Whether you’re a beginner to the sport or a seasoned veteran, you know a good understanding of pickleball serving rules is essential.
So to keep you on the right side of the rules, we've put together this quick guide on how serving works in pickleball.
Here, we'll cover the rules, basic techniques, and tips to improve your serving game.
Ready? Let’s dive in!
Knowing the rules makes pickleball more enjoyable
Pickleball is a highly addictive blend of badminton, tennis, and ping-pong that is sweeping the nation. Everyone’s playing it, as you’ll have noticed. And if you’re not hooked yet, you will be soon!
It's important to stay up-to-date on the latest rule changes in order to compete in tournaments and fully embrace the pickleball experience.
But fear not! Once you’ve read this article, you’ll have a firm grasp of pickleball serving rules. And, after a few sessions of practice, they’ll come as naturally as riding a bike.
The 6 key pickleball serving rules
In pickleball, every single point starts with the serve. This is for one simple reason: You can only score when you (or your team, in doubles) are serving.
No matter how well you play or how spectacular the rally is, you can only score a point if it was your turn to serve.
Ok, so it's your serve and your opportunity to score points. How do you perform a legal serve?
By following six simple rules, that’s how!
- A pickleball serve must always be made with either an underhand or backhand motion. To clarify, this means the server’s arm must move in an upward arc when the ball is struck. No hitting from above, or from the side.
- The point where the pickleball paddle makes contact with the ball must be below your waist. The taller you are, the higher this point will be.
- The paddle head must be below the highest part of your wrist at contact. This requirement helps emphasize using an upward arc motion. The entire paddle must be below your hand rather than above it as you hit your serve.
- A pickleball serve must land in the diagonally opposite service area. Pickleball serving rules state that the serve is always made diagonally across the court, similar to tennis.
- Your feet must be correctly placed. At least one foot must be touching the playing surface behind the baseline when you contact the ball. Also, your feet must be inside the imaginary extension of the sideline and the centerline, bordering the service box.
- Only one serve attempt is allowed per server. Unlike tennis, if you fault on your serve, you don’t get a second chance. The serve goes to your partner, or the other team in a side out.
The pickleball volley serve vs a drop serve
There are two legal types of serves in pickleball. The traditional pickleball volley serve, in which you strike the ball before it hits the ground, and the drop serve, where you simply drop the ball (from any height) and strike it after it bounces on the ground.
The drop serve was added as a provisional rule in 2022 for a variety of reasons, but most importantly because it was deemed easier for beginners. Since then, even advanced players have adopted it and have found success using it.
An important difference between the volley and the drop serve is that the drop serve has fewer rules to follow. The server may drop the ball from any height, from an open palm, and contact the ball after it bounces in any way they choose. This eliminates the above-mentioned rules 1, 2, and 3.
The ball can bounce more than once, with no restrictions on whether it bounces within the court boundaries, as long as your feet are in the legal position. You cannot toss or propel the ball upward or downward. You simply drop it.
The pros and cons of each type of serve
A traditional pickleball volley serve benefits from speed and power. By hitting the ball just below the height of your navel, you get the maximum height of impact and drive behind your shot.
With the drop serve, no matter how high you drop the ball from, it rarely bounces more than mid-thigh height, creating a lower contact point. A low contact point means you can’t hit the ball as hard or you risk hitting it high and long.
However, the drop serve technique is ideal for adding an extra spin to your pickleball serve. Extra spin makes it harder for your opponent to react to and return your serve.
Even since drop serves have been incorporated into the game, professionals rarely use them.
Drop serves are more suited to beginner and intermediate players who want to make sure their serves are successful.
Drop serves are good when used as practice tools, and for trying new techniques such as putting spin on a serve, or performing backhand serves.
Professionals rarely use drop serves, as they are usually more interested in the power they can generate from a volley serve.
The traditional pickleball volley serve is still by far the most common serving style, but this may change in the future. Pickleball is always evolving!
The pickleball serving rules regarding drop serves are still very new. The rules were only fully signed off in 2022, but they look like they are here to stay!
The pickleball serving sequence
Next, let's take a look at the serving sequence, as pickleball serving has a specific order.
Before the serve, the score is always called. As the server, it is your responsibility to call it loudly so that the opposing team can hear you. This also lets them know that you are ready to serve.
The player on the right side of the court always serves first in the game or upon a side out in doubles. (In singles, the service side is dependent on the score)
It is considered an advantage to be the first server to have the chance to “draw first blood,” meaning to score first. However, making that choice means that once you fault, a side out is called and the serve goes to the other team. After this, both players get a chance to serve between side-outs.
Scoring in pickleball is done with a system of three numbers: the serving team’s score, followed by the opponent's score, followed by either 1 or 2, indicating the first or second server after the side out.
So, a typical pickleball score might read 6-3-2. The score is 6-3, with the serving team’s second server.
Pickleball serving faults
Pickleball serving rules are contained in the official pickleball rulebook, and any breach of those rules can result in a ‘fault’.
Here are four common service faults:
- Foot Faults: A frequent type of fault is a ‘service foot fault’. The server must have at least one foot touching the ground when serving (no jumping). Your feet must be within the imaginary extension of the sideline and centerline and behind the baseline of the court. Your feet must not touch the baseline. If you break any of these rules, it’s a fault.
- Illegal Serving Motion: Remember above where we explained about the pickleball serving motion? A serve must have an upward arc (can be hit with a forehand or backhand motion), and the paddle must connect with the ball at a height below the player's waist. Otherwise, it’s deemed as an illegal serve and a fault is called.
- Wrong Player Serves: Sounds simple, but an easy mistake to make. Be sure you remember whose turn it is to serve! If you don’t know, ask your partner, opponent, or referee.
- Serve Lands Out of Bounds: The serve must be hit diagonally and land in the opponent's service box crosscourt from the server. If it lands outside of that rectangle, it’s a fault. The service is passed on to the next player. The ball must cross the Non-Volley Zone line (kitchen). If it lands on that line, it is a fault. However, the sideline, center line, and baseline are all considered in.
Are there lets in pickleball?
First of all, what is a “Let”? A let serve is one that hits the net, then lands within the correct service box.
In tennis, a let serve is replayed.
Prior to 2021, a let serve in pickleball was also replayed. However, the USA Pickleball Rules Committee decided that the rule made the game less enjoyable, caused more disputes, and complicated things for both pickleball players and referees.
Subsequently, the rule was changed and any mention of a let serve was removed from the rulebook. Now, even if the ball hits the net and lands in the correct service area, it’s game on and play continues!
Pickleball receiving faults
Just like there are pickleball service faults, there are three faults that might be committed by the receiver of the serve.
- Hitting the return before the ball bounces: The most common receiving fault is when a player hits or touches the ball before it bounces in their service area. Remember that the ball must bounce before a return shot is hit (groundstroke).
- The wrong receiver hits the ball (or is hit by the serve): Another common fault is when the receiving team players are positioned on the wrong side of the court, causing the incorrect player to return the serve. This could also occur if the non-receiving player is hit by the serve, which can happen if they are playing too close to the center line at the kitchen line. This includes when they simply get in the way, and the served ball hits them.
- Asking for timeout or score correction too late: In pickleball, players can call for a timeout or ask the referee for the current score. However, a receiver cannot do either of these things after the server has already started their service motion, as it would cause a distraction.
Pickleball serve positioning
Let's now take a look at pickleball serve positioning. Where should each player stand for the serve?
Of course, we’re talking about doubles here, meaning there are four players on the court, which we’ll number 1-4.
- The Server: The server must be behind the baseline and within the limits of the center line and sideline. Remember, these two lines include the imaginary extensions of both. Most players stand a few inches back from the baseline to avoid those pesky foot faults.
- The Server’s Partner: The non-serving partner can stand wherever they like, according to the rules. However, they should stand out of the way, usually behind the baseline, and must allow the ball to bounce before striking it.
*The "Double Bounce Rule" Explained
- The Receiver: The receiver usually stands one or two feet behind the baseline, in a central position to the service area. This maximizes their ability to return the serve.
- The Receiver’s Partner: The non-receiver will usually position themselves at the kitchen line since by the time the ball comes to them they will not have to let it bounce. In this position, they will be ready to smash back the serving team's second shot.
Top 5 pickleball serving and receiving tips
Here are a few tips we’ve picked up over the years:
- Watch the Ball, Not Its Trajectory: It’s very easy to take your eye off the ball and focus on where you think it's headed or where you want to hit it. Don’t! Keep your eyes on the ball until you’ve actually made a good connection.
- Keep Your Opponents Guessing: By mixing up your serves, you’re more likely to catch your opponent off guard. Try powerful, deep serves, lob, and shorter serves with backspin and hitting different parts of the service area each time. Also, work in a drop serve from time to time. The best way to achieve a good mix of serves in your armory is by doing pickleball serving drills as often as possible.
- Don’t Try to Ace Every Serve: When you’re starting out in pickleball, don’t try to hit every shot like a pro. Aim for consistent, legal, and playable serves and you’ll have much more fun on the courts.
- Keep your opponents back: Since most of your points will come from being positioned at the kitchen line, try to hit your serve as deep as possible. Short serves bring the receiver up to the kitchen.
Similarly, hit your serve return deep to your opponent’s court and with a little arc. This will allow you extra time to get yourself to the kitchen line.
- Try aiming for different targets: Serving to the middle of the service court is always safest. After all, as a beginner, you really just need to put the ball in play. As you become more comfortable with your serve, try aiming to various points, such as your opponent’s backhand side or specifically to their right or left side. You might also try varying the pace of your serve as you improve.
Does each player serve in pickleball doubles?
The team who selects to serve first in the game only gets to have one player serve before the first fault. To indicate that a side out will occur after the first fault, the opening score in a pickleball match is 0-0-2. (Remember, the last number in the score is the server number).
After that, and throughout the rest of the game, both players on each team will have the opportunity to serve between each side out.
The starting server of the game, and after each side out, will always be the one on the right. If a point is scored, they will switch places with their partner. They move to the other side of the court and serve again.
Each time they score, they will switch sides and serve again. If a fault occurs, they will stay on their side and the serve will either go to their partner, or a side out will be called.
How do you know who wins?
Points are only scored by the serving team. Games are to 11 points, but you must win by 2 points.
We hope we’ve made sense of pickleball serving and left you with a few tips and takeaways to improve your game.
Pickleball serving rules for beginners can seem complicated, but once you start to put them into practice, they will make sense and soon become second nature.
Do you have any local variations on the rules above or tips for other pickleheads on their pickleball serves? Let us know on social!
We’d also love to hear from you with any other questions about pickleball serving rules that the pickleheads can answer for you.
Until next time, happy pickling!