• Pickleballerz

Serving, Returning, and Transitioning Basics

Lance Martin about to hit a serve. The ball is floating in front of him and he is swinging his paddle quickly to hit it.
Pickleballerz Assistant Program Director, Lance Martin, demonstrates a serve

Once you have become comfortable "in the kitchen," next you need to learn how to serve. Almost sounds like you’ll be working in a restaurant, right?

Is this thing on? Ok, ok, all jokes aside. Let’s talk serving.

Each rally begins with a serve which is done behind the baseline. From there, your opponents will return the ball to continue the rally. Points are rarely won from the baseline so whether you’re serving or returning, you must be able to effectively transition to the non-volley zone. This may sound like a lot to remember but as you grow in your game, this will become a natural part of all of your rallies.

Right side serves first

When a team gets the opportunity to serve, the first serve will always be done from the right side of court. (This is also called the even side. This is covered in the scoring post). Except for the very first serve of the game, each team gets to serve twice before it switches to the opposing team. When the serve opportunity switches teams, this is called a side out.

Serves must land within the court diagonally across from the server. If the ball touches the net this is called a let and the server can attempt another serve. Serves that go out-of-bounds, touch the non-volley zone line, or touch the non-volley zone are faults – even if the ball touches the net.

An important note when playing mixed doubles in pickleball: unlike tennis, players are not restricted to serving only to the same gender opponent.

Contact the ball below the waistline

A proper serve is more than landing the ball in the correct court. While there is a lot of flexibility in a style of serve, there are few rules that a server must follow to serve legally.

First, the server must make contact with the ball behind the baseline. If the server is on or in front of the baseline when making contact with the ball, it is a fault. Many players have a natural step motion when they are serving, so to avoid this stand several steps behind the baseline. There is generally no rule how far behind the baseline a player can stand, however, the server must strike the ball standing between the side line and center line. In other words, you cannot be too far to the left or the right when making contact with the ball.

Second, the ball must be struck without bouncing. The server will drop the ball in front of them and strike the ball before it hits the ground. Some beginners will be tempted to toss the ball upward slightly, but this is not recommended as it increases the “moving parts” of a serve resulting in more opportunities for error. USAPA rules allow for players with a physical disability (whether temporary, like a broken arm, or permanent) to bounce the ball before making a service motion.

Third, the ball must be struck below the waistline with the player’s paddle below their wrist with an upwards swing. Essentially, the serve must be underhand. USAPA rules specifically state that “the highest point of the paddle head must not be above the highest part of the wrist when it strikes the ball.” Players who develop a slightly sideways sweeping motion with their serve need to be especially cautious not to violate this rule.

Return of serve and the two-bounce rule

Once a ball has been served, the receiving player has a chance to return the ball. In pickleball, there is a two-bounce rule that requires the ball to bounce twice before it can be struck in the air (also called volley) by either team. The player receiving the serve must let the ball bounce before returning the ball. It’s highly recommended that players stand at or behind the baseline when receiving serves to avoid accidentally violating the two-bounce rule.

Once the serve is returned by the receiving player, the serving team must let the ball bounce before striking it. Just as it’s recommended for receiving players to stand at the baseline, it is recommended that the serving team stay at the baseline until the ball is returned to avoid violating the two-bounce rule.

After the serving team has let the ball bounce, players can now strike the ball out of the air.

Beginners may find it difficult to remember the two-bounce rule. One technique that may help is for players to whisper or think “first bounce, second bounce” as the ball bounces. This helps with the player’s patience and the player may catch their opponents making a fault!

Avoid staying in no man’s land

The non-volley zone line is often seen as the position of power in pickleball, so it is essential for players to make their way from the baseline to the non-volley zone line to take advantage of that position. The movement from baseline to the non-volley zone line is referred to as transitioning.

Transitioning can look very different rally to rally depending on how players return and receive the ball. Generally, players want to be steady and deliberate about their approach. Players who rush to the NVZ may be caught off guard with a well-placed drive and players who are too slow may find themselves stuck in a vulnerable position.

While standing about one third of the way into the court, Lance hits a low ball with his paddle.
Lance demonstrates returning a ball while midcourt. You're only vulnerable if you aren't prepared!

Over time, you may hear, “You were stuck in no man’s land” which is a reference to standing somewhere in midcourt. Generally, returning a ball and making a well-placed shot from midcourt will be more difficult than from the NVZ. It’s very important to realize, pickleball is never only played at the baseline and at the NVZ line. You must be prepared to return balls midcourt. Some players are able to return balls while walking through their transition while others prefer to move and then split-step to plant their feet for a return. As long as you remember midcourt is the land of opportunity, you’ll never be just stuck.

One last important point about serving: Before the server strikes the ball they must call the score. This is covered more in-depth in the scoring blog post.

Are you looking to add more power and purpose to your serves? Do you find transitioning to the NVZ line difficult? Sign up for private lessons today with our pros where you’ll learn tips to improve your game and practice drills to refine your technique. Remember: the serve is the only shot you have 100% control over. It’s critical to take advantage of it!

Northern Virginia’s first indoor dedicated pickleball facility, Pickleballerz is conveniently located off Routes 28 and 50 at 14424 Albemarle Point Place, Chantilly, VA. Keep up with Pickleballerz by following us on Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram, and subscribing to the mailing list.