This post has been updated in 2024 according to the USA Pickleball Official Rulebook (2024).
Few would dispute the importance of the serve when playing pickleball. After all, points are only scored by the server or serving team. Additionally, the serve is the only shot in pickleball in which one has complete control. You don’t have to read your opponent’s paddle face or the spin or speed of the ball coming from the other side of the net on the serve. It’s just you and the ball!
As the first strike, the serve sets the tone for the rally. If you hit a weak serve, you are basically inviting the receiving team to snag a court positioning advantage at the non-volley line. A strong serve, however, sets your team up for a much easier (and, perhaps, offensive) third shot. It also has the potential of keeping the opposing team further away from the non-volley line after their return-of-serve.
Rules When Serving in Pickleball
There are two types of serves in pickleball – a volley serve and a drop serve. Regardless of the type of serve hit, the official rules in the rulebook states that the following criteria must be met to be considered legal:
- The entire score must be called before the ball is served.
- The ball must be served within ten seconds of calling the score.
- The served ball must be hit such that it goes over the net and lands beyond your opponent’s non-volley zone (including beyond your opponent’s non-volley zone line) and into the correct (diagonal) service box.
- The server gets only one serve attempt at the serve.
- If the ball hits the net on the serve and lands beyond the kitchen line and in the correct service box, the ball is live. (Prior to 2021, a let serve was replayed).
- In traditional scoring (as opposed to rally scoring), when the serving team wins the rally, a point is scored. The server then switches sides and serves to the receiver in the opposite court.
- Both players on the team will get the opportunity to serve and score points before relinquishing the serve to the opponents.
- If both players on the serving team have served — or if it’s after the first serving rotation of the game, then it’s a “side-out” and the team receiving serve will now become the serving team.
- At the moment the ball is served, “at least one foot must be on the playing surface behind the baseline” (4.A.4.a), “neither of the server’s feet may touch the court on or inside the baseline” (4.A.4.b) and “neither of the server’s feet may touch the playing surface outside the imaginary extension of the sideline or centerline.” (4.A.4.c).
Shown below are additional legal considerations for each type of serve.
The Volley Serve
The volley serve is another name for the “traditional serve” that we were all required to hit, pre-2021 – the year the drop serve became a provisional rule.
The Volley Serve – What is It?
The volley serve is a serve that one hits without letting the ball bounce before striking it. To be considered legal when hitting a volley serve, three criteria must be met:
The server’s arm must be moving in an upward arc at the time the ball is struck with the paddle.
The highest point of the paddle head must not be above the highest part of the wrist (where the wrist joint bends) when the paddle strikes the ball.
Contact with the ball must not be made above the waist.
Additionally, the serve must be made with only one hand releasing the ball with no spin or manipulation added to the release of the ball. If any of these criteria are not met, it is an illegal serve and a fault will be called.
FAQ’s – The Volley Pickleball Serve
What happens if the server violates any of the three criteria (upward arc, paddle head below wrist, contact point below waist)?
It is a fault if the server violates any of the three volley serve criteria. As you might imagine, however, without slow motion video, it is very difficult to discern if there is upward motion, if contact is made above/below the waist or if the paddle is above/below the wrist at contact. Because of this real-time ambiguity, many advocate for making the drop serve (see below) the only legal serving option.
Are you allowed to add any type of pre-serve spin?
As of 2023, the server is not permitted to impart manipulation or spin on the release of the ball immediately prior to the serve. In 2022, a one-handed spin serve (adding pre-serve spin and manipulation to the ball) was all the rage. However, the “pickleball spin serve” has been made illegal in the USA Pickleball 2023 Official Rulebook.
How high can you toss the ball when hitting the volley serve?
There is no limit to how high you can toss the ball when serving. As long as all 3 criteria (and feet positioning requirements) are met, it will be considered a legal serve.
Can you impart spin on the ball when the paddle makes contact with the ball.
Yes, you are also allowed to hit the serve with spin (no pre-serve spin or manipulation, however). As long as all 3 criteria (and feet positioning requirements) are met, it will be considered a legal serve.
If you don’t like the toss are you allowed to let the ball drop without hitting it and do it again?
Yes, as long as the serve is struck within 10 seconds of the score being called.
Are you allowed to lean over the imaginary extensions of the centerline or sideline when serving?
Yes, you are allowed to lean over the lines with your body. The feet positioning is what is important. As long as – at the moment the ball is served – at least one foot is on the playing surface behind the baseline (4.A.2.a), neither foot is touching the court on or inside the baseline (4.A.2.b) and neither foot is touching outside the imaginary extensions of the sideline or centerline, then it will be considered a legal serve. Lean all you want.
The Drop Serve
The drop serve was included as an additional service option (as a provisional rule) in the 2021 Official Rulebook with the provisional status being removed in 2022. Currently, both the volley serve and drop serve are legal serves.
The Drop Serve – What is It?
The pickleball drop serve allows a player to drop the ball and hit the serve after it bounces.
The restrictions on the Volley Serve in Rule 4.A.7 (upward arc, highest point of paddle head below wrist and contact point below waist) do not apply to the drop serve.
As long as your feet are appropriately positioned at the moment the ball is struck and – as long as you did not propel the ball downward or upward as you “dropped” it – the serve is considered legal.
Heck, you can even drop the ball, get to your knees, and hit the ball overhand if you’re able. Because the ball won’t bounce very high, however, your attempt may be rendered impossible.
Many “beginners” find that the drop serve is a bit easier to hit when first starting. Because the server does not have to adhere to the three criteria with a drop serve, many advocate for making this serving option the only legal serving option as it is much easier to rule on and officiate.
FAQ’s – The Drop Serve
Can you push or propel the ball downward in an effort to get a bigger bounce?
No. Before bouncing on the ground, the ball may not be propelled (thrown) downward. Failure to drop the ball properly will result in a fault.
Can you toss the ball upward, let it bounce, and hit a drop serve?
No. Before bouncing on the ground, the ball may not be tossed upward. Failure to drop the ball properly will result in a fault.
Are you allowed to add spin to the drop?
No. The ball can simply drop from your hand and let gravity do its thing.
Can you let the ball bounce more than once before executing the serve?
Yes, you can let the ball bounce as many times as you want before hitting the serve. The serve simply has to be hit within 10 seconds of the score being called.
Can you catch/pickup the drop before serving it and begin again?
Yes. The serve simply has to be hit within 10 seconds of the score being called.
Can you alternate serves between the drop serve and the traditional serve?
Yes. When it’s your turn to serve, you may elect to do either a conventional serve or a drop serve.
Can you drop the ball so it bounces inside the court or beyond the boundary extensions?
Yes. As long as your feet are correctly positioned, the serve will be considered a legal serve.
Can you drop the ball from your tippy-toes?
Yes. The server is allowed to release the ball from one of the server’s hands or dropped off the server’s paddle face from any natural (un-aided) height. You are not allowed to jump, however, and drop the ball.
Court Positioning on a Serve
Proper court positioning is critical when playing pickleball – particularly immediately after a serve. Shown below are a couple of FAQ’s and strategy nuggets as it relates to appropriate court positioning when serving.
Can your partner stand anywhere on the court while you are serving in pickleball?
Yes, your partner, by rule, can stand anywhere when you are serving. Your partner can position him/herself forward, back or even off-the-court. However, the most effective strategy is to have your partner positioned back along the baseline when you serve because of the double bounce rule. Since the serving team has to let the return-of-serve bounce, positioning yourself at or near the baseline will allow you enough space to let the ball bounce before hitting the third shot in the rally.
Should my partner and I immediately come forward to the kitchen line immediately after the serve?
Because of the double-bounce rule, the server and server’s partner will want to “serve-and-stay.” Instead of going immediately to the non-volley line after the serve, stay near the baseline, let the return-of-serve bounce and then hit a shot that gives you the best opportunity (perhaps a drop shot) to work your way up to the non-volley line.
Pickleball serve rules can certainly be confusing. Hopefully, this blog post helped clear up any misconceptions you may have had as it relates to the serve. Which serve has worked best for you in your pickleball journey – the volley serve or the drop serve? Please let us know in the comments below.
See you on the courts.
Todd is the talent behind PickleballMAX. He knows pickleball and demonstrates it on the court as a 4.5 – 5.0 player. In addition to creating content and running the PickleballMAX business, Todd is IPTPA Level II certified. As an instructor at the Ohio Pickleball Academy, he instructs students and runs adult and youth clinics. He also manages tournament desks throughout the tri state for tournaments ranging from 100-500 participants.