10 Pickleball Return of Serve Tips and Tricks for Beginners

Credit: Kyle Koszuta
Est. Reading: 6 minutes

If you're new to pickleball and have watched some games, you might think returning a serve seems simple. Well, it looks easy but can be challenging if you are the one doing it. You could lose a point if you return the ball incorrectly in an actual game.

The return of serve is one of the most essential shots in pickleball because it can help dictate the flow of the rally. Once you master it, you can be one step ahead of your opponent. So, without further ado, here are ten simple tips and tricks to do it effectively.

What is the Purpose of Return of Serve in Pickleball?

Unlike serving the ball, where the main goal is to start a rally, returning it has two purposes—defensive and offensive. As a defensive shot, you must hit the ball correctly so it will return to the server, and you won't lose a point. 

As an offensive shot, you should force your opponent not to do an offensive shot so you can do it first. Once you do it right, it will help you avoid losing the rally and rather win it. But as a beginner, you should focus first on returning a serve effectively.

Return of Serve Basic Rules

Before we go further, you must learn the basic rules in pickleball for returning a serve. The USA Pickleball Official Rulebook has no dedicated chapter for return of serve rules, but we'll make it easier for you to find them. Here they are:

Receiver Position Rule

According to Section 4.B.1, the score and the players' starting positions determine the correct server and receiver and their positions. As a general rule, the receiver should stand diagonally opposite the server. Per the 2024 Pickleball Rules Update, being in the wrong position is no longer a fault. Instead, the referee should correct the players before calling the score.

Two-Bounce Rule

According to Section 7.A, the server and receiver should let the ball bounce once before returning it. It means that the first bounce comes from the serve, while the second bounce comes from the return of the serve. Therefore, the serving player or team may do the first volley shot. If you are the receiver, this could be a disadvantage on your part. 

Double-Bounce Rule

According to Section 7.E, the receiver should return the ball before it bounces twice on their side. For wheelchair pickleball, the ball is allowed to bounce twice before returning it. Note that this rule applies at any point during the game. Therefore, as the receiver, you should always be prepared to return the ball, whether from a serve or not.

'Player Hit by the Ball' Rule

Section 7.H states it is a fault if "After the serve, the ball contacts a player or anything the player is wearing or carrying, except the paddle or the player's hand(s) in contact with the paddle and below the wrist." Like the double-bounce rule, this rule applies during the entire rally. So, again, you should always be ready to return the serve.

Return of Serve Landing Zone Rule

Unlike in serving, there's no rule stating that making the ball land in the non-volley zone (also called the kitchen) or the NVZ line via a return of serve is illegal. (If you're not yet familiar with this area, check out our Pickleball Kitchen Rules Guide.) This technique is called a short return. However, I don't recommend this strategy. I'll explain why below.

How to Return a Serve Effectively

As mentioned earlier, returning a serve can be both a defensive and offensive tactic. But being a novice in pickleball, you might not be able to achieve both strategies yet. In the meantime, here are some tips on returning a serve effectively and the do's and don'ts.

#1 Stand Behind the Baseline

There are no rules on where to stand, but it's always better to stand behind the baseline. Ideally, depending on the serve, you would want to be 2-4 feet away from the baseline. The key here is to move forward quickly as the ball approaches you. It's hard to return the ball when moving backward, especially on a deep serve. Although you must wait for the ball to bounce before hitting it, you could be awkward.

#2 Be on a 'Ready to Return' Position

The ball could be coming faster than you think, so you should always be in the ready position. Hold your paddle up in front of you at about 45 degrees and maintain a firm grip. Bend your legs slightly, keep your legs wide apart, and put some forward weight on the balls of your feet. Avoid extra movements, such as spinning your paddle or shuffling your feet. More importantly, observe the ball as it hits the server's paddle.

#3 Use Your Paddle's 'Sweet Spot'

The 'sweet spot' is the area near the center of your pickleball paddle face, where the ball comes off seamlessly. As a result, your return of serve (or any shot) will have a perfect combination of control, power, and accuracy. As a beginner, learn to use this area when hitting the ball to accurately make the necessary shots for your return.

#4 Don't Aim for the Kitchen

Unlike in serving, making the ball land in the kitchen as you return the serve is legal. But because it's like surrendering the rally, you should choose other landing spots. The goal is to prevent your opponent from getting near the kitchen before you do and force them to make a difficult third shot. Hence, you might want to aim for the service box. In doubles, if both opponents are near the centerline, aim for it to confuse them.

#5 Return the Ball Deep, Not Short

Again, you should ensure that your opponent stays long in the baseline. To do this, return the ball deep. You might also want to keep it low to help prevent your opponent from making a power shot. On the other hand, keeping it low gives you more time to get near the kitchen quickly. Both methods work as long as you can react fast. But if your return is short, your opponent can still catch up since the ball should bounce before they can hit it. 

#6 Push the Ball Softly

Most beginners tend to push the ball while returning it, leading it to go out of bounds. Again, the ball is coming very fast and is most likely spinning. Control your paddle just enough to push the ball softly, whether you do a forehand or backhand return. Instead of using your arms and shoulders, use your shoulders. Remember, the harder you hit the pickleball ball, the faster your opponent can hit it back and go near the kitchen.

#7 Stay Near the Kitchen

I have repeatedly mentioned rushing near the kitchen line after returning the serve to remind you how crucial it is. Therefore, it's also vital that you don't leave that area even if you're playing doubles and your partner is also in it, unless necessary. Remember, the 2-bounce rule no longer applies after the third shot, meaning your opponent can do a dink or power shot. If you move back, you will likely commit an error sooner than you think.

#8 Control Your Momentum

Section 3.A.21 of the Official Rulebook defines momentum as the "property of a body in motion, such as a player executing a volley, that causes the player to continue in motion after contacting the ball." Because you're not allowed to volley in the kitchen, you should control your momentum while staying close to the NVZ line. Otherwise, you will likely land in the kitchen while doing a volley shot once you attack your opponent.

#9 Defend, Prepare to Attack

Again, beginners like you might find it hard to attack your opponent after returning the serve. But then, you should at least prepare for it. First, always go back to the 'ready' position. Maintain an athletic stance and hold your paddle up. The best defensive tactic is not to step back unless necessary. Instead, prepare to take some side steps or move forward. Observe your opponent's movements to know how you can attack them.

#10 Practice to the Max

Like other shots, the best way to master the return of serve is to practice regularly. But unlike in serve shots, it's better to practice on the court with an experienced player as the server. In doing so, you'll learn how to defend against different serve techniques. Forehand return is more common than the backhand, but you should also master the latter. After all, you'll need to use it in various situations, which can help you win more rallies.

To help you learn more, below is a great tutorial video from one of the leading pickleball influencers today, Kyle Koszuta, aka That Pickleball Guy.

Related Post: 10 Pickleball Serving Tips and Techniques for Beginners

Final Thoughts

I repeat. The return of serve is crucial because it allows you to dictate the tone of the rally. You won't score a point from a successful return, but it will help you earn it. There are four main factors to succeed - control, depth, timing, and forward momentum. Once you become a master of return, you're ready for the next step - to launch an attack. But as you do, don't forget to have fun. This is the most important part, really.

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