Your Guide to Soft Touch and Deceptive Shots, with Insights from Ben Johns

The backhand roll is a weapon in the arsenal of pickleball greats like Ben Johns. It allows you to drop the ball softly just over the net, leaving your opponent scrambling. But unlike a powerful backhand drive, the backhand roll relies on finesse and technique, not brute force.

In this guide, we’ll break down the key steps to mastering the backhand roll, including grip, swing path, and paddle angle, all with insights from Ben Johns himself. We’ll also cover common mistakes and variations you can explore once you’ve got the basics down.

Why Master the Backhand Roll?

The backhand roll offers several advantages on the court, just as Ben Johns emphasizes:

  • Deception: The soft touch can catch your opponent off guard, making it difficult for them to react before the ball lands in their non-volley zone.
  • Soft Net Play: It allows you to play strategically near the net, forcing your opponent to hit the ball up high.
  • Control: The backhand roll gives you more control over shot placement, allowing you to aim for the corners or tight spaces.

Step-by-Step Guide to the Backhand Roll, with Ben Johns’ Tips

Here’s how to hit a perfect backhand roll, incorporating Ben Johns’ insights:

  1. Grip: As Ben Johns advises, there’s no single “correct” grip. Experiment with Eastern, Continental, or even a modified two-handed backhand grip to find what feels most comfortable for you.
  2. Preparation: Imagine your opponent hitting a backhand dink to your backhand side. You want to hit the ball out of the air, not off the bounce, just like Ben Johns emphasizes.
  3. Minimize Wrist Action: A common misconception is that you need a lot of wrist action for a backhand roll. In fact, using too much wrist can turn your backhand roll into a backhand flick, resulting in a higher, more aggressive shot, as Ben Johns points out.
  4. Swing Path and Paddle Angle: Here’s where the magic happens. To create that signature topspin that softly drops the ball over the net, focus on these two aspects, echoing Ben Johns’ recommendations:
    • Closed Paddle Face: Keep the face of your paddle slightly closed, almost perpendicular to the net.
    • Upward Swing: Initiate your swing from a low position and brush upwards toward the contact point. This upward motion combined with the closed paddle face creates topspin.
  5. Start Low: Avoid initiating your swing too high. This can cause you to hit the ball into the net, as Ben Johns often highlights.
  6. Wrist Position: Keep your wrist bent forward throughout the swing, almost like holding a motorcycle throttle, as Ben Johns suggests. Avoid rolling your wrist over.
  7. Missing Long? If you’re consistently hitting the ball long, you’re likely opening your paddle face too much. Focus on maintaining a closed paddle face for that soft touch.
  8. Redirecting Down the Line: When receiving a crosscourt ball, most players tend to swing back in the same direction. However, with the backhand roll, you want to redirect the ball “down the line” – diagonally towards your opponent’s corner, just like Ben Johns prefers for added difficulty for your opponent.
  9. Spin Continuation: The type of spin you receive on the ball can influence the ease of your backhand roll. It’s generally easier to hit a backhand roll against a backspin serve compared to a topspin serve, as Ben Johns has experienced.

Mastered the Basics? Explore Variations

Once you’ve mastered the fundamental backhand roll, you can add some variations to your game:

  • Shot Direction: Change the direction of your backhand roll by subtly altering your swing path or by dropping your paddle face slightly more.
  • Backhand Flick: This variation allows for more wrist action, resulting in a slightly higher and more aggressive shot. It’s a good option for higher balls where you can leverage your wrist for extra power. However, avoid rolling your wrist when hitting a flick from below the net.

Practice Makes Perfect

Like any pickleball skill, mastering the backhand roll takes practice. Start by incorporating the steps above into your warm-up routine. Then, progress to practicing against a wall or with a partner. With dedication and focus on proper technique, you’ll be dropping those deceptive backhand rolls in no time, just like Ben Johns!