Before we take a deep dive into the rules of pickleball, let’s take a look at 6 basic concepts you need to know so that you can go ahead and get started playing:
- No volleying in the kitchen: The 7-foot area just in front of either side of the net is known as the no-volley zone, or more commonly as the “kitchen”. You may not hit the ball out of the air before it bounces while standing in this part of the court. Without this rule the game would just be too easy.
- The two-bounce rule: After the serve, the ball must bounce once on both sides of the court before players can hit it directly out of the air. Similar to the non-volley zone, this rule prevents players from winning easy points by running up to the net after serving and smashing winners while their opponents are still standing back deep on their own side.
- All serves are underhand: Unlike tennis, all serves must be made underhand. More specifically, the ball must be struck below the naval with the head of the paddle below the wrist. Underhand serves reduce the likelihood of “aces” but make for the start of long rallies.
- Both partners get a turn serving: In a doubles game, both partners get a chance to serve before the service is passed to the other side. Players continue serving until they lose a rally, then they pass the serve to their partner. When the second server loses a rally, the serve is then passed to the opposing side.
- Only the serving side can win points: You may only win points when you or your partner serves the ball. If you win a rally on your opponents’ second server then it is called a side-out. You will now be the service and have the chance to score.
- Games play to 11: Most standard pickleball games are played to 11 points and must be won by 2. So if the score is 10-10, one team will have to at least win by 12-10.
We’ll explain these concepts more in-depth below, but now let’s take a look at how a typical pickleball game is played.
A typical pickleball game
While pickleball can certainly be played with only two players, by far the most popular way to play is with doubles. Here are the rules of each part of a game explained.
A game of pickleball starts by serving from the right-hand side of the court into the left-hand side. In doubles, the team that serves first only gets one server. For this reason, the score is announced at the start of the game as “zero, zero, two” or “zero, zero, start”.
This is another way of saying, my side has zero points, your side has zero points, and we are on the second server. Going forward, the third number will be “one” when a new serving sequence begins.
In recreational play, it is expected that the server will call the score loudly and clearly before every serve. If the receiver is not ready, in both tournament and recreational play, then the receiver uses a raised hand or raised paddle to indicate that they need a moment.
In tournament play, the referee will call the score prior to each serve. The server may not start the serve or serve motion until the referee has called the score. A violation of this will count as a fault. Once the score has been called, the server has 10 seconds to initiate the serve.
Rules for striking the ball
- The server must strike the ball with the head of the paddle below the wrist.
- The server must strike the ball at a height below the navel.
- The server may not impart any spin on the ball prior to striking the ball with the paddle.
- The server’s feet may not touch or cross the baseline until the ball is struck.
- The server must stand with both feet within the imaginary sidelines of the court.
The ball should then travel into your opponent’s court beyond the no volley zone on the opposite diagonal side.
While the serve may not land in your opponent’s Kitchen or strike the Kitchen line, there’s no problem if it strikes the baseline, the center line, or the sideline of the receiving court. What’s more, if the serve hits the net but lands in legal territory, it is considered legal and play continues normally.
Playing the Ball
The two-bounce rule
After the serve, players need to be conscious of the unique two-bounce rule, which stipulates that the ball must bounce once in the receiver’s court as well as once in the server’s court before players can hit it out of the air.
This may seem arbitrary, but it’s easy to understand once you’ve gained a little experience on the court.
Just imagine serving the ball deep into your opponent’s side, leaving them to return the ball from near or behind the baseline. That would make it extremely easy for both you and your partner to immediately run up to the kitchen line, wait for the ball to cross the net and smash a winner while the server is stuck far back on their own side.
Essentially the two-bound rule helps level the playing field and keep things fair.
From there onward, the ball can either bounce once or be hit in the air as a volley, such as you would see in a tennis match.
The server and receiver are required to hit the ball at the start of the game, but after that, either you or your partner can hit the ball. Each side may strike the ball only once before the ball passes over to the other side of the net.
There is no rule that says partners must rotate who hits the ball – the same player can play out the entire rally themselves if they choose to do so, something we’ve seen a few ball-hogging doubles players do from time to time!
The no volley zone
During play, players must be very cognizant of the no volley zone (the kitchen), as it plays a very important role in the game.
The kitchen is a 7-foot wide lined off zone adjacent to the net on both sides of the court. While inside or stepping on the no volley zone line, players may not volley the ball at any time during the game. A volley is defined as hitting the ball before it has a chance to bounce. You must also be careful to not let your momentum drag you into the kitchen after a volley, as this would also be a fault.
While you can’t volley from the kitchen, it’s perfectly ok to stand in it, or hit balls which have already bounced while standing in it.
But there are some further details you should be aware of:
- If your paddle touches the ground of the no volley zone after volleying outside the no volley zone, then this is a fault.
- If you drop your paddle in the no volley zone after volleying outside the no volley zone then you have committed a fault.
- If a player is standing in the no volley zone and a ball comes in their direction, the player must get both feet touching the ground outside the no volley zone prior to volleying the ball.
- A player can volley a ball without penalty while their partner is standing in the no volley zone.
- A toe of a shoe can hover over the line of the no volley zone, without stepping on the line. However, a line judge made perceive this as touching the line, so it is best to step a few inches back behind the no volley zone.
Ending the Rally
The rally comes to an end when the ball is hit out of bounds or hit into the net. It can also come to a close due to a fault, like a no volley zone violation (eg. A player hits a volley with a foot partially inside the kitchen). The point then ends and if the serving side has won that rally, they are awarded a point.
Upon winning the point, the server then switches to the left side of the court and serves into the opposite diagonal side on the right. The server will continue switching sides as long as they continue to score points.
However, even though the serving side rotates, the receiving team stays in their same positions for the duration of that round of serves.
Only the serving team can score a point. Upon the start of the game, the serving team starts with their second serve. Then, with each rally won, they accumulate a point. But, if they lose a rally, then there is a “side out” in which the serve transfers to the opposing team on the other side of the net.
After a side out, the serve always starts with the player on the right facing the net. That server will then accumulate points with each rally won. If the server loses a rally, then the serve will transfer to that team’s second server.
That server will then continue to accumulate points with each rally won. When that team finally loses a rally, the serve will “side out” back to the team on the other side of the net.
Making line calls
In tournaments and recreational play, whether the ball is determined to be in our out is done by the team on that side. The opposing team does not have a say in the decision.
A ball that hits any part of the line is considered in. To be considered out, the determining team must see a gap between the ball and line. If one player on the determining team sees the ball as being “in” and the other player sees it as “out”, then the ball is considered “in”.
Here are some recommendations for calling shots:
- Let your partner call the lines for when you are receiving a serve or hitting a difficult ball. This way you can focus on the ball and not be looking at the line.
- If you didn’t see the shot clearly, then don’t weigh in on the call. Let your partner call the shot.
- Avoid contradicting your partner unless you are sure. Your relationship with your partner is more important than the line shot.
- Don’t get rattled by a bad line call. Perception of the lines are very subjective by the angle in which you see them. Your opponent is most likely not lying, they perceived the shot differently.
- Do not catch or stop an out ball before it has hit the ground as it is considered a fault.
In a tournament, there is often a referee. But, the referee will most likely only be calling service faults and no volley zone faults. In other words, the line calls are left up to the players on the court. If there is a line judge, then the line judge will make the calls.
A player can request an overrule of the line judge’s call with the referee. During both tournament and recreational play, it is incumbent upon a player to make a verbal determination in conjunction with a visual signal to indicate an out ball. You are not allowed to just assume that everyone saw the ball the same way you saw it.
How double hits are treated
Occasionally you will swing at a ball and the motion of your swing leads to the ball being struck by your paddle multiple times. In tennis this would be considered a double hit and be illegal. However, in pickleball, double hits are allowed provided that they are done within the same motion of the paddle.
In addition, the ball can bounce off any part of the hand holding the paddle, as opposed to the paddle itself, and it is considered legal. But, if the ball strikes any part of your body other than the paddle hand below the wrist, then it is illegal. This rule also includes if the ball strikes your clothing or even your shoe.
When play can be stopped
There are few situations in which play can abruptly be stopped.
- Errant Ball: If a ball from an another court rolls onto your court, the point is stopped immediately and restarted once the errant ball is returned to its proper court. It does not matter which team was at an advantage, the point stops and the serve is repeated.
- Wrong Score Called: If a server calls a wrong score, a referee can halt the point after the serve has been made. However, neither team may stop the point once the return of serve has been made. The players have the option of challenging the score once the rally is concluded.
- Taking a Time Out: In a tournament, each team is given a certain number of time outs that they can call at any time between points. Use these time outs strategically, to break up an opponent’s winning streak or to give yourself a well-needed rest.
- Referee’s Prerogative: A referee can stop play for several reasons including players being in the wrong positions, players doing distracting behaviors, incorrect server, or double bounces.
- Broken Ball: If a ball is discovered to be cracked or damaged at the end of a point, the point can be replayed if it is agreed by both teams that the crack impacted the outcome of the point. Otherwise, the ball will be replaced and the play will continue.
When play continues
Play continues even if a player is injured during a point. Or if a player breaks a paddle, a shoe, has a wardrobe malfunction, play continues. If an object from a player, such as jewelry, falls on the court, this is another example of when play continues.
But, the exception to this last situation is if the object falls into the no volley zone after a volley is done. In that case, it is a fault. There’s one more situation in which play continues, and that’s if the ball strikes the net, including the wires and strings that connect the net to the post.
As long as the ball travels onto the opponents court, then play continues. In the event of an Around the Post shot, also known as an ATP, the play continues without the requirement for the ball to go over the net.
While not commonly known, technical fouls do exist in pickleball. A technical foul is given when a player degrades the game, endangers another player, or plays in a manner that is considered unfair.
If a referee assesses a technical foul on a player or team, then a point is deducted from that team’s score or in the case that the offending team has no points, a point can be added to their opponent’s score. Usually there is a technical foul warning prior to the deduction of a point.
Here are situations where a technical foul warning/and or penalty may be assessed:
- Use of profanity
- Abusive or objectionable language toward an individual or making a threat
- Aggressive or argumentative behavior toward another player, a spectator or an officiator.
- Intentional destruction of the balls or throwing a paddle aggresively
- Disrupting the flow of play with too much time between points and/or overuse of appeals.
- Requesting a medical timeout when there isn’t a real medical situation.
- Unsportsmanlike behavior like repeatedly making incorrect out calls that are overruled by the referee.
Once a technical warning has been given to a team or a player, a second technical violation will automatically receive a penalty. A technical warning or penalty may be assessed at any time, between points, during a point, or even between games. A combination of technical warnings and violations may result in the forfeiture of the match as determined by the referee.
Lesser known pickleball rules
Delving a little deeper into the rulebook, we can see some less commonly-known, but interesting rules:
- A player may only hold one paddle on the court.
- A player must be holding the paddle when it strikes the ball. A thrown paddle will not be accepted.
- Recreational listening devices like headphones or Airpods are not permitted during tournament play
- A player may not go around the net and onto the opponents court unless the ball has spun back over the net onto that side.
- A player may not break the plane of the net prior to striking the ball. However, if the ball has bounced on a player’s side, but spun back over to the opponents side of the net, the player may break the plane to strike the ball prior to it hitting the court.
- A ball that has gone across the net, bounced and spun back over the net must be touched by the receiving player in order to continue the point.
- A team can call no volley zone foot faults and service foot faults on their opponents. However, if there is a disagreement about the faults, a replay will occur.
Who makes the rules in pickleball?
The initial rules of pickleball were established in 1965 by the original creators of the game, Joel Prichard, Bill Bell, and Barney McCallum in Prichard’s backyard.
Many years later, in 2005, the USA Pickleball Association (USAPA) was created to help players find places to play. In 2008, the USAPA, now known as USA Pickleball (USAP), codified the first version of the pickleball rules in the USA Pickleball Association Official Tournament Rulebook.
USA Pickleball is now considered the defacto governing body of the sport and is responsible for creating the rules governing the game.
There are two other international pickleball organizations that have created their own rulebooks. The International Federation of Pickleball (IFP) was created by the USAPA in 2010, and creates its rulebook in conjunction with the USAP. They differ slightly, if at all.
The World Pickleball Federation (WPF) is another, but different in that it challenges the dominance of the IFP. Like the IFP, their mission is to promote pickleball around the world. They have member countries, a quick start rulebook, membership dues, and have sponsored multinational World Pickleball Games Summits.
Each year, the rulebook is reassessed to ensure that the rules keep in line with the orgs mission of furthering the growth of the game while preserving the nature and character of the sport.
To that end, in 2023, officials made a handful of changes to the rules:
- Players need to avoid wearing clothes that match the color of the ball.
- The ball on the serve must be released with one hand and cannot imbue the ball with any spin.
- The referee may call for a replay on a serve if they are not sure if a service fault has been committed.
- Prior to the serve, any player on the court can ask the referee if they are in the correct place.
- If a player believes that a ball is in bad condition, they must continue the rally until the end. Then, following the rally they can inspect the ball. If both teams deem that the bad ball impacted the point, then the point can be played over. If there is a referee, the referee will decide if the ball impacted the outcome of the point.
Whether you want to reference the rules or find suggested pickleball activities with kids, the USAP is an excellent resource for pickleball information. For certain USAP tournaments, you are required to join the USAP, which costs approximately $35 USD per year. The money goes toward the advancement of pickleball.
When Rules Aren’t Clear
Occasionally situations may arise which aren’t clearly stipulated in the rulebook. In situations like this, it is best to resolve a dispute amicably, without escalation. Usually, the best course of action is to suggest that the point be replayed.
All the pickleball organizations value the promotion of pickleball as a healthy sport where players can get exercise, meet people, and have fun. So, the rules have been adjusted and tailored over time to make sure that the game is not confrontational or controversial.
With this in mind, when you are on the courts, remember why you are out there. Win or lose, you’ll be back the next day to play again. For those of us with the pickleball addiction, there’s always one more game to be played.