Pickleball Rules and Game Play

Welcome to Pickleball Rules and Gameplay

Hello and welcome to Pickleball Rules and Game Play.   Here are a couple of links for those who would like to have a quick peak at the rules for themselves.  After that we will go over the game play and rules involved with the action.  It looks like a lot of reading but after playing a few times it is not so daunting and some of the explanations will make more sense.

IFP and USAPA link for rulebook, free download



Before the game can start there are two things that need to be determined.  Which team gets to play on which court side and two, who gets to serve / recieve.  This can be done by coin toss, or right-court, right-side or maybe even rock, paper scisors.  Generally whoever wins the coin toss gets to choose which side or wheather they want to serve.  The loser of the coin toss gets to choose the other aspect.  Once everybody has their positions and are ready the game can begin.  Different clubs will have their own rules regarding who starts with the serve, for the most part people are just happy to start playing.

Game play starts with the serve, the return with the second bounce rule, generally the “3rd shot drop shot” and then full on ralley time.  I will go throught these in general terms because like most things in life, it is never as simple as it first appears.  Games are played generally to 11.  Scoring is generally for the team that is serving.  Play during the match is played until a fault is commited (hopefully because that ball rolling into your court is a re-serve, like all your hard play didn’t happen)  Tournaments can also be played to 15 or 21 depending on the format.  Generally you have to win by 2 points (again in some tournaments it is just a race to the point limit ie: first to 15 in the “loser bracket”, because you lost a game, not because of your standing in life.

The Serve

The serverer serves the ball to the diagonal court on the opponents side.  See diagram.  Now before the ball is served everyone has to incicate that they are ready, usually a nod or gesture is generally accepted as ok.

Before the ball is served the server announces the score.  The score announcement has three parts;  1)  Serving team’s score.  2)  Recieving team’s score.  3)  Server 1 or 2.   After the score is read the server can serve the ball, there is a small window of opportunity here for confirmation.  Sometimes the score may be announced wrong so there is roughly a 10 second window after the score is announced.  If the score is announced is challenged but the server hit the ball right away there is generally a re-serve.  Anyone can challenge the score including your own partner.  Keeping the score can sometimes be a challenge as not everyone is always on the ball, referees after a long day, especially if the teams are stacking ( more on this later) and sometimes we all make mistakes.  Don’t blow a gasket and make a big deal out of it.  If it is happening every serve ok look for some options.  If it is non tournament play it is ok to help out keeping score so the game can have a smooth enjoyable flow to the game.

The serve itself is pretty straight forward.  The ball must be dropped or made air-borne, the paddle must make contact with the ball on the up swing before the ball hits the ground.  The ball cannot hit the net during the serve, during normal game play it is ok, and the ball must bounce in the proper service area.  This is the area diagonally across the court.  When the player starts the serve both feet must be behind the base line.  At the time the ball is hit at least one foot must be in contact with the ground and not on the court surface area.  There is also lines, although not marked, that are also considered for the serving area.  You have to stay within the area behind the baseline between the center line and sideline of your service area.  It is ok to follow through and step into the court area, just not before you hit the ball.  When the paddle makes contact with the ball during the serve :  1)  The paddle must be below the wrist position at the time of impact.  2)  The ball must be hit below the waist level (generally the belly button area).  This is important because some people like to serve back-handed or in front of their body.  As long as all the critiera are being met we are good to go at this point.

A good serve will clear the net, land and bounce ounce in the serving area and then be returned.  A number of things can happen, resulting in a point, fault serve or let (reserve).:

  • Your oppenent’s partner is crowding the center line but is still in his court.  As long as that person is not causing a distraction they can be there.  Go ahead and serve the ball right at them.  If the serve hits them, their clothing or equipment during the serve the server gets a point.  If they jump out of the way and the ball still lands in the srvice area it is a good serve.  The fact the your opponet’s partner has to jump out of the way odds are the person recieving the serve will have difficulty seeing the ball coming and be distracted by their own team mate.  Keep that in mind when you are up there and your partner is recieving the ball.  If the serve hits the net and then the ball hits the opponent’s partner before hitting the ground then it is a re-serve.
  • The ball makes contact with the net during the serve.  If the ball lands in the service area it is a reserve.  If the ball lands anywhere else, it is a fault serve and the server looses their serve and the next server is up next.
  • At any time a hazard enters the playing area a reserve is called.  Something like a ball rolling into the playing area, or player, foreign object, wild life or whatever the case may be.
  • The ball hits the lines during the serve when bouncing in or around the service zone.  If it hits the non-volley line it is a fault serve.  If the ball hits the side-line, center-line or base-line of the service area it is a good serve.
  • If the recieving player challenges the serve, lets say the recieving player doesn’t return the ball because they thought it hit the net.  If the referee clealy saw that it did not hit the net then a point is awarded for the serve.  During non-tournament play who has the final say?  If there is a disagreement any player may call a let or re-serve.  Keep in mind outside of tournament play it is a game, breath in, breath out count down from 5 to 0.  Gernerally speaking the recieving team has the say.  If they cannot agree then the opposing team can make the call.  If need be just reserve it.
  • It is a re-serve if the server served the ball while the reciever was not ready.

Now a couple of notes on the serve.  Generally you want to serve the ball as close to the baseline as possible.  This is general strategy because you want to try and keep them back as long as possible.  They have to wait for the ball to bounce before they can hit it so if you can force them to take a step or two back all the better.  Depending on your level of play, put some spin on it, go for that serve shooting it out the side and forcing them to run for it.  Change it up a bit.  If you are playing a weaker player and you are not in a tournament serve it nicely to them.  You will get more enjoyment out of a ralley verses horrible returns.

Return and the Second Bounce Rule

Ok, so the serve is good and the reciever returns the ball.  There is no regulations for how the reciever hits the ball, where they are standing and body position, or even where they hit the ball to, as long as the ball lands within the normal court boundry on the server’s side.  The ball must bounce before the serving side can hit it.  So if the server or their partner has come up to the net too early, hit it right to them.  Odds are they will hit it before it bounces.  This will help reinforce that the serving side hangs around the baseline until the second bounce is in progress and not to rush the net too soon.  It does not matter who returns the ball from the serving side only that the ball has bounced on their side of the court before they hit it.  It is a good idea to return the ball as close as you are able to the base line.  Again forcing your opponents to stay back and give you and your partner both to get up to the non-volley zone, aka the kitchen.

The Third Shot aka "3rd Shot Drop Shot"

The serve is good, the recieving side has returned the ball deep.  Now most of the time the third shot drop is used.  This shot is a drop shot into the kitchen.  Any time that a ball is bouncing before a player hits it, that player is going to be forced to hit the ball on an up swing.  If they are hitting it hard on the upswing it is generally going out.  Usually they will try to dink it, just little hits over the net nice and low.  For the serving team this shot should give you enough time to get up to the non-volley zone.  Any time you can force the other team away from the non-volley zone you are strategically situated in a stronger position.  Most of the time, the team that controls the net will make the point.


As stated earlier scoring is generally for the team that is serving.  When the ralley ends a fault has generally been commited.  If the team that recieved the serve committed the fault, a point is awarded to the serving team.  The person who served the ball gets to continue serving but now has to serve from the other service court and accordingly to the other diagonally adjacent court.  The players on the recieving side however do not change sides.  Then only time players generally change side is during the serve and only if they get a point.  As long and the server is getting points he can keep serving.  Once the serving team faults one of two things happen.  If the server was server #1, then their partner gets to serve.  At the time of the serving team’s fault if the server was #2, then the serve goes to the opposing team.  The opposing team then becomes the serving team.  In doubles who ever is next to be serving from the right serving area begins.  I singles the server continues from their next serving area.  This seams a little complicated but I will lay it out with a diagram a little later on.  The score of the game will indicate where a player should be, some teams stack themselves because as a team they may have preferences for a side.  Generally most people will rotate from side to side as they go through the serving process.  If the server serves from the wrong side or the wrong person serves it is a fault against the serving team.  Paying attention to the details is imperative.  If in doubt any player may question if people are in the right place serving or recieving.  Friendly play if you notice before the serve, mention it.  During competition your decision to call before or after the serve.  Before the serve is good sportsmanship, after the serve is competitive awareness.  I like to beat a person because I played better, not because they had a momentary lapse of concentration.  Probably because I am usually the one suffering the momentary lapse and I appreciate the heads up, hey you wrong side.  Clear as mud?  Good I will go over this again a little later on but for now the conditions that make up for the scoring also know as, faults.


A fault during game play occurs when a great shot is made or an unforced error occurs (sounds better than you screwed up).  Faults can be made by either team.  When the recieving team commits the fault the serving team scores a point.  When the soring team commits a fault the server loses their serve and the next server in rotation gets to take a moment in the spotlight.  Most of the faults are pretty straightforward, some are a little fuzzy and above all, it is just a game and making calls as fair and just as possible is expected.  If it is close and you are maybe not 100% , maybe closer to the I think category, then make the call in the other player’s favor.  The team on the side of where the fault occured has first say in the matter.  If they are not sure or cannot agree then the opposing side can make the call.  If this happens the first side cannot challenge.  So be sure of the call, call it as fair as possible or be prepared for what the other side has to say.  If neither side can decide what happened, you cannot ask spectators what they saw.  In club environments you probably could but generally it is not handled like that.  Just re-serve the point.  Anyways here are some of the faults from Section 7 – Fault Rules:

“A fault is any action that stops play because of a rule violation.  A fault will be declare for the following:”

7.A.  Hitting the ball into the net, pretty staight forward during game play.

Not to be confused with the serving of the ball and it hits the net as noted above.  We are talking about the solid hit into the net and the ball goes not further.  If it hits the top of the net and dribbles over and lands on the other side, it is still a live ball.  So be ready for those little dribblers making it over, jump in the kitchen and get it.  A side note here as well, when you are playing the ball it does not have to go over the net.  So if you run the ball down as it goes past the sideline and you can get to it before the second bounce.  You can then hit the ball to opposing side and not have to worry about wheather or not it goes over the net.  It is not a fault if it is played around the post.

7.B.  Hitting the ball out of bounds.

If you have to jump up, stretch to get that ball let it go.  If you see that ball is a line drive jump out of the way.  If the opponents hits the ball out of bounds that is their fault.  No need to save them.  Just saying.  This is one of the skills that you need to develope and one of the skills that helps determine your level of play.

7.C.  Failure to hit the ball before it bounces twice on the player’s court.

No this isn’t the 2 bounce rule.  This is the 2 bounce fault.  To quote Morgan Freeman in Robin Hood “Get up, move faster”

7.D.  Violation of a service rule.  See the section above for some of the specific faults regarding the serve.

This includes foot faults for the server and their hitting position of the ball.  This can also include being in the wrong position or the wrong person serving or recieving the serve.

7.E.  A player, player’s clothing, or any part of a player’s paddle touches the net or the post when the ball is in play.

It pays to not wear loose and baggy clothing or having long items hanging out.  Jewlery, lanyard for your keys whatever.  Put them on the sideline with your things.

7.F.  The ball in play strikes a player or anything the player is wearing or carrying.  There is one exception to this rule:

  • If the ball strikes the player’s paddle hand below the wriest, the ball is still in play.

Some people will switch the paddle from left hand to right hand and vice versa.  The hand that has the paddle in it and while you are trying to hit the ball and it goes off your hand, it is still a good shot as long as the ball does not hit above the wrist.  This is also applied if you are using both hands on the paddle to hit the ball.

  • If the ball strikes a player standing out of bounds before a fault has occurred, that player loses the rally.  In doubles, if the serve strikes the reciever’s partner, it is a point for the serving team.  If it hits the net first and then the reciever’s partner then it is a re-serve no point.

See the above section regarding serve faults.  If a serve fault is commited then there is point awarded for the serving team as it was a dead ball prior to hitting the reciever’s partner.  This is not to be confused with the first part of this point, standing out of bounds.  Even if the ball is obviously out of bounds, it is considered a live ball until it bounces or hits something.  If that something is you and you are 20 feet out of bounds guess what.  You just made your opponent happy.  So if the ball is going obviously out of bounds and to avoid having to run it down and you grab it, guess what.  You just made your opponent happy because you committed the fault.  If you call it out and bat it down because you don’t want to run it down, guess what.  You just made you opponent happy because…. that’s right you committed the fault.

7.G.  A ball in play strikes any permanent object before bouncing on the court.

If the ball hits a permanent object after hitting the court, the player who hit the ball wins the rally.  The permanent object can be the fence, roof, chair anything.  If it is live before it hits the object it is like letting the ball bounce twice.  Hitting the object before it bounces on the opposing court’s side it is a fault.

7.H.  Violation of the non-volley zone rules.  There are all kinds of little technicallities regarding this and they will be covered in the section regarding the non-volley zone.

Bottom line here if the ball doesn’t bounce in the kitchen, stay out of the kitchen.

7.I.  Violation of other rules.

This is a catch all section but relates mostly to the non-volley zone.  I am sure all these little rules have stories behind them.  When you are starting out and you are new to the game, if the ball bounces first then you can be in the kitchen.  If you are going to hit the ball before it bounces, stay out of the kitchen before, during and after the hit.

7.J.  The serve is made by bouncing the ball off the playing surface before hitting it.

Pretty straight forward.  If you swing and miss the ball then it is a strike.

7.K.  A player hits the ball before it passes the plane of the net.

This can happen during an Ernie (advanced play from side of the non-volley zone).  In the rare case (I have seen it happen) a ball can have enough back spin or a strong enough breeze to land on one side and drift back over the net.  You can reach over the net because the ball has bounced already and as long as you do not touch the net in any way shape or form it is legal.  You just can not hit the ball out of the air before it passes through the plane of the net.  So if you extended the net up and to the sides indefinately, yes this requires imagination, this is the do not cross line before the ball bounces.

A fault is not to be cofused with a dead ball.  A dead ball is declared after any aciton that stops play, a hinder called by the referee or player ( ball hitting the referee, or someone or something entering the court for example), the ball has bounced twice or a fault has been commited.

Well I know this seems a little daunting but I tried to be as thorough as possible.  Once you understand the rules it is pretty straight forward and shouldn’t slow the game down.  Learning proper technique will avert many of these faults and in competitive situations paying attention to what you and others are doing has it’s benefits.  Keep your head in the game while you are playing and enjoy the moment.  You are at the court.  If you should be doing something else then it is time to re-evaluate your priorities.  Just make pickleball number one.