Completely new to pickleball, you may be wondering what the sport is about. Moreover, you may be thinking about getting a pickleball paddle and going to the court to try it out.
But without knowing how pickleball is played, you won’t know what to do on the court. What would all those positions and terms used on the court mean to you if you didn’t have some basic knowledge about pickleball?
In this material, we are going to introduce you to all the info that you should know about pickleball before going to the court for the first time. It’s going to be a long and maybe even difficult read, but bear with us, you need to know all this stuff.
Pickleball Rules – The Basics
Below are some key definitions that will be helpful for you to understand the rules. There are other definitions in the USAPA rulebook, but we think that they aren’t as important for this material as these ones. You may check the rest on your own if you want.
- Groundstroke – a hit after the ball bounces off the ground once.
- Rally – continuous play after the serve and before a fault. This basically is a round in pickleball.
- Serve or service – a ball hit to start the rally.
- Fault – a loss of the rally which gives a point to the opposing team. In addition, a loss of serve and a side out are also faults.
- Side out – this is when the service is awarded to the opposing side after a player/team loses their serves.
- Volley – hitting the ball before it bounces off the ground once.
- Dead ball – a dead ball is declared when the ball is no longer in game. This happens in a number of cases which will be described below.
- Double bounce – this occurs when the ball bounces twice on the side of one team before being returned. This usually results in a fault.
- Double hit – a double hit occurs when the ball is hit twice before being returned.
- Let – a rally or serve that needs to be replayed.
- Permanent object – any object on or near the pickleball court that can interfere with the game.
What is pickleball?
Pickleball is a paddle sport that is played on a 20 x 44 feet court with a tennis-like net. A pickleball court is divided into service courts – right (even) and left (odd) – as well as non-volley zones adjacent to the net.
The serving player serves the ball diagonally to the receiving player’s service court. The ball is then hit back and forth until a player fails to return the ball.
One of the unique features of pickleball is that points are only scored by the serving side. The serving team scores a point when it wins the rally or when the opposing team commits a fault.
Typically, to win a pickleball match, it is necessary to score 11 points and have at least a 2-point margin. If the margin is less than 2 points by the time a team scores 11 points, the play continues until one of the teams wins by 2 points.
Pickleball, like the racquet sports it is based on, can be played in singles and doubles, with doubles being the most popular play type.
The two-bounce rule is unique to pickleball. It states that after the ball is served, each team must make one groundstroke before being allowed to volley.
A team/player scores a point only when serving. In addition, points may be scored in the event of technical calls against the opposing team.
After the score has been announced, once the referee determines that the receiver is/should be in position and ready to receive the ball, the server has 10 seconds to perform the service.
- The court must be 44 feet wide and 20 feet long. The measurements need to be made to the outside of the lines.
- The lines must be 2 inches wide. They must have the same color that clearly contrasts with the color of the playing surface.
- The playing surface area needs to be at least 30 feet wide and 60 feet long. 40 by 64 feet is preferred.
- The net is suspended in the center of a pickleball court.
- The net may be made of any mesh material, as long as it doesn’t allow a ball to pass through.
- The inside surfaces of the net posts need to be 22 feet apart.
- Net posts’ diameter must not exceed 3 inches.
- The length of the net should be at least 21 feet 9 inches extending from one post to another. The height of the net needs to be minimum 30 inches from top to bottom.
- The net needs to be 34 inches high from the ground in the center and 36 inches high at the sidelines.
- The top edge of the net should be covered with a 2-inch white binding. A cord or a cable needs to run through the binding.
- Permanent net systems should be equipped with a center strap. It would allow for a convenient adjustment to the height requirements in the center.
- The ball must be made of a durable molded material. The surface of the ball must be free of texturing and completely smooth. The ball may have a slight ridge at its seam as long as it doesn’t impact its performance.
- The ball must be uniformly colored, except for identification markings.
- The ball must be sized between 2.87 and 2.97 inches. The out-of-round diameter variance must be no greater than +/-0.020 inch.
- The weight of the ball must be between 0.78 and 0.935 ounces.
- When dropped from a height of 78 inches onto a 12 x 12 x 4-inch granite surface plate, the ball must bounce between 30 and 34 inches. This test must be performed at an ambient temperature of 75 to 80 degrees Fahrenheit.
- The ball must have a hardness between 40 and 50 on the durometer D scale. Again, the test needs to be done at an ambient temperature between 75 and 80 degrees Fahrenheit.
- The ball must have minimum 26 and maximum 40 circular holes.
- The ball must have the name of the manufacturer or supplier embossed on it.
Before proceeding, you could check out the USAPA/IFP list of approved paddles. It may be enough for you to see whether or not the desired paddle is approved as per this list.
- The paddle may be made any rigid, non-compressible material as long as it is deemed safe and is not prohibited by regulations.
- The face of the paddle (the hitting surface) must not have holes, rough texturing, indentations, or any other features that would allow the player to impart additional spin on the ball.
- The surface of the paddle may be painted as long as it doesn’t violate general surface requirements.
- The paddle faces must not be so reflective that they obscure the vision of the opponent.
- Any writing or graphics on the paddle must be in good taste.
- The combined length and width of the paddle – including the butt cap and the edge guard – must not exceed 24 inches. For example, a 16 x 7-inch paddle is allowed, while a 16 x 9 paddle is not. At the same time, the paddle must be no longer than 17 inches.
- As for thickness, there are no restrictions on it. The same goes for paddle weight.
- The paddle needs to have a clear designation of the model number or the brand and model name.
- Homemade paddles are not allowed in pickleball, only commercially-made paddles.
Alterations to the paddle
- The only alterations that can be made to the paddle are lead tape, edge guard tape, alterations to the grip size, grip wrap, and identification markings on the paddle’s face.
- At the same time, decals and tape must extend no farther than 1 inch above the top of the grip or more than 0.5 inches inside the outer edge of the paddle. If the paddle has an edge guard, the decals must be within 0.5 inches inside the edge guard.
- Pen markings on the paddle face are allowed as well. But they must not impact the faces’ roughness and must be in good taste.
- Textured paint, anti-skid paint, or any other material that imparts additional spin on the ball.
- Rubber or synthetic rubber coating on the faces.
- Sandpaper characteristics.
- Springs or spring-like materials.
- Flexible/compressive materials that create a trampoline effect.
- Moving parts that can increase the momentum of the paddle head.
- Removable parts, except for grip adjustments, grip wraps, and lead tape on the edge.
- Any kind of electrical, electronic, or mechanical assistance.
- If a violation of the paddle rule is detected before the match’s start, the player may switch to an approved paddle without any penalty.
- If the violation is detected after the beginning of the match, the team/player forfeits the current match.
- Lastly, if a violation is detected after the end of a match, its results remain unchanged.
- The apparel of the players must be safe and distraction-free for other players. If not complying with this rule, a player may be required to change the apparel. If a player refuses to change their apparel or otherwise comply with the rules, a forfeiture of the match may be declared.
- Depictions, insignias, graphics, etc. on the apparel must be in good taste.
- Footwear must have soles that do not damage or stain the playing surface of the court.
- The service must start only after the score has been called.
- If not ready, the server and receiver must signal in one of the following ways:
- Raise the paddle above the head.
- Raise the free hand above the head.
- Completely turn the back to the server/receiver.
- Once the score has been announced, the receiver can’t signal not ready. There needs to be a valid hinder to allow this. If there are no hinders and the receiver signals “not ready”, the receiving team will get a fault.
- Once the score has been called and the referee determines the receiver is/should be in position and ready, the serving player has 10 seconds to serve the ball.
- The beginning of the service is marked by the movement of the serving player’s arm initiating the swing to contact the ball. This motion can be forward or backward. The serve needs to be performed with an underhand motion.
- At the beginning of the serve, both feet of the serving player must be behind the baseline, as well as the imaginary extensions of the baseline.
- At the moment when the ball is struck, at least one foot of the serving player must be on the ground behind the baseline or on the playing surface. In fact, the feet of the serving player must not touch the playing surface outside the serving area.
- The ball must be struck without any bouncing. However, persons with physical disabilities that restrict them to using only one arm may bounce the ball before serving.
- The arm of the serving player must be moving upwards at the moment when the ball is struck. Either forehand or backhand motions may be used for serving.
- At the moment when the paddle strikes the ball, the paddle head must be below the serving players wrist.
- Contact with the ball must be made below waist level (=naval level).
- The serve needs to be made to the court diagonally opposite the server’s court.
- The serve must clear the net and land on any service court line. Landing in the non-volley zone is a fault.
- If the ball clears the net/hits the net and touches any of the receiving team’s players, the serving team gets a point.
- In case the player’s score is even (e.g. 0, 2, 4, 6, and so on), the serve is performed from the right/even serving area. The opponent must receive the serve in their right/even service court as well.
- If the score is odd, obviously, the serve needs to be performed and received from the corresponding left/odd service areas.
- After the serving player commits a fault or loses the rally, a side out occurs, and the service is awarded to the opponent.
- Before a side out is declared, both members of a team are serving. An exception is the start of each game when only the starting server is serving.
- At the beginning of each side out, the serve begins in the right/even service box.
- Like it was in singles, if the team score is even, the team’s starting server serves from the right/even service box. In case of an odd score, the serve is made from the left/odd service court.
- After each side out, the serve begins with the player on the right/even service box in accordance with the team’s score. This player is usually referred to as Server 1, while their partner is Server 2.
- Alternating service court sides after getting a point (right/even for even scores and left/odd for odd scores), Server 1 serves until a rally is lost or the server’s team commits a fault.
- After Server 1 faults or loses a rally, Server 2 will start serving instead, following the same rules. If the rally is lost or a fault is committed by the serving team thereafter, the service goes to the opposing team, which is called a side out, as we mentioned above.
The positions of the team members are not restricted by the rules. The only requirement is that the players are on their team’s side of the net. In fact, the players may be positioned either on or off the court.
For an example of a good starting position, have a look at our pickleball strategy tips.
Determining correct servers
- To determine the correct receiver and his/her position, the receiving team may ask the referee to confirm the score. This needs to be done before the service motion begins. In case the players are positioned correctly, they may not ask the referee for the score.
- The referee doesn’t correct the positions of the players. In the event that an incorrect player serves or receives or if the serve is performed from an incorrect position, the referee stops the play and calls a fault against the offending team.
- If an incorrect player position is discovered after a rally is over, the offending team may be faulted until the next serve is played. A point scored during the rally will not be counted towards the team’s score. However, previous points scored by the incorrect server or in incorrect positions are not changed.
Calling the wrong score
- The referee calls the score after determining that the receiver is in position. In doubles, the referee does not have to wait until the receiving team is ready for the serve.
- In the event that the referee calls the wrong score, any player may stop the play before the return of the serve and request a correction.
- If the score was indeed incorrect, the player or referee will call the correct score. Then, the ball is served without a penalty.
- If there is no error in the score calling, the team that requested a stop will have committed a fault.
- If the play is stopped after the return of the serve, the team that stopped the game will again have committed a fault.
It is a fault for the serving team during the service if:
- The service has been performed from the incorrect serving area.
- The incorrect player serves the ball in doubles.
- The ball is missed by the server when trying to strike it. In case the ball lands on the ground without the serving player performing a swinging motion, there is no fault.
- The served ball comes in contact with any permanent object before it hits the ground, except for any member of the receiving team and the net.
- The served ball comes in contact with any of the serving team’s members. This rule also applies to anything the serving team members are wearing or holding.
- The served ball lands in the non-volley zone or outside the service court. Aside from that, it is a fault if the served ball hits the net and then lands inside the non-volley zone or outside the service court.
- The service motion is started before the entire score is called.
- The serving player performs an illegal service movement.
- The serving team calls a time-out after the score has been called entirely and after the server has started the service.
- After the score has been called and the service movement is started, the serving team asks the referee to confirm the team’s score or the correct server.
It is a fault for the receiving team if:
- The service is returned by the incorrect player (=receiver’s partner).
- Any of the members of the receiving team touches or interferes with the ball before it bounces off the ground.
- The receiving player signals “not ready” after the score has been announced entirely.
- After the score has been declared and the serving player has started the service, the receiving team asks to confirm the score.
There are no limits to the number of lets (replays) that may be served by the serving player. The serve is announced a let and is replayed in the following cases:
- The serve touches the net, the net strap, or the net band but is otherwise good and lands in the correct service court.
- The referee decides to call a service let.
- Any player may also call a service let. If the referee determines that there is no valid reason for a let, the offending player receives a fault.
Service selection rules
- Any fair method can be used to determine who is serving or receiving. Sides of the court are determined likewise as well.
- If the winner chooses to serve/receive first, the loser gets to choose the starting court side. Conversely, if the winner chooses the starting side, the loses gets to choose whether to receive or serve. The winner of the toss may also defer the first choice to the opposing side.
- Once sides and roles have been selected, they cannot be changed.
- Before the start of any game in doubles, the serving team may change the starting server. To do this, the team needs to give notice to the referee.
- For each team in doubles, the starting server needs to visibly wear the identification form determined by the tournament director.
Change of sides
- The sides and initial service are switched after the end of each game.
- Up to 2 minutes of a break is allowed between each game. 15 seconds before the end of the break, the referee announces a warning.
- After 2 minutes pass, the referee announces the score, commencing the 10-second rule. The rule applies even if the players aren’t ready or on the court.
- In a match with three games to 11 points, the sides will be switched in game three once the first team scores 6 points. The serve remains with the current server.
- In games to 15 points, the sides are switched when the first team scores 8 points. Again, the serve remains with the current server.
- In games to 21 points, sides are switched once the first team scores 11 points. The serve again remains with the server.
- Up to 1 minute is allowed for side switching. The players are allowed to communicate with each other during this time. Third-party coaching is not allowed.
- Once 15 seconds are left, the referee announces the 15-second warning. Once the full 1 minute has elapsed, the referee calls the score and commences the 10-second rule. Again, the 10-second rule applies even if the players are not ready.
When the ball is considered in
- If the served ball clears the kitchen and lands on the correct service court, it is in.
- Other than the serve, if the ball lands in the court or touches any court line, it is in.
- If the ball contacts the playing surface outside the sideline or baseline, it is out of bounds. This rule applies even if the ball overlaps the line.
Dead ball rules
The ball is declared dead:
- After any action stopping the play.
- If the ball has bounced twice before being returned.
- If the ball has violated one of the fault rules.
- If a hinder or service let called by either the player or referee.
Non-volley zone rules
The non-volley zone (NVZ, also known as the kitchen) is an area that extends 7 feet from the net on each side. In the non-volley zone, players are not allowed to strike a ball without it first bouncing off of the ground.
Hence, some special rules apply to handling the ball in the kitchen.
- All volleys must be initiated outside of the kitchen.
- If the player or anything contacting the player (including the paddle) touches the kitchen while in the act of volleying the ball, a fault is declared. The act of volleying includes the swing, the follow-through, as well as momentum from the action.
- In other words, if the player steps into the kitchen after volleying, a fault will be declared. This rule also applies if the momentum causes the player to touch anything in contact with the kitchen, the partner included. This is a fault even if the ball has been declared dead before the player touches the kitchen.
- If the player contacted the kitchen, he/she cannot volley until both feet make contact with the playing surface outside of the kitchen. However, jumping within the kitchen, hitting a volley, and then landing outside the kitchen is a prohibited move.
- The non-volley zone may be entered at any time, except for when the player is volleying the ball.
- A player may enter the kitchen before or after returning a ball that has bounced.
- A player may stay inside the kitchen to return a ball that has bounced.
- A player is allowed to return the ball while their partner is in the kitchen.
Faults are called in the following cases:
- All the cases mentioned above.
- Any service rule is violated.
- Any non-volley zone rule is violated.
- Two-bounce rule: the serve or serve return does not bounce before the ball is struck.
- The ball hits into the net on any return or service.
- The ball goes under the net or between the net and the net poles.
- The ball isn’t hit before bouncing twice on the receiving team’s court.
- When the ball is in play, any player’s apparel, paddle, or the player touches the net system.
- The ball comes in contact with anything except for the paddle or the paddle hand below the wrist. In case the ball hits a player’s either hand when they are holding the paddle with two hands or attempts to change hands, the ball stays in play.
- The ball is stopped before it becomes dead.
- When in play, the ball strikes any permanent object before bouncing on the court. If the ball hits a permanent object after bouncing, the player/team that hit the ball wins the rally.
- The ball is hit before it has passed the net.
- When the ball is in play, the player deliberately carries or catches the ball on the paddle.
- The player deliberately touches the ball with the paddle more than once.
- The team/player is allowed up to two time-outs per 11- or 15-point games and up to three in games up to 21 points.
- There is no penalty for calling a time-out after they have been exhausted. The play will just resume immediately.
- Each time-out may last 1 minute at most.
- The play is resumed once a minute has passed or once the players are ready, whichever comes first. If the other team calls a time-out, the play is not resumed.
- The referee gives a warning that 15 seconds are remaining for the time-out. At the end of the time-out, the referee says “time in” and announces the score, beginning the 10-second rule. The score is called even if any of the players aren’t ready for the play.
- Time-outs may be called only before the referee calls the score and before the server begins the service motion.
- If a player is injured accidentally during the match, they may take the so-called medical time-out. Pickleball games are usually served by on-site medical teams which’s task is to assess the player’s condition and provide first aid if necessary.
- Medical time-outs for muscle cramps are not allowed. The only exception is if the time-out is deemed necessary by the medical team or the tournament director.
- The medical team (or the tournament director if no medical personnel is present) must agree that there is a valid reason for a medical time-out. This is done to prevent players from gaining time to rest.
- If it is determined that there is a valid reason for a medical time-out, the player will have up to 15 minutes for the time-out. The time used for the time-out must be continuous. If the time-out lasted less than 15 minutes, the player won’t be receiving additional time during the match.
- If the player cannot resume the play after those 15 minutes, the victory will be awarded to the opponents.
- If it is determined that there is no valid reason for a medical time-out, the team/player will receive a regular time-out if they still haven’t exhausted their time-outs. In addition, a technical warning will be issued to the team/player that has called a medical time-out.
- If this is the second technical warning for the team/player, a technical foul will be issued, no longer allowing the player to get a medical time-out.
- Each player can take only one medical time-out during the match.
- If there is blood, the match is stopped until the bleeding is controlled. In addition, all blood from the court and clothing must be cleaned up before the match resumes.
- Issues relating to blood cleanup are considered referee time-out. An exception is if the injury is self-inflicted intentionally.
At the authorization of the tournament director, the referee may allow players to quickly drink water or other beverages. However, the hydration break must not impact the flow of the game. During the hydration break, communication between team members is not allowed.
Generally, it is expected that the players maintain their gear in good condition during the game and use regular time-outs to resolve issues with equipment.
However, if the team/player is out of time-outs and if the referee deems it necessary that the equipment be changed or adjusted, the players may be awarded an up to 2-minute equipment time-out.
Equipment and apparel adjustment that can be done quickly – such as cleaning glasses or tying shoelaces – are allowed between points.
The ball in play may be hit twice. However, it is only allowed during a stroke that is unintentional, single-direction, and continuous. Otherwise, a fault is declared.
Switching hands and two-handed shots
Either switching hands or two-handed shots are allowed in pickleball.
If the player misses a shot, the ball isn’t declared dead. The ball remains in play and can be returned until bouncing twice or until any other fault is declared.
If the ball is damaged (broken or cracked), the match continues until the end of the rally.
Players may ask the referee to determine whether a damaged ball impacted the rally. If the referee determines that the ball did impact the outcome of the rally, it is replayed with a replacement ball.
In non-officiated sanctioned plays, the rally is not replayed if the players do not agree with the referee’s decision.
Injuries & equipment issues
The rally continues even if any of the players are injured during it. Likewise, the rally isn’t stopped when the player loses or breaks any item. The rally is stopped only if a fault is committed.
Ball contact with items on the court
If a player’s item lands on his/her side of the court, the ball remains in play even if it contacts the item. However, if the item lands in the non-volley zone as a result of a volleying action, a fault is declared.
The net plane
After hitting the ball, a player or any items that he/she wears or carries may cross the plane of the net, including the imaginary extension line of the net beyond the posts. The player or the item must not touch the net system or the court of the opponent.
If the ball bounces into a team’s/player’s kitchen with enough backspin to cause the ball to return over the net, it is allowed to reach over or around the net to hit the ball. While doing so, the net system or the opponent’s court must not be touched. If the team/player fails to touch the ball as it returns over the net, the team/player that last struck the ball wins the rally.
Players are not allowed to distract their opponent while the latter is about to play the ball.
The team/player may request the referee to determine whether or not a distraction occurred. If it did occur in the judgment of the referee, a fault is declared against the offending team.
In non-officiated play, if players do not agree that a distraction occurred, they may request the tournament director or the referee to make a decision.
In doubles, team communication before the opponent strikes the ball is not considered a fault.
Contact with net posts
- The net posts are installed out of a court’s bounds. In the event that a player or the ball touches the net post, a fault and dead ball are declared.
- However, if the ball contacts the net, the rope between the posts, or the net cable, it remains in play.
- After the ball is hit, the player may go around the net post and cross the imaginary extension line of the ball. However, this needs to be done so the player or any item they are wearing or carrying does not touch the court of the opposing team.
- There are some additional rules that apply to net systems with horizontal bars and a center base:
- If the ball hits either the center base or the horizontal bar before crossing the net, a fault is announced. If the ball has crossed the line before contact, a let is called. The serve is also replayed if the ball gets caught between the net and the horizontal bar after crossing the net and before touching the court.
- If the ball hits the horizontal bar or center base on the serve after crossing the net, a fault is called.
Shots around the net post
- Players are allowed to return the ball around the outside of the net post. Moreover, it isn’t necessary for the ball to travel back over the net.
- There are no restrictions on the height of the return around a net post, so a player may return the ball below the height of the net.
- A player is allowed to use or carry only one paddle while playing.
- When the paddle makes contact with the ball, a player must be in possession of the paddle.
Thank you for taking the time to read this post – if you want to find our more about the great game of Pickleball, discover some unique strategies or just read more equipment reviews then head on over to our Pickleball Home page here.