Let’s play pickleball! Do you know how? Don’t worry if you’re new because pickleball rules are simple, the game is fun, and folks of all ages and skill levels will quickly learn the basics. Here’s your one-stop source for the rules of pickleball. Whether you’re a beginner looking for an overview or a more experienced player searching for specific clarification, here’s what you need to know to keep the game going:
Before we begin, if you’re looking for a beginner’s guide to pickleball check out: Pickleball Strategy: Complete Beginner’s Guide!
An Overview of Pickleball
Pickleball is a fun hybrid of three games:
The history of pickleball is simple and charming. In 1965, two friends, US Congressman Joel Pritchard and businessman Bill Burr were hanging out with their wives and children at Pritchard’s home near Seattle.
The group contained people of all ages and levels of athletic skill. Looking for an activity everyone could enjoy together, the two men improvised a game on the estate’s old badminton court using ping-pong paddles and a plastic ball.
They soon discovered this combination of mismatched gear worked well together. The ball bounced surprisingly high and predictably on the badminton court’s asphalt. This meant they could lower the net from 60 inches down to 36.
The main draw of the game is its accessibility. You don’t have to run around the court like you’re playing tennis. Everyone can play together – young, old, athletic, and folks with limited mobility.
For a more in-depth overview of pickleball, check out our guide What Is Pickleball?
The History of Pickleball Rules
Understanding a little bit about why pickleball has rules helps you understand the specifics much easier.
At first, the game had practically no rules. People had fun just hitting the ball back and forth. However, eventually rules formed as the game extended beyond the Pritchard backyard. Most of the original rules borrowed heavily from both tennis and ping pong.
In 1976, pickleball had gained popularity across the country. An article in Tennis magazine helped it reach an even wider audience, and tournaments began to appear.
The first official Pickleball association was formed in 1984. Almost 20 years after the invention of the game, the time to create formal, officially authorized rules had finally arrived.
Where to Play Pickleball
In a pinch, you can probably play a game of pickleball on a wide variety of different courts and flat surfaces. However, for the best experience, you’ll want to play on a court with official specifications.
Fortunately, as the game continues to grow in popularity, finding a pickleball court is increasingly easy. Check community centers, senior centers, and similar spots around town.
Let’s take a look at the official specifications of a pickleball court:
The rectangular court is 20 feet wide by 44 feet long. It’s the same size for both singles and doubles. After all, the game doesn’t have excessive running, so there’s no reason a doubles court should be larger.
The official rules recommend a minimum playing area of 30 feet by 60 feet. That allows players to step outside of the court boundaries. Ideally, the playing area should be 40 feet by 64 feet. Typically, that’s what you’ll find in tournaments and other situations with serious playing.
An official pickleball court has a few key sections with specific measurements:
The back of the court is divided into two 15 by 10-foot rectangles. Each is called a “service area.” If you’re playing double, each team member starts the play in their own service area, but can then move around.
When playing singles, each player moves around the court largely without restriction. However, each player stays in diagonally-opposite section areas during the initial serve.
Next, you have the non-volley zone. It’s also called the kitchen. This area is a 14-foot zone split into two equal seven-foot sections on each side of the net. (The kitchen relates to a few specific rules when playing, which we’ll explore below.)
Court Lines and Boundaries
All lines marking the court sections must be the same color, which should contrast with the color of the court. Additionally, all lines must be two-inches wide.
Finally, you have the baseline, which is the line that designates what’s in and out of bounds. Remember, the court is always 20 feet wide by 44 feet long. However, it can have a perimeter up to 10 feet around, which is out-of-bounds for the ball but still an allowed area for players.
If you want more information on the pickleball court check out our guide, Pickleball Court Dimensions!
Pickleball Rules Overview
At its heart, pickleball is a simple game. You and your opponent hit the pickleball back and forth across the net until one of you makes an error of some type (called a “fault”).
Only the serving team can score. If you’re serving, and your opponent faults, you get one point. If the serving team faults, the teammates switch places. If the second player on the serving team faults, the other team then serves, giving them a chance to score.
Pickleball can be played one-on-one or in teams of two. When learning how to play, we’ll focus on doubles play, as singles play is basically the same with a few rule alterations (which we’ll point out as we go).
Let’s learn about the official rules of pickleball by walking through a typical game with a doubles team.
It’s important to understand the spirit behind the game’s serving rules. The serve is not meant as an “offensive weapon.” Instead, it’s designed only to get the game started.
(Of course, if you’re playing with friends and want to go all-out, feel free to play differently.)
Where to Stand
The server stands at least one foot behind the baseline. They can’t step past the baseline, entering the court, until a bit later. The other players stand in their respective quadrants on the court.
How to Hold the Paddle
While the rules of pickleball are important it’s also important to know how to hold your pickleball paddle. You must serve underhand. If you’re playing a casual game with friends, an underhand serve is usually as specific as you need to get. However, the official rules provide far greater detail:
The paddle can only make contact with the ball at the server’s waist level or below.
- Your waist is defined as your navel and lower.
- Your arm must move in an upward arc when the paddle connects with the ball.
Finally, when serving the ball, the highest point of the paddle must remain below your wrist joint.
If you’re still trying to find a pickleball paddle check out our guide, Best Pickleball Paddle!
What Do These Rules Mean?
The rules for how you can serve can seem oddly specific at first, but they make a lot of sense when you look at what actions they’re restricting.
You can’t swing your arm sideways for a power hit, pop the ball high up into the air at an odd angle, or smash it down over the net. Instead, you’re basically only allowed to get the ball moving.
How to Serve
You serve the ball across both non-volley zones into the opponent’s service court. You must direct the ball towards the opponent in the service court diagonally opposite from yours.
Generally speaking, nothing tricky is allowed here. You must deliberately aim towards the deep center of the diagonally-opposite court. Remember, you’re not trying to score.
After you hit the ball, you must then return to your starting position behind the baseline. As the server, you’re not allowed back onto the court until the third hit. That means either your partner hits the ball or you’ve stepped onto the court to do so.
You only get one chance to serve. If you hit the ball out of bounds, into your own net, or otherwise fault, it becomes the other teams’ turn to serve.
However, there’s one exception, called a let. A let is when the ball touches the net, usually the top of the net, and then falls into the appropriate service area (that of the diagonally-opposite opponent). If a let occurs, the server gets a do-over.
The Two-Bounce Rule
This is a key rule that helps separate pickleball from the sports that inspired it.
With the two-bounce rule, each team hits the ball over the net before play officially begins. It’s a rule in line with the spirit of the game, designed to reduce the advantage of serving. Also, it can help losing teams rally for the win, making the game more fun.
It’s a simple start to the game:
- First, team one serves.
- The ball bounces once on team two’s side in a non-volley zone
- Player two returns the ball.
- It bounces once on team one’s court.
From there, you’re playing pickleball!
Your opponent has served the ball. You’ve each let it bounce once on your side of the court. Now your opponent has hit the ball, and it’s passing over the net towards you. What’s next?
The ball can bounce once on your side of the court. Then you have to hit it over the net. This is called a groundstroke.
You can also hit the ball right away, without letting it bounce. However, you can’t do this if you’re standing in the kitchen. This is called a volley.
You can hit the ball however you like. You swing a mean sidearm or even swing overhand. Teammates can move outside of their sections, and players can hit the ball when standing out-of-bounds.
What is a Fault?
A fault is the key to scoring. Every serve ends in one of two outcomes (or a let, which is a do-over). Either the serving team scores a point, or they switch from teammate one to teammate two. If the second server loses a point, the team loses its serve status and they must switch out with the other team. Faults are the reason why either of those actions happens.
Faults are fairly easy to recognize instinctively. Even most kids quickly understand which team has lost the round.
Some of the most common faults are:
- A player hits a ball out of bounds
- A ball bounces twice on one team’s side
- A player hits a ball into the net (unless a let)
- A player volleys when in a non-volley zone
- A serve is hit out-of-bounds
The players themselves can be a source. A fault occurs:
- If someone touches the net or its post in any way, including with their body, clothing, or paddle.
- If the ball touches a player or any of their clothing.
- If the ball strikes an object before landing on the court (such as if the ball bounces off a wall).
Finally, some faults relate only to official play, such as if a team serves before the referee announces the score.
Faults In the Non-Volley Zone
As you can probably guess, managing your movements in and around the kitchen is a key part of a winning pickleball strategy.
Volleying – hitting the ball before it bounces on your side of the court – is, of course, prohibited when you’re standing in the non-volley zone. Violating the rule is a fault.
But it’s more extensive than just that. You can’t step into the non-volley zone for any reason immediately following the volley. If your momentum carries you forward into the non-volley zone, that’s a fault.
It doesn’t just have to be your feet. If you dive, fall, or roll so that any part of your body touches the non-volley zone, it’s a fault.
What happens to the ball is irrelevant when determining a no-volley fault. For example:
- You could volley the ball across the net.
- Your opponent could hit it into their own next.
- Your momentum could carry you into the kitchen.
The fault would go to you, not your opponent, even though they hit the ball into their own net.
The Non-Volley Zone as Strategy
While it can feel frustrating when it happens, remember that it’s often a key part of pickleball. After all, not only can this type of fault happen to you, but it can also happen to your opponent. You can try to place your shots to hopefully force them into stepping into the kitchen unintentionally.
Unless you’ve recently volleyed the ball, you can otherwise step into the non-volley zone freely during normal play.
What’s Out of Bounds?
Aside from volleying from the kitchen, another common source of faults is hitting the ball out of bounds. As with any games like pickleball, determining exactly where a ball landed can be a source of great frustration.
The boundary line is considered in-bounds. You determine eligibility by looking where the ball physically touched the ground. If any part of the ball touches the line, it’s in-bounds.
How the Score Affects the Serving Rules
Scoring determines where players stand when serving. It can feel a little complicated but often makes sense after you see it in action.
First, you’ll need to pick which side serves. You can do this any way you like, such as flipping a coin or writing down numbers.
The first server stands on the right side of the court, also called the even court. As explained above, they serve the ball diagonally opposite.
Let’s say the receiving team faults. The serving team gets a point. Now, the teammates switch places. The original server serves again, but now from the left, or odd, side of the court. Every time the serving team scores a point, they switch in this way. The receiving team doesn’t move.
What if the Serving Team Faults?
During normal play, if the serving team commits a fault, then the teammates switch. The person who wasn’t the server on the serving team previously becomes the server now. The new server first serves from the right side of the court, moving to that area if necessary. Teammates continue to switch court positions after each point is scored.
If the serving team commits a fault at this point, serving them passes to the other team. They follow the same rules as the other team, switching section areas after every point.
First Server Exception
The First Server Exception is an important rule about maintaining fairness. The team that serves first only gets one server. If the serving team faults, the two teams switch. The second player on the serving team doesn’t get a chance to serve, but only for this first round. It’s an attempt to minimize the advantage of serving first.
How to Know if You’re in the Right Spot
The person to first serve in the game is called the First Server, and where they’re standing at any time during the game helps determine if everyone’s playing correctly. If the serving team’s score is even, the First Server stands on the right side of the court. If the score is odd, they should be on the left side.
If you want more information on scoring and serving check out our guide, Pickleball Scoring!
Above all, the rules of pickleball are meant to stress the game’s fairness. You can’t overpower your opponent with volleys or take control of the game early and run up the score. Instead, the rules keep play orderly and give even low-skilled players a chance.
Pickleball is a great game for everyone, and the rules are easy enough for practically anyone to pick up after just a round or two. Although the rules have changed a bit since the game’s invention, it remains as fun as ever!