If you’ve found your way to this blog, you’re probably aware of Ben Johns and his dominance on the modern pickleball circuit(s). I don’t need to rehash all of his accomplishments, but it’s worth remembering that he saw a winning streak of 170 games come to a close when JW Johnson finally beat him in a less-than-stellar looking indoor venue at the Tournament of Champions in 2021.
As overused as the term is, until someone dominates like that, we can refer to Johns as the pickleball GOAT for the fledgling pro tour(s).
There are countless skills and traits that make Johns today’s top dog, but I wanted to focus on 3 things he does REALLY well…but why you should probably not try to mimic the champ in your own game.
Exquisite 3rd Shot Drops…but Almost No Drives: Our own Warkittens did an analytical breakdown on a recent match from one of Team Johns doubles match, and one takeaway was HOW good of a 3rd shot dropper Ben Johns is. Like, insanely good. While that probably doesn’t come as a shock, it’s still interesting to see how good he appears to be (sorry, still a small sample size!) even amongst his pro peers.
Johns seemingly does a little mental calculus that he can put in a well placed drop, get to the net, and know that he has the skills to win more than enough points at the net against his opponents to win the match. And it’s pretty hard to argue with his mental calculus!
But in turn, this means that he drives the ball far less than his peers, too. While that works for Johns in his own dominant game, that calculus isn’t likely to work for the rest of us in the competitive games we’re playing. We’re not apt to be as accurate as he is (who is?), and further, it makes our plan of attack far to predictable to our opponents.
While I’m not sure what the right formula is for you, I try to keep a tally in my head where I try to drive one out of every 3 or 4 3rd shots to avoid falling into the rut of only hitting drops. I might veer from that plan based on my opponent or the conditions, but this has been a good reminder to me to keep my variations to my 3rds.
Squeezing the Side of the Court: One thing I love about watching pickleball online is that we often get commentary from current pros. As such, we get to hear insights from players that have recently played against the players they’re commentating on. We don’t get that in other sports often.
One insightful commentator once described Johns and his range on the court; while he said he doesn’t look incredibly quick to the eye (in the same way as Callie Smith or Zane Navratil), he’s always just there. You think you have him beat to his backhand, but NOPE- he’s there.
We’ve probably all chuckled from Johns sometimes taking every ball from his partner, we also have to remember that he’s a pro, and as a pro, his focus is to win. Again, Johns is doing the mental calculus that he’s the better player to hit the next shot, but he’s also aware of how far he can squeeze to the right side of the court and STILL cover on his backhand.
For competitive players, it is important for the player on the left to squeeze to that side of the court when we get to the net, but it’s likely none of us can still cover our backhand like the world’s best. As such, we need to be mindful of when we need to defer to our partner and let them take the shot so we can stay in position to cover the left side of the court.
Speeding Up the Ball from Below the Net…with His Backhand: As I play against more and more strong pickleball players, I’ve learned the importance of speedups in dink rallies. Waiting out your opponent to chunk one into the net is a poor strategy against strong pickleballers, and before you even get to that point, they’re apt to speed one up on you.
I came to pickleball with an already-strong backhand; I credit this to a) being a left-handed hitter in baseball, and b) playing way too much table tennis in my teens and early 20’s. Still, it’s a nice advantage to prefer playing the ball to my backhand since many new opponents test me on that side initially, and I’m able to steal some freebies with the touch of a cut backhand or the power of a 2 handed backhand.
When I saw Ben Johns speed up the ball on some dink rallies with a backhand roll, I figured that was a shot I needed to add to my bag.
What I learned? I’m not Ben Johns. I might pull that shot off one out of 10 times, but by and large, it’s too difficult of a shot for me to use.
Instead, we all need to learn what balls we’re able to speed up consistently. For me, I do have control to speed the ball up from just below the net with more forehand, but if my opponent keeps the ball to more backhand, I need to be content just returning the ball back in a way that I won’t get attacked back.
The GOAT is the GOAT for a reason, and he’s doing a lot of things the rest of us mortals shouldn’t be. However, check back next week and I’ll go through 3 things he is doing that you SHOULD be adding to your game.