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 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… (4.A.7.a)
- 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. (4.A.7.b)
- Contact with the ball must not be made above the waist. (4.A.7.c)
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
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
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.
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.
Why are you saying that on a drop serve “You are not allowed to jump, however, and drop the ball.”? This is unclear in the official 2023 rulebook.
Why can’t you jump or run around all you want before you strike the ball in the serve? The official rules state that “The moment the ball is served: At least one foot must be on the playing surface” (4.A.4.a) and that “The drop serve is made by striking the ball after it bounces…” (4.A.8).
The question here seems to be whether “the moment the ball is served” includes the drop/bounce(s) itself (which could take a second or more) or only the instant when the paddle strikes the ball. It sounds like the latter because otherwise why would they have restricted it down to a “moment” (instead of saying something like “During the service” like they use in 4.M) and said the drop serve is made by striking the ball “after” the bounce?
If jumping isn’t allowed, I’m guessing the word “moment” was unintentionally left over from before they added rules on the drop serve. Because the volley serve “elements” (4.A.7) include 3 bullet points only on the moment the ball is struck, whereas the drop serve “elements” (4.A.8) include details on how to release the ball.
You are not allowed to jump when executing a drop serve because of Rule #4.A.8.a. The rule states:
The critical word in that rule, I believe, is “un-aided.”
Eva Magyari says
Thank you so much!
I have a question:
Can you serve out of your hand without tossing ?
Yes, as long as all 3 criteria are met.
Art Klein says
Adding revised comment to my last one about the drop serve. I have tried and have converted to the drop serve. It does give me more variations in my serves, spin directions (top, right or left) without having to be concerned about someone commenting about where my paddle may be to my wrist. I do a very low drop and hit the ball at about 6″ above the ground. Comments by some people is it’s hard to see it because of the tape on the net. It does add to your game.
Thanks, Art, for chiming in. Glad the drop serve is working for you. Keep it up!
Barbsra Mazzochi says
If you start to serve and completely miss the ball, can you do it again or is it a fault?
Yes, you have 10 seconds to execute the serve once the score has been called.
The drop serve is my best option. I would imagine that it allows more people who are disabled to enjoy the game. In my case (right hand amputee) it has allowed me to serve both forehand and backhand and impart various spins to my serve. It is also much easier for beginners to perform.
Thanks, “Lefty,” for chiming in. I agree with you on both points. So glad this revision to the rule has helped!
Jim Hutchison says
I’ve been playing pickleball for 8 years. Two years ago, I developed a serious case of the “yips”. I tried everything to get my serve back with little to no avail. I changed my serve to the drop serve when it became legal. It seriously has saved my pickleball career. Many thanks to the rules committee!
I agree, Jim. The drop serve has been a good addition to the rules.
Larry Jaquish says
I love the drop serve! First it eliminates a lot of contention on whether a serve is legal based on upward motion, paddle position or below the waist. Just easier for everyone. Next, it allows for spin options that are not possible with the standard serve. I have found that when teaching new players the drop serve is much easier to learn. I hope it becomes a permanent option. 😊
Hi Larry, Thanks for your comments. I agree that many new players succeed more quickly with the drop serve. I think it will, indeed, be a permanent option. Time will tell.
YVonne Hubbard says
I do not like the drop serve and really hope it will be discontinued next year. Specifically because now it doesn’t matter where the paddle is at impact in relation to the wrist for the drop and not for the traditional serve. This seems unfair.
Thanks for your feedback. It will be interesting to see what the pickleball rules committee decides with respect to the drop serve and the “traditional” serve.
So…at the moment the ball is served, “at least one foot must be on the playing surface behind the baseline”. Does this mean you can have one foot in the air at the moment the ball is served? And could that foot extend over the baseline as long as it isn’t touching the playing surface or the baseline at the moment the ball is served?
That is absolutely correct. One foot could be in the air the moment the ball is served and that foot could be extended over the baseline as long as it isn’t touching the playing surface or baseline.
Estelle Klein says
Can your feet “touch” the back line without going over it during a serve? I think it’s a fault like tennis, but no one seems to know the answer.
Hi Estelle, No. The server’s feet cannot “touch” the baseline at contact with the ball on the serve. Notice the phrasing, “on or inside.” I bolded for emphasis. At the moment the ball is served, “at least one foot must be on the playing surface behind the baseline” (4.A.2.a), “neither of the server’s feet may touch the court on or inside the baseline” (4.A.2.b) and “neither of the server’s feet may touch outside the imaginary extensions of the sideline or centerline” (4.A.2.c).
ARTHUR KLEIN says
Comments on the drop serve. What I don’t understand is how/why the two serve legally are different? Why is it that a drop server can make contact with the ball above the wrist and waist and traditional server is not. That just seems unfair. I have worked on my serve quit a bit and am able to get good amount of side spin on my serves with out breaking the rules. It appears the rule committee is trying to get rid of the traditional serve. Really do not like the rule changes, including the “let” rule change.
Thanks, Art, for chiming in about your thoughts on the pickleball drop serve. From what I have read, they have added this serve option, in part, to make the enforcement of the rule easier for the players and referees. Not a great reason, in my opinion. It’ll be interesting to see if the drop serve is made permanent after this provisional year.