How to Hit a Return of Serve in Pickleball: The Ultimate Guide

Third Shot Blog

By Third Shot Blog

Among the key skills that pickleball players need to master in order to excel is the return of serve. This crucial aspect of the game not only sets the tone for the point but also provides an opportunity to take control of the rally from the outset. Whether you’re a beginner looking to learn the basics or an intermediate player aiming to refine your technique, understanding how to effectively hit a return of serve can significantly elevate your game.

The art of hitting a successful return in pickleball involves a blend of timing, positioning, and strategic thinking. It’s not just about getting the ball back over the net; it’s about doing so in a way that puts pressure on your opponent while positioning yourself favorably for the next shot. This blog post aims to delve into the nuances of the return of serve, offering tips on technique, ball placement, and shot selection. By incorporating these strategies into your practice, you’ll not only improve your return game but also enhance your overall performance on the court.

What is a return of serve in pickleball?

A return of serve in pickleball is a fundamental shot that a player performs in response to an opponent’s serve, aiming to send the ball back into the opponent’s court to continue the point. This shot is critical as it sets the stage for the rally that follows and is the first opportunity for the receiving player or team to take control of the point. Effective returns require precision and strategic placement to challenge the server and shift the momentum in favor of the receiver. The ability to consistently execute a strong return of serve can significantly impact a player’s defensive and offensive game, making it a crucial skill in competitive play.

Two pickleball players get ready to return a serve on a court during summer.

Return of serve rules in pickleball

When returning serve in pickleball, here are the basic rules:

  • Proper returner: The designated player to return serve is determined by their position during their last service point. For example, if you last served on the right side, and lost the point for a side-out, you will then return serve on the right side. Your partner is not allowed to return the ball on your side of the court.
  • Two-bounce rule: Each serve and return must follow the “two-bounce rule.” The returning team must allow the serve to bounce before hitting a return. The serving team must allow the return to bounce before hitting a third shot. After the ball has bounced twice, players can hit the ball out of the air.
  • Freedom on return: While the serve cannot land inside the non-volley zone (or kitchen), the return of serve does not have this requirement. While not advisable, a return of serve into the opposing kitchen area is a legal play. The return of serve can land anywhere within the opponent’s side of the court.
  • Forehand or backhand: There is no restriction on hitting the return of serve with a forehand or backhand stroke. Many players prefer to hit a forehand return of serve, but there is no harm in hitting a backhand return when your opponent serves to that side.

Where do you stand when returning a serve in pickleball?

In pickleball, when returning a serve, positioning is strategic and varies slightly based on player preference and skill level. Generally, you should stand near the baseline, centrally located between the sidelines to cover the court effectively. This position allows you to reach both wide serves and those aimed closer to the center. For a forehand return, which is preferred by most players for its strength and control, you might stand slightly to the backhand side of your service box, giving you the room to pivot and use your forehand. It’s important to maintain a balanced and ready stance, with knees slightly bent and paddle up in front of you, to react quickly to the serve. As the game progresses and you become familiar with your opponent’s serving patterns, slight adjustments to your positioning can be made to anticipate and counter their serves more effectively.

How to hit a pickleball return of serve

  1. Position yourself: Stand near the baseline, slightly off-center towards your backhand side if you prefer using your forehand for the return. This gives you the flexibility to cover a wider range of serves.
  2. Adopt a ready stance: Keep your knees slightly bent, feet shoulder-width apart, and weight on the balls of your feet. Hold your paddle in front of you with both hands, ready to swing.
  3. Move to the ball: As soon as the serve is hit, move towards the ball using quick, short steps. Direct your position to hit the ball ideally at waist level. Adjust your footwork for a forehand or backhand stroke, depending on your opponent’s serve.
  4. Prepare your paddle: Begin your backswing early, keeping it compact. Your paddle face should be open or slightly closed depending on whether you want to hit it flat or with topspin.
  5. Hit the ball: Strike the ball with a smooth, forward motion, aiming for depth and placement rather than power. Aim to contact the ball with the center of your paddle (or the “sweet spot”). Use your body’s momentum to add force to the shot.
  6. Follow through: After hitting the ball, continue the motion of your swing in the direction you want the ball to go. This helps with accuracy and power.
  7. Get to the kitchen: Once your stroke is complete, get to the kitchen as quickly as possible. This area of the court gives you the greatest chance of winning the point.
  8. Prepare for the next shot: Stay ready for your opponent’s next shot. Depending on the depth and pace of your return, your opponent will hit a third shot drop or a third shot drive. Try to anticipate their move and mentally prepare your next move.

Tips for an effective return of serve

Hit the return deep to put pressure on your opponent

Getting into the perfect spot for the return you’re aiming for is just step one. Next up, you’ve got to nail the depth of that return – and yeah, it’s a big deal. Keeping your opponent pinned at the back of the court is super important if you want to stay ahead in the game. Toss them a short return, and you’re basically rolling out the red carpet for them to sprint to the net, gaining momentum. What you’re aiming for is to drop your returns deep, hitting that sweet spot in the last third of the service box. The deeper, the better. Ideally, you want your opponent scrambling to hit their next shot from the baseline or even further back. Keeping your returns deep is like holding the reins of the game; it puts you in charge and makes life tough for your opponents, forcing them to pull off a tricky shot.

Hit the ball high to give yourself time to get to the net

One trick that’s seriously underused? Sending the serve back with a bit of height – and no, we’re not talking about a full-on lob here. Think more along the lines of a chill, arced return that’s got some grace to it. The cool thing about adding a little loft to your return is the extra time it buys you. This isn’t just about looking good; it’s strategic. You’re aiming to ditch the baseline or that awkward in-between zone and book it to the net. The goal? To be right up there, front and center, by the time your opponents are gearing up for their next move. It’s all about setting up shop at the net with your partner, presenting yourselves as this formidable duo that’s pretty much barricading the court.

Hit the ball down the middle to create potential confusion

Opting for a return shot down the center in pickleball is a savvy strategy that often leads to easier and smarter play. This approach capitalizes on the potential for confusion and miscommunication among opponents, possibly leading to free points if they fail to decide who will take the ball. Even without scoring directly from these returns, the central shot forces the opposing team to interact in ways that can induce errors, such as misjudged swings, rushed shots due to late calls, or even paddle collisions that send the ball out of play. The essence of this tactic is to exploit moments of uncertainty and encourage mistakes, adhering to the fundamental pickleball principle of keeping the ball in play. Remembering the adage “down the middle, solves the riddle” can guide players in making strategic decisions that maintain pressure and enhance their chances of controlling the game.

Should you hit with topspin or slice on the return of serve in pickleball?

Choosing between topspin and slice for the return of serve in pickleball largely depends on your strategy, the situation, and your comfort level with each shot. Topspin returns can be effective for adding depth and control, making the ball dip quickly and bounce higher, potentially pushing your opponent back and setting up a more aggressive position for you. On the other hand, a slice return, with its backspin, can keep the ball low and force your opponent to hit upward, potentially leading to a weaker return. Both shots have their place: topspin for applying pressure and maintaining control, and slice for disrupting your opponent’s rhythm and creating awkward shots. Ultimately, varying your returns and mastering both spins can make your game more versatile and challenging for opponents.

A male pickleball player returns a serve of a yellow ball on a dedicated court at a public park.

Common mistakes with the return of serve

Standing too close to the baseline

It might seem straightforward, but a frequent error in pickleball serve returns is positioning oneself too near the baseline. Being too close can be problematic as a deep serve will compel you to retreat and attempt a return while moving backward, which is less than ideal.

The trick is to maintain a good distance from the baseline, providing yourself with enough room to comfortably hit the ball ahead of you. However, keep an eye out for short serves, especially if you’re up against an opponent who often utilizes them. This balanced approach allows you to be prepared for a variety of serves, enhancing your ability to return effectively.

Hitting the ball short

Sending a shallow return in pickleball essentially rolls out the welcome mat for your opponents to advance to the net and puts you in a vulnerable position for their offensive plays. Aim instead to drive your return deep, targeting the last couple of feet at the far end of the court. A return with such depth complicates your opponent’s third shot and tips the scales of the rally to your advantage.

Hitting the ball low

Once you’ve executed your return of serve in pickleball, your next move should be towards the net. However, a return that’s low and fast gives your opponent the chance to quickly counter, potentially trapping you in the transition zone. To avoid this, it’s smarter to add some height to your return, providing you with the necessary time to advance to the non-volley zone (NVZ) effectively.

Hesitating after the shot

Pausing to admire your return is a surefire way to find yourself caught in the transition zone. Observing your shot unfold won’t enhance its quality or outcome. The better strategy is to immediately follow through on your return by moving swiftly towards the non-volley zone (NVZ).

Poor Technique

Nailing your return of serve in pickleball is crucial because a flawed return can easily lead to losing a point. This isn’t the moment to slack off on your technique. If you’re finding your returns more miss than hit, it might be time to check your fundamentals. Keep these tips in mind for a solid return:

  • Get ahead of the ball – being tardy can lead to trouble.
  • Plant your feet before you take your swing – trying to hit on the move can lead to mistakes.
  • Strike the ball as it starts to drop – it’s slower then, making your job a bit easier.
  • Ensure the ball is in your sweet spot and swing from low to high – too close or too far can mess up your shot.
  • Aim for a clean hit in the center of your paddle, angling it towards your intended direction.

How to improve your pickleball return of serve

  • Practice your footwork: Good footwork is essential. Work on moving quickly and efficiently to position yourself optimally for the return.
  • Work on timing: Practice hitting the ball at the right moment, ideally as it starts to descend, to control the return’s depth and direction.
  • Focus on paddle position: Ensure your paddle is ready and in the correct position early. This helps with quick and accurate returns.
  • Aim for deep returns: Try to send your returns deep into the opponent’s court to give yourself time to move forward and to push them back.
  • Vary your returns: Mix up your returns between deep shots and ones with more loft. Variation can keep your opponents guessing and off-balance.
  • Improve your serve reception: Anticipate where the serve will land and adjust your position accordingly to make a strong return.
  • Strengthen your backhand and forehand: Ensure you’re comfortable returning serves on both your forehand and backhand sides.
  • Use the whole court: Practice hitting returns to different areas of the court to find your opponent’s weak spots.
  • Increase your reaction time: Drill exercises that enhance your reaction time, allowing you to respond quicker to fast serves.
  • Watch your opponent: Pay attention to your opponent’s serving habits and patterns to anticipate and prepare for your return.
  • Stay relaxed but ready: Keep your body relaxed but in a ready position, with knees slightly bent and paddle up, to move quickly after the serve.
  • Train with a partner: Practice with a partner who can serve to you in various ways, helping you adapt to different types of serves.

Frequently asked questions

Can the return of serve in pickleball land in the kitchen?

Yes, the return of serve in pickleball can land in the kitchen (non-volley zone). There are no restrictions on the return of serve landing in this area.

Does the return of serve have to bounce in pickleball?

Yes, in pickleball, the return of serve must bounce before the receiving team can hit it. This rule is part of the two-bounce rule, which applies to both the serve and the return of serve.

Can either player return the serve in pickleball?

No. In pickleball, the receiver in the diagonal court is the only one who can return the serve. The person crosscourt is responsible for returning the ball. If the other player hits the ball on the return of serve, that is considered a fault and will result in loss of the point.