Every pickleball game, and every rally within a pickleball game, starts with a serve. Although there are many nuances to the serve in the sport of pickleball, there are three basic rules for the pickleball serve:
On the serve, the pickleball may not land in the Non-Volley Zone (also known as the Kitchen) or on the Non-Volley Zone line, as each of these scenarios would be considered a fault. However, the served pickleball may land on any other line – the baseline, sideline, or centerline.
Be wary of violating these rules and committing an illegal serve on the pickleball court! For instance, striking the pickleball above your belly button, or with the head of your pickleball paddle above your wrist, will result in an illegal serve. If you violate these pickleball serve rules, then you will commit a fault and lose the rally and your serve.
There are two ways to the serve in pickleball. The first is a pickleball volley serve. To do a pickleball volley serve, you must toss or release the pickleball and then hit the pickleball with your paddle without allowing the pickleball to bounce on the court (in other words, volley the serve). This pickleball volley serve is the more traditional serving method on the pickleball court.
For the pickleball volley serve, consider the following tips for the toss:
The second way to serve the pickleball is an alternate serving method called a drop serve. The Official Rulebook for pickleball created the drop serve for players with a physical disability (for instance, any player with one arm). However, the pickleball drop serve is now available to all players, as the pickleball drop serve is also a “provisional rule” under the Official Rulebook, which means that the pickleball drop serve is currently permitted, but may be revised or removed in the future based on its effect on the sport. To do a pickleball drop serve, you must drop or release the pickleball from any natural height, either by using your hand or letting the pickleball roll off of your paddle, and then hit the pickleball with your paddle after the pickleball bounces on the court.
Under either the traditional pickleball volley serve or the new pickleball drop serve, many of the same pickleball rules apply. For instance:
However, if you hit a pickleball drop serve, then no other restrictions apply – for instance, the restrictions for hitting the pickleball below your navel, moving your arm in an upward arc, or keeping the highest point of your paddle head being below the highest part of your wrist. This is because, if done properly and in accordance with the rules, the pickleball drop serve will never bounce higher than your navel.
As a result, the pickleball drop serve could be hit with a lot of slice (in other words, backspin) or side spin, which is not a common result when hitting a traditional pickleball volley serve. A pickleball drop serve with fierce slice or side spin could result in a difficult return for the receiving team (including potentially short serves near the Non-Volley Zone line). A pickleball drop serve could also be hit with a lot of forehand top spin, which is also not a common result when hitting a traditional pickleball volley serve.
The pickleball drop serve was originally included in the Official Rulebook for pickleball because it is a better serving method for players with a physical disability (for instance, any player with one arm). However, the pickleball drop serve has other benefits, too, which is why the drop serve has been included as a provisional rule in the Official Rulebook. These other benefits include that the drop serve may:
To do a pickleball drop serve, you must drop or release the pickleball from any natural height, either by (a) using your hand or (b) letting the pickleball roll off of your paddle, and then hit the pickleball with your paddle after the pickleball bounces on the court.
There are quite a few pickleball rules to know when it comes to how to drop or release the pickleball on your drop serve:
You may not serve the pickleball until the entire score is called (in other words, all three digits during doubles pickleball play, or both two digits during singles pickleball play). Stated another way, you may not make contact with the pickleball on your serve until the entire score is called – otherwise, you would have committed a fault.
However, once the score has been called (by either the server or the referee), then the server only has 10 seconds to serve the pickleball. This is true regardless of whether or not the receiving team is in the correct position or is ready to receive the serve (as a reminder, the score should not be called until the receiver is (or should be) in the correct position and the receiving team is (or should be) ready to play).
There is one exception to the 10-second rule. If, after the score is called, the serving team realizes that they are in the wrong position and changes their position on the pickleball court, then the serving team and/or referee must allow the receiving team time to re-position. The server, or referee if the match is officiated, will then re-call the score, and the server will have a fresh 10 seconds to serve the pickleball.
If you violate either of these pickleball rules – the start of the serve or the 10-second rule, then a fault will be declared and you will lose your serve.
Pickler Pickleball Pro Tip: In officiated play (for instance, in a pickleball tournament), beware of referees altering the tempo of their respective score calling. For instance, a quick 0-0-2 compared to a slow, drawn out 0-0-2. Changing tempo in score calling may inadvertently lead to you making contact with the serve prior to the entire score being called, especially if you are tempted to quick serve your opponents. So, beware of tempo and be sure that the entire score is called before serving the pickleball!
A server cannot make contact with the pickleball for the serve until the entire score has been called (in other words, all three digits during doubles play, or both two digits during singles play). With that said, a player could quick serve you by starting his or her serve before the entire score is called. It is not a fault for the server to start the serve prior to calling the entire score. It is only a fault if the server’s paddle has made contact with the pickleball for the serve prior to the entire score being called.
The score in any pickleball game should not be called until both the server and the receiver are (or should be) in the correct positions and all players on the pickleball court are (or should be) ready to play.
To help indicate that you are “not ready” for the score to be called or to prevent the quick server from serving the pickleball before you are ready, either (1) raise your pickleball paddle, or non-paddle hand, above your head, or (2) completely turn your back to the net. However, be aware that any “not ready” signals will be ignored if they are triggered after the start of the score being called. Also, be aware that “not ready” signals cannot be used to delay the game.
If the quick server intentionally continues to quick serve you - especially in violation of the rules, whether by committing a fault or intentionally serving while you have signaled that you are “not ready” - then:
Beware, however, that a server can, without committing a fault, serve the pickleball quickly if he or she waits until you are ready, calls (or allows the referee to call) the score completely, and then quickly makes contact with the pickleball for the serve.
A fault on the pickleball court is a violation of the rules that stops play and causes the team or player that committed the fault to lose the rally. Faults can be committed on the serve in pickleball. The Official Rulebook for pickleball provides that the following actions will result in a fault on the serving team and the applicable server will lose his or her serve:
If a served pickleball touches the net, tape, cord, strap, or band of the pickleball net, and then lands in the correct service court, play will continue. There are no service lets in pickleball (in other words, there is no replay of the serve when the pickleball touches the net and lands in the correct service court). However, if the served pickleball touches the net, tape, cord, strap, or band of the pickleball net, and then lands outside of the correct service court (for instance, in the Non-Volley Zone, on the Non-Volley Zone line, or outside of the baseline, sideline, or centerline), then a service fault would have occurred.
In the past, there were service lets in the sport of pickleball. However, this rule has been changed to remove service lets in an effort to:
A fault on the pickleball court is a violation of the rules that stops play and causes the team or player that committed the fault to lose the rally. Faults can be committed by the receiving team during the return of serve on the pickleball court. The Official Rulebook for pickleball provides that the following actions will result in a fault on the receiving team, which will result in a point for the serving team:
Have you heard of the phrase “Nasty Nelson” on the pickleball courts? If not, a “Nasty Nelson” is certainly a shot to learn about. Although, be warned, that a Nasty Nelson can spark some controversy on the pickleball courts.
A Nasty Nelson is a shot on the pickleball courts where the server serves the pickleball to intentionally hit the opposing player nearest to the pickleball net (in other words, the opposing player that is not receiving the serve). If the served pickleball strikes the opposing player before it bounces, then the receiving team commits a fault, and the serving team wins the point. A Nasty Nelson is easiest to successfully execute if the opposing player nearest the pickleball net is close to the centerline of the pickleball court and/or not paying attention to the server.
This shot - Nasty Nelson - is named after Tim “The Puppet Master” Nelson. Tim Nelson is a top pickleball player that is known for his controversial style of play, which includes Nasty Nelsons (of course) and a puppeteer hand motion to celebrate getting the better of his opponents on any given shot.
To avoid being the victim of a Nasty Nelson, always pay attention and be ready as the receiving team player closest to the pickleball net. If you happen to be caught off guard one day, shake it off - it happens to the best of us.
Now that you have mastered the pickleball serving rules, check our Pickler's 7 pro pickleball serving tips to take your pickleball serve to the next level, which include key pickleball serve technique tips and key pickleball serving strategy tips!
Also, if you want more tips, strategies, and in-depth coaching to really master your serve, check out Pickler’s online video lesson collection called My Pro Pickleball Coach. My Pro Pickleball Coach is a fraction of the price of one clinic or even one lesson, and features over 140 video lessons (over 7 hours of instruction!), as well as a corresponding e-book. These online video lessons are available on demand 24/7 and breakdown every aspect of the sport of pickleball, including pickleball drills, strategy, and advanced concepts like lob serves, top spin serves, inside out serves, placement of serves, and other pickleball serve strategies.
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