The Truth about Serving in Pickleball

The Truth about Serving in Pickleball

What’s the key to serving in pickleball? Don’t miss. No pressure or anything, just make the shot. All jokes aside, this is an important and attainable goal. Here’s why…

First, a team or player must be serving to score, so faults are especially costly.  And you only get one chance to make the serve—this isn’t the forgiving world of double faults—looking at you, tennis. Your partner will get a chance to serve if you’re playing doubles, but wouldn’t it be better if you both were able to rack up some points? Also, missed serves take a toll on partner harmony. Smart pickleball players quickly learn that a consistent, reliable serve is more valuable than a flashy one that tends to break down. You don’t have that second chance if your ace attempt goes awry, as in tennis.

Yes, making the serve in pickleball is very important, that does NOT mean it’s hard to do. In fact, the opposite is true. The pickleball serve is an easy shot with a relatively large target. Don’t overthink it, especially when you’re new to the game. If you stay relaxed, you’ll keep faults to a bare minimum… honest.  It’s not like the serve in tennis, which is a convoluted, multi-step procedure that’s difficult to master. (No wonder players are allowed two chances!) Ideally, the tennis serve is supposed to be a weapon, to win points outright. Not so in pickleball where the serve is intended to simply start the point. In fact, the rules governing the pickleball serve are designed to make it relatively easy to return. This maintains the integrity of the game, experts say, which is at its best when the points are long and strategic, with dinks, drives, drops and smashes, when offense and defense switch on a dime. Of course, more advanced players will work within the rules to hit effective serves that help win points, but more on that later. For now, the fundamentals. 

Serving 101

There are two basic kinds of serves. The pickleball volley serve involves releasing the ball from the non-paddle hand and hitting it out of the air. This serve must be hit with an underhand stroke. Contact with the ball is to be made below the waist as the server’s arm moves in an upward arc. The paddle head must be below the player’s wrist when the ball is struck.  

In the drop serve, the player drops the ball onto the ground (it can land inside the court or behind the baseline as long as the player’s feet stay behind the line when making contact) and hits it after a bounce. The ball must be dropped--it cannot be tossed up before it bounces, thrown down at the ground or ‘propelled’ in any way. This is to prevent the ball from bouncing too high, allowing servers to aggressively hit down on the ball. While rules regarding contact in a volley serve technically don’t apply to a drop serve—the paddle doesn’t have to be held below the wrist, for example—the low bounce of the ball inhibits too much variation on how the ball can be struck. You will naturally meet the ball below your waist and hit in an upward arc to clear the net. Experiment with both serves during practice and figure out what feels most comfortable. Most advanced players use the volley serve, but as they say in pickleball, the only bad serve is one that doesn’t go in.


Basic Serving Don’ts 

Don’t impart spin on the ball with your hand. It is legal to put spin on the ball with the paddle, however, if all other rules regarding contact are being followed.

Don’t step on the service line or into the court as you’re hitting the ball. This is a foot fault. Don’t step into the court right after you’ve hit your server either. It’s legal, but a big strategic mistake. In pickleball, if the server moves forward too soon, a deep return is devastating because it can’t be hit on the fly. Scrambling back fast enough to allow the ball to bounce is virtually impossible. There’s no serve and volley in pickleball, so it’s important for all servers to reset just behind the baseline to prepare for the return.

Don’t be a poor sport. If your serve is borderline legal or you are knowingly pushing the limits of what’s allowed, that isn’t something to be proud of. Some players simply don’t know the rules, of course, but they should before they join any form of open play.


Serving to Win

Once a player can consistently hit serves ‘in,’ it’s time to start thinking about depth and placement. Keep in mind, a serve is ‘good’ if it lands crosscourt and in the box beyond the kitchen. Side and baselines are in, but a serve that hits the kitchen line is out. And there are no serving lets in pickleball. If the ball hits the net and goes in, the point is live.

It’s generally considered smart to serve ‘deep’ in pickleball. That means serving so the ball lands close to an opponent’s baseline. This should prevent the returner from being able to step in and hit a solid return. Short serves also allow the returner to ‘get into the net’ more quickly. This puts the serving team at a disadvantage, since most pickleball points are won at the net. Try to keep the returner back with a deep serve which (hopefully) results in a weak return. This gives the serving team a chance to easily move forward and take the net instead of being stuck playing defense. Note to any baseline dwellers (still?) out there:  It’s time to be brave and change strategy. Get up there, toes near (not on!) the kitchen line—it’s where the magic happens and it’s so much fun.

To add depth to your serve, practice contacting the ball out in front of you and follow through high, engaging your shoulders, core and legs to add more oomph. Stay loose and relaxed, and stroke smoothly. Don’t try to ‘muscle’ the ball with your arm alone—that leads to balls flying long. If you can serve deep to the returner’s backhand, even better. Most players are weaker on that side, so this will help your team take control of the point, rather than being pinned back by a crushed forehand return. Take a moment during warmup to check if an opponent is a lefty and adjust accordingly.

To aim, keep your head down and follow through toward your target. A deep serve is always a solid plan, but as your game improves, you can add more variety to your arsenal. Be unpredictable. Throw in a high lob serve to disrupt the returner’s timing. Aim at the body, to take away return angles. Try a short serve once your opponents start anticipating your deep one. While it’s not legal to spin the ball during the pre-serve drop or toss, it's ok to put spin on the ball with the paddle. This is somewhat easier to learn with a drop serve, as the bounce enables servers to hit the ball like a groundstroke. Watching tutorial videos online is a great way to learn about various legal service techniques to try out on court. Practice different speeds and placements, so these shots are ready to go when you need them. Sometimes it takes a minute to discover a returner’s weakness, but almost everyone has one.


Good Tips

Many players rely on a consistent pre-service routine to stay relaxed and focused. Find your own, such as bouncing the ball a few times, or taking a long deep breath.

Most pros recommend hitting the serve with a closed or semi-closed stance. This means your feet are basically placed one in front of the other, allowing for more rotation of the hips and shoulders which lends power and depth.

Make sure you call the score clearly before you hit the ball. It’s a rule. You can’t hit the ball while calling the score—even if contact is made on the last digit.

Hit a few simple serves during warmup to get your service motion flowing and to feel out court conditions such as wind speed and direction.

Don’t get hung up on precise placement. Aiming ‘for the lines’ puts too much pressure on most players and could lead to faults. Allow yourself some margin for error, especially if you’re feeling tight.

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