when she thinks of her serve. She wants “long” serves that push the returner back and make it more difficult for them to make it to their NVZ line.

The way she does this is by serving high over the net. The high serve trajectory allows her ball to travel high and deep. When it bounces, it kicks deep.

This is an aspect of shot trajectory that players often overlook. The higher your shot, the deeper it will likely travel. If you want a deep (long) serve or return of serve, hitting the ball low will make your job that much harder.

Aim your serves – and returns of serve – 4 feet over the net and say goodbye to net errors on those two shots.

Volleys

Consider aiming your “keep them back” punch volleys 12-18 inches above the net (sometimes even higher). You want the punch volley to travel deep and keep your opponents back. Higher over the net is more likely to accomplish your objective.

If you are hitting a putaway volley, still consider aiming relatively high over the net. 6-12 inches over the net is a good range. Following the same logic as above, you are better off hitting a ball that your opponent can defend than hitting the ball into the net.

Dinks

Even with our dinks, we want to respect the net. You can work in a range of 4-12 inches here. You can use 2 or 3 inches if you feel frisky and want to hit an aggressive dink. If you are in trouble – pulled out of position or stressed- consider opening the range up to 18 inches.

Third Shot Drops

Start moving away from hitting low, net skimming, third shot drops. Instead, throw your shot up high and let it drop into the NVZ. The aim over the net is harder to give you here because it depends on where you are hitting this shot from, but generally, you want the ball to be 6-12 inches above the net when it clears the net.

The way you do this is to hit your shot so that it peaks inside your court, usually near your kitchen line. Again, this will depend on where you are hitting the shot from, but the ball will need to reach its highest point on your side of the net if you want it to drop safely over the net into the opposite Non-Volley Zone. Think of it as if you were tossing the ball into the area.

Putting it into action

As you play, pay particular attention to the times you hit the ball into the net. Start with your serves and returns of serve, and then grow it from there. If your shot falls into the net, no big deal. Just notice it so you can adjust the next time you hit that same shot.

Over time you will make fewer net errors. As you do, you will play better. There is simply no other outcome.

If you want to learn more about playing against “the best pickleball player in the world” and its impact on your game, check out our Pickleball Errors and Fixes playlist at our In2Pickle channel on YouTube. The videos on this playlist will help you fix errors in your pickleball and improve your play.

Mind the net – and have fun out there.

5 Comments

  1. Barry L Baker on August 20, 2022 at 9:26 pm

    Good stuff!!!

  2. Gail on August 22, 2022 at 2:15 pm

    I totally agree with this concept, and an instructor I’ve used also has stated this same point. I find though that most rec players don’t recognize this and critique you thinking your shots are too high – they don’t understand that you are 1) either biding more time to get repositioned and/or 2) trying to stay clear of hitting the ball into the net. My coach says, just think about it: Isn’t it much better to pop the ball up vs. hitting the ball into the net? At least it forces your opponent to take one more shot (in which they, themselves could miss!)

    • CJ Johnson on August 22, 2022 at 5:57 pm

      Always make them hit one more shot!

  3. Laura on August 22, 2022 at 4:14 pm

    Be a Jeti Master!

    • CJ Johnson on August 22, 2022 at 5:56 pm

      Love it!

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