Pickleball Return of Serve
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5 Tips for a Successful Pickleball Return of Serve

Hitting an effective return-of-serve in pickleball is critical to your team’s ability to earn side-outs – and, as a result – get the serve back so you can once again score points.

But how do you hit the return of serve? The following are five tips for hitting an effective return of serve in pickleball that will tilt the advantage in your favor:

1. Position yourself 2-3 feet behind the baseline when returning serve

This is one of the most common “errors” I see – particularly as I watch beginner and intermediate levels play. The player returning the serve tends to stand just behind (maybe an inch or two) the baseline. Therefore, a deep serve will jam the return-of-server and make them hit their return as their weight is moving backward. Instead, for a good return, you want your weight transferring forward.

2. Return & Run

Another “error” I see is players not getting to the non-volley line after their return of serve.

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And it’s at the non-volley line that rallies are won! Don’t give this advantage away to the serving team by not following your return to the non-volley line. If you can’t get all the way to the non-volley line after the return – and before the serving team hits their next shot (the 3rd shot) – remember to split step just before your opponents making contact with the ball.

3. Slow your Return Down to Give You More Time to Get to the Non-Volley Line

The harder you hit the pickleball, the faster it’s coming back. So, if you hit a return with a lot of pace, you likely won’t be able to traverse all the way through the transition zone before the serving team hits the ball. As a result, you’ll likely be “stuck” in the transition zone – which, of course, makes for more difficult shots.

4. Slice your Return to Keep it Low

Hitting the pickleball with different spins creates various challenges for your opponents. The slice return is no different. A sliced return tends to stay low to the court – making it more difficult for your opponents to get their paddle sufficiently under the ball to drop it or drive it.

5. Return the Ball Deep and to the Center of the Court

It creates a longer and more difficult shot for the serving team and it keeps them further away from the non-volley line where you’ll be able to extend your court-positioning advantage. Hitting the ball to the center also minimizes potential errors with the return of serve and it may create confusion between the two players on the serving team as to who should hit that 3rd shot. It also minimizes potential angles that the serving team can exploit.

Return of Serve Rules

With respect to the return of serve, there aren’t too many rules needing to be adhered to with the exception that a serve that lands in the correct service box must be returned by the [correct] return-of-server after one bounce. That return-of-server can be positioned basically anywhere. Here’s the official rule with respect to the return of serve and player positions:

4.B.7. Partner Positions. In doubles, with the exception of the server (see 4.A.4) there is no restriction on the position of any player, as long as all players are on their respective team’s side of the net. They can be positioned on or off the court. The correct server must serve from the correct service court, and the correct receiver must receive the serve.

Return of Serve FAQ’s

Here are some additional questions – with answers – that I frequently encounter in beginner lessons and clinics.

Can the return of serve in pickleball land in the kitchen?

Yes. The return-of-serve can, indeed, legally land in the kitchen.  It’s only the serve that has to be hit beyond the non-volley zone (kitchen). From a strategic perspective, however, it is best to hit the return of serve deep to give the serving team a more difficult (longer) shot and to keep them away from the non-volley line – the most strategic position on the pickleball court.

Does the return of serve have to bounce in pickleball?

Yes. The serving team has to let the return of serve bounce before hitting it out of the air. Because of this “double-bounce” rule (the ball has to bounce once on each side before hitting the ball out of the air), the returning team generally has the court positional advantage as they can get to the non-volley line first.

Can either player return the serve in pickleball?

As noted above in the referenced rule (Rule #4.B.7), “the correct server must serve from the correct service court, and the correct receiver must receive the serve.”

Final Thoughts

The return of serve is an often overlooked shot in pickleball. However, it shouldn’t be. A good return of serve sets the tone for the entire rally and allows the returning team to get that initial court positioning advantage.

We hope these tips help.

We would love to hear your thoughts. What tips have you found most helpful when it comes to returning the serve?

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Coach Todd
About Todd

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.

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