Everything in pickleball starts with the serve. It’s a key skill to learn and improve as you embark on your pickleball journey.
What are the basics of pickleball serving?
Just like in tennis, serving in pickleball gets the game going and puts the ball in play – you simply drop the ball and swing underhand to get the ball over the net and across the court. (Serving order and location on the court is intimately tied to the score, so if you need to brush up on that, head over to How to keep score in pickleball.)
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Call out the complete score: you need to say the full 3 numbers of the score before the paddle hits the ball.
Serve Underhanded: The server must hit the ball underhand so that the ball strikes the racket at a level below the waist/navel and the racket moves upward. (So a standard over the head tennis serve is illegal.) The top part of paddle should also be below the wrist when it hits the ball. You can serve either forehand or backhand as long as these rules are followed.
Hit the ball in the air:
You cannot serve the ball off of a bounce. 2021 RULES UPDATE: This is no longer the case. You can now either hit the ball in the air OR drop the ball and hit it after a bounce. You must not throw the ball downward with any force, you have to let gravity drop the ball. This is a provisional rule, which means that they are trying it out. They may decide to remove this rule in the future. You can find discussion of this rule starting on page 24 of the rule change document from the USAPA.
Don’t step on or over the baseline and stay between the center and side lines: you must be behind the baseline during your serve (or you’ll get a foot fault – again, just like tennis!). The baseline is the line that is parallel to the net and farthest away from the net. So you’re behind the baseline but you also have to be between the center and side lines as well. (So if you’re serving from the right or even side, the sideline should be to your right and center line to the left; if you’re serving from the left or odd side, the sideline will be on your left and the center line on your right.)
The ball must bounce in play: The ball should be served over the net, diagonally to the big box on the opposite side of the court.
The ball has to land in bounds: as long as the ball lands in the large box diagonal from the server or hits the baseline, centerline or sideline of that box, it is in. If it hits the kitchen line (the parallel line closest to the net) or anywhere outside of the box diagonal to the server it’s a fault.
Keep at least 1 foot on the ground during the serve
Some other ways a serve can result in a fault:
- The server swings and misses the ball
- The ball hits a stationary object, the server or their partner — in the case of doubles
If the opposing team hits the ball before it bounces it is a point for the serving team.
Lets: A let happens if the ball hits the net and then lands in what would be an in-bounds serve. If a let occurs on a serve, the server should just re-do the serve. If it lands where a serve would have been a fault, it’s a fault. Someone should call out “let” if this does happen so everyone knows to stop play. A let could also happen if a server tries to serve when the receiver is not ready for play to commence.
2021 UPDATE: Lets have been removed from the rulebook and are no longer part of the game according to the new rules in place in 2021 according to the USAPA. If the ball hits the net and bounces over INbounds, then play continues. For an extensive look at the rule change and reasons behind it, go to page 11 of the rules change document.
Immediately after serving the ball, get into position to respond to the return.
Check out this quick 2 minute video for a nice visual overview of serving:
So those are the basics of a pickleball serve.
How to Improve your Pickleball Serve and Practice Pickleball Serving Drills
Since you’ve got the basics down, here are a number of ways to improve your serve via tactics, tips and drills
Routine, routine, routine. You’ll notice that in basketball (before a free throw) and tennis (before a serve) the best players have a pre throw/serve routine that remains consistent. They pause and run through their routine in order to get into the right mindset and to get into the rhythm in order to consistently deliver. Try to create your own simple pickleball serving routine to accomplish the same thing. Bounce the ball a couple of times, maybe spin your racket once – whatever feels natural, doesn’t take too long and gets you into the zone for a great serve.
Hold! Play around with the grip that makes the most sense for you. The easiest may be to hold it from the top and drop it straight down as your paddle swings to hit it.
Ready, aim, fire. Practice hitting a specific area of the court with your serves. Decide beforehand where you are aiming and see how consistently you are able to hit that spot.
Serve from your back foot. You should have a bit more weight on your back foot than your front foot as you serve the ball. Putting your weight too far forward can result in being off balance or inconsistent serves. Shift your weight forward as you swing.
Let the ball go. Don’t get fancy with the ball release – particularly if you’re a beginner. Just hold the ball with the opposite hand at waist level and drop it as you swing your paddle forward.
Swing your whole arm. Don’t isolate motion in the wrist, move your whole arm forward as you swing and end the swing with the paddle pointing towards where you want the pickleball to go.
Hitting the net? Angle your paddle slightly upward (open it).
Hitting the ball past the baseline? Angle your paddle down slightly (close it) or decrease the power and speed of your swing.
Practice serving the ball close to the baseline. A great serve to have in your arsenal is a deep serve that bounces way back towards (or even on) the baseline of your opponent. They are then forced to return from the farthest point possible.
Advanced: Practice different types of serves and vary how often and when you employ them. If you can get your opponent thinking you’re going to hit a deep, fast serve towards the baseline and then you hit them with a spin serve close to the kitchen, they will have more difficulty returning it. Mix up your serves between hard and soft, angled and straight on, spin and no spin, high and low.
- Drop Serve (high, soft): hit a ball high up and try to land it close to the baseline.
- Power Serve (low, fast): hit the ball harder and decrease the arch of the ball. You can vary the angle of where you are aiming to force a backhand or forehand – particularly if your opponent is weaker with one or the other.
- Soft Angle Serve (low, slow): Aim towards the sideline as close to the kitchen as possible in order to try to bounce the ball out before your opponent can get or force them out of position.
- Spin Serve: put spin on the ball as you serve it and aim closer to the no volley zone or kitchen (the rectangular box that is closest to the net). You do have to be careful thought to make sure you don’t break any of the rules of location of the paddle in relation to your wrist and waist when utilizing a spin serve.
- Adjust your serve based on whether you’re playing indoors or outdoors as the balls react differently, check out how in our article on the difference between indoor and outdoor pickleballs.
If you’re looking for the official rules for serving, go to page 16 of the official rulebook: https://www.usapa.org/docs/ifp/USAPA-Rulebook.pdf
And now that you’re an expert server, why not brush up on your pickleball terms and definitions?