As a game that incorporates elements from several racket sports, it’s no surprise that tennis players find pickleball intriguing.
While the two sports boast similar gameplay and mechanics, they each have distinctive features which add to their unique flavor, making them both fun and challenging in their own right. In this article, we break down the differences between pickleball vs tennis, exploring the biggest factors that set them apart.
Key differences – pickleball vs tennis
When tennis players try pickleball for the first time, one of the most noticeable differences is in the equipment used to play the game.
Paddles vs racquets
Pickleball players use paddles with a flat, solid surface, typically made from materials like graphite or fiberglass. These paddles are smaller and lighter than tennis racquets, making them easier to handle, especially for beginners or those with injuries.
Tennis racquets, in contrast, have a stringed hitting area and are generally larger and heavier. This design enables faster ball speeds and a wider range of shot types, but also requires more strength and energy to use effectively.
Size and weight differences
Here’s a breakdown of the dimensions and weight of an average paddle vs a typical racquet.
Both pickleball and tennis have their own set of rules for equipment. For pickleball paddles, the length can’t go over 17 inches, and the total size (length plus width) is capped at 24 inches.
On the tennis side, the racquets have a bit more specific limits. They’re kept to a max of 29 inches long and 12.5 inches wide.
Tennis racquets vary more in weight, but even the lighter ones are heavier than the heaviest pickleball paddles. This means tennis requires a bit more muscle to get those powerful swings.
Advanced players in both sports tend to use heavier equipment for that extra bit of control and power it brings to their game.
Tennis balls vs pickleball balls
Pretty much everyone can picture a tennis ball, with its bright fluorescent yellow hue and fuzzy texture. But not everyone knows what a pickleball looks like.
Pickleballs are usually made of plastic and contain anywhere from 26 to 40 holes, resembling a wiffle ball. They are usually bright yellow or green in color and are a bit larger than tennis balls, with a diameter of around 2.95 inches vs around 2.6 inches for a tennis ball.
They are also lighter than tennis balls, usually weighing around .8 ounces as opposed to 2.05.
The significant weight difference, and lack of holes, means that a tennis ball can move much quicker than a pickleball. Furthermore, tennis balls bounce a lot higher, increasing the need for a tennis player to get into position at a faster rate.
A tennis ball striking a stringed racquet will also have longer contact with the racquet, generating greater spin and requiring more control.
A pickleball striking a paddle will require less control and generate less spin due to its hard surface. In other words, hitting a pickleball is easier.
Pickleball courts differ from tennis courts in several ways, including in their dimensions, court zones, net height and surface material. These combined have a significant effect on how games unfold.
Novice pickleball players will immediately notice that the court dimensions are much smaller than what they are used to playing tennis. In fact, you can fit four standard pickleball courts inside just one tennis court.
A pickleball court has a length of 44 feet and a width of 20 feet. In pickleball, the same dimensions and zones are used for singles and doubles games.
A tennis court has a total length of 78 feet and a width of 36 feet. Within this width, there is a smaller width (27 feet) lined off for singles games.
The larger size of a tennis court, combined with the faster movement of the tennis ball, and the heavier, larger, and more powerful stringed tennis racquet, makes tennis a much faster sport. Tennis players need to cover a wider area and engage a faster-moving ball.
While tennis and pickleball courts share similarities in layout, they have a few distinct differences that define their gameplay. One key difference is a special area exclusive to pickleball called the non-volley zone. Here’s a brief look:
- Pickleball service areas: In pickleball, the service areas are designed for simplicity and fast-paced gameplay. The court is divided into right and left service areas by a centerline, extending from the baseline to the non-volley zone line.
- Tennis service areas: Tennis has a more complex arrangement for its service areas, making it more difficult to hit successful serves. Each side of the court features two service boxes, which are separated by a center service line. Players serve diagonally across the court into these boxes, and they alternate between the right and left sides of the baseline with each new serve.
- The non-volley zone (kitchen): The non-volley zone, also known as the kitchen, is a special area that is unique to pickleball and not found on tennis courts. When standing inside the kitchen, players are prohibited from hitting the ball out of the air. This zone was created by the game’s founders to make pickleball more challenging, and stop players from running up close to the net and smashing winners every chance they get. It also has the effect of fostering longer rallies and encouraging short strategic shots called dinks.
A pickleball net is set lower than a tennis net, adding to the game’s accessibility.
- Pickleball net: a pickleball net has a height of 36 inches at the post and should sag slightly in the center to around 34 inches
- Tennis net: a tennis net stands at 3.5 feet at the posts and dips to around 3 feet at the center.
Court surface materials
Pickleball is played on indoor courts of hardwood and outdoor courts of asphalt and concrete, while tennis can be played on clay, grass and concrete surfaces.
A clay surface slows down the tennis ball and allows for a higher bounce, while grass surfaces make the ball slide a bit, giving it a higher speed and a lower bounce. Concrete gives the ball a medium speed and a high bounce, making it the most predictable of surfaces.
Both sports can be played indoors or outdoors, however, the elements play a much bigger role in pickleball. A strong wind can easily upend a game by blowing the light plastic pickleballs in unexpected directions.
Rules of play
There are some big differences in the rules and scoring systems in pickleball vs tennis. Let’s break it down.
To start, pickleball serves must be made underhanded, while tennis serves are made overhand.
In pickleball, the ball must be struck below the navel of the server in an upward motion, with the paddle below the wrist. Furthermore, the ball must be dropped from the server’s hand without imparting any spin or motion to the ball. A pickleball serve cannot hit the kitchen line, however the side line, center line and baseline are all considered “good.”
In tennis, serves are made overhand and can therefore be hit with more power. The serve is a highly effective way to win a point in tennis and points can be won in seconds with an ace. In pickleball, however, the underhand nature of the serve makes it easier to return, so winning points without a rally is not as common.
In pickleball, each team gets at least two attempts to serve the ball before a sideout, one per player. The only exception is at the very start of a game, when the serving team only gets one chance before a sideout (i.e. every game begins with the score 0-0-2 instead of 0-0-1).
Pickleball’s sideout system makes it so the game is always moving and changing rapidly. All four players will get plenty of opportunities to serve in a single game.
Tennis, in contrast, will have only one server per game.
In tennis, the server gets two chances to hit the ball into the service area. If the serve hits the tape of the net and goes in, it is called a “let serve” and the server gets to retry this attempt. In pickleball, let serves are good and play continues.
If the serve goes long or into the net, the tennis server takes a second serve. A serve that hits the lines that border the service area is considered good.
In contrast to pickleball, one player serves an entire game in tennis. In the next game, the opponent’s team will have just one server. In the third game, the serve will go back to the original team, but to the other teammate, if it is a doubles game. The fourth game will see the fourth player serving for that game. Then the cycle of servers resumes.
Pickleball games are generally played to 11, with one team needing to win by two points. Games usually last around 15 minutes.
The fluid nature of pickleball makes it a highly social sport with players devising systems for sharing the court with each other. Often paddles are stacked on the side of courts with players awaiting their turn and ready to jump in and join a game.
In contrast, tennis matches consist of sets, which are made up of six games each. The first player to win two out of three sets (or sometimes three out of five sets) wins the match.
Tennis games can vary in length, and can sometimes last hours.
Tennis has a very unique way of counting points. The game starts with a score of “Love-Love”. If the server wins the rally, then the score changes to “15-Love”.
If the server continues to win rallies, then the score will be “30-Love”, and then “40-Love”.
When a 4th rally is won, the server has won that game. However, if the server loses the rally, then their opponent wins the point. If both players reach “40-40”, the score is called “Deuce”.
The game must be won by two points, so the next point won gives the “Advantage” to that player. If the player with the “Advantage” wins the next point, the game is over. But, if the player with the advantage loses the point, they go back to “Deuce.”
Scoring points in pickleball is not so complex – if the serving team wins a rally, they win a point. If the non-serving team wins a rally, the serve either goes to their opponent’s second server, or there is a side out. The other team then has a chance to score points.
Athleticism and physical demands
Because of the larger court size, playing tennis requires greater endurance, speed, and agility than pickleball.
But while pickleball players need to cover a smaller court, the kitchen creates the need to squat down lower to hit the ball, requiring strong knees and lower back muscles.
Height also becomes more of a factor in tennis, with taller players gaining an advantage when making their overhand serves. In pickleball, height does not play as much of a role, aside from the few times when players need to jump up to smash a lobbed ball.
The most common pickleball injuries are a sprained ankle and tennis elbow, an irritation to the muscles and tendons near the elbow from overuse.
In tennis, the most common injuries are muscle sprains and ligament sprains because the sport requires a high level of physical conditioning.
Another important difference between pickleball and tennis is the learning curve and strategy involved.
A person new to pickleball can master the basic skills of serving, dinking, and driving after a few games, a factor which has helped the sport grow quickly. Tennis, on the other hand, requires greater practice to be proficient. The tennis serve, for example, is difficult to master and requires diligent practice and/or coaching.
In fact, tennis is more demanding both technically and physically. There is less of a margin for error when hitting a tennis ball than when hitting a pickleball with a paddle.
In both sports, there are similar demands of shot selection and positioning. Pickleball players must move forward to the net, often hitting third shot drops or difficult shots from the transition zone, to get forward.
Tennis players also must move from side to side and back to front, covering a much wider area.
Demographics and popularity
Tennis has been around for a long time and there’s an abundance of tennis players and tennis courts around the globe. Pickleball, on the other hand, is a relatively new sport that has seen incredible gains in popularity over a short period of time.
Here are a few quick facts about both games:
- Pickleball is extremely popular among players aged 55 and older.
- The fastest growing demographic in pickleball is players under 24 years old, according to the SFIA.
- As of 2023, there are over 10,000 pickleball courts in the US, in contrast to 270,000 tennis courts.
- In 2022, an estimated 36.5 million people in the US played pickleball, compared to about 23.6 million tennis players.
- Pickleball’s popularity surged by nearly 160% from 2020 to 2023. Tennis grew at a rate of just 4.5% from 2019 to 2023.
A few more differences
Here are a few more differences between the two sports we should point out
One of the major complaints about pickleball is the amount of noise the game generates.
When the hard plastic ball hits a hard composite paddle, it creates a loud popping noise that has been known to drive nearby neighbors to madness.
Most paddles produce pops at 1100-1200 hertz with a decibel level of 85+, which is nearly harmful to the human ear.
To combat noise complaints, USA Pickleball has added a “Quiet Category” to their specification for the manufacturing of paddles and balls. This new category of paddles is expected to reduce the noise level by 50%.
Tennis matches, on the other hand, are much quieter due to the softer impact of a tennis ball against strings, the longer time span between ball strikes, and the fact that less people can play at the same time due to the larger court size.
Popularity of doubles vs singles games
Doubles games in pickleball are far more popular than singles matches, unlike tennis, where singles games are more prevalent.
Pickleball is a sport where people expect to just drop in, play and socialize. Playing with a teammate also makes the game less strenuous as players don’t need to cover the entire court themselves.
Rarely is tennis a “drop-in” sport and rarely are tennis courts shared between groups.
Clashes between pickleball and tennis players
With pickleball growing at such an incredible rate, players are now filling courts which were formerly used only for tennis.
Two tennis courts can easily accommodate four pickleball courts. And 4 pickleball courts can accommodate a group of 24-40 players.
So a pair of tennis courts could be used for four tennis players playing singles, or a group of 24 players playing pickleball.
Of course, this is an annoyance for tennis players who no longer always have unfettered access to their old stomping grounds. This has caused a lot of problems for both communities and led to numerous arguments and scuffles.
With the burgeoning growth of pickleball in the United States and the waning popularity of tennis, there is a need to both convert a percentage of tennis courts to pickleball and create designated venues for pickleball play.
Once the demands of both sports are met, the two racquet cousins will be able to attend the family reunion on the courts without squabbling.
Pickleball and tennis, while similar in some ways, really stand out with their own unique styles.
Pickleball has caught on fast because it’s relatively easy for anyone to jump in and play. The equipment is simpler, with those lightweight paddles and the wiffle-like balls, and the court is smaller, so it’s not as intimidating.
The game is designed to be inclusive and social, where everyone gets a shot at playing and the points tend to last longer, making it great for groups.
Tennis, on the other hand, is more about individual skill and endurance. The court is larger, the ball moves faster, and the overhand serves really push your athletic limits. It’s definitely more competitive, with a unique scoring system and matches that can really test your stamina.
In the end, both have their own charm, and it really comes down to what kind of play you’re after.