What Are the Rules for Singles Pickleball? New Players Guide

In pickleball, you may hear the terms “singles” and “doubles” when describing the type of game you’re playing. If you’re new to paddle and racquet sports you might have some questions about these terms, but more likely how a singles pickleball game is played and scored. 

Singles and doubles pickleball matches are played slightly differently. A singles pickleball game is between two players, one on each side. For singles pickleball games, the serve begins from the right side of the server’s court if the score is even, and from the left side if the score is odd. 

In this quick guide, we let you in on how to play a singles pickleball game, as well as offer some serving tips, pickleball court rules, and information on how to score your singles game. The good news for you though is the rules, such as serving sequence and scorekeeping, are far simpler in singles than in doubles. More on that in a minute.

What Is a Singles Game Exactly?

In pickleball and other paddle sports, you can play either a singles game or a doubles game. This simply means you can either have a 1 v 1 game, which is a singles game, or a 2 v 2 game, which is a doubles game.

While the rules of singles pickleball may be easier to get, playing singles pickleball is quite taxing, especially the physical aspect of the game. Singles plays more akin to tennis in this regard since one player has to cover their entire side of the court.

And with pickleball's lower bounces and softer touches, this can mean a lot of quick reactions and sprints.

There is however another type of singles that removes some of cardio from the court - and it's called skinny singles.

Bantam TS-5

What is Skinny Singles?

Skinny singles is a form of singles in pickleball that divides the playing court in half, making it easier to cover ground while still playing one vs. one. It can be played by splitting the court in half along the centerline or by making the playable area the diagonal service courts.

Oddly enough, skinny doubles play more like doubles than it does conventional singles. And that's because you're responsible for half the court like you might be in many situations of doubles.

The serving however is just like singles pickleball where you serve until fault, then it's a side out, which is a pickleball term for losing possession of serving and it going to the opposite player or team.

This is different from doubles, where server 1 will turn serving duties over to their partner (server 2) after losing the point.

While you probably won't see skinny singles at a tournament, it's a great option when you just want to have a good time or when you want to hone in on training a specific skill.

That's why pickleball is so versatile. Picklers can choose between a team-centered game, where you have help from a partner, or a lone workout, where you can run drills.

And of course, you have skinny singles for when you want to cut up and make pickleball a leisurely competition with one friend or get to work on improving a specific part of your game.

How Is a Singles Pickleball Game Played?

Singles pickleball has its own rules for serving and gameplay, but there are 3 things you need to know for singles serving, which impact scoring and the overall sequence:

  1. The first serve for each player is done on the right-hand side.
  2. If the server wins their first serve, that player makes the next serve on the left-hand side.
  3. The player continues to serve, switching between the right and left sides until they fault. The serve then goes to the opponent. 

If you understand these 3 simple concepts of serving and recall that the score will always be even when served from the right side and odd from the left, then you'll be in a good spot to at least keep the flow of a game intact.

Guide to Singles Pickleball Scoring and Faults

To understand a singles game a bit more, let’s go deeper into how pickleball is scored.

To end a pickleball game, you must have earned 11 total points and beat your opponent by 2 or more points. While some games will play to 15 or 21 points, the vast majority of games are played to 11 points.

Remember, only the serving player scores points. So even if you best your opponent while they’re serving, you won’t earn a point. Rather, you’ll earn the right to serve the ball next. Also worth repeating is how scoring aligns to which side of the court the serving player is on - if the server’s score is even, then they must serve on the right-hand side of the court. If their score is odd, they serve on the left-hand side of the court.

Sometimes you’ll get caught up in the game and a few points later you’ll have forgotten the score. Using the odd and even relationship with serving sides, you’ll have an easier time backtracking to the right score.

If for some reason the score is incorrectly aligned to the serving side, it’s considered a fault (rule 4.M.1.) Now the opponent gets their turn to earn points. 

5 Common Faults That Beginners Make in Pickleball

As you've probably picked up by now, there are quite a few ways players can fault in pickleball. The list of ways to fault in pickleball is far too long to put in front of anyone new to the sport, so we've decided to cull it down to where we observe the most faults being made, especially from beginners.

  1. Serves land in any part of the non-volley zone (including its line), which you’ll hear mostly called the kitchen.
  2. This is by far the most common mistake, but beginners forget they aren't allowed to volley in the kitchen at any time - AKA non-volley zone. You can hit the ball from the kitchen so long as it touches the ground first.
  3. The ball is hit out of the air before it's had the chance to hit the ground once on each court after the serve. This is known as the Two-Bounce Rule.
  4. The serve fails to cross the net or is hit out of bounds.
  5. Beginners fail volley serve underhand - there are several specifications to this, but the one that's commonly messed up is not making contact with the ball below your waist while serving.

Highlighted for emphasis, but the first three in this list catch new players off-guard with extreme frequency. Perhaps too heavy on opinion, but if a beginner can simply avoid the first two points above, they stand a far greater chance of winning games against other beginners.

This means landing your serves in the proper service area and avoiding volleys in the kitchen. 

Easier said than done, but both are achievable with a bit of discipline and practice. Accomplish just those two components and you’ll be well above other beginning players.

What’s the Difference between a Singles and Doubles Game?

Some people may assume that singles and doubles are played the same, or that the only distinction is singles is for two people while doubles is for four. But two things delineate singles from doubles, outside of the number of players on the court.

The biggest difference between singles and doubles pickleball is serving sequence and scoring. Singles serving players get one serve to fault and keep score with 2 numbers. In doubles, each player on a side serves once, consecutively. 3 numbers are used to track the score, helping identify servers.

That's a lot packed into one paragraph, so let's break it down a bit and simplify the two concepts.

Serving Sequence in Singles and Doubles Pickleball

In singles, the serving player alternates sides if they win the point, but they side out if they lose the rally, and the serve goes to their opponent. The same concept of alternating sides applies to doubles when a rally is won, it's just that alternating becomes a switch of players instead.

However, if server 1's side loses a rally, the players don't alternate sides. Instead, the serve goes to server 2 of the team. Once server 2 faults, then it's considered a side out and the ball goes to the opposition.

First Server Exception

The one exception to this is aptly known as the first server exception, which applies to the player serving first in a doubles game. Once their side loses a rally, instead of handing the service to their partner, they would instead side out, and the opposite side would begin serving in normal doubles fashion.

Normal fashion means server 1 and server 2 each get a chance to serve before a side out, and server 2 would get the opportunity to serve directly after losing a rally while server 1 had the serve.

The first server exception mitigates the advantage of serving first in pickleball by improving the likelihood that each side would get a chance to serve at least once in a game.

Keeping the Score in Singles and Doubles Pickleball

Singles scoring keeps track of two sets of numbers, formatted like this: 0-0. The first number is the serving player’s score. The second number is the receiving player’s score.

Doubles scoring uses three different numbers, formatted like this: 0-0-2. The first number is the serving team’s score. The second number is the receiving team’s score. The third number identifies whether the server is the first or second person to serve on their team for that rally.

That's where server 1 and server 2 come into play. Whoever is on the right side of the court at the start of service becomes server 1 until their side loses possession of the serve.

Under the first server exception, the player that serves first in a game will call their server number as 2 or more commonly as a start. This means calling the score before the first serve would look like this: 0-0-2 or 0-0-Start.

Playing is the Best Way to Learn Singles

Singles and doubles pickleball games are different in how the game is scored and what is expected from players. However, these differences are small and easy to adjust to. Singles games are a fantastic way to show your skills as a pickleball player, regardless of your skill level.

But the most important thing to remember is that the best way to learn the rules of singles and doubles pickleball is to get out on the court and play.

As long as you have some basic understanding of the game, you'll be able to pick up on the nuances of each point as you go.

While you've received the Cliff Notes version of pickleball in this article, it's no replacement for the education you'd get on the courts. So put down educational material and pick up your paddle instead!

If you've never played singles or any pickleball before, it's time to give it a shot. After your first game, come back here and give this a reread. You'll find this guide even more valuable the next time you decide to play singles.

With a little bit of practice and dedication, you'll soon find yourself understanding the rules like a pro!