Topspin vs Slice Return of Serve: Which is Better in Pickleball?

Third Shot Blog

By Third Shot Blog

The return of serve is a critical shot in pickleball. In addition to depth, placement, and speed of the shot, players must choose between topspin and slice techniques. Both options offer distinct advantages, but which one is superior? In this article, we’ll break down what topspin and slice are, the pros and cons of each approach, and which option may be best for your game.

Let’s dive in.

Topspin return of serve

Let’s start with the more popular option at the professional pickleball level: the topspin return of serve.

What is topspin in pickleball?

Topspin occurs when the player brushes up with the paddle face while hitting the ball, causing the ball to spin forward in the air. This forward spin forces the shot trajectory to dip downward, allowing the player to hit deeper, more aggressive shots while keeping the ball in play.

Topspin is achieved by hitting the ball with a controlled low-to-high motion, similar to tennis. Players can hit with topspin on either the forehand or backhand side.

Pros of the topspin return of serve

Now that we know what topspin is, let’s explore why it’s a solid option for the return of serve in pickleball:

  • Allows you to hit a deeper return of serve that’s more difficult for your opponent to attack
  • More control over the angle and placement of your shot
  • Perfect setup for a put-away volley at the net

Cons of the topspin return of serve

Even though topspin is popular, it’s not without its disadvantages:

  • Less time to get to the kitchen after hitting the ball
  • Requires high-level timing off the bounce to hit effectively
  • Difficult to execute if your opponent serves deep in the service box

Who is the topspin return of serve best for?

The topspin return of serve is best for pickleball players who want to hit an aggressive shot and quickly take over the point. It’s highly popular at the professional level where lackluster returns are punished, especially in singles. In many cases, more advanced players (4.0-4.5 level and above) find the most success with this technique due to their ability to get to the kitchen and strategically angle their return.

A male pickleball player returns a serve of a yellow ball on a dedicated court at a public park.

Slice return of serve

Next, let’s go over the other option: the slice return of serve.

What is slice in pickleball?

Slice, also called backspin, occurs when the player carves underneath the ball when making contact, causing the ball to spin backwards in the air. This backwards spin slows the speed of the shot and produces a low, skidding bounce.

Slice is achieved by swinging with a subtle high-to-low motion, angling the paddle face underneath the ball through contact. For proper technique, it sometimes helps to imagine the ball as a piece of fruit, and you’re carving off the peel with a knife. Like topspin, slice can be hit with either a forehand or backhand shot.

Pros of the slice return of serve

Let’s take a quick look at why many pickleball players choose slice for their return of serve:

  • Slower shot, giving you plenty of time to get to the kitchen
  • Low and skidding bounce, making it difficult to return
  • Easier to execute if your opponent serves deep in the service box

Cons of the slice return of serve

Like its counterpart, the slice return is not without its disadvantages:

  • Gives your opponent more time to prepare their third shot
  • Provides more potential topspin for your opponent’s passing shot or drive
  • Without proper technique, the shot can easily float long of the court or hit the net

Who is the slice return of serve best for?

The slice return of serve is best for pickleball players who enjoy a little extra time to get to the kitchen. It’s also a great option if your opponent struggles with return low, spin-heavy shots. These factors make the slice return a solid option for seniors and players at the 4.0 level or below.

A female pickleball player returns a serve of a bright yellow ball on a dedicated court at a public park.

The verdict: which is better in pickleball?

This is a difficult question to answer. The best approach depends on a variety of factors, including:

  • Your preferred style of play
  • The shot(s) you’re most comfortable with hitting
  • Your level and your opponent’s level
  • Where and how deep your opponent serves
  • Your ability to get to the kitchen quickly

However, if you can confidently hit both types of shots, you will probably have more success using the topspin return of serve. This is because a deep, powerful topspin return can push your opponent back, giving you an advantage in the point. Additionally, if your opponent is more advanced, they can likely handle the low, skidding bounce of the slice return. At that point, it’s better to focus on court positioning rather than expecting your opponent to make unforced errors.

The winner: while it’s certainly not cut and dry, the topspin return of serve is better in pickleball.