Pickleball Serving Strategies – 7 Tips to Improve Your Serve

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person hitting a serve in pickleball

The pickleball serve is arguably the most important shot of the game. It sets the tone for the first point or side out, which could very well dictate the outcome of the first few rallies and give one team the advantage in points. The serve is also the only time you will get to hit the ball however you wish with all the time you need to think about it.

Here are our top pickleball serving strategies to elevate your pickleball serve and improve your game. 

Here’s Another Helpful Resource: Top 10 Doubles Pickleball Strategies

Types Of Pickleball Serves

Volley Serve 

volley serve involves tossing the ball up in the air and hitting it before it bounces. This is the pickeball serve that most professionals use and is very popular on recreational courts as well.

Drop Serve 

drop serve is when you drop the ball on the ground and hit it after the bounce. It’s important to note that if you use this type of serve you may not throw the ball to the ground as players might do in tennis; rather, you must let the ball drop out of your downturned hand without any kind of spin or alteration.

Lob Serve

lob serve, like the lob shot, goes high up in the air and bounces higher off the court after it lands. It can sometimes rattle opponents because they have to look up to track the serve while deciding how to return it, and having too much time to think often results in bad decisions or poor execution.

Drive Serve 

drive serve, as the name suggests, is fast, low, and hard with a lot of power behind it. This is a good serve for sending the ball deep into the opponent’s backcourt and forcing them to stay back near the baseline.

Topspin serve

topspin serve is executed by following through upwards over the top of the pickleball after striking it. If you generate enough topspin the ball will stay low as it crosses the net and start to dive to the ground when it gets into your opponents’ side of the court.

Backspin serve

backspin serve applies spin to the ball in the opposite direction from the topspin serve. For a right-handed player This is achieved my hitting the pickleball with an “inside out” or slicing motion ending with the wrist fully flexed outward if serving forehand, or with a left-to-right swiping or chopping motion if backhand.

Of course, this is a non-exhaustive list. There are as many types of pickleball serves as there are pickleball players, and these are just some of the most common ones you will encounter in recreational and tournament play. Understanding these different kinds of serves is key to developing a pickleball serving strategy of your own, so it’s a good idea to try to learn a bit about the mechanics of each of them as you continue developing your service game.

7 Tips To Help You Perfect Your Pickleball Serving Strategy

Serving Tip #1 – Hit It Deep

As much as possible throughout the game, you want to try to keep your opponents back. Whether you’re a beginner or advanced player, this serve strategy is probably the most important thing you can do.

Also Check Out: Pickleball Strategy Guide For Beginners

They want to get up to the NVZ, where most points are won or lost, to cut off the angles of your potentially winning shots. So the longer you can keep them in their backcourt and respond to your deep hits the longer you can control the tempo of the game.

Preventing your opponents from advancing to the NVZ allows you to keep them reacting to your strategy instead of developing their own. Starting the game with a deep serve will force the returning player to stay at or behind the line, making it easier for you to keep them there as the game progresses.

Serving Tip #2 – Aim For The Corners

A well-placed serve that lands squarely in the baseline corner can confound even the best pickleball player as they will need to adjust their position and shift left or right to hit a decent return shot, giving you or your partner the opportunity to exploit the resulting gap in their defense and perhaps open up more space on the pickleball court to place your next shot.

You can also aim for the corner created by the sideline and the NVZ line for a truly devastating serve. Returning a serve at that angle would pull the opponent so far out of bounds that they would leave most of the court virtually undefended.

Pickleball court with targets on the corners to explain where to hit the serve

Serving Tip #3 – Exploit Weaknesses

Another useful strategy to consider is identifying a weak spot in your opponent’s game and forcing them into playing to it.

For example, most players’ backhand shot is weaker or less consistent than their forehand, so when you are lining up your serve try to aim for a spot where your opponent has to use a backhand stroke to return it.

This will increase the chances that they mis-hit the ball or hit a weaker shot that goes into the net or out of bounds. Or they may run around to the other side of the ball to get into position for a forehand shot, which could open up space on the court for a well-placed third shot out of their reach.

Either way, your chances of scoring after your serve will increase if you can put the ball right where your opponent DOESN’T want it.

Serving Tip #4 – Spin It!

As discussed above, you can add either topspin or backspin to the ball to affect its trajectory. By adding various amounts of spin you can control whether the ball curves right or left depending on what kind of shot you need to achieve.

Also, spinning the ball can make it bounce unpredictably and cause your opponent to mis-hit the return of serve, which could mean a quick and easy point for you!

Whatever type of spin you put on the ball, it must be generated by motion of the paddle contacting the ball. As of 2023, the rules prohibit spinning the ball with your non-paddle hand before it is struck.

Serving Tip #5 – Vary Your Serves

Like a baseball pitcher who knows how to throw several different types of pitches, you should have at least a few different serves in your arsenal which you can use depending on the situation. The pitcher doesn’t throw the same pitch every time, but uses a variety of different pitches to keep the batter guessing at what’s coming next.

Serving in pickleball is similar in that you want to keep your opponents off-balance and unsure what type of serve you will throw at them next.

Having a consistent, go-to serve is important, but if you use the same serve over and over again it won’t be long before your opponent is using your serve to plan their strategy.

Mixing up your serves will keep your opponents from digging in and anticipating your serve too much.

Of course, if you find one type of serve to be particularly effective against an opponent, by all means keep using it. But if their return shots become increasingly confident and challenging for you, try a different serve to change the pace.

For example, if you just served several good, hard drives that landed deep in the opposing backcourt, your opponent will likely set up well behind the line knowing that you may well do it again.

On the next serve, a soft shot that just clears the NVZ will force them to run up for the return and keep them scrambling just to get it back over the net. This serving strategy aims to prevent your opponent from predicting what’s coming and preparing for it.

Serving Tip #6 – Create A Ritual

Psychologically, having a small pre-serve ritual or routine can help center your mind and prepare you for the coming point. Going through a few habitual motions actually helps create muscle memory and can make your serves more consistent overall.

Some players tap the ball against their paddle. Others like to bounce the ball a certain number of times before initiating their serving motion. For players that use a wind-up before serving, a few moments are usually spent measuring their distance from the baseline and getting into the proper position.

Even something as simple as wiping your brow or readjusting your cap can help get you into “ready-mode.”

Whatever it is you choose to do, try to establish a routine that you perform before the serve. When you do so, you are using your body to give your brain the signal that it’s time to focus on the task at hand: hitting a killer serve!

Serving Tip #7 – When In Doubt, Just Get It Over The Net!

This may sound silly and obvious, but there’s an important point to be made here. When serving you have a lot of time to think about what you are about to do. So right before the serve is when many pickleball players begin to overthink their strategy and what they need to do.

“If I can hit an ace here we will win the game,” goes the internal monologue. Or perhaps, “wow, none of my serves are landing today, I hope I don’t hit this one into the net again!” Our overactive brains can often be our worst enemies in those few seconds before we initiate our serve.

There are instances when it’s perfectly okay to sacrifice a bit of strategy in the interest of just getting the ball in play.

It will benefit you more to move around and get your paddle on the ball during a good rally than to try to hit a target you keep missing, especially if you feel like you have been playing poorly that day or have been frustrated by one particular aspect of your game.

Remember, not many points are won on the serve, but a great many point opportunities are lost by serve attempts that go out of bounds or into the net.

When all else fails, the best thing to do sometimes is just to get it over the net and into the service box so you can continue play.

Pickleball Serving Rules

According to the official rules, a legal serve in pickleball must be made in an underhand motion with your arm moving in an upward arc. Also, the highest point of your paddle must be above your wrist when it makes contact with the ball.

Serves may be hit with either a forehand or a backhand stroke.

Your feet must both remain behind the baseline when serving – not even the tip of your shoe may touch the line – and at least one foot must remain on the ground when your paddle contacts the pickleball.

After the serve has left your paddle, you may move your feet to wherever you like. (For more in- depth tips on court position before and after the serve, be sure to check out my other article, “Where To Stand In Pickleball”)

Finally, your paddle must make contact with the pickleball below your bellybutton. Regardless of whether you use a volley serve or a drop serve, making contact with the ball above your waist is considered a fault.

Conclusion

There is no one pickleball serve technique which will work in every game situation, so it’s best to have a variety of serves in your toolbox that you can pull out when the need arises.

Sometimes a basic serve that simply gets the ball in play is the right choice, other times you need something more specific to pursue your strategy.

The serve in pickleball is itself a strategic decision. Keep these tips in mind as you continue to perfect your serve and you will be taking a big step forward in improving your overall pickleball serving strategy.

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Alex started playing pickleball in May 2021 and like so many other players got hooked right away. An avid ping pong player in high school and college, he instantly took to pickleball because, in the words of comedian George Carlin, it's like "playing ping pong while standing on the table." Originally from New York City and based currently in Miami, FL, Alex often travels to different locations for months at a time with his wife who is a travel nurse, so he has become part of many pickleball communities in several states. He appreciates the social aspect of the game as much as the finer points of strategy and technique.

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