How to Hit a Serve in Pickleball: The Ultimate Guide

Third Shot Blog

By Third Shot Blog

Mastering the serve in pickleball is not just about putting the ball into play; it’s about starting the point with a strategic advantage. Whether you’re a beginner looking to learn the basics or an experienced player seeking to refine your technique and add variety to your serves, this guide will walk you through the essential steps, tips, and strategies for executing effective and consistent serves.

What is a serve in pickleball?

A serve in pickleball is the initial stroke that starts each point in the game, executed behind the baseline at the beginning of a rally to put the ball into play. Unlike tennis, the serve in pickleball must be performed underhand, with the paddle contacting the ball below the waist level, and the ball must be hit in the air without bouncing. The server must serve diagonally, aiming for the opponent’s service court opposite to their standing position, and the serve must clear the non-volley zone, commonly referred to as the kitchen, without touching any part of it or the net. A serve that lands within the correct service box and meets these criteria begins the point, with only one serve attempt allowed, making the serve a crucial skill in pickleball strategy and play.

A female pickleball player serves a bright yellow ball to her opponents at a dedicated court at a public park.

How does the pickleball serve differ from other racquet sports?

The pickleball serve distinguishes itself from other racquet sports through several unique rules and techniques. Most notably, it requires an underhand motion where the paddle must contact the ball below the waist, and the server’s arm must be moving in an upward arc at the time of contact. This contrasts with sports like tennis, where overhand serves are common and can involve a wide range of motions and techniques for power and spin.

Furthermore, in pickleball, the ball must be served diagonally across the court into the opponent’s service box without bouncing, similar to tennis, but it must also clear a specific area known as the non-volley zone or “the kitchen,” adding an additional spatial challenge. The serve in pickleball also differs in that only one serve attempt is allowed, increasing the pressure on the server for accuracy and consistency, unlike tennis where a second serve is permitted if the first fails. These rules collectively make the serve in pickleball a crucial and distinctive aspect of the game, emphasizing precision and strategic placement over power and speed.

What are the different types of pickleball serves?

In pickleball, players can choose between two serve techniques: the volley serve and the drop serve. Each method provides unique benefits and follows specific rules to be considered legal. Understanding the distinct regulations and strategic advantages of each serve type is crucial for players aiming to enhance their serving skills in pickleball.

Volley serve

In pickleball, a volley serve, also known as an out-of-the-air serve, involves dropping the ball and striking it before it touches the ground. The ball must be struck below waist height and in an upward trajectory. Historically, the volley serve was the sole permissible serve and remains the most effective method for generating power and hitting from the highest point to achieve the best angle.

Drop serve

The pickleball drop serve, also known as the bounce serve, was initially introduced to assist players with disabilities who had difficulty executing a traditional volley serve. In the drop serve, the player releases the ball from any height without jumping or throwing it, allowing it to bounce before being struck. The ball is permitted to bounce multiple times, and the player has the freedom to hit it in any manner they choose.

Is the volley serve or drop serve better in pickleball?

Whether the volley serve or drop serve is better in pickleball largely depends on the player’s skill level, strategy, and comfort. The volley serve, executed by hitting the ball in the air, requires good timing and can generate a faster, more aggressive serve, potentially putting the opponent under immediate pressure. This serve is preferred by players who are confident in their ability to consistently hit accurate and powerful serves. On the other hand, the drop serve, introduced as a legal option in recent rule updates, allows the ball to bounce once before serving. This serve offers greater flexibility and ease, making it more accessible for beginners or those who prefer a more controlled and strategic serve placement. The choice between the two serves should align with the player’s strengths and game plan, as both have their strategic advantages in different playing contexts.

What grip should you use when serving in pickleball?

In pickleball, the continental grip is widely favored for serving because it offers a good balance of power and spin. This grip involves holding the paddle in a way that is versatile for various shots. However, advanced players often opt for either an eastern or semi-western forehand grip for their serves. These grips, characterized by a different hand position on the handle and a specific angle of the paddle face, allow for even greater power and spin. The key difference lies in how the hand is positioned behind the handle, affecting the paddle’s angle at the moment of contact with the ball, thereby enhancing the serve’s effectiveness.

What is considered a good serve in pickleball?

A good pickleball serve isn’t necessarily about power and speed; it’s more about strategy and exploiting the opponent’s weaknesses to gain an early advantage. Understanding your opponent’s strengths and weaknesses, especially in casual play, is key to tailoring your serve for maximum effectiveness. One of the most effective strategies is serving deep into the backcourt, which challenges the opponent in several ways: it prevents them from executing a powerful drive, complicates their return shot, and delays their approach to the net. This deep serve sets the stage for the game’s critical exchanges by making the return serve more difficult and thus improving your team’s position for executing strategic shots like the third shot drop.

Additionally, targeting the opponent’s weaker side, such as serving to a weak backhand if they have a strong forehand, can significantly disrupt their game. This strategy requires precision and practice, as serving deep and to specific areas demands good depth perception and control. Regular practice of these serves enhances your ability to place the ball accurately, making it a formidable tool in your pickleball arsenal. By focusing on these strategic elements, you can turn your serve into a powerful opening move that sets the tone for the point and increases your chances of success.

Pickleball serve positioning

In pickleball, the server is required to initiate play from behind the baseline, positioned between the center line and sideline, taking into account the imaginary extensions of these lines to avoid foot faults. Many opt to stand slightly behind the baseline for added caution. The server’s partner, while having the freedom to stand anywhere on the court as per the rules, is advised to position themselves out of the serve’s path, typically behind the baseline, and must wait for the ball to bounce once before they can hit it. This setup ensures both players are correctly positioned for the serve according to pickleball regulations.

A pickleball player serves while his partner prepares for a return on a suburban pickleball court during summer.

Pickleball serving sequence

Announcing the score before serving is a standard protocol in pickleball, ensuring clarity and readiness for both teams. It’s the server’s duty to vocalize the score clearly, signaling to the opponents that the game is about to proceed.

In doubles play, the serving privilege starts from the player positioned on the court’s right side at the beginning of the game or after gaining the serve back from the opponents. For singles, the server’s position is determined by the current score.

The scoring format in pickleball involves three components: the score of the serving team, the score of the receiving team, and a number representing whether it is the first or second server serving in doubles after regaining service. For instance, a score announcement of “9-6-2” means the serving team leads with 9 points against 6, and it is their second server’s turn to serve.

How to hit a serve in pickleball

  1. Position yourself: Stand behind the baseline, ensuring you are between the center line and the sideline. Consider leaving a few inches behind the baseline to prevent foot faults.
  2. Hold the paddle correctly: Grip your paddle with a comfortable yet firm grip, preparing for an underhand serve.
  3. Pre-serve routine: Follow a pre-serve routine to enhance focus and ensure consistency. A common practice among players includes bouncing the ball several times with their non-paddle hand or taking purposeful steps towards the baseline.
  4. Visualize your serve: Before executing your serve, visualize the trajectory and landing spot to improve accuracy and consistency.
  5. Prepare the ball: Hold the ball in your non-paddle hand at waist level or below, as the serve must be initiated with an underhand motion.
  6. Serve underhand: Begin the serve by swinging your paddle in an upward arc, ensuring the paddle contacts the ball below waist level. The ball must be hit in the air without bouncing on the court.
  7. Aim diagonally: Direct your serve diagonally across the court, targeting the opponent’s service box on the opposite side. The serve must clear the non-volley zone (the kitchen) and land within the boundaries of the service box.
  8. One serve attempt: Remember, you only have one attempt to make a successful serve, so focus on accuracy and legality over power.
  9. Wait for the return: After serving, prepare for the return by positioning yourself strategically on the court, keeping in mind the likely trajectory of the opponent’s return shot.
  10. Follow the double bounce rule: After your serve, allow the ball to bounce once before returning it, and ensure the receiving team also allows the ball to bounce once before their first return, adhering to the double bounce rule.

Key pickleball serving rules

  • Serve motion: Initiate every serve with either an underhand or backhand motion, ensuring your arm sweeps in an upward arc as you strike the ball. Avoid serving from above or directly from the side.
  • Paddle contact point: The ball must be hit below your waist level during the serve. The height requirement adjusts with the player’s height, meaning taller players have a relatively higher contact point.
  • Paddle position: At the moment of contact, the top of the paddle must remain below the highest part of your wrist. This rule reinforces the need for an upward stroke, ensuring the paddle is entirely beneath your hand, not above.
  • Serve direction: The ball must land in the service box diagonally opposite from where you serve, adhering to the principle that serves cross the court similarly to tennis rules.
  • Foot placement: Maintain at least one foot in contact with the ground behind the baseline at the serve’s execution, staying within the bounds of an imaginary extension of both the sideline and centerline.
  • Serve attempts: You are allowed only a single attempt to serve correctly; no second chances are provided. A fault results in a turnover to your partner or the opposing team, depending on the game format.

What is considered a service fault in pickleball?

In pickleball, a serve sets the tone for each point, but certain mistakes can lead to a service fault, effectively handing the advantage over to the opposing team. The following is a list of scenarios that are recognized as service faults:

  • Hitting the ball out of bounds: The ball lands outside the designated service box on the opponent’s side.
  • Not clearing the net: The ball hits the net and fails to land in the correct service area.
  • Foot fault: Stepping on or over the baseline before the ball is struck.
  • Wrong service box: Serving the ball into the incorrect service box, not diagonally opposite.
  • Paddle above waist: Making contact with the ball above the waist level during the serve.
  • Paddle head above wrist: The highest part of the paddle is above the wrist at the point of contact.
  • Serving before the score is called: Initiating the serve before the entire score is announced.
  • Hitting the ball twice: The ball is inadvertently hit twice or with two separate motions during the serve.
  • Serving out of turn: The wrong player serves out of sequence according to the serving order established at the game’s start.
  • Crossing the imaginary extensions: If the server’s feet cross the imaginary extension lines of the sideline and the centerline before making contact with the ball.

Common mistakes when serving in pickleball

  • Not calling the score: Failing to announce the score loudly and clearly before serving, which is essential for clarity and fairness.
  • Incorrect foot placement: Stepping on or over the baseline before hitting the serve, known as a foot fault.
  • Improper serve technique: Using an illegal serving motion, such as hitting the ball from above waist level or not maintaining an upward arc during the serve.
  • Serving from the wrong side: Initiating the serve from the incorrect side of the court, especially in relation to the score in singles or doubles play.
  • Hitting the ball out of bounds: Serving the ball so that it lands outside the designated service area on the opponent’s side.
  • Faulty paddle contact: Striking the ball with the paddle above the highest part of the wrist or failing to hit the ball in a single, fluid motion.
  • Serving before opponents are ready: Rushing the serve without ensuring the opposing team is prepared to receive, contrary to the spirit of sportsmanship.
  • Serving to the wrong service box: Accidentally serving diagonally to the incorrect box, not adhering to the rule of cross-court serves.

Tips for improving your pickleball serve

As you work to improve your pickleball serve, here are some helpful tips and tricks for improving your technique:

  • Relaxed arm: Keep your arm loose and relaxed to hit with more power and spin.
  • Proper technique: Swing with your entire arm, not just your elbow or wrist.
  • Generate topspin: Brush up on the ball with the paddle face to generate topspin on your serve.
  • Pre-serve routine: Develop and pre-serve routine to maintain consistency and focus.
  • Body rotation: Rotate into the shot to generate additional power and spin, pivoting on your front foot.
  • Body weight transfer: Step into the shot, moving your body weight through contact.
  • Follow through: Follow through with the paddle high and above or near your opposite shoulder.
A man wearing a black short-sleeve shirt prepares to hit a serve in pickleball.

Frequently asked questions

Why should you serve deep in pickleball?

Serving deep in pickleball puts pressure on your opponents by forcing them to hit the ball from a position further back in their court, making it harder for them to create offensive opportunities or approach the net effectively. A deep serve also extends the amount of ground they must cover to return the serve, increasing the likelihood of errors or weaker returns.

Why don’t professional pickleball players use the drop serve?

Professional pickleball players often opt out of using the drop serve because it generally offers less speed and spin compared to the traditional volley serve, making it less effective as a strategic weapon at higher levels of play. The volley serve allows for greater precision, power, and control, enabling pros to put more pressure on their opponents right from the serve.

How do you practice pickleball serve without a court?

To practice your pickleball serve without a court, find a spacious area where you can safely swing your paddle and aim for a target or specific area to simulate the service box, using markers or objects to outline a makeshift service area. Focus on your serving technique, including grip, stance, and swing motion, to improve accuracy, consistency, and power, even in the absence of a formal court setting.

How do you put topspin on a pickleball serve?

To put topspin on a pickleball serve, use an upward brushing motion on the ball with your paddle at the point of contact, ensuring your paddle moves from low to high. This action imparts forward spin on the ball, which can make the serve more challenging for your opponent to return due to the ball’s dipping and bouncing behavior.

Can you bounce the ball before a pickleball serve?

Yes, you can bounce the ball before a pickleball serve as part of your pre-serve routine. As for the stroke itself, you can bounce the ball before striking it as part of a drop serve. Make sure you adhere to the proper rules and regulations for a legal stroke.