An Introduction to Three-Wall Play

Vern Roberts shoots from the long line in the 1985 National Three-Wall final.

With clubs closed due to COVID-19, many four-wallers might be getting their first taste of three-wall in the great outdoors.  Fresh air and more court area would certainly be a safer bet when you get back on the court.  And, it’s fun to be able to hit as hard as you want on almost every shot!  That will certainly help get rid of some of the anxious energy these days.

While many of the winning strategies used in four-wall are still appropriate in three-wall, there are some dramatic and some subtle differences between the two versions of the perfect game.   

Even though we’re still “just hitting a handball,” the changes start with the fundamentals.

The term "fundamentals" is used for everything that takes place in a player's effort to strike a handball: the pre-shoot position, the actual stroke, and the follow-through and positioning.

Anyone who has played three-wall knows that raw power is a major ingredient to success on the outdoor courts, where the backwall is replaced by a long line. The ability to power the ball deep in the court, causing it to carry far beyond the long line makes for great passing shots, easy points, and easier points when your opponent begins to tire from chasing your rockets and hitting them back to the front wall from 60 feet away.

Power is developed by getting to a good pre-shoot position, striding into the ball, executing a good stroke, and timing the ball precisely. You can forget the off-balance punch to the ceiling with a snap of the wrist in three-wall. Even if you hit the ceiling, the shot will drop inside the court for a setup. To save your arms for the timing and powering of your shots, no matter at what height you strike the ball, make sure you are always moving forward into your shot in three-wall play. Your legs contain the strongest muscles in your body and are most important in hitting the ball with power.

To obtain the needed power, most four-wallers will have to alter their strokes a little, too. The four-waller's overhand was developed to "touch" the ball to the ceiling, not hitting it too hard to avoid giving away backwall setups.  Most four-wallers will find their first few trips to the three-wall courts fun since they are in the "great outdoors," but also frustrating due to their weak overhand strokes.

To hit your overhand shots with more power and send them higher and farther, your overhand stroke will have to be altered. The four-wall overhand only generates power from the elbow to the hand due to the direct-overhead form used. To generate the needed power and height to make the ball carry in three-wall, the four-wall over¬hand needs to be dropped to about a two-thirds or three-fourths motion. This stroke is very similar to the motion used in throwing a football. This slight change in the overhand will not only give you more power but will also help your overhand shots carry past the long line due to the better trajectory.

The classic underhand stroke used in four-wall play also needs to be adjusted. The classic underhand stroke was developed to control your serves so that they would just clear the short line and to allow you to let the ball drop off the backwall. In three-wall play, you'll want the majority of your serves to be bouncing just before the long line and then angling around the side¬walls. To achieve the power and angle necessary for these serves, as well as the longer-distance kill attempts, you'll need to use more of a sidearm motion than the classic four-wall underhand stroke. Instead of contacting the ball below the knee as you would in four-¬wall, you'll probably find the best height to be just above the knee in three-wall. Of course, there will be times when the four-wall underhand will be appropriate. Usually for a surprise low serve and when you’ve earned front-court kill attempts.

The Off Hand

For the most part, your off-hand strokes should emulate the strong hand strokes we've been discussing. As important as the return of service is in four-wall, it is even more important in three-wall. The service return is even more critical since you will usually be returning serve from 38 to 46 feet from the front wall, as compared to the normal 34 to 36 feet in four-wall. This extra distance means you'll need extra time to get back to a center-court position to protect yourself against your oppo¬nent's fly shots. So a good return of serve is critical to your success in three-wall play.

To compound the four-waller’s problems on the return of service, the classic punch to the ceiling won't be appropriate for two reasons. First, the ceiling shot is not very effective and, second, it is difficult to hit the ceiling from the deeper position and from a point of contact above the waist, from where most service returns will have to be hit.

Making contact with the ball above the waist on the return of service will severely limit the options available to you. If the serve is a few feet from the left sidewall, and you have the skill necessary, the return can be hit back down the left wall. This is a highly¬-skilled shot, much like the left-to-left return of service in four-wall. If this return goes just a little errant and hits the left sidewall or drifts out to the center of the court, it will result in a setup.

When you attempt this specific return, you'll want to aim 12 to 16 feet high on the front wall. The exact height will depend on the amount of power you possess with your off-hand. Hitting the ball straight to the front wall and trying to make it carry back down the left sidewall to bounce deep in the court is also an easy shot to hit "out."

A much simpler and safer return is the high V-pass to the opposite side of the court, especially if the serve is close to the sidewall or has angled out of the court past the sidewall. Most of us four-wallers find it all too easy to hit the front wall about 15-feet high just to the right of center. Thank goodness this shot is appropriate somewhere: three-wall! The angle and height will provide you with a return that will force the server to retreat to at least the long line. This is much safer than the down-the-line return because you can hit this shot as hard as you like and it won't carry "out" since it slows down dramatically when it hits the right sidewall in the air.

Stay in the Court

Sean Lenning, the current leader for all-time Three-Wall Nationals Singles titles with 11, is a master of the fly kill.

Most four-wallers, due to the extensive use of the ceiling in four-wall play, are conditioned to always allow the ball to drop before striking it. Since the timing of the shot is easier when the ball is dropping, this is most appropriate. However, for the shots hit deep in the court in three-wall, you should be cutting the ball off instead of backing up to 60-plus feet for the return. Once you're out of the court, your return has to be almost perfect or a three-foot high kill attempt by your opponent will be successful.

Many of these deep shots won't be appropriate for hitting on the fly. Thus, they must be taken "on the rise" with the three-wall overhand stroke and sent back to the front wall in the same manner. These rallies are much like the ceiling rallies in four-wall -- they continue until someone makes a mistake. Of course, it is most important to be moving forward into this shot or it won't carry, which means you made the first mistake.

The timing of this shot is different than any shot in four-wall, especially since the ball rises fast off the concrete floor. Your first few attempts may find you jumping, and hitting the ball weakly, but stay with it as the timing is quickly learned and the shot is necessary if you're going to stay within the confines of the court.

Playing three-wall is also good training for four-wall, thanks to the aggressive style necessary for success. So get out there and improve your fly shot and add power to your four-wall game.
Here's hoping you find your play in the great outdoors most enjoyable, and successful, too.

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