Pickleball is one of the fastest-growing sports in the US. That’s in large part due to the ease of learning and also its similarity to well-established sports like tennis, table-tennis and badminton. A game of pickleball can have two (singles match) or four players (doubles match). The rules are the same for both doubles and singles matches.
The basic equipment of a pickleball match is a paddle, a ball and the right shoes (court, tennis and volleyball shoes will do but stay away from running shoes). It’s played on a rectangular badminton-sized court with a net dividing the length of the court into two equal halves. On either side of the center net, each side has a buffer zone fondly referred to as the kitchen. Beyond the kitchen are the left and right service areas.
The net’s mesh should be small enough to prevent the ball from going through it. The ball is perforated and is made from polymer in much the same way as a wiffle ball. The balls used in indoor and outdoor pickleball do differ. Outdoor balls are heavier to withstand the resistance of windy conditions.
A pickleball paddle is smaller than a tennis racquet but larger than a table tennis paddle. The paddle may be made from graphite, wood or composite. Graphite and composite paddles deliver better control and power which makes them popular with tournament players. The best pickleball paddle is one that fits your style of play.
Tournament players must ensure the paddle is sanctioned by the US Pickleball Association (USAPA) or other national oversight body and/or the International Federation of Pickleball (IFP). The paddle must meet the laid down requirements for weight, size and composition.
A team or player is entitled to two time-outs for an 11 or 15-point game, and three time-outs for a 21-point game. A time-out should last for no more than 1 minute. Players may however take a medical time-out if they are injured during a match. Medical timeouts should be 15 minutes or less. A player can only take one medical time-out per game.
When serving, the player must have both feet behind the backline and should strike the ball with an underhand motion and diagonally. At the moment that the ball is struck, at least one foot has to be on the ground or playing surface behind the baseline. The ball must be served with a paddle, should be struck when in the air and mustn’t be allowed to bounce. The served ball’s first bounce should be in the opponent’s service area.
The strike should occur below the server’s waist (navel) level. Only a single serve attempt is permitted save for instances when the ball grazes the top of the center net and lands in the opponent’s service area (in that case, the serve is replayed). In instances where a match is played by one or more persons with a physical disability (such as having use of one arm), the player is permitted to bounce the ball before the service action.
The service sequence is fairly straightforward in a singles pickleball game. The server strikes the ball from the right court when their score is even and the left when their score is odd. It’s a little more elaborate for doubles.
In doubles, both players in each team have the chance to serve the ball and score points for their team until a fault occurs. This excludes the first serving sequence of a new game. The first serve occurs in the right court. When a point is scored, the next serve is initiated in the left court but by the same player on the same team. The player goes back and forth until they commit a fault and therefore lose their serve. When that happens, the second player on the serving team will take over subsequent serves until they too commit a fault after which the serve switches to their opponents.
Likewise, the first serve in the opposing team’s side after this switch takes place must occur in the right court. When a point is won, the server moves to the left court. The process follows the same sequence it did when the first team was serving including the second server taking over when the first server commits a fault and loses their serve.
If a ball is served from an incorrect position or by the wrong player, a fault is called. Points scored during the subsequent rally do not count.
The receiving doubles team do not change positions whenever a point is scored by the team serving. The receiving team can switch places once they return the serve but must resume their original positions at the end of the rally.
If a serving or receiving player isn’t ready to commence play, they signal that by raising their paddle or non-paddle hand over their head, or turning their back completely from their server. In a doubles match, these signals are deemed invalid if they are made by the server’s or receiver’s partner.
If a referee believes that a server or receiver is deliberately delaying commencement of play, they can call out the score to trigger the 10-second rule. This rule gives the server 10 seconds to serve. Failure to do so sees a fault declared. A receiver who reaches out to return a serve will be considered ready even if they fail to make contact with the ball.
A single point is scored at a time. Points are scored by the serving player or team and are earned when the serving side wins a rally or the opposing team commits a fault. The goal of a match is to be the first team or player to score at least 11 points and win by a margin of two or more.
For example, a team could win 11-9, 11-8, 11-7 etc. However, if both teams are tied at 10 points each, then the match must proceed until one side eventually has a 2-point lead. Tournaments may set a winning mark of 15 or 21 though the requirement of winning by at least two point still stands.
When the score of the serving team is an even number, the player who was designated the first server will serve or receive from the right court. When the score is odd, the same player will serve or receive from the left court. The full score must be called before each serve commences.
In singles matches, the right sequence for calling out the score is stating the server score and receiver score (e.g. “three – seven”). For doubles matches, the score consists of three numbers— the server team’s score, the receiver team’s score and whether it’s the first or second server who’s serving. So the number will e.g. go “three – seven – two”.
In case a referee or server calls out a wrong score, a player can stop play before the serve is returned to ask for clarification or correction. If the score was indeed incorrect, the referee or server will call out the right score and the ball re-served without penalty to either side.
On the other hand, if the score was correct, then the player who stopped play after the serve would have committed a fault and will automatically lose the rally. Also, if the player stops play after the serve has been returned will have committed a fault and therefore lose the rally irrespective of whether the score called out was correct or not.
After the serve, a double-bounce rule is applied. That means each side must allow the ball to bounce once on its side before returning it. Once this has occurred in each court half, the teams are allowed to volley (i.e. return the ball before it bounces).
The two-bounce rule effectively eliminates the volley and serve advantage thereby extending rallies. After the double bounce, you are allowed to strike the ball if it bounces in your kitchen area but you must exit immediately failure to which it becomes a fault.
The Kitchen (i.e. the Non-Volley Zone)
The kitchen is the area within 7 feet of either side of the net. You must never volley from the kitchen hence why it’s officially referred to as the non-volley zone. A serve mustn’t land in the kitchen area else it’s a fault. Like the two-bounce rule, the restrictions over the non-volley zone help extend rallies.
It’s a fault if a player steps into the kitchen (including the line that marks the start of the zone) when volleying the ball. That includes stepping in the zone due to running momentum after striking the ball. A player is permitted to be in the kitchen when they are not volleying the ball. They can enter the zone after or before returning a ball that has bounced. There’s no fault if a doubles player returns a ball while their partner is in the non-volley zone.
The line-calling role of players differs from that of officials (line judges and referees). The officials’ judgements must be impartial and bear the interests of all players. Players on the other hand, when assigned line calling roles must pursue accuracy and work under the knowledge that any questionable calls they make must be resolved in the opponent’s favor. Spectators have no role in line calls.
A player isn’t allowed to question an opponent’s line call. Instead, they should appeal the call to the referee. A player can request their opponent’s opinion on a line call if they believe the opponent was in a better vantage point to make the call. Nevertheless, when an opponent’s opinion is requested, it has to be accepted.
When the ball comes into contact with any line in the court on a serve (with the exception of the lines marking the non-volley zone) it’s counted as in. When a serve falls on the non-volley zone line, it’s a fault. A ball that touches the surface outside the sideline or baseline even if the ball’s edge is overlapping the line will be deemed out of bounds.
Any balls that cannot explicitly be called as ‘out’ will be deemed ‘in’. A player may ask the referee to make the call if they didn’t clearly see the ball as it landed. In the event the referee cannot make the call, the ball is considered ‘in’.
A fault is anything that halts play due to a rule violation. We’ve already covered a number of pickleball faults in the preceding sections. When a fault is made by the receiving team, it’s counted as a point for the team that served. When the serving team faults, they lose the serve. At the start of the game, both sides are allowed one fault before the serve moves to the next server or the opposing team.
It’s a fault if the server swings at but misses the ball while serving, the ball is served before the full score is called, a player hits the ball twice, if players on the same side both strike the ball, if the ball is driven into the net, if a player fails to get the ball into the opponent’s service area, if the player strikes the ball after it has bounced twice in their service area, the wrong doubles player returns the serve or the serving team calls a time-out after the score is called and the service motion has started.
Determining Serving Team
There’s no specific rule that states how to fairly determine which team or player will serve or receive. It can be as simple as flipping a coin. If the person who wins the coin toss chooses to receive or serve first, the loser selects the starting side. If the winner picks the starting side, then the option of receiving or serving is deferred to the loser.
Once the sides and server/receiver roles have been picked, they cannot be reversed. However, the starting server in a doubles match can be changed prior to the start of a game as long as notice is given to the referee. The first server of a doubles team must wear a conspicuous form of identification as determined by the tournament organizers. Initial service and sides are switched at the end of each game.
The purpose of the above rules is to create a baseline for the organization of tournament and league play. Some rules are however specific for sanctioned tournaments i.e. events that determine a player’s national or international ranking. Nevertheless, that doesn’t limit non-sanctioned tournaments from using the same rules but they enjoy greater flexibility to alter rules to better fit the age, skill and diversity of players.