Pickleball is one of the fastest-growing sports in the world. With a small court and a light ball, it’s easy to pick up and play. With inexpensive equipment and a strong social component, pickleball is a great sport for modern play. With pickleball clubs in all 50 states and every Canadian province, there’s a club near you, giving you a chance to learn the sport.
Invented in 1965 in Washington State, the very first pickleball tournament was held in 1974, using improvised equipment. In the mid-1980s, pickleball’s rules were formalized and the first pickleball rules set was published in 2008. Pickleball’s rules are published and maintained by USA Pickleball.
Please remember that this article is only an overview of the rules of pickleball. The full rules are found online at USA Pickleball. If there is any case where the rules as communicated in this article conflict with the official rules of pickleball, the official rules always take precedence.
Pickleball has become an international sport with two national championships in the United States, two professional tours and one professional league to its credit. The International Federation of Pickleball was established by USA Pickleball in 2010 to be an international governing body of the sport. However, because of a conflict in March, 2022, seven full member nations and two associate member nations – including USA Pickleball – withdrew by July, 2022.
The World Pickleball Federation was also formed in 2018 and serves as a competing organization to the IFP. The IFP’s international championship game series is the Bainbridge Cup; the WPF’s is the World Pickleball Games, which has not been held yet as of 2022 due to the COVID-19 pandemic.
What’s In A Name
There are two separate stories of how pickleball might have been named, and both of them may be true. The first story is that Joan Pritchard, wife of co-inventor Joel, named the sport because “The combination of different sports reminded me of the pickle boat in crew where oarsmen were chosen from the leftovers of other boats.”
According to Barney McCallum, another co-inventor, the sport was named after the Pritchards’ dog, Pickles, who would chase the ball and run off with it. In the early years of the game, there was no name assigned to it, but after 1967 it was called pickleball, and the name stuck.
The Pickleball Court and Equipment
Pickleball is played with a smaller, harder and less bouncy ball than tennis. Because of this, the court that it’s played on is also smaller, because it gets less energy from the racquet, or paddle, than a tennis ball, which gets a great deal of energy from the bounce of both the racquet and its strings. A pickleball court is 44 feet (13.41 m) long by 20 feet (6.1 m) wide, split into two 24 foot by 20 foot sides by a three-foot-high (0.9 m) net. Copies of the exact specifications for the construction of a pickleball court can be purchased at Sports Builders.
Equipment for pickleball includes a plastic ball 2.874 to 2.972 inches in diameter, weighing between .78 and .935 ounces. The pickleball paddle is a solid bat that can be made of a number of legal materials. Wood, like a ping-pong paddle, to composites and even carbon fiber are all used for regulation paddles.
Calling score has a pattern that doesn’t change.
Like any other racquet sport, pickleball has players call off the game score before serving. The purpose of this is to alert the opposing side to the fact that a rally is about to begin and give them a moment to get ready to return the ball and begin the rally fairly.
The format of calling score is “My score – Your score – Service.” At the beginning of a doubles game, this will be called as “0-0-1.” My score is zero, your score is zero, and the player in the odd box (the box on the right-hand side) is serving. This is unusual for a racquet sport, where normally only the server and receiver score is called, but understandable for pickleball, where each player serves in turn.
Serving Is Like Many Racquet Sports
Pickleball is like badminton in that the serve must be underhand, with the paddle making contact with the ball below the player’s waist and the head of the paddle being below the handle. In standard paddleball serving, the serve looks a lot like a standard badminton serve: The ball comes down on the paddle and is lobbed into the opponent’s court with a basic bowling motion from behind the baseline.
Common serving faults include hitting the ball too high in the serve, so that the paddle is either above the waist the head is above the handle. Additionally, the serving player must stay outside the baseline of the court – if the foot touches or moves in front of the baseline during the serve, the player has committed a fault.
Approved by USA Pickleball in 2020, the drop serve removes most of the restrictions in the pickleball serve, so that the serving player can concentrate on delivering the ball to the opponent’s court. Because pickleball is such a beginner-focused sport, and the drop serve is similar to many orthodox serves in tennis, it presents an easier approach to the game for new players familiar with tennis. Like tennis, the ball must be served to the diagonally opposed court.
In doubles play, pickleball shows its difference from other racquet games and preference for team play by allowing each player on a side to serve from their respective court each time their team has the ball, rather than switching serves to the opposing side every time a point is scored.
In singles pickleball, serving moves based on the current score. If the serving player has an even-numbered score, the server serves from the right court (or “even” court); if the serving player has an odd-numbered score, they serve from the left court.
At the beginning of the game, service is slightly different in that only one partner on the serving team can serve before faulting. After this, service passes to the receiving team, which also has only one opportunity to serve. After this, service runs on two faults per team before passing.
When serving, the ball must hit within the opposite court, beyond the kitchen line. If it hits in the non-volley zone, or “kitchen,” the serve is short and a fault. If it hits beyond the baseline, the serve is also a fault, and if it hits outside the side lines, again, a fault.
A successful serve falls within the court opposite the one that the serving player served from.
The ball must bounce on each side of the net for the rally to begin
In many racquet sports, the serving player may volley the ball immediately after it’s returned for the first time, encouraging a rush to the middle of the court. However, in pickleball, the serving player must allow the return to bounce once in the field of play.
This rule is intended to improve the fairness of play, making the game more even for the serving and returning player, as volley play cannot begin until the ball has been both served and returned. Once the rally begins, players can either volley the ball if they hit it on the fly, or allow it to bounce and return. This rule is called the “two-bounce rule.”
Once the ball has bounced twice, players are allowed to continue much like tennis or ping-pong, either hitting the ball on the bounce, called a “ground stroke” or a “groundie,” or on the fly as a volley. Volley play can be exciting to watch, and players seek to hit volleys because they pressure opponents, and can cause mistakes to happen quickly, opening up scoring opportunities.
Get to the Point of the Matter
Scoring in pickleball is very similar to tennis. A team scores when the opposing team commits a fault, i.e. fails to return the ball legally. Volleying from within the no-volley zone (commonly called the “kitchen”) is a fault, hitting the net and subsequently having the ball land within your own court is a fault, failing to hit the ball before it hits the ground twice is a fault.
Hitting the ball and having it land out of bounds on the fly is a fault. When the returning team makes a fault, the serving team scores a point. When the serving team makes their first fault, the serve passes to the odd player. When the serving team makes their second fault, the serve passes to the even player of the other team.
Like any ball-and-net sport, only the serving team can score points, and one point is scored per rally. In pickleball, games are played to 11 points and must be won by two; if the score is 10-10, then like other ball-and-net scores, the serving team must win two points to win before allowing the other team to score any. Tournament games may be played to 15 or even 21 points and again must be won by 2 points.
Lastly, when the serving team’s score is even, the player who was the first server in the game for their team will be in the even, or right, court when serving and receiving, while the opposite will be the case when the serving team’s score is odd. This keeps players in motion and keeps them flexible to all sides, rather than potentially getting stuck in one mode of play all the time.
The Non-Volley Zone: A Self-Explanatory Rule
The seven feet on each side closest to the net are called the “non-volley zone.” The non-volley zone is, as the rule suggests, an area of the court where players are prohibited from volleying the ball; only ground strokes can be hit from within the non-volley zone.
The prohibition on volleying within the non-volley zone prevents players from executing short-range smashes. If the player steps on or over the non-volley zone while hitting a volley, they will be charged a fault and the point ends. Any other time than while volleying the ball, however, the player is permitted to be in the non-volley zone.
The non-volley zone is also commonly called “the kitchen,” and the line separating it from the rest of the play area is the “kitchen line.” There’s no court divider in the kitchen, and it’s a fault to serve into the kitchen. Because players can’t volley the ball while they’re in the kitchen, and the amount of space between the kitchen line and the net is relatively short, players tend not to play while in the kitchen, instead opting to stay just beyond the kitchen line.
One last rule that may seem counterintuitive to new players is that if momentum carries the player into the kitchen after hitting a volley, even if the volleyed ball is declared dead, it’s a fault.
Painting Within The Lines
The lines that define the court are like those of other racquet sports.
All of the boundary lines on a pickleball court are considered “in” play. When the ball contacts any part of the line, except for the non-volley line on a serve, the ball is considered in. A ball that’s served on the kitchen line is short and a fault.
What Is A Fault?
A fault is any action that stops play because of a rule violation. When a fault is incurred by the receiving team, the serving team gets a point. When a fault is incurred by the serving team, the server loses a serve. If the serving team has lost two serves, they have a side out and the serve transitions to the receiving team, which then becomes the serving team.
Adaptive Pickleball and Para Pickleball
As a sport designed to be played for life by a variety of players, adaptive rules sets have been published by USA Pickleball. Rules for wheelchair pickleball follow the same principles as rules for standard pickleball, with the major exception being that wheelchair players are permitted two bounces before a fault is committed, rather than one. Mixed wheelchair and standard pickleball games are permitted. These games are played by the rules for their respective movement types.
Summing Up The Game Of Pickleball
The whole rulebook of pickleball is 86 pages long. Clearly, the whole of the game is more than what is written here. Pickleball is a surprisingly simple game with a lot of nuance, but a lot of the game is encompassed in a few simple principles that are easy to understand for a beginning player.
If you keep these principles in mind, a rewarding lifelong hobby that can be approached at a variety of levels can be yours to cherish. Pickleball is a game that rewards players for smart play, understanding their equipment and their partners, and appreciating the simple joys of playing a small team sport that can be played anywhere in the country.
Pickleball clubs, YMCAs and other organizations keep new players constantly learning. With the sport expanding, the future is bright for pickleball.