10 Essential Pickleball Rules to Learn Before You Play

With a name like "pickleball" and a premise that combines tennis, badminton, and Ping-Pong, of course, this sport comes with a unique set of rules and regulations. If you're about to play pickleball for the first time, there are several rules you should learn to make your first game even more enjoyable and competitive.

Here are 10 simple rules that first-time players should learn before their first match:

  1. Volley serves must be underhand
  2. Scoring in doubles includes three sets of numbers
  3. Sides alternate serving in doubles
  4. There’s a method to remove the advantage of serving first in doubles
  5. The ball must bounce once per side after the serve 
  6. Volleying isn’t allowed within the kitchen (7 feet on either side of the net)
  7. Rallies are commonly lost in three ways: out-of-bounds balls, the ball bouncing twice on a side before being hit, and kitchen violations
  8. Only the serving team can score points
  9. Games are commonly played to 11, but sometimes 15 or 21
  10. Games must be won by a margin of 2 points

On its surface, pickleball may seem just like any other racket or paddle sport, but these rules set it apart and allow it to shine on its own as an easy-to-learn yet hard-to-master take on the genre.

At first glance, these 10 pickleball rules may seem too complex to remember, but if you simplify them into 3 categories, they quickly become more memorable: serving rules, gameplay rules, and scoring rules.

Below, we'll cover the basic rules you need to know before you step on the court. Committing them to memory before you play will make your first few games much less confusing and, in turn, much more enjoyable.

Serving Rules of Pickleball

The beginning of every pickleball point starts with the serve. In racket and paddle sports, serving is the act of putting the ball into play. How you do that varies depending on which sport you’re playing, and pickleball, of course, has its quirks.

Rule 1: Volley Serves Must Be Underhand

In pickleball, the volley serve is by far the most common serving style, the other option being drop-serving. Both are legal serves, but unique to a volley serve is the underhand requirement (rules 4.A.7.a.) 

Since this is the original and more popular serve of the two, many think that all serves have to be underhand, but the drop-serve is an exception to this requirement.

Regardless, as the most used serve, you should know what constitutes an underhand volley serve. Underhand is measured and enforced by ensuring you strike the ball with the paddle below your waist, with your arm moving in an upward arc and the highest part of your paddle head below your wrist.

The underhand serve or any pickleball serve for that matter, must be delivered diagonally to your opponent's side, and the ball must stay in the court, get over the net, and avoid the kitchen.

This means when you’re serving from the right service court, you must hit the ball diagonally into the opposing team’s right service court.

The serve can fully clear the net or touch the net (as long as it lands in the service court after), but it can’t land in the kitchen, also referred to as the non-volley zone or NVZ. More on that in a minute though.

Rule 2: Calling the Score

When you’re serving, you’re required to state the score before each point (rule 4.D. of the USA Pickleball Rulebook)

In singles, you announce your score first, then the receiver's score. In doubles, you announce your score first, then the receiver’s, then a third number, which identifies if you’re the first or second server on your team.

Let's break down the doubles scoring a bit further, because that’s where most new players get tripped up. 

Regarding the third set of numbers in doubles, each team member is assigned a number on each service possession - 1 for the first person to serve on the team and 2 for their partner. When your team receives the right to serve, the person in the right service court is the first server.

Let’s look at an example for added context. Imagine a side out in doubles and the ball switching to the other side of the court. The first server would be the person on the right service court. Just before their first serve, they would call out a series of three numbers:

  • The first number is the serving team’s score.
  • The second number is the opposing team’s score.
  • The third number is 1 because this player is the first server for this possession.

In this example, the serving team has 4 points, and the opposing team has 6 points, so the first server would say “4, 6, 1,” before serving.

Rule 3: Alternating Serves

The serving rotation is one of the most unique aspects of pickleball. And like many other areas of the game, you'll notice that doubles plays by slightly different rules than singles.

Alternating Serves in Singles

In singles, the serving rotation is simple:

  • The server starts by serving the ball from behind the baseline of their right service court.
  • If they win the rally, they rotate to their left service court and serve.
  • They continue back and forth until they lose the rally, in which case the opposing player serves from their own right service court.

In singles, if your score is even, you serve from the right service court, and if it’s odd, you serve from the left service court.

Alternating Serves in Doubles

In doubles, however, things are a bit more complicated. It's important to remember that in pickleball, each member of a team serves at least once before turning the ball over to the other team unless it’s the first server of the match, but more on that in a minute.

In doubles, the serving rotation and position reflect the serving number:

  • The first server serves from the right side of the court.
  • They continue to serve, switching from right to left and back to right service court until they lose a rally.
  • After the rally is lost, instead of turning the ball over to the other team, their partner, the second server, now gets a chance to serve.
  • The second server picks up serving from the side of the court they were on at the end of the previous rally. This is officially called, you guessed it, the second serve.
  • After the second server serves a losing rally for their team, they turn the ball over to the opposing team. This turnover is called a side out.
  • Afterward, the opponents maintain possession of the serve until both of their servers have served a losing rally, resulting in another side out that returns possession of the serve to the first team.

Pro Tip:

The first server for each team doesn’t stay the same throughout the match, and it starts anew from the right service court each time there’s a side out. 

It’s important to take note of where the starting server is for each team because when their score is even, they will always be on the right side. And when their score is odd, the starting server will be on the left side.

Rule 4: First-Server Exception

In doubles, a rule called the First-Server Exception (4.B.6.) removes any advantage of serving first in a game. Under this rule, the team that serves first in a game has only one server, with that first server announcing themselves as the second server.

Making what is technically the first server identify as the second server is meant to ensure that the end of their serve marks a side out instead of the serve going to their partner.

The ball is turned over to the opponents after the starting team’s first losing rally. The purpose of this is to keep things as even as possible and prevent the first serving team from having too much of an advantage.

When calling the score to start the game, the server announces, “0, 0, 2” or more commonly “0, 0, Start.”

Gameplay Rules

After the serve, players play out the rest of each rally, with everyone on each side getting their chance to serve between side outs. This is when things get exciting! There are three rules you should definitely learn before hitting the courts.

Rule 5: Two-Bounce Rule (Double-Bounce Rule)

This rule leaves many new players with questions, so here's what you really need to know about the double bounce rule.

The two-bounce rule (also referred to as the double-bounce rule) means the team that’s receiving the serve must allow the ball to bounce once on their side before returning it to the serving team. Then, the serving team, which is now receiving the ball, must also allow it to bounce in their service court before they can return it.

This rule forces players to let the ball bounce twice in total (once per side) before they can hit the ball without it touching the ground, also known as a volley.

Rule 6: No Volleys in the Kitchen

There are lines 7 feet from the net on both sides of a pickleball court. They run the width of the court and form what's known as the non-volley zone, or NVZ. More commonly, it’s called the kitchen. 

If a player volleys while touching the kitchen line or standing inside the kitchen at any time, they cause their side to lose the rally.

However, you can enter or even stand in the kitchen during play. You just have to let a ball hit the ground inside the kitchen before hitting it back from the kitchen, otherwise, that would be a volley.

If you want to hit the ball in the air, you have to have your feet - and even your clothing and paddle - fully outside the kitchen before hitting it. This prevents players from standing on top of the net, spiking balls, and making the game virtually unplayable. Serves are also not allowed to touch or enter the kitchen or the kitchen line.

Rule 7: Three Common Ways to Lose a Rally

There are a few ways to lose a rally (which results in either a change of servers on your side or a side out if your side served, or a point for your opponent if they served):

  1. Hitting Out of Bounds: When returning the ball, you must make sure it lands inside the bounds of the court on your opponent’s side. 
  2. Allowing Double Bounces: Not to be confused with the two-bounce rule, (which is why there’s a concerted effort to shift away from calling the two-bounce rule the double-bounce rule) this is a common bouncing rule found in racquet and paddle sports. The ball can bounce only once before you return it. If it bounces more than once and at least the first bounce is inside the court, you lose the rally.
  3. Volleying in the Kitchen!: This is worth repeating: you can’t stand in the kitchen or on the kitchen line and strike the ball before it bounces. Don’t let that deter you from ever entering the kitchen, you can do that all you want. Just no volleying allowed once you’re there.

Scoring Rules

Scoring in pickleball is unique among racquet and paddle sports. Let’s go over the scoring rules now:

Rule 8: Scoring a Point

Only the team that served can score. It's a simple rule, but fundamentally unique, and one that takes beginners a minute to get the hang of. Because of this rule, winning in pickleball is often about maintaining control of serving longer than your opponent and forcing them to fault.

If you win a rally and your team was serving, you win the point. If you win the rally and your team wasn’t serving, you simply progress the rotation of the serve, whether to the opponent’s second server or your team's first server.

Rule 9: Winning Games and Matches

Unlike tennis, which operates under a game, set, match process, a pickleball match is won by a best 2 out of 3 games, where each game is typically played to 11.

Rule 10: There Are No Ties in Pickleball

Oftentimes, two teams will reach a score of 10-10, but even though the game is played to 11, the game won't end if one side turns the score into 11-10. That's because winning a game in pickleball requires a margin of 2 points.

The game will continue until one team has a 2-point advantage. This can make for some exciting overtime!

Grab a Paddle!

If you can't remember all 10 rules, don't stress about it. Once you grab a paddle and start playing, someone can remind you of a rule, and you'll quickly recall the rule from this list.

The great thing about pickleball is that the rules are pretty simple to pick up. And because the sport is so accessible, just about anyone can step on the court and start playing full games in a matter of minutes.