According to official pickleball rules, the serve must meet the following requirements:
- The server’s arm must be moving in an upward arc when the ball is struck.
- Paddle contact with the ball must not be made above the waist level.
- The head of the paddle must not be above the highest part of the wrist at contact.
These serve restrictions do not apply when a “drop serve” is used. The “drop serve” is when the server hits the ball after the bounce. This new method of serving became acceptable when USA Pickleball updated the rules in January 2021. When using this serving method, the ball cannot be dropped from any natural (un-aided) height and but cannot be thrown, tossed, or otherwise released with any added force to bounce it.
At the time the ball is struck, the server’s feet may not touch the court or outside the imaginary extension of the sideline or center line and at least one foot must be behind the baseline.
The serve is made diagonally cross court and must land within the confines of the opposite diagonal court. The serve must clear the non-volley zone (NVZ), including the NVZ line.
That’s pretty much the serve in a nutshell. Back in the old days of pickleball, the general wisdom was to not worry about your serve too much. You basically just had to make sure that the serve is legal and that ball lands in bounds and that was it. The popular opinion was the serve just starts the point/rally so there wasn’t much emphasis put into it. Unless you’re using rally scoring (which isn’t very common), you can only score points when your team is serving so the serve is kind of important but players certainly didn’t try to ace other players or win points just off their serve (unless you are Morgan Evans – there is an exception to everything).
While this is still true for lower level or recreational play, at the higher levels this is no longer the case. Morgan Evans is the perfect example of what today’s top players are doing with their serves. They are honing their servers and turning them into serious weapons, which are extremely lethal to teams unprepared for this new approach to serving. Rather than just keeping the serve nice and easy, players are now dishing out the toughest serves they’ve got in their arsenal.
The idea isn’t so much to ace the opposing team (though, when your serve is as tough as Morgan Evans’ serve, this tends to happen a lot) but to give them a tough serve that will difficult for them to return or to return well. Basically, the serve is a setup for the third shot. If you give the opposing team an easy serve then they can send back a very tough return, making your third shot more challenging. If you give the opposing team a tough serve, you may end up receiving a weak return which will make your third shot easier to manage.
Before the “drop serve” entered the scene, there were really five different types of serves:
- Power serve – A powerful serve can force a weak return so this serve is helpful to have in your arsenal.
- Lob serve – This type of serve can be useful because the high bounce can make it more challenging to return and it requires the returner to generate their own power. The downside is that the returner can add spin to the ball and make your third shot more difficult.
- Topspin serve – Topspin will make the ball hop toward the player when it bounces. If the returner doesn’t anticipate the spin, they’ll likely set up too close to the ball and hit a weak return.
- Soft short serve – This is useful when the returner isn’t very mobile or is standing too deep or slightly out of position behind the baseline. The downside is that the returner will likely get to the NVZ line faster since they’re running forward.
- Backhand serve – This type of serve creates a side spin that can be challenging for returners.
So what does it take to make a serve more challenging and effective?
- Serve deep – so that the returner has a greater distance to run to the NVZ line
- Add power and pace – to give opponents less time to prepare for the return and make them hit a weak return
- Exploit a weakness – target the returner’s weakness (e.g. if they have a weak backhand, serve to their backhand)
- Move them around – serving so the returner has to run to reach the ball can result in a weak or missed return
- Add spin – spin can make returns more challenging specially if the returner isn’t expecting it
Gone are the days of the serve simply being a shot that starts the point. It’s time to think of the serve as an opportunity to set the stage and tilt the odds in your favor. I hope this information has been helpful. See you on the courts!