It’s a common refrain heard at YMCA’s and rec centers wherever pickleball is played: “Your pickleball serve is illegal!” And, unfortunately, the illegal serve accusations frequently come from those who have never even picked up an official rulebook (and, more than likely, from those who were not able to successfully return the serve in the first place). Recently, the controversy enveloped my dad and his volley serve.
In April – after seemingly several years of “resistance” – my mom and dad started playing pickleball. They joined their local senior center and now play a couple of times a week.
Pickleball Serving Rules – the “Controversy”
As is the case with many beginners, “mastering” the pickleball serve had been a challenge. What made it even more challenging, however, was the fact that several of the people at the senior center were telling my dad that he had an illegal serve – and he needed to change his serving motion. Shown immediately below is a video of his volley serve. Is it a legal serve? Or is it an illegal serve?
Let’s Go to the Videotape – How my Dad Hits his Pickleball Volley Serve
Last week I visited my parents and played with them for the first time since they picked up the sport. Like any good son, I videotaped my Dad’s volley serve to better determine its legality – or illegality as some have said. Before analyzing the motion from the videotape, here’s what the 2022 International Federation of Pickleball Official Tournament Rulebook says about the volley serve:
>>READ MORE: Pickleball Serve Rules — The Volley Serve vs. the Drop Serve<<
Pickleball Serving Rules – 2022 International Federation of Pickleball Official Rulebook
The server’s arm must be moving in an upward arc at the time the ball is struck and may be made with either a forehand or backhand motion.
The highest point of the paddle head must not be above the highest part of the wrist (where the wrist joint bends) when it strikes the ball.
Contact with the ball must not be made above the waist.
Based on these official pickleball serve rules for a volley serve, there are 3 criteria which make it legal: (1) arm must be moving in an upward arc – or, in other words, the paddle needs to be going in an upward motion, (2) contact with the ball must be made below the waist and (3) the highest part of the paddle cannot be above the wrist.
The Verdict – Legal Serve!
As you can see when pausing the videotape, all three criteria are met – the arm is moving in an upward arc, contact is made below the waist and the highest part of the paddle is not above the wrist. Therefore, this is a legal serve – and it’s a pretty darn good one at that! Nice serve, Dad!
A Note about the Serve and the 2022 Rule Changes
In 2022, the rules committee permanently added the drop serve as an additional legal service option. (Rule #4.A.6). The drop serve allows a player to drop the ball and hit the serve after it bounces without adhering to the three criteria of the arm movement in an upward arc, paddle below the wrist at contact and contact below the waist.
While I wouldn’t advise my dad to switch from the volley serve to the drop serve (because of the principle of the matter as his volley serve is, indeed, legal), it would nevertheless remove the controversy.
See you on the courts!
John garbutt says
When you are receiving serve can you be in front of base line anywhere you want if person serving serves short serves all the time
Yes, absolutely. You can stand anywhere you want when returning serve. Just remember to let it bounce.
Can you toss the ball up and then hit the ball while in the air as it comes down below the waist?
Yes, indeed. Totally legal.
No. I thought you can’t toss the ball up, it must be dropped
Hi Heidi, You can toss the ball up on the serve as long as you hit it out-of-the-air before the ball bounces (and as long as it satisfies the three requirements of contact below the waist, upward arc on the swing and paddle below the wrist at contact). If this is a drop serve (one that bounces before striking the serve), then it must be dropped and not propelled upward or downward. Hope that helps.
Frank M says
New in 2021 & 2022 – Drop Serve – A player is now allowed to drop the ball (however, you cannot propel the ball upward or downward) and hit the serve after it bounces.
Tossing vs. Propelling? Are you saying there “IS” a difference?
Hi Frank, If hitting a drop serve you cannot propel the ball downward, nor can you toss the ball up. You can only drop the ball from your hand and let gravity bring it down. If you hit a volley serve (not letting the ball bounce before executing the serve), then you can toss it up as high as you want as long as the 3 traditional criteria for a legal serve are met. Hope that helps.
I double tap the ball before my serve. I’ve been told this is illegal. Its hard to change old habits. Wondering if it is? Thanks
Hi Ann, In 2020 or prior, that would have been a fault. In 2021, however, it is now, indeed, legal to tap the ball before the serve. Rule #11.A. in the 2021 Official Rulebook now allows for the bouncing of the ball on the paddle without an associated fault.
Can you start your service motion outside the side line or the center line?
Rule 4.A.3 applies in this instance. What matters in your example is where the server’s feet are positioned at the time the ball is struck.
George Kurtz says
So if you are serving and the ball hits the middle line on the recievers side the serve is good correct and not considered out?
All lines are good in pickleball with the exception of the non-volley line on the serve. The serve must go beyond the non-volley line on the serve. If it doesn’t, it’s a fault on the server. If you’re referring to the middle line that separates the right court from the left court, the ball would be considered “in” if it hits that line on the serve. Hope that helps.
Hi, if a serve hits the line of the opposite court, is that a legal serve?
Hi Linda, If the served ball goes over the net and lands on the middle line, the baseline or the sideline of the appropriate service court (diagonal) the serve is “good.” If the ball, however, lands in the opponent’s non-volley zone or on the non-volley line, the serve is a fault. Hope that helps.
I’m not sure this is a legal serve. The paddle appears to me to be above his wrist.
Hi Tom, Thanks for weighing in. I tried to pause the serve at the appropriate frame. It looks good here.
Mary e says
Can the server serve the ball outside the lines. Im not referring to the base line but can he/she serve to the left or right outside the lines of the court? I’m assuming so because in a game situation you can step outside the court to hit the ball.
Hi Mary, The answer is no. The following blog post should help clarify the rule. https://www.pickleballmax.com/2018/01/pickleball-service-foot-faults/
Linda King says
Is it legal on the serve to tap the ball to your paddle and then go to the backswing to serve the ball?
Sure. Nothing wrong with that.
I’m seeing a a sideways motion when the ball is hit, not an upward motion.
Hi Jill, I slowed the video down and did a screen shot of the serve at contact. As the image in the post clearly shows, the paddle head is below the height of the ball and is swung from low-to-high. Remember, upward motion of just 1 degree is still considered upward motion. Hope that helps.
Shane Isham says
At what point can you step onto the court after you serve the ball?
Hi Shane, The server’s partner can be positioned anywhere in the court during the serve — although, strategically, they should be a foot or two behind the baseline in case it’s a deep return. The server can step into the court after contact has been made with the ball — although, again, strategically, the server should position his/her self a foot or two behind the baseline in case of a deep service return. Hope this helps.
Rick Gabbert says
I have a friend who has a nice strong backhand serve but is questioned often about if it is a legal serve. The part where it states that the highest point of the paddle has to be below the wrist is critical. The paddle has to be below the wrist-correct?
Absolutely. You are correct.
Is there a time limit to serving? Some players go through a 10 to 20 second routine prior to actually hitting the ball.
Hi David, Shown below is the excerpt from the official rulebook. Hope that helps!
4.E. The 10-Second Rule. Once the referee determines the receiver is in position and ready or should be in position and ready and the score has been called, the server is allowed 10 seconds to serve the ball.
4.E.1. If the server exceeds 10 seconds to serve, a fault will be declared.
Ed Lee says
My question is this: Is he in compliance with the second part of rule 3.A.36 ? Is his palm facing upwards or downwards? Is it facing forward ?
Hi Ed, That’s a great question. I talk a bit about that here: https://www.pickleballmax.com/2018/01/major-rule-revisions-2018/. Be sure to read the comments there as well. See you on the courts!
What is the ruling on not dropping the ball when serving but instead hitting it off of the fingers in an attempt to create spin?
As long as the 3 elements as described in this post are satisfied, it would be considered a legal serve. It doesn’t matter if the ball is hit out of the hand or if the ball is dropped. Hope that helps.
Benjamin Holeman says
I’d sure love to hear their reasoning as to why that’s an illegal serve! It looks good to me. Sounds to me like they’re just upset that he wins a lot so they’re trying to bring him down by saying he’s breaking the rules…
Hi Benjamin, Thanks for weighing in. I agree!
Megan McGonigal says
We are using portable nets that have a middle support bar that is inserted into a pocket in the middle of the net. If the ball hits the top of that support pocket and goes over the net is it still in play? I’m assuming it’s considered part of the net so it’s legal but it was questioned so I’d like clarification. Thanks!
Hi Megan, Yup! Play on! If this happened on the serve, however, the ball would still have had to go past the NVZ line and in the correct “box.” If it did that on the serve, it would be considered a let — and the serve should be replayed. Hope that helps!
I think this is actually far closer to being an illegal serve on point 3. (Top of paddle below wrist) you are snapping the picture from above the wrist level, which skews the angle. If you really wanted to validate that point, you’d have to position the camera at the eye level of his wrist and pull a frame from that.
When you serve the ball to the opposing player who is standing in the court waiting for the serve does he/she receiving the ball have to return the ball or can her partner return the ball.?
Yes, the receiver (the person positioned diagonal to the server) has to return the serve. The partner cannot return the serve.
On a in door Court, what’s the ruling if the ball hits the ceiling or side wall
First, it’s important to define a “permanent object.” According to 3.S. in “Official Tournament Rulebook,” a permanent object is defined as “any object near the court or hanging over the court that interferes with the flight of the ball. Permanent objects include the ceiling, walls, fencing, lighting fixtures, net posts, the stands and seats for spectators, the referee, line judges, spectators (when in their recognized positions) and all other objects around and above the court. (revised July 1, 2013)”
Rule 7.G., then specifically answers your question as it defines faults: “7.G. [A fault will be declared when:] A ball in play strikes any permanent object before bouncing on the court.
IFP Comment: If the ball in play hits a permanent object after it has bounced on the court, the player who hit the ball wins the rally. If the ball in play hits a permanent object before it bounces on the court, it is a fault. (revised April 1, 2011)”
A player(Server 1) serves the ball but the paddle head is not below the wrist. Should the referee call this a Serve fault (or) a foot fault?
In a match with a referee, the referee should, in fact, call it a fault.
Martin Bridges says
In doubles pickleball, the server has to have both feet behind the base line until the ball has been struck. Does the server’s playing partner also have to have both feet behind the baseline, or can they be inside the baseline if they so wish?
Hi Martin, The server’s playing partner can legally be positioned anywhere on or off the court. Strategically, however, it’s recommended they stand just behind the baseline as the serving team will have to let the ball bounce before taking it out of the air. Hope that helps! Todd
michael coynor says
It is very close to being an illegal serve. Because you can’t really see where the belly button is, I can see how some people would question the serve. If he wanted to he could bend over a little and just drop the ball to make contact with it. That would help alleviate the question of was it legal or not. I have a similar problem with my backhand serve. People often tell me it is an illegal serve but when I ask them what was illegal about they can only start telling me ALL the rules of the serve but nothing specific about my serve at the time which tells me they don’t know, they just didn’t like my serve. It is probably the same with your dad. Tell him to pull up his shirt and give them a show and continue to serve his good serve.
Hi Michael, Thanks for your comment & feedback. Love your suggestion! Ha!
Arun s says
Funny! Yes I was told the same thing when I did a backhand serve when starting out in Pickleball. I’m from a Tennis, Badminton and Table Tennis background, so it comes easier to me. They noted all three requirements were met but it was on the wrong side of my body. Laughable, but it’s not anywhere in the rules as to which side of the servers body it should be delivered from. Thx!
Dave H says
It has generally been my observation that most people actually make contact with the ball below the navel. When we use the term “waist” it confuses the issue because the waist often appears to be lower than the navel, making the serve appear to be too high and, therefore, illegal. However the top of the waist bone is parallel with the navel which should insinuate that a higher contact point is perfectly legal, not illegal. Most players are not aware that the term “waist” does not exist anywhere in the terminology describing the pickleball serve. Many people believe the waist is lower than the navel however the waist is actually level with the navel.
Interestingly enough, in the 2021 Official Rulebook, “navel” has been removed. Rule #4.A.5 states that “Contact with the ball must not be made above the waist.” Hope this helps.
Ed Biersmith says
If the serve hits the middle line, the serve is good, right?
Hi Ed, That is correct. As long as the served ball goes past the NVZ line, the serve is good if it hits the middle line.
Question: On the serve can the ball be bounced and hen hit?
Hi Mike, No, the ball cannot be bounced first before the serve. Here is the official rule: [4.C.] The Serve. The ball must be struck before it hits the playing surface.
Arun s says
Hey Mike, it’s currently being debated. So it’s not an acceptable legal serve as of now. Steve Paranto has videos where he demonstrates it, and other than the bounce all three requirements are met by him. I think that since it’s a matter of perception and often confusing to some, it ought to be more clearly demonstrated as the serve stands now.
However with the bounced serve it’s unlikely that the ball can be struck above the waist or in other than an upward arc or with the paddle head other than below the wrist and the waist (belly button), if dropped from below the waist. Obviously if it’s tossed upward and fairly high it may very well bounce above the waist when struck. Although you can wait for that high ball to drop below the waist before s tricking it to deliver the serve. I agree that they ought to make both serves acceptable. The one we use now and the bounced serve and be able to switch back and forth to make it more af a challenge for the receiver. Since the ‘underhand serve’ is essentially a defensive one as compared to the ‘overhead’ Tennis serve which is essentially an offensive stroke. If delivered effectively the Tennis serve can be either an ‘ace’ or induce a weak return. It’s hard to deliver an ace serve in Pickleball although it’s certainly not impossible as you’ve likely seen and done on occasion. There is room for creativity, as in spinning it or using a severe angle with or without spin. I get more spin/angle more easily on the backhand serve. Makes it very interesting and helps overcome some of the challenge. I’m all about variety and exploiting the opponent in any legal way that I can. Cheers!
Brian G says
Hey, he’s 84 – I’d give him a break. Technically, it appears parts of his paddle may be above his wrist. It’s a close call and I have no slow motion capability on this – so I am not 100% positive. I’d have to let him go until I could see it in slow mo at paddle level. If it is guys his age that are complaining, and ‘they’ are serving legal then, they need to see this guy’s serve in slow mo at paddle level and go from there. Not enough evidence for me to convict. There is a reasonable doubt.
Dave H says
I dont see this guy meeting the third part of the rule. The top of his paddle head is clearly way above the bend in his wrist. Slow mo doesnt appear to be necessary. My guess is that slow mo would accentuate just how high the paddle head is in relation to the wrist.
As you pause the ball at contact, I’m not seeing what you’re seeing. The paddle does, indeed, appear to be below the wrist. Therefore, the serve is legal.