Legal Vs. Illegal Pickleball Serves

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The rules of pickleball are ever-evolving. Here are the current rules to determine a legal vs. illegal pickleball serve.

young man showing illegal serving motion in pickleball

We have all been there. Standing on the court after a rough point and your partner looks at you out of the side of their eye and says in a whisper voice that only you can hear “That serve is illegal. They’ve been doing it all game and it’s completely fricking illegal!”

Watching for a foot fault, upward motion, where the ball bounces, the imaginary extension of the lines, and non-volley zone infractions is overwhelming, especially when you are trying to remember to play to the back hand, watch their stacking, and keep the ball deep!

Whew, I am anxious just typing that all out.

Well, let’s delve into the pickleball service rules and boil them down to give you a simple way to identify an legal versus illegal pickleball serve.

Then you can stop your partner from chirping every time they feel like blaming the other team for rule violations on the court.

Pickleball Service Rules

For the definitive and exhaustive (and slightly over-descriptive) rules of pickleball, I always refer to USA Pickleball, and here is their serving rules summary

In a nutshell, the player serving must strike the ball from behind the baseline from either the left or right side of the center line, with the first serve of each side-out being made from the right/even side of the court. 

As the ball is struck, the server’s feet may not touch the court or be outside the imaginary extension of the sideline or centerline.

The player serving must have at least one foot behind the baseline on the playing surface or the ground behind the baseline. Putting spin on the volley serve is now illegal and is considered a fault (when a referee is present).

demonstrating a legal Pickeball serve

Before serving, the server must call the score before striking the ball. Lastly, the ball must be hit into the service area diagonally across the court from the server.

Brand New to The Game? Check Out: How to Play Pickleball – a Beginners Guide to Pickleball Rules

Legal vs Illegal Pickleball Serves

USA Pickleball has clearly defined the difference between illegal vs illegal pickleball serves under the serving rules section of the pickleball rules book.

Paddle position, service motion, player’s foot position, ball release, and where the ball lands are well defined in the rule book. The good pickleball player is familiar and follows them to avoid on court disputes.

Knowing the difference between what is legal or illegal will serve you well on the court and quickly diffuse the players who play with their own special “club” or “house rules”.

Lastly, its important to stay up on USA Pickleball’s latest rule change set and new provisional rules. If you are not, many players are bamboozled in January, when what once was legal is now illegal (I’m looking at you spin servers!).

This wonderful pickleball game of ours has a dynamic set of rules and pickleball serve rules are just one section of the rulebook, so please read it over at least twice a year to keep up with our esteemed pickleball rules committee.

Pickleball Service Types

There are two types of services allowed in Pickleball, the Drop and Volley serves.

  • The drop serve allows the server to drop the ball and hit the serve after it bounces on the service court
    • The drop serve has a lot less rule restrictions around spin and ball visibility
  • The volley serve requires the server to hit the ball without letting it bounce on the service court
    • The volley serve has many more rules applied to it, as we will see below.

Legal Versus Illegal: Service Motion

This is where many people scrutinize the server and think they see issues with the way the ball is struck. Here are the key serve rules that must be followed for a service to be considered a legal pickleball serve:

  1. The server’s arm must be moving in an upward arc when the ball is struck
  2. When the paddle strikes the ball it must not be made above the server’s waist
  3. The head of the paddle must not be above the highest part of the wrist at contact
  4. A “Drop Serve” is also permitted in which case none of the elements above apply
  5. At the time the ball is struck, the server’s feet must not be touching the court (including the lines) or be outside the imaginary extension of the sideline or centerline
  6. The player serving must have at least one foot behind the baseline on the playing surface or the ground behind the baseline

Examples

Many players are unclear if the serve motion is legal or illegal and where the contact with the ball should occur. Here are examples of legal and illegal services.

Legal Serving Motion

The legal service means the paddle head is low and the contact point of the ball and paddle are below the server’s waist.

young man demonstrating wrist potion for goal vs. legal pickleball serve

Illegal Serving Motion

The illegal serve motion occurs when the ball is hit above the player’s waist or the paddle head is parallel to the ground when it strikes the ball.

demonstrating wrist position for illegal vs. legal pickleball serve

Note the above picture shows the player’s wrist cocked, causing the paddle to be above the highest part of the wrist when the ball is struck.

The key to watch for is the wrist. If the player’s wrist is bent, there is a strong chance that the service is illegal.

Illegal Serves – Spin Serve

As of January 2023, the one-handed pickleball spin serve, is now illegal! Up until this year, you would see both rec and tournament players’ spins, baffling their opponents with their volley serves that would kick left or right as the ball bounced on the service court. But, USA Pickleball eliminated the spin serve in 2023 for the following reasons:

  1. Pickleball’s original purpose was to use the serve to start play
  2. Most players cannot master a truly effective spin serve, or return a good spin serve
  3. An effective spin serves require more court space to allow a receiver to react
  4. There are only a limited number of players who have mastered this technique, giving them an unfair advantage
  5. The spin service is particularly devastating for amateur players

Please review the full rules description if you would like more information on this illegal, very bad, but fun to watch service technique.

Illegal Serves – Foot Fault

According to the rule book, the server must be behind the baseline and within the pickleball court sidelines when they strike the ball:

  1. At the time the ball is struck, the server’s feet may not be touching the pickleball court (including the lines) or be outside the imaginary extension of the sideline or centerline

If the server steps on the baseline during their serve or starts or ends their service outside of the sidelines (imaginary extension), it is considered an illegal serve, and a fault. This rule applies to both the drop and volley serve.

Illegal Serves – Landing in the Non-Volley Zone

When served, the ball must pass over the net and land past the non-volley zone. If the ball lands in the non-volley zone, or on the non-volley zone line the service is a fault. This rule applies to both the drop and volley serve.

How to Avoid Illegal Serves In Pickleball

Use the Drop Serve

The easiest way to avoid the multitude of serving restrictions is to use the drop serve. The drop serve requires the server drop and bounce the ball on the pickleball court, before striking it.

Performing the drop server requires the server to strike the ball after it bounces on the playing surface and can be made with either a forehand or backhand motion.

There is no restriction on how many times the ball bounces nor where the ball can bounce on the playing surface. A proper drop serve includes the following elements:

  1. The server must release the ball from one hand only or drop it off the paddle face from any natural (un-aided) height
  2. The ball shall not be propelled (thrown) downward or tossed or hit upward with the paddle
  3. The restrictions on the volley serve in rules do not apply to the drop serve

This is the least restricted service in pickleball and will help you avoid many of the detailed rules that restrict the volley serve. 

Practice, Practice, Practice

As mentioned in many of my articles. drilling and practice will improve your game. It allows you to build confidence, muscle memory, and consistency.

The more you practice, the more you will build consistency in your game and expand your shot repertoire. So, grab a bucket of balls and serve for 20 minutes every time you play.

Your body and mind will lock onto the motion, the feeling of striking the ball, and having it land in!

Also, grab a practice partner if you can, to help you retrieve the balls, watch your stroke, and taunt you as you play. It helps build confidence and makes practice a whole lot less boring.

Know the Rules of Pickleball

This sounds obvious, but you’d be surprised how many players have not read or know all of the rules for pickelball. This article is a good start, but you need to have a good understanding of the rules, especially if someone challenges one of your shots.

Refering to the rule book and asking them if they know the particulars can quickly end/diffuse many a pball rules argument. This is just ase true in pickleball, as it is in life.

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Michael has been playing competitive racquet sports forever - from badminton to racquetball to squash to tennis. He has always enjoyed both the competitive and social aspects of the games. Pickleball has become his latest obsession, combining all the fun aspects of court games, plus the challenge of being a new set of skills for his mind and body. Michael is constantly trying to improve his game, through drilling, playing, watching YouTube for tips, and researching the latest equipment and strategies. You will find him looking for matches and new players to hit with all across Southern California or converting non-Pickleballers to Pickleballers.

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