Pickleball Serve Rules Guide and Tips: How to Do a Legal Serve

Est. Reading: 8 minutes

Like in other paddle or racket sports, pickleball has its own set of serving rules. So, whether you are a beginner or an experienced pickleball player, you should understand these rules and follow them religiously. 

The USA Pickleball imposed major changes in the serving rules in 2023, which will be fully explained below. After reading this comprehensive guide, you will learn how to do legal serves that can help you win matches.

Pickleball Players Positions Rules (Server and Receiver)

In pickleball, all players should stand in their designated positions before the serve is given. According to Section 4.B of the 2024 USA Pickleball Official Rulebook, the server and receiver positions depend on the server’s score. The rules for determining the server’s position in singles are somehow similar to those in doubles. They are as follows:

Position Rules in Singles

  • If the server’s score is even (0, 2, 4, 6, 8, ...), the server should be positioned at the right (even) side of the court. The serve should be done diagonally and received at the right (even) side of the opponent’s court. 
  • If the server’s score is odd (1, 3, 5, 7 ...), the server should be positioned at the left (odd) side of the court. The serve should be done diagonally and received at the left (odd) side of the opponent’s court. 
  • The server will serve again every time the rally is won. After every serve, the server should switch from one side of the court to the other, depending on the server’s score. The receiver should also swap places with the server.

Position Rules in Doubles

After a side out, the receiving team will now be the serving team and be allowed to serve twice - once for each teammate. If the first server loses the rally, the teammate will be the next one to serve. If they lose the rally again, the opposing team would serve. 

  • If the serving team’s score is even (0, 2, 4, 6, 8, ...), the server should be positioned at the right (even) side of the court. The serve should be done diagonally and received at the right (even) side of the opponent’s court. 
  • If the serving team’s score is odd (1, 3, 5, 7 ...), the server should be positioned at the left (odd) side of the court. The serve should be done diagonally and received at the left (odd) side of the opponent’s court.
  • The server will serve again every time the rally is won. After every serving, the serving team should switch from one side of the court to the other. But this time, the receiving team should keep places the same.

Since there are two servers in doubles, the first one to serve is called the “First Server,” while the teammate is the “Second Server.” Recalling the Scoring Rules, the score in doubles has three numbers - the server’s score, the receiver’s score, and the server’s number, 1 or 2. For instance, 3-5-1 or 5-3-2.

However, the Server Rule is different at the start of a game, where neither team has scored yet. The first one to serve is called the “Second Server.” The opposing team will automatically serve if the “Second Server” loses the rally. 

It means that the serving team will only serve once, not twice. The purpose is to give the receiving team a fair chance to score a point. This is also why the score at the start of every doubles game is always 0-0-2.

According to the 2024 Rules Changes and Updates, there will be no more faults for incorrect server, receiver, and player position errors. Instead, the referee is now responsible for confirming if the players are in the correct position and correcting them if necessary before calling the score.

Pickleball Serving Rules

The basic serving rules in pickleball are enumerated in Section 4 of the USA Pickleball Official Rulebook. They were created for amateur and professional players and those who play pickleball as a hobby. 

Note, however, that pickleball rules may be subject to change every year to improve the sport. But regardless of any changes, serving in pickleball is not intended as an offensive shot but simply to start the game.

  • Choose the starter server. In both singles and doubles, choosing the player (or team) to serve at the start of the game should be done using any fair method, such as tossing a coin.
    • Depending on the agreement, the winner can also choose to be the first receiver.
    • In doubles, the starting servers should wear any form of identification determined by the Tournament Director.
    • The result of the selection for the starter server and receiver is final and is not reversible. 
  • Call the score. Before serving, the referee and opposing should hear the server calling the score. If a wrong score was called, the referee (or any player could stop a play if an incorrect score was announced. For complete details, read our Scoring and Wrong Score Called Rules Guide.
    • According to Section 4.B.8, before the serve, any player can ask the referee: “What’s the correct score?” “Who is the correct server or receiver”?, and “Are all the players in the correct positions? If there’s no referee, any player can ask the same questions to the opponent.
  • Follow the Readiness rule. According to Section 4.C, any player can reveal signs of “not yet ready” before the score is called.
    • The signs can include raising the paddle (or the empty hand) above the head and completely turning their back to the net.
    • Unless there’s a hindrance, the “not ready” signs made after the score is called will be ignored.
    • Any player not in position after the score is called is not considered a hindrance.
  • Follow the 10-second rule. According to Section 4.E, the server should serve within 10 seconds after the score has been called. Otherwise, a fault will be declared against the serving team, and the receiving team will serve.
    • After the score has been called and the serving team has to exchange positions, the referee should stop the play to allow the receiving team to do the same. Then, the score should be called again, and a fresh 10 seconds will start.
    • In unofficiated matches with no referee, the 10-second rule should be applied again once the players switch positions. 
  • Follow the one-hand rule. Section 4.A.5 states that players should use only one hand in releasing the ball. This rule applies to all pickleball servings except for players with only one hand. Therefore, they can use the paddle to release the ball while serving.
  • Don’t spin the ball using your hand. Regardless of the serve type, don’t spin the ball while releasing it. Pre-spun serve or spinning the ball intentionally before serving is no longer allowed since 2023. To understand more, read our Pickleball Spin Serve Guide.
  • Underhand serve. You should serve using an underhand stroke and in a forehand or backhand motion. Hitting the ball from above or the side is not allowed. Read more about this below. 
  • Feet outside the court. At least one of your feet should be touching the serve ground behind the baseline. You cannot jump with two feet and serve at the same time. You can, however, hover either foot over the court, but it should not touch the court ground and inside the baseline. 
  • Serve diagonally. Hit the ball diagonally to the opposite court between the baseline and the kitchen line.
  • Serve must clear the no volley zone (NVZ) and the NVZ line. Your serve may clear or touch the net but must clear the kitchen and kitchen line. In short, there’s no let serve in pickleball. Read our comprehensive guide about Kitchen Rules
  • The “release of the ball” rule. In officiated matches, the ball's release from the server should be visible to the receiver and referee. In matches without a referee, the receiver should be able to see it. This is to make sure that the serve is done legally.
  • The “ball is in'' rule. After the serve, the ball is considered “in” if it touches the sideline, center line, and baseline. It is “out” if it touches the kitchen line.
  • The “ball touches the net” rule. According to Section 4.A.3, if the ball touches the net, goes over it, and then touches the opponent, a point goes to the serving team. This rule is the opposite of the former Let Serve Rule.
  • Server Number Rule. In singles, the same server continues to serve until the rally is lost. In doubles, the Second Server shall serve after the team loses a rally on the First Server. The exception to this rule is the starter server. 

What are the Legal Serves in Pickleball?

Currently, there are two legal serves in pickleball - the volley serve and the drop serve. As mentioned earlier, the basic rule is to do an underhand serve, which means you cannot hit the ball with your paddle above your waist. This style of serving the ball is applied to both kinds of serve but with a slight difference.

Pickleball Volley Serve Rule

  • Hit the ball without letting it bounce. 
  • When serving, swing your arm in an upward arc direction. Ensure your paddle head is below your wrist once the paddle touches the ball.
  • Your paddle head’s highest point should not be above the highest part of the wrist (where the wrist joint bends).

Pickleball Drop Serve Rule

  • Allow the ball to bounce before hitting it.
  • Drop serve can either be a forehand or backhand motion. 
  • You can drop the ball as many times as you want as long as it bounces on the playing surface. However, you should drop it with an open hand so your opponent can clearly see the ball.
  • If the ball has a strange drop, you can pick it up and drop it again. Just make sure you follow the 10-second rule. 
  • Unlike in the volley serve rule, there’s no height restriction in dropping the ball, as long as you follow the one-hand rule.
  • Don't throw the ball downward or use your paddle to bounce the ball. In short, drop the ball naturally and let gravity do its job.
  • Don’t spin the ball while dropping it.

Related Post: 10 Pickleball Serving Tips and Techniques for Beginners

Frequently Asked Questions

In Doubles, Can Players Change the Starting Server?

Yes, any team in doubles tournaments can change the starting server between games if the referee approves it. Failing to notify is not a fault. However, after the rally, the referee should annotate the sheet once they notice a change in the starter server. In non-officiated matches, the opposing team should be informed about the change in the starter server. 

Can I Switch My Serve From One Style to the Other?

Yes, you can switch from volley serve to drop serve and vice versa, provided that you follow the 10-second rule.

Can I Serve By Holding the Paddle With Two Hands?

Yes, you can. There is no rule against two-hand serve in pickleball, as long you release the ball using only one hand and follow the 10-second rule. However, this serving style is only ideal when doing the drop serve.

Can I Call for My Opponent’s Serve Fault?

Section 4.A.9 states that in non-officiated matches (no referee), a receiver can call for a replay if the receiver did not see the release of the ball or there was a pre-serve spin violation.

On the other hand, a receiver has no right to call for a fault or replay for service motion violations. But in officiated matches, only the referee can call a fault or request for a replay.

Related Post: Pickleball Faults You Must Avoid to Win Games (Complete List)

Final Thoughts

As you can see, the serving rules in pickleball are designed to be fair to all players. Basically, there are only five important things to remember - correct position, underhand serve, crosscourt serve, proper foot placement, and the no pre-serve spin rule. 

To be more familiar with them, the best thing you can do is to practice with a friend who has mastered these rules. You’ll be surprised to know that pickleball is not only fun, it can also help keep you mentally sharp.

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