What Are the 3 Basics of a Legal Serve in Pickleball?

Pickleball is an easy-to-learn paddle sport, but like other games, it comes with its own set of rules. And serving, an essential part of playing the game, is packed with rules of its own. But if you can gain a firm grasp on just 3 basic rules of serving, you’ll easily avoid unnecessary faults.

For a pickleball serve to be legal, 3 basics need to be followed. First, you can’t touch the baseline. Second, you have to hit the ball following volley serve or drop serve conditions. Finally, the ball has to hit the quadrant diagonal from you and can never land in the non-volley zone.

While there are more than 3 rules, think of the aforementioned as buckets that all serving rules can fall within. In this easy-to-read guide, we'll go over the basic regulations you need to know to start serving the right way.

What Are the 3 Things You Need to Know for a Pickleball Serve?

To comply with the rules of a legal pickleball serve, and avoid 3 of the most common serving mistakes in pickleball, commit the following into your play: 

  1. Positioning: Both feet have to be behind and not touch the baseline in any way.
  2. Serving Motion: Volley serves have to be underhand, and drop serves must let the ball fall to the ground and bounce before you make contact.
  3. Placement The ball has to be served into the quadrant diagonal from you and never land in the non-volley zone, which includes the non-volley line.

Reading this over, it may not sound too hard to complete the fundamentals of a legal serve. However, there’s a lot to unwrap for all three. 

So let’s go in-depth for each rule for the sake of absolute clarity.

Rule #1: Positioning - Do Not Touch the Baseline

Every pickleball serve starts with your position. While there’s no perfect way to set up a serve and everyone likes to do this a little differently, there is one rule that applies and is repeatedly offended by new players. You can’t touch the baseline (4.A.4.b.)

To clear things up, the baseline is the back line of the court, farthest from and parallel to the net. It separates the back of the court from the out-of-bounds area. If you touch the baseline during your serve, this is known as a foot fault.

Another term to know in pickleball is a fault. A fault is when the pickleball or a player violates a rule. This causes a stop in the game, otherwise known as a dead ball. If you want a full view of pickleball definitions for beginners, be sure to check out Paddletek’s pickleball glossary.

After a dead ball that’s your side’s fault, either your partner (if you’re playing doubles and you were the first server) or the other side gets to serve. If the receiving team commits a fault, then the serving team earns a point.

Keep in mind, you can serve the ball anywhere in your opponent’s service court, as long as it’s between the no-volley zone line and the baseline. 

As it relates to positioning, there are a couple of miscellaneous rules to be aware of:

  • You can’t cross the imaginary intersection of the centerline or sideline when serving. (4.A.4.c.)
  • You have to keep at least one foot on the ground during your serve, obviously behind the baseline. (4.A.4.a.)

Rule #2: Arm Motion - Volley Serve and Drop Serve Regulations

While volley serve is the traditional form of serving, and still, the far most common type of pickleball serve, there is an alternative style to serving, which is called the drop serve. Both follow different rules, but common between the two doing either incorrectly will result in a fault. 

This section will break down how to do both styles of serving legally.

The Volley Serve (4.A.7.)

The volley serve is what probably comes to mind when you think of a player serving in pickleball. It essentially entails using one hand to release the ball while the other hand holding the paddle makes contact with it in the air, and before it could fall and bounce on the ground.

Several things make it unique, but the most important of them is how all volley serves must be underhand. This is measured and enforced in the following ways:

  • The ball and paddle can’t make contact above the waist. (4.A.7.c.)
  • The server’s arm has to move in an upward arc. (4.A.7.a.)
  • The highest point of the paddle head cannot be above the highest part of the wrist. (4.A.7.b.)

The good news is that serving underhand feels more natural than overhand, at least for most players. Regardless, if the ball is served overhand in a volley serve, this is a fault. If that's a dealbreaker for you, then you may want to try the other legal serve, which is the drop serve.

The Drop Serve (4.A.8.)

The drop serve became a legal means of serving in 2021, and it looks completely different than a volley serve, which is why it has separate rules.

To drop serve in pickleball, a player can either use their non-paddle hand or their paddle to raise the ball to any natural height, then without applying any force or spin, drop the ball. By gravity alone, the ball must bounce at least once before it can be hit it.

If the server follows those basic rules, they can hit the ball however they would like and whenever they like (so long as it has bounced at least once.)

One benefit of the drop serve is that the main rules of a volley serve do not apply to it, like not making contact above the waist, arm moving in an upward arc, and paddle head position relative to your wrist.

The challenge with this serve though is that it will rarely bounce higher than a person's waist. So while you could technically hit the serve overhand, it's not entirely feasible to do.

The drop serve may make it easier for new players to get in the flow of serving the ball, but you won't catch pros doing the drop serve, at least not yet.

Rule #3: Placement - Must Serve to Diagonally Opposite Service Court

This rule is pretty straightforward, right? Like nearly all racquet and paddle sports, the server needs to land the serve in a specific area. However, pickleball has several unique specifications, much of which are determined by its court.

The serve must completely clear the non-volley zone, which you will hear called the kitchen mostly, to be a legal serve (4.M.5.)The non-volley zone is a rectangular area that's 7 feet on each side of the net and includes its line as part of the zone.

The service court is bound by the end of this kitchen line and includes the centerline, sideline, and baseline.

So while a serve may land diagonally to the server, it's only in the proper service court if it clears the non-volley zone and its line entirely.

You will most certainly land serves in the kitchen and its line - it's just part of learning the game. A deep serve is a better strategy for serving though, so hopefully, your serve will only land there out of technical error.

Let's look at why it's better to serve deep.

Why Should You Serve Deep in Pickleball?

Pickleball is a game of minimal and intentional movements. It’s mostly about mastering placement instead of power. There are exceptions of course, and moments where power is necessary, but focusing your serving game on precision and control instead of power is the best advice any beginning player could get.

Serving deep means sending the ball as far back as possible while still keeping it in the service court. This pushes the receiving player behind the baseline, and ultimately further from the net. 

There are several reasons to do this, but perhaps the most important is that it buys you space for a third shot drop, which is a shot from the serving team that drops the ball right into the non-volley zone. 

It’s a softer shot, that sort of makes the ball die right in the kitchen. If the receiving team is pushed back on the baseline at the serve, they’ll have more ground to make up to get to the third shot.

Think of serving deep as a way of playing chess, where you’re playing two shots ahead, instead of reacting to what comes your way.

So What Do You Need to Know?

To make a legal serve in pickleball, you have to hit the ball underhand and from below the waist if it’s a volley serve, and it has to bounce once if you drop serve. Either style of serving needs to happen behind the baseline and land on the diagonally opposite service court.

To keep the receiving team on their toes and buy yourself or your team space and opportunity in the third shot, serve deep. By keeping tips like these in mind, you can play a smarter game all while using legal serving skills.