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Pickleball strategy begins with a winning serve. That’s right, if you have an effective serve you can gain an advantage and win the point. A strong server can win as much as 25% of the game’s points before a rally even starts. I know that’s hard to believe, but it’s statistically true based on tournament play results. So learn how to serve effectively, and you have a very good chance of winning.

Most pickleball players start playing in double games. Go to a local park with pickleball courts, play at the YMCA or at your local club or community courts  – you’ll see that everyone – or nearly everyone – is playing doubles. Almost everyone who plays the game learns the rules, scoring and (to a limited extent) strategy by playing doubles. Serve deep, stay back, return service, come to the net, slam, dink or hit down the middle. That’s the way we’re taught to play the game. Once you’ve mastered the game of doubles many younger players move onto singles, but for the most part the vast majority of pickleball players – especially those that are starting out in 55 and over communities – are playing doubles.

Back to the serve…In order to have a winning serve, regardless of whether or not it’s singles or doubles play, you need to (1) follow standard service rules, (2) learn good form, (3) be aware of general serving strategies, and (4) practice fine-tuning specific serving techniques.

Follow Standard Service Rules
  • You must serve underhanded.
  • When the paddle contacts the ball it must be below your waist at the level of your navel.
  • Theoretically you initiate the serve with at least one foot behind the baseline. In reality, though, both feet should be behind the baseline. Neither of your feet may touch the baseline or court until after the paddle makes contact with the ball.
  • As you most assuredly know, you must hit the ball diagonally crosscourt, similar to the doubles serve, and the ball must land within the opposite diagonal box on the other side of the net.
  • It is common knowledge that you want to start your serve from the far corner regardless of whether or not you’re serving from the deuce or add court. Why? Because it gives you the best chance of angling your shot away from your opponent.
  • You only get one attempt at serve except if the ball hits the net and bounces over the net into the diagonal box cross-court. Similar to tennis, this is called a let, and you can replay the serve.

There are several YouTube videos demonstrating legal vs. illegal serves. These are a few that are definitely worth viewing:

Here is Jim Simmons showing the serve motion. The serve must be made with the arm moving in an upward arc and the paddle head below the wrist when it strikes the ball.

Here is Josh Grubbs from AllAboutPickleball.com explaining pickleball serving rules.

Here is Mark Renneson of Third Shot Sports explaining that the pickleball serve has to follow very specific rules. In this video you get to be the judge and determine which serves are legal and which are illegal.

Good Form and Good Technique

Obviously the serve in pickleball is very important. You have to have an effective serve in order to win a point. The serve starts the rally. A strong serve will put you on the offensive, whereas, a weak serve will put you on the defensive. I don’t have to tell you which side you want to be on. It’s important to learn good form and good technique.

  • You do not want to rush your serving motion. You want to be steady and have a fluid, easy motion.
  • As an seasoned player, you know that before you serve you have to look up and pick a spot on the far side of the court where you want your serve to land. Mentally hold onto that spot. Just before you serve you should lower your head so you can focus on the impact spot where the paddle will meet the ball. Same as in golf, tennis or any other racquet sport. I’m sure you’ve heard it a thousand times (especially if you’re a golfer), but it bears repeating: Keep your head down. Try to see the paddle actually hit the ball before you raise your head.
  • Another tip is to keep your front shoulder (left shoulder if you’re right-handed, right shoulder if you’re left-handed) pointed to where you want the ball to go. Simply put, your lead shoulder should be aiming towards your target spot on the court.
  • Similar to a golf swing or baseball swing, your weight should shift from back to front naturally. This is how you’ll get power into your serve.
  • Your swing doesn’t stop when the paddle meets the ball; rather, it ends after you’ve hit through the ball. There has to be what’s known as a follow through, which is near shoulder high.
Serving Strategies

It is often said that In pickleball if you’re serving you’re at a disadvantage. But this is pure baloney. It’s like tennis. As I stated earlier, the serving team has the advantage. Why? Even though the receiving team has the opportunity to come to the net first, the serving team can offset this apparent advantage by utilizing winning service techniques, as we will show. Here are some strategies you can use to insure that when serving you can take control of the game.

The first strategy of serving is to simply get your serve in. It’s a no brainer. If you don’t get your serve in you can’t possibly win a point. So make sure you get your first serve in so you can at least contend for a point.

In doubles picketball, based on what I’ve seen, points are rarely won or lost on the serve or the return of serve. It’s the third shot that is really the pivotal shot in most rallies. It’s on the third shot when you see one team or the other take the advantage. That’s of course if you don’t know how to hit a winning serve. If you can hit a deep serve to your opponent’s backhand or a deep serve with topspin or slice you can surely take advantage of a weak return and charge the net on the third shot. So like tennis if you have a good serve you can use it to your advantage; however, if you have a weak serve you’ll most likely have to wait until the third shot to try to move into position to win. Thus emphasizing the need for a good serve to get you off to a good start heading into the third shot.

Some pickleball strategists will tell you that it’s a good idea to mix up your serves in terms of velocity and locations, but that makes no sense because short serves will entice your opponents to charge the net and ultimately gain an advantage, so be advised keep your serves long. In fact, most advanced pickleball players practice over and over again hitting long serves that come as close to the baseline as possible.

  • Once you get better, you can focus more on velocity, spin, and placement.
  • Mix up your serves (velocity and location). It makes sense to mix up your serves but short serves make it easier for the receiving team to come to the net so the bulk of your serves should be deep. If you serve to the same location with the same velocity repeatedly you become very predictable giving an advantage to your opponent.
  • Serve to the backhand of your opponents. In general, people are weaker on their backhands. Players don’t typically like to play higher balls so every so often mix in some lob-like high serves. This often can throw opponents off their game.
  • A deep, firm serve to your opponent’s backhand is the go-to option for many players
  • As your game progresses, practice sharp angle serves, heavy spin serves, and other non-standard serves on the practice court. These often have a lower probability of going in but can be effective to mix in if you are proficient at executing them.
Go-to Service Strategies for Winning Points
  • Serve deep to your opponent’s backhand as often as possible.
  • Serve line-drive hard shots, topspin, or slices.
  • Serve occasional lobs that land high and deep.
  • Serve sharp angle shots that force your opponent to run after the ball or receive it an awkward angle.
Wrapping Up

Pickleball strategy begins with a winning serve. In future blog posts we’ll talk about rallies, slams, dinks, push shots and so much more. Our goal here at www.pickleballstrategy101 is to make you a better pickleball player: gain the advantage – win the point. Learn how to hit an effective serve, and you will have mastered the first and most important strategy.