When it comes to the first shot of every pickleball rally—the serve—most pickleball players simply think in terms of did they get the serve in or did they get the serve out. Most pickleball players do not think to get any advantage with their serve, but, rather, to simply start the rally. However, you are not most pickleball players…
Instead of simply starting a rally with your serve, use your serve to set yourself and your partner up for success on the pickleball court.
The overall goal with your serve is two-fold: (1) start the rally with a serve that is in the proper service box; and (2) gain an edge over your opponents by forcing your opponents to hit a poor, short return of serve. If you are able to force your opponents to hit a poor, short return, then your (or your partner’s) third shot—which is arguably the most important and most difficult shot in the game—will be markedly easier. For example, a short return of serve that bounces high will make for an easier third shot compared to a deep return of serve that pushes you and your partner back behind the baseline.
At times, you may even be able to win a point off of your serve (channeling your inner Zane Navratil or Morgan Evans with their respective spin serves). However, winning points with your serve is more of the exception, rather than the norm. So, your goal should be to set yourself up for an easier third shot, as opposed to simply winning a point with your serve.
With that overarching goal, here are a few strategies to set yourself up for success on the pickleball court with your serve:
- Serve Deep – If you focus on any one strategy on your serve in pickleball, it should be this one—serve deep to your opponents (in other words, hit your serve back by the baseline, but still within the pickleball court). Keeping your opponents deep in the pickleball court with your serve is critical. With that said, when hitting a deep serve, do not overplay the serve and aim too close to the lines of the pickleball court—whether it be the baseline, the centerline, or the sidelines. Instead, aim about two to three feet inside of the lines. And, do not forget to consider and factor in the wind if you are playing outside.
- Serve with Power – One way to help keep your serve deep is to serve with power. This will require leg drive (loading your weight in your legs and transferring your body weight from back to front through the pickleball) and paddle speed through the pickleball. Additional power will help push the pickleball deep in the court and even deeper after the bounce. Serving with power may also lead to errors by your opponents, as the speed of the pickleball can be tough to handle (for instance, mishitting the pickleball or even hitting the pickleball out of bounds).
- Serve with Spin – Another serving strategy that can create errors—although may not directly help you keep the serve deep in the court—is to serve the pickleball with spin. There are two ways to create spin: (i) using your non-paddle hand to put spin on the pickleball on the toss; and (ii) using your paddle (within the confine of the pickleball serving rules) to impart spin on the pickleball (typically, top spin or side spin). Spin can cause your opponents to mishit the pickleball, which may result in an easier third shot for you and your partner. However, spin does not necessarily help you hit your serve deeper in the court. But, if you can serve with spin and keep the serve deep in the court, then you could cause havoc on your opponents.
Be wary of this pickleball serving strategy, though, because the rules around using your non-paddle hand to spin the pickleball are still up for debate. So, serving with spin could be more difficult by year end. With that said, your time may be better served focusing on ways to serve deep and with power. On the other hand, this may be your last chance to have some extra fun on the pickleball court with the spin serve. Time will tell!
- Serve to Backhands – One pickleball serving strategy is to serve deep to your opponent’s backhand. This is because, in most cases, your opponent’s backhand shot will be weaker than your opponent’s forehand shot, likely resulting in a weaker return of serve and an easier third shot for you and your partner.
- Serve Deep and Wide for the Stacking or Switching Team – If you are facing a doubles pickleball team that loves to stack or switch when receiving, then be sure to make their stacking and/or switching strategy as difficult as possible. Hit your serves near the corner by the baseline and sideline of your receiving opponent. This will cause your receiving opponent to be pushed back and pulled off of the court. If you are able to hit a quality serve that is deep and wide, then this will open up the opposite side of the court on your third shot because your receiving opponent will have to take a few extra steps to get across the court and in the proper position. Making your opponents take even just one extra step can make your third shot drastically more effective, so work on keeping your serves deep and wide against your stacking and/or switching opponents.
- Mix It Up – Putting these pickleball serving strategies together, if you can serve deep with both spin and power, to your opponents’ backhands, especially if their backhands are out wide on the pickleball court, then you will certainly be maximizing your first shot of the rally. With that said, be sure to mix up your serves. If you hit the same serve every time, it may become less effective because your opponents will know what is coming. So, mix it up and keep your opponents on their toes and off-balance. You could even try other types of serves from time to time, like the lob serve, a drop serve, or a short serve near the Kitchen line. So, perfect your deep serve and then continue to evolve your pickleball game by adding other unique pickleball serves to your repertoire.
The serve is the one shot on the pickleball court that you are in complete control of (but for, maybe the wind). Plus, you can practice and master the serve on your own with a bucket of pickleballs. So, get out there, practice your serve, and make it your best shot.
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