A consistent serve is crucial to your success as a pickleball player. In the following article, I’m going to walk you through the rules surrounding serving, the variations on serving that are possible, and tips for how you can improve your serve and make it more consistent.
The basic rules of serving
The rules surrounding serving may sound complex when written out, but in practice, they are very easy to master. Here are five basic points you need to know to get started:
- Serve must be underhand: The ball must be struck at a height below the navel of the server. Furthermore, the head of the paddle must be below the wrist. So, the serve cannot be high on the body, nor made with a swing from above, tennis style.
- Ball must travel diagonally: The served ball must travel across the net and into your opponent’s rectangle on the diagonal side, like tennis. If the serve strikes the kitchen line, also known as the “no volley zone line”, then the serve is a fault. If the serve hits the baseline, or the side lines on either side, it is considered good. And, if the serve strikes the net but continues to go in (excluding the kitchen area), then the play continues.
- One chance per serve: unlike tennis, you only get one chance to get it right. If your serve does not fall inside your opponent’s rectangle, you lose your opportunity.
- No hand spin: the ball must be dropped without imparting any spin onto the ball. It cannot be tossed forward and embellished with any fancy spin.
- Start behind the line: The server must stand behind the baseline and have at least one foot on the ground behind the baseline when the ball is struck. In other words, a server who launches himself into the air and strikes the ball while flying forward is an illegal serve.
The serving sequence: From start to finish
A Pickleball doubles game will always start with the player on the right (facing the net) serving. How is it decided which team starts? In my neck of the woods, we honor Bainbridge Island, the place where Pickleball was founded. So, whichever side of the court is facing Bainbridge, that side of the court starts the game by serving.
Pre-serve score calling
The person who is serving must call out the score prior to initiating the motion of their serve. The call will be either, “zero, zero, 2” or you might hear, “zero, zero, start.” The first two numbers indicate the score with the serving team’s score being said first. The third number, either a 1 or a 2, indicates which server on that team is currently serving.
The game always starts on 2, meaning that the starting team does not benefit from both players getting to serve before the “side out” to the other team.
In singles, there is no second serve. So, you only call out your score and your opponent’s score. When the server loses a rally, the service transfers over to your opponent and no points are awarded. When the server wins a rally, the server wins a point. This is the same as in doubles. Points are awarded only when the serving team wins the rally.
The serving motion
Once you’ve called the score, it’s time to fire off your serve. Follow these steps to hit a solid, legal serve.
- If you are right-handed, start out by facing your opponent in an open position.
- Notice the location of your right foot. (If you are left-handed, these are the same instructions with the right and left switched.) Then take your right foot and step back.
- Above where your right foot was previously located, is the place from where you will drop the ball.
- Start with your paddle behind you.
- Swing your paddle in a pendulum motion along the side of your body.
- As you swing the paddle, shift your body weight forward onto your left foot. In this manner, you can impart a lot of power into your serve without relying on arm strength.
As you improve, work on serving deeper and deeper into your opponent’s rectangle. Then, work on varying where in the rectangle, left, right, and short it goes. But, remember to keep your serve away from the edges of the rectangle. A serve that goes out is a wasted opportunity to earn a point. Better to get that serve in, and then win or lose the point through playing it out.
After the rally is played
If the serving team wins a point, the two players on that side switch sides and the same server continues to serve from the new position into the diagonal rectangle on the opponent’s side. If the serving team loses a rally, apart from the start of the game (which starts on 2), the second server begins serving from the same position.
In other words, the serving team only changes positions when they win a point. After the second server loses a rally, there is a “side out” in which your opponent begins the serve from the right-hand side diagonally into their opponent’s court.
Lesser known serving rules
Here are a few other not-so-obvious rules that you should also be aware of.
- No tricks: the ball must be dropped from a non-gloved hand and be visible to the receiver as it is released. So, a server can’t hide the ball or hide an illegal spin that is being put on the ball.
- Don’t dally: the server has 10 seconds to initiate the serve, though this rule is not widely known or enforced.
- Score clarification: Prior to the serve, any player can ask the referee for a clarification on the score. Also, very common in both recreational and tournament play is for a player to raise a hand to signal that they aren’t ready for the serve.
- Incorrect score calling: In rule changes made in 2023, if a server calls the score incorrectly, the opponents can interrupt the game and challenge the score immediately. If the serve has already occurred, both teams must play out the point and the challenge is made after the point. If it turns out that the challenge is correct, the score would be adjusted as appropriate.
Volley serves vs drop serves
There are two types of serves: the volley serve in which the ball is released from one hand and struck with the paddle while the ball descends; and the drop serve.
I recommend the volley serve because with the drop serve you have an additional variable of not knowing how high the ball is going to bounce back up.
But, as you gain in confidence, it’s always nice to mix things up and confuse your opponent with an occasional drop serve. I’ve also seen some players put wicked spin on a drop serve. The drop serve is simply a serve in which the player releases the ball from their hand and lets gravity pull the ball to the court surface for a bounce before the server strikes the ball with the paddle.
This serve was clarified in the 2023 rule changes to make it explicit that the server may not impart any spin or force on the ball as it makes its way to the court surface.
A little lesser-known fact is that there is no rule about how many times the ball can bounce before you strike it. So, the server can let it bounce once, then a second time before striking it, to surprise their opponent.
How to add spin to your serve
The pros utilize various spins to enhance their serves. But one thing is always true, they keep their serves in. They rarely ever get a service fault. To get a top spin, strike the ball a little bit lower while moving your paddle in an upward motion. A topspin serve will cause the ball to increase its speed after its bounce.
This requires the opponent to get into position and increase their paddle speed to make an accurate return.
To get a side spin, alter the pendulum motion from being vertical to being skewed to one side. Try striking the ball from right to left, while aiming the serve about two feet to the left of the center line.
After the serve bounces, it will spin off toward the center of the court. To return a spin serve, the receiver should piggy-back on the spin of the ball, hitting a return that continues the spin of the ball in the same rotational direction, giving your opponent a taste of their own medicine.
Hitting a slice serve
Another serve that is effective is a slice serve in which the paddle moves slightly downward as the ball is struck. This will cause a backspin which will keep the ball from bouncing up. The receiver of this serve will need to hurry to get under the ball to make a nice return.
The lob serve
There’s also the lob serve which looks like it sounds. The ball arches high up in the air before bouncing in your opponent’s rectangle. Many beginner receiving players will drown in their own saliva on this serve. They will take it as an opportunity to hit the ball hard and will often hit the ball off the court. The recommended return of a lob serve is to stay calm and hit the ball deep, perhaps adding a nice topspin to it.
How to hit fast serves
Once your serve is accurate and consistent, you might want to add a little extra zip. As you swing your arm in the pendulum motion, include a flick of the elbow and wrist, creating a whiplike motion. If you can make the whip crack as you strike the ball, then you will generate immense power.
But, this skill takes hours and hours of honing to get it just right. Another suggestion is to try serving deep to your opponent’s backhand. This may trigger them to give you a weak, short return allowing you to move forward on the ball and dominate the point. But above and beyond the power and the placement, consistency is your highest priority.
Regardless of which additional spins are placed on the serve, a universal truth is that the more a server utilizes leg strength, the greater the power that will be generated. Bend those knees and spring as you hit the ball. Pickleballers like to play for hours. To maintain stamina, utilize the strength in your legs and offset the wear and tear on your wrists and arms.
Where to position yourself when serving
In doubles, there are various options for server positioning. When the server’s partner is right-handed and the server is on the right-hand side, the server can serve from a much wider position. But the rules dictate that you cannot serve from outside the sidelines, even if you are behind the baseline.
By serving from this wider position, you can potentially pull the receiver out of position as they return the serve. The right-handed partner can cover the middle of the court as you serve from this wider position.
In singles, the server must be more cautious about where the serve originates. If the server is right-handed and serving from the left side, the server may want to protect the backhand by serving a little closer to the left corner rather than serving from the center of the court.
Conversely, as a right-handed server on the right side, the server may want to protect the backhand by serving as close to the center line as possible, thus minimizing the real estate that the server’s backhand will need to cover.
Advanced strategy: Stacking
Many right-handed/left-handed doubles teams choose to use “stacking.” This is a positioning strategy that allows the left-handed player to start the point on the right and the right-handed player to start the point on the left.
A team chooses to do this because it keeps the team’s strengths in the center of the court. Otherwise, they might both have their weak sides together in the middle.
To use this strategy, the two players stack the non-serving partner on the appropriate side of the server. Then, once the server has served, that person slides over to cover the empty side of the court.
There’s no rule about where the non-server has to stand, so “stacking” takes advantage of this ambiguity. Teams that stack can also stack on their return of serve as well, by placing the non-returning player at the net on the side of the court, waiting to step onto the court after the ball is returned.
What to do after you serve the ball
After your serve, freeze! Both the server and the server’s partner should not step forward onto the court. Instead, they should wait patiently to see how their opponent is going to return the ball.
If the opponent hits it deep, which is the recommended return, then the server and server partner are in the right place to field that shot. If you step forward after your serve, there is a high likelihood that your opponent will take advantage of your positioning and hit the ball either at your feet or behind you.
Because of the Pickleball rule that states that the ball must bounce on the server’s side before you can volley it, your positioning is crucial. A high ball cannot be hit in the air by the server (on the second bounce). The serving team must let it bounce. So, serve and stay!
How to practice your serve
If you have a friend that also want to work on their serve, go out and serve back and forth. Work on your serve from the right side; then work on your serve from the left side.
Another drill you can do is serve, return, return. Then your opponent serves, return, return. This will give you some nice serve and baseline crosscourt shot practice. As in all pickleball skills, the more practice you do, the more muscle memory you will build. In no time at all, the serve will become a natural part of your game.
So, when you are standing at the baseline about to serve the ball, think about how your job is just to put the ball into play. You don’t need to win the point on your serve. Just think about where you want to place the ball. If it’s a windy day, do some Geometry and aim for the center of the rectangle.
Otherwise, go for a deep serve that’s not too close to the baseline. Your serve should be a conversational opener, not an exclamatory remark. It should initiate the dialogue in a safe, controlled manner, without the risk of terminating the dialogue.
Serve it up safe and consistently, then win the point strategically. You’ll find that a consistent serve will serve you very well.
Pickleball serving tips
- Serve deeper: As you improve, work on serving deeper and deeper into your opponent’s rectangle.
- Vary the trajectory: work on where in the rectangle, left, right, and short it goes. But, remember to keep your serve away from the edges of the rectangle. A serve that goes out is a wasted opportunity to earn a point. Better to get that serve in, and then win or lose the point through playing it out.
- Impart spin: topspin, side spin and a flat or slice spin
- Speed it up: give the serve more power
- Use your Legs: preserve your arms by utilizing your legs to impart power to your serve
Frequently Asked Questions
The player on the right, facing the net, starts the game with the first serve.
Pickleball serves must be underhand, in an upward motion, with the paddle head below the wrist, and the ball struck below the waist.
No, an overhand serve is not allowed in pickleball.
Yes, a pickleball serve can hit the net and then, if it bounces in the opponent’s rectangle, it is played. If it hits the net and then hits the kitchen line, then the serve is a fault. Or, if it hits the net and goes out, then it is a fault.
A player will continue to serve until the end of the game, provided they win each point. But they only get one chance at a time to serve, so if you lose a rally, or make a fault on your serve, the service will pass to another player.
The best pickleball serve is a consistent, deep serve, to your opponent’s backhand. That can be achieved with either a volley serve or a drop serve, whichever you are more comfortable with.
No, a pickleball serve that lands in the kitchen is a fault. A serve than hits the kitchen line is also a fault.
Yes, you may bounce the ball on a pickleball serve. Some prefer this method to the standard volley serve, in which players hit the ball out of the air after dropping it with their hand. It’s even legal to let the ball bounce more than once before you hit it.