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Pickleball Singles Rules: A Strategic Guide for Players

Female pickleball player wearing a black top serving the ball during a game of singles.

Discover the basics of pickleball singles, including key rules, strategies, and how to keep score.

Singles is a fast-paced, physical way to enjoy the game of pickleball. In lieu of the “get to the kitchen and dink” strategy you typically see in doubles pickleball, singles pickleball features fast-paced passing shots, sharp lateral movements, and dead sprints.

A key component of succeeding in pickleball singles is understanding the rules of this format. Knowing the rules can help you craft your strategy and dominate the court. In this comprehensive guide, we’ll break down the key pickleball singles rules. We’ll explore the differences between singles and doubles so you’re prepared the next time you step onto the court.

Let’s get started.

What is pickleball singles?

Pickleball singles refers to a game of pickleball between two players, one-on-one. Unlike doubles games, where there are two players per team, singles requires pickleball players to cover the entire court on their own. This makes singles pickleball more physically demanding, as players need to be quick on their feet and have strong endurance and agility.

Singles pickleball is similar to tennis in terms of its strategy: utilize sharp angles and fast-paced shots to put the ball out of your opponent’s reach. As such, many tennis players who try pickleball find singles games to be more of a natural transition than doubles. Overall, singles pickleball requires strong fundamentals, solid placement of shots, and the ability to cover the entire court by yourself.

What is skinny singles in pickleball?

If you’re involved in the pickleball community, you may have also heard of the term “skinny singles.” This game format is a version of pickleball singles play that utilizes only half of the court. This difference makes skinny singles more manageable for pickleball players who find traditional singles gameplay to be physically demanding.

This version of pickleball singles is becoming increasingly popular on courts across the U.S., as it offers a different challenge and allows players to focus on a smaller area of the court. Skinny singles can also be used effectively as a drill to improve footwork, positioning, and shot selection singles games.

Essential pickleball singles rules

To improve your strategy and gameplay, it’s important to understand the rules of pickleball singles. While highly similar to the rules of doubles pickleball, there are some key differences with singles-specific pickleball rules that players should be aware of.

Singles serving sequence

In singles pickleball, the service sequence follows a similar pattern to doubles gameplay. The initial server starts play by serving from the right-hand side of the court. If that player wins the point, they will move to the other side for the next serve. This means that with each successful point, the player will switch from serving from the right-hand side to the left-hand side of the court for each new serve.

One biggest difference from pickleball doubles is that in singles, there is only one server per side. This means that the returning player only needs to win one rally to earn the serve back.

The side that you serve from is determined by your score. If your score is an even number (0, 2, 4, 6, 8, 10, etc.), you will always serve from the right side. If your score is an odd number (1, 3, 5, 7, 9, etc.) you will always serve from the left side. For example, if the score is 5-6, until you win another point, you will keep serving from the left side.

Female pickleball player a white top and white hat serving the ball at a public court.

Determining serve

Determining who serves first is an important part of any singles game. The official way to determine serve is with a coin toss. If you have one on hand, ask your opponent to call heads or tails. Whoever wins the toss then has the option between serving/receiving or their preferred side of the court. For example, if you win the toss, you can choose to serve first. Then, your opponent can choose their preferred side.

If you don’t have a coin on-hand, there are other options for determining serve. Another effective option is putting your hand behind your paddle, holding up one or two fingers, and asking your opponent to choose between “1 or 2.” If your opponent guesses the number right (confirmed by showing them your hand after their call), it acts the same as a coin toss: they will then have first choice or serving or side.

Scorekeeping in singles pickleball

Keeping score in singles pickleball is quite simple, even compared to doubles pickleball. In most cases, pickleball singles follows traditional side out scoring. This means that you only score points when you are serving. If you win a rally as the returner, you only win the serve back; you are not awarded a point.

The score is announced as the server score followed by the receiver score. For example, if the score is 4-2, this means that you have 4 points to your opponent’s 2.

Similar to pickleball doubles, a standard singles games is typically played to 11 points, win by two. If the game is tied at 10-10, play will continue until one player has a two-point advantage.

The major difference between singles and doubles scorekeeping is the lack of the “server number” in singles scorekeeping. In doubles, there is a third number announced with the score: the number of the server for that side. In singles, since there is only one player per side, there is no need for this mechanic. This makes singles scorekeeping highly intuitive and easy for beginners to learn.

Double-bounce rule

The double-bounce rule is a crucial aspect of pickleball that helps to maintain fair play and extend rallies. Both players in a singles match must adhere to this rule.

The two-bounce rule states that when the ball is served, the receiving team must let it bounce before returning it. Subsequently, the serving team must also let the ball bounce before returning it. Once the ball has bounced twice, players can hit the ball out of the air (i.e., volley the ball). A double-bounce rule violation will result in a fault and a lost point.

This rule prevents players from immediately rushing to the net after serving the ball for an aggressive volley. Instead, they must wait to hit a groundstroke on their side to continue gameplay.

From a singles standpoint, this means that players must be strategic with their next shot after the serve (i.e., their third shot). In many cases, singles players rush to the net after returning serve. Depending on the depth and placement of the return, experienced singles players will either attempt a passing shot with a powerful forehand or backhand, or hit a feathery drop shot to get to the net themself.

Non-volley zone

Similar to doubles, the non-volley zone (i.e., the “kitchen”) plays a key role in pickleball singles gameplay. The kitchen is a portion of the court that extends seven feet on both sides of the net where players cannot stand and hit the ball out of the air. This standard pickleball area is marked by the non-volley zone line on both sides of the court. If the ball lands in the NVZ during a point, players must wait for the ball to bounce before returning it.

The kitchen is heavily utilized in doubles games where all four players frequently engage in extended dink rallies. Since there are two players on each team, there are fewer openings to attack. Instead, hitting sharply-angled dinks in the kitchen helps doubles team create scoring opportunities.

In a singles pickleball game, the kitchen is still a key piece of strategic gameplay. When your opponent is at the non-volley zone line, dropping the ball into their kitchen can give you time to get to the net yourself, where you can attempt a higher percentage play versus a passing shot deep behind the baseline.

At the professional level, singles players will often get into “cat and mouse” points where the two competitors hit multiple angled shots into the kitchen to force an error or create put-away opportunities. At the recreational level, players don’t typically have extended “cat and mouse” points, but the kitchen still plays a key role in gaining strategic singles positioning.

Line calls

Line calls are a crucial aspect of pickleball, as they can significantly impact the outcome of a game. At nearly all levels of pickleball, players make their own line calls. In both singles and doubles pickleball matches, it’s important to make accurate line calls to ensure fair play and sportsmanship.

When a ball lands outside of the lines and there is a clear space between the ball and the line, the correct call is “out.” It is important to give the benefit of the doubt to your opponent when making line calls. This means that if you are unsure about whether a shot was in or out, it is best to make the call in favor of your opponent. Give the point to your opponent and get ready for the next rally.

Female pickleball player wearing a white top and white hat hitting a backhand volley at the kitchen line.

Court positioning for pickleball singles

Understanding proper court positioning is crucial for success in pickleball singles. Being out of position can put you at a disadvantage and make it easy for your opponent to hit a winning shot.

Here are some key tips for singles positioning:

  • When serving, start by positioning yourself behind the baseline. The rules dictate that you must be behind the baseline and between the imaginary extensions of center and sideline when serving in pickleball. The serving rules are the same regardless of singles or doubles gameplay.
  • After serving the ball, stay near the center of the baseline. You must be ready to receive the ball wherever your opponent returns it to. The center of the baseline is a suitable place to respond to both deep returns and short returns.
  • When returning serve, start just behind the baseline. Position yourself two to three feet behind the baseline when preparing to return serve. Move forward to receive the ball off the bounce around waist level, maintaining balance and good form through the shot.
  • Immediately run to the kitchen after returning serve. Use your momentum from returning serve to advance to the kitchen line. From this position, you have a much higher chance of winning the point, as your opponent will have to hit a difficult passing shot.
  • Follow your shots. Regardless of whether you are serving or receiving, it’s important to follow the angle and path of your shot. For example, if you’re at the kitchen and you hit a sharply-angled dink to the right, you should move to the right yourself. Otherwise, you’ll open up the right side of your court for your opponent to exploit.

Basic singles pickleball strategy

Similar to doubles, strategy is a crucial component of pickleball singles. Having a solid strategy determines you shot selections, placement, and other aspects of your game.

Here are some basic singles pickleball strategies to help you improve your game:

  1. Get to the kitchen as quickly as possible. Whether you are serving or receiving, getting to the kitchen is a winning strategy. You have much more control over the flow of the point at the non-volley zone, and your options for shot selections are greater than at the baseline.
  2. Utilize your best drives as passing shots. If you have a powerful forehand or backhand groundstroke, make use of them on your third shot and beyond. Even if your opponent is at the net, a strong drive can be an effective passing shot.
  3. Make use of angles. In singles pickleball, it’s difficult to cover the entire court by yourself. Sometimes, you don’t need an overly powerful shot to win a point. In certain cases, a moderately-paced shot hit at a sharp angle will suffice.
  4. Aim for deep serves. If you serve the ball short in your opponent’s service area, it’s relatively easy for them to return the ball and get to the kitchen right away. Hitting deep serves, near your opponent’s baseline, makes it more difficult for them to gain strategic positioning right away.
  5. Hit deep returns. When returning serve, try to hit your shot to land deep in your opponent’s side of the court. Aim toward the back of the court, near your opponent’s baseline. When hitting deep returns, you gain time to get to the kitchen and put pressure on your opponent to hit a difficult passing shot or drop shot.
  6. Mix up your shots. Similar to varying your serves, mixing up your shots during the point can have a similar effect. Don’t stick to one strategy. Hit a soft drop when you normally drive your third shot. Hit an occasional slice return of serve when you normally hit a topspin return of serve.
  7. Attack your opponent’s weaknesses. Make use of your opponent’s weaker or less-reliable shots. Observe whether they struggle with backhand shots, for example. Try to hit to the side more often to win quick points or set up put-away opportunities.

Elevate your pickleball singles game

Regardless of skill level and experience, singles offers a unique physical challenge on the pickleball court. Since players must cover the entire court by themself, singles pickleball requires quick footwork, solid agility, and shot-making technique.

Understanding the rules of pickleball singles plays a key role in elevating your skills. By knowing the key rules and differences when compared to doubles, players can carefully craft their strategy for success on the pickleball court. So if you’re ready for a fun challenge, call up your pickleball friends and ask for a game of singles today!

Key takeaways

  • Pickleball singles is a one-on-one game requiring players to cover the entire court themselves, making it more physically demanding than doubles.
  • Strategy in singles pickleball is similar to tennis, focusing on sharp angles and fast-paced shots to outmaneuver the opponent.
  • Skinny singles is a variant using only half the court, popular for its physical manageability and as a drill to improve skills.
  • Singles serving sequence alternates sides with each point scored, and the server’s side is determined by the even or odd nature of their score.
  • Determining who serves first can be done with a coin toss or a guessing game, impacting the initial advantage in the game.
  • Scorekeeping in singles follows traditional side out scoring, where points are only scored by the serving player, making it simpler than doubles.
  • The double-bounce rule requires the ball to bounce once on each side before volleys are allowed, affecting strategic play immediately after serves.
  • The non-volley zone (kitchen) restricts volleying within seven feet of the net, shaping strategic positioning and shot selection in singles.
  • Line calls should be made fairly, giving the benefit of the doubt to the opponent in ambiguous situations to maintain sportsmanship.
  • Effective court positioning involves staying near the center baseline, advancing to the kitchen quickly after returns, and following shots to anticipate the opponent’s returns.
  • Basic singles strategy emphasizes getting to the kitchen, utilizing strong drives, mixing up shots and serves, hitting deep returns, and exploiting opponents’ weaknesses for a competitive edge.
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