What is Pickleball?
The sport of pickleball was invented in 1965 by three dads on Bainbridge Island, near Seattle, WA, to entertain their sons between seasons of other sports. Fast forward, today nearly 9 million people in the US alone participate in pickleball.
The game itself contains elements of tennis, badminton, and ping pong. The court is the size of a doubles badminton court, and the game is played with a paddle, about twice the size of a ping pong paddle, using a ball which could be compared to a whiffle ball. The ball is served underhand into play, and then hit back and forth. Only points can be recorded when serving, and games are played first to 11 points, win by 2, in both singles and doubles.
How to Play Pickleball
The Court Set Up
Pickleball is played on a badminton-sized court (20' x 44'):
The net is 36 inches high at the sideline, and 34 inches at the center. Pickleball is most often played as doubles with 4 players, two on each team (though singles is possible as well). Each player stands to the right and left of the centerline.
You can hit two types of shots:
Groundstrokes - hit off the bounce, often from the baseline
Volleys - hit out of the air from a position closer to the net
Each side has a 7 ft area called the Non-Volley Zone, or “Kitchen”, where no player can hit volleys from. Not even a toe can touch the kitchen line during a volley (more on that later).
Now that we have the court set up, let’s get playing!
Rule #1: Each Point Begins with a Serve
The pickleball game – and each point – starts with the serve. The player on the right side of the court, facing their opponents, starts the serve. You serve diagonally to your opponent, into the right or left service area:
The serve must clear the "Kitchen" (including the line) to count.
Rule #2: Your Serve Must Be Underhand
A pickleball serve must be hit with an underhand stroke with contact below the waist and underhand (no side arm). Your arm must move in an upward arc when you strike the ball.
You can hit the ball out of the air (as most players do). Or you can drop the ball on the ground and hit.
The goal of the pickleball serve is to put the ball in play. This is quite different than a tennis serve, where the goal is to serve overhand aggressively to win the point.
Rule #3: Each point continues until a fault
After the serve, gameplay continues until a “fault” is committed. A fault ends a point.
In pickleball, there are basically 3 types of faults:
The serve does not clear the kitchen (including the line)
A shot is hit out of bounds - landing behind the baseline or outside the sideline
A shot is hit into the net
Note there is no “let” in pickleball – meaning if a serve hits the net, there’s no redo. The ball is played as it lands.
We’ll also cover 2 more advanced faults later in our rules.
Rule #4: You cannot volley while standing in the kitchen
The 7 ft zone on each side marks the “non-volley zone,” or kitchen.
This means you can never hit a volley – which is a shot hit out of the air – while having any part of your body in the Kitchen. Or even on the Kitchen line. And you can’t let your momentum carry you into the kitchen after a volley either.
Why this rule? Once you play, you’ll see players at the net have a big advantage. They can hit any ball high enough with a downward “smash.” This shot puts opponents right on the defensive.
Pickleball’s inventors learned standing right on the net made volleying too easy. It was an unfair advantage and took the fun away (for the defenders that is!). And so the “Kitchen” was born.
Rule #5: You Can hit Groundstrokes in the Kitchen
If your opponent hits a short shot landing in the kitchen, what’s called a dink, you can enter and hit from the kitchen.
Dinks are a defensive shot, and one of the most important parts of pickleball strategy. Often your best move after moving into the kitchen to field a dink is to dink right back to your opponent’s kitchen.
Rule #6: The Ball Must Bounce on Both Sides Before Either Team Can Volley
Before any player can hit a shot out of the air (a volley), the ball must bounce at least once on each side. This means if your partner is serving, and you start up at the kitchen, you’re in a dangerous position…
Why? Because the returning team can hit a shot right at you, and if you react with a volley, that’s a fault. You lose the point.
This rule keeps the serving team back on the baseline to start. Without it, the serving team could easily rush the net and gain an unfair edge every time. The return team would struggle to ever regain the serve and get points, as we’ll cover in our next rule.
Rule #7: You only win points on your serve
In Pickleball, you only win points on your serve, and you continue serving until you lose a point. After winning each point on your serve, you switch sides with your partner and serve to the other opponent.
What happens if you lose the point on your serve? We’ll cover that below in Rule #8:
Rule #8: Both partners serve in a turn
In each turn, both players (in doubles) get the opportunity to serve. And in pickleball scoring, you’ll hear players announce three numbers, “Zero, zero… two.”
What the heck is that third number? It tracks which of the two players on a team has the serve.
Let’s say the game is tied at 3-3. If you start the serve (from the right side remember), you’ll announce “3-3-1,” so everyone knows you are the first player in rotation serving.
If you lose the point, the ball doesn’t go to your opponents. It goes to your teammate who will announce “3-3-2.”
Then if you’re partner loses their serve, the ball goes back to your opponents who will announce, again, “3-3-1.” And your team will now have win points on both opponent’s serves to get the ball back.
Ah and one exception to this rule… The first player to serve in the game calls out “0-0-2.” This is so the starting team only gets one serve. If both players served to start, the serving team would gain an unfair advantage over the returning team.
Confused yet? We promise it’s easy once you start playing!
Rule #9: First team to 11 points wins – and you must win by 2
Following all the rules above, the game continues until one team gets 11 points. The catch? You have to win by 2.
So if a game’s tied 10-10, the next score doesn’t win. The game continues past 11-10. This rule can have games on for a long time. You can have ending scores of 12-10, 15-13, or even 21-19. But these are often the most fun games!
How to Start a Pickleball Game
The pickleball game always begins with a serve.
Who serves first?
According to the USA Pickleball Association Rulebook, “any fair method shall be used to determine which player or team has the first choice of serve.” You can flip a coin. We’ve seen some local courts dictate the north side always serves first. So you can ask a local or come up with your own way.
Once the serving side is determined, the player on the right side of the court goes first.
They announce the starting score, which is always “0-0-2.” Each team starts with 0 points. The “two” indicates the starting team serves at position 2. Meaning they only get one serve on the first rotation (this is to prevent an unfair advantage). The server then serves underhanded to the diagonal side. If the serve is “in,” gameplay continues.
See more: How Pickleball Scoring Works.
So to recap that’s:
Determine the first serving side by local rules or coin toss
Player on the right side of the court serves first
They announce “0-0-2” as the starting score
Player serves underhanded (out of the air or off the bounce) to the diagonal side
If the serve is “good,” beyond the kitchen line but inside the baseline and sidelines, the first point continues