How to Return Serve in Pickleball: The Ultimate Guide

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The return of serve is an important technique in any pickleball player’s repertoire. Beyond keeping the ball in play, the return plays a crucial role. A well-placed return of serve can give you an immediate edge in the point.

In this guide, we’ll break down the pickleball return of serve.

We’ll explain the rules behind it, the fundamentals behind the technique, and how to improve this part of your game.

Ready to hit returns that give your opponents fits? Let’s dive in.

What is a return of serve in pickleball?

A return of serve is the shot you hit in response to your opponent’s serve. It’s a functional part of every point. Without a successful return of serve, a rally cannot ensue.

The serve return also sets the tone for the rally and can give your team a strategic advantage.

Positioning yourself behind the baseline, hitting the ball deep to force your opponents into a difficult shot, and moving towards the kitchen line after the return are key elements to a successful return of serve.

By following these tips and techniques, players can improve their chances of gaining control of the point and winning the game.

Two female pickleball players stand in position to return serve in a game of doubles. The player on the right side stands behind the baseline as the designated returner. Her doubles partner stands at the kitchen on the left side of the court.

Return of serve rules in pickleball

When returning a serve in pickleball, there are specific rules to keep in mind that ensure smooth and fair game play:

  • Proper returner: The designated player to return serve is determined by their position during their last service point. For example, if you last served on the right side, and lost the point for a side-out, you will then return serve on the right side. Your partner is not allowed to return the ball on your side of the court.
  • Two-bounce rule: Each serve and return must follow the “two-bounce rule.” The returning team must allow the serve to bounce before hitting a return. The serving team must allow the return to bounce before hitting a third shot. After the ball has bounced twice, players can hit the ball out of the air.
  • Freedom on return: While the serve cannot land inside the non-volley zone (or kitchen), the return of serve does not have this requirement. While not advisable, a return of serve into the opposing kitchen area is a legal play. The return of serve can land anywhere within the opponent’s side of the court.
  • Forehand or backhand: There is no restriction on hitting the return of serve with a forehand or backhand stroke. Many players prefer to hit a forehand return of serve, but there is no harm in hitting a backhand return when your opponent serves to that side.

Where do you stand when returning a serve in pickleball?

When returning a serve in pickleball, it is crucial to position yourself correctly in order to maximize your chances of hitting an effective shot.

One common mistake that many players make is standing too close to the baseline. Instead, it is recommended to stand 2-3 feet behind the baseline when returning serve.

This positioning allows you to have more time to react to the incoming shot and gives you the opportunity to hit a deeper return. A deep return makes it more challenging for the serving team to make an aggressive third shot.

By standing slightly behind the baseline, you also have the advantage of being able to move forward quickly and take control of the kitchen area after hitting your return. Being at the net first is a strategic advantage in pickleball, as it allows you to put pressure on your opponents and dictate the pace of the rally with rolls, dinks, and put-aways.

What grip should you use for a return of serve in pickleball?

The universal grip option for a pickleball return of serve is the continental grip.

This grip technique opens the paddle face, making it suitable for forehand and backhand strokes. Additionally, the paddle angle allows you to hit with backspin (a.k.a. “slice”) on the return with relative ease.

For a forehand return of serve, the eastern and western forehand grip techniques are also suitable.

These are generally considered more intermediate to advanced-level techniques. They place the hand behind the paddle handle at contact, resulting in easier access to power. However, paddle face is more closed than the continental grip, increasing the risk of unforced errors.

For a backhand return of serve, the one-handed and two-handed backhand grips are additional options to consider.

The one-handed backhand grip is not as prevalent in pickleball, but it can help you drive through the ball with a one-handed backhand. A two-handed backhand grip adds stability to your shot and is very popular in pickleball.

Without practice, however, it can be difficult to place your hands in the short time after the serve.

Regardless of your preferred grip techniques, it’s important to set your grip as quickly as possible once you commit to a forehand or backhand return.

One approach to consider is starting with a continental grip. If you need to adjust your grip at all while the serve approaches you, the continental grip is a good “in-between” option where you can move your hands quickly.

Return of serve grip techniques

Grip TechniqueForehand or BackhandProsCons
ContinentalBothBeginner-friendly; suitable for both forehand and backhand returns.May be difficult to drive through the ball with power and topspin.
Eastern ForehandForehandEasier to drive through the ball with power; moderate access to topspin.Generally not beginner-friendly; requires consistent technique to control the depth of the shot.
Western ForehandForehandSuperior access to topspin; ability to hit more aggressive returns; tricky bounce for your opponent.Not beginner-friendly; may result in more unforced errors; limits the “types” of returns you can hit (i.e., topspin vs slice).
One-Handed BackhandBackhandEasier to drive through the ball with power; moderate access to topspin; greater reach than a two-handed backhand.Generally not beginner-friendly; requires consistent technique to control the shot; not very popular in pickleball.
Two-Handed BackhandBackhandHigh stability and control; easy to drive through the ball; extra hand helps generate topspin; most popular option at all levels of pickleball.Requires consistent grip technique and hand placement; limits the “types” of returns you can hit (i.e., topspin vs slice), less reach than a one-handed backhand.

How to hit a pickleball return of serve: step-by-step

  1. Position yourself: Stand behind the baseline, slightly off-center towards your backhand side if you prefer using your forehand shot for the return. This gives you the flexibility to cover a wider range of serves.
  2. Start in the ready position: Keep your knees slightly bent, feet shoulder-width apart, and weight on the balls of your feet. Hold your paddle upright with both hands.
  3. Move to the ball: As soon as the serve is struck, move towards the ball using quick, short steps. Direct your position to hit the ball ideally at the apex of its bounce. Adjust your footwork for a forehand or backhand stroke, depending on your opponent’s serve.
  4. Prepare your grip: Adjust your grip for a forehand or backhand return of serve. If you utilize a continental grip, you can keep your hands in place for either shot.
  5. Start your backswing: Begin your backswing, keeping it short and compact. Your paddle face should be open or slightly closed depending on whether you want to hit it flat or with topspin.
  6. Forward swing and contact: Strike the ball with a smooth, forward motion, aiming for depth and placement. Aim to contact the ball with the center of your paddle (or the “sweet spot”) in front of your body. Use your body’s momentum to add force to the shot.
  7. Follow through: After hitting the ball, continue the motion of your swing in the direction you want the ball to go. This helps with accuracy and power.
  8. Get to the kitchen: Once your stroke is complete, get to the kitchen as quickly as possible. This area of the court gives you the greatest chance of winning the point.
  9. Prepare for the next shot: Stay ready for your opponent’s third shot. Depending on the depth and pace of your return, your opponent will hit a third shot drop or a third shot drive. Try to anticipate their move and prepare your paddle placement.

Check out our other pickleball guides!

Tips for an effective return of serve

Hit the return deep to put pressure on your opponent

When hitting a deep return (i.e., deep in the opponent’s court, not out of bounds), it is crucial to focus on getting the ball to the back two feet of the court. This strategy not only makes your opponent’s third shot more difficult but also sets up the rally in your favor.

By hitting deep returns, you can force your opponent to play defensively and limit their options, giving you the opportunity to control the pace of the game and capitalize on any mistakes they make. Remember to prioritize depth over speed and transfer your weight to your front foot to ensure a strong and effective return of serve.

Hit the ball high to give yourself time to get to the net

When returning a serve in pickleball, it is crucial to hit the ball with some height to give yourself time to get to the net.

By returning the serve with a controlled, high shot (but not the height of a lob), you create an opportunity to position yourself at the net, which can be advantageous for you and your partner.

This technique allows you to assert control over the point and put pressure on your opponents to make difficult shots. Ultimately, hitting the ball high can give you the upper hand in the rally and increase your chances of winning.

Hit the ball down the middle to create potential confusion

When returning a serve in pickleball, hitting the ball down the middle can create potential confusion for your opponents.

By aiming for the center of the court near the baseline, you can disrupt their positioning and communication, making it harder for them to anticipate and react to the shot effectively.

This strategy can help you gain control of the point and set yourself up for a strong follow-up shot at the net.

Should you hit with topspin or slice on the return of serve in pickleball?

When deciding whether to hit with topspin or slice on the return of serve in pickleball, it is important to consider the strengths and weaknesses of your opponents.

If your opponent struggles with fast-paced shots, utilizing topspin can be a strategic advantage. By adding topspin to your return, you can hit a more aggressive shot that dips and bounces unpredictably, making it more difficult for your opponent to handle.

This can lead to awkward shots and potential errors on their end, giving you the upper hand in the rally.

On the other hand, using slice on the return can be effective in keeping the ball low to the court.

A sliced return tends to stay lower, making it challenging for your opponents to get a good angle on their next shot. This can force them to hit up on the ball, potentially leading to weaker shots, missed opportunities, and unforced errors.

Ultimately, the decision to hit with topspin or slice on the return of serve should be based on your opponent’s weaknesses and your own strategic goals. Each shot has its own advantages and can be used to keep your opponents on their toes and maintain control of the game.

Male pickleball player wearing a white top hitting a topspin forehand return of serve during a game of doubles.

Common mistakes with the return of serve

Standing too close to the baseline

When returning a serve in pickleball, it is crucial to avoid standing too close to the baseline.

Positioning yourself just behind the baseline, about 2-3 feet away, allows for better weight transfer and enables you to hit the return of serve with more power and control. Standing too close to the baseline can result in a jammed return, making it difficult to execute a successful shot.

By giving yourself space behind the baseline, you can set yourself up for a strong and effective return of serve.

Hitting the ball short

Hitting the ball short is a common return of serve mistake in pickleball because it allows the serving team to quickly move up to the kitchen line and take control of the point.

When you hit the ball short, you are essentially giving your opponents an opportunity to dictate the pace and direction of the rally. This not only puts you on the defensive but also makes it harder for you to gain control of the point.

Hitting the ball low

Hitting the ball low is a common mistake with serve returns for a few reasons:

  1. You risk hitting the ball into the net, losing the point.
  2. You reduce the time you have to move up to the non-volley zone (NVZ).
  3. It’s difficult to hit a deep return that also travels low in the air.

In most cases, hitting the return of serve with a little height is the best option. This approach helps you safely clear the net and hit a deep return that’s difficult for your opponent to respond with an aggressive third shot.

Hesitating after the shot

In pickleball, hesitating after hitting your shot can be a costly mistake.

Many beginners tend to watch their shot to see how it lands, but it’s crucial to quickly move to the net after hitting the return. Hesitation gives your opponents an advantage, allowing them to control the point.

Instead, focus on hitting your return and then moving to your ideal position at the net. By staying proactive and not hesitating, you can maintain control of the rally and increase your chances of winning the point.

Poor technique

When it comes to executing a successful pickleball return of serve, poor technique can be detrimental to your game.

Strive for sound technique on every return. Maintain a consistent stance, controlled backswing, and make contact in front of your body with the center of your paddle face. Follow through with the paddle high and across your body (unless you’re hitting a slice return) and follow the shot to the net.

Consistency is key, so make sure to pay attention to your mechanics to avoid errors and maintain control during rallies.

Female pickleball player wearing a black top and black visor hitting a one-handed backhand return of serve from the back-right corner of the court.

How to improve your pickleball return of serve

  • Practice your footwork: Good footwork is essential. Work on moving quickly and efficiently to position yourself for the return.
  • Work on timing: Practice hitting the ball at the right moment, ideally at the apex of its bounce, to control the return’s depth and direction.
  • Focus on paddle position: Ensure your paddle is ready and in the correct position early. This helps with quick and accurate returns.
  • Aim for deep returns: Try to send your returns deep into the opponent’s court to give yourself time to move forward and establish strategic positioning.
  • Vary your returns: Mix up your returns between topspin, slice, sharply-angled, etc. Variation can keep your opponents guessing and off-balance.
  • Improve your serve reception: Anticipate where the serve will land and adjust your position accordingly to make a strong return.
  • Strengthen your backhand and forehand: Ensure you’re comfortable returning serves with both your forehand and backhand strokes.
  • Use the whole court: Practice hitting returns to different areas of the court to find your opponent’s weak spots.
  • Increase your reaction time: Drill exercises that enhance your reaction time, allowing you to respond quicker to fast serves.
  • Watch your opponent: Pay attention to your opponent’s serving habits and patterns to anticipate and prepare for your return.
  • Stay relaxed but ready: Keep your body relaxed but in a ready position, with knees slightly bent and paddle up, to move quickly after the serve.
  • Train with a partner: Practice with a partner who can serve to you in various ways, helping you adapt to different types of serves.

Frequently asked questions

Can the return of serve in pickleball land in the kitchen?

Yes, the return of serve in pickleball can legally land in the kitchen.

While the serve must be hit beyond the non-volley zone (kitchen), the return of serve is not restricted by this rule.

However, from a strategic perspective, it is advisable to hit the return deep to challenge the serving team with a longer shot and to keep them away from the non-volley line, which is the most advantageous position on the court.

Does the return of serve have to bounce in pickleball?

Yes, in pickleball, the return of serve must bounce before being hit by the returning team. This is known as the “double-bounce” rule, where the ball has to bounce once on each side before it can be hit out of the air.

By letting the return of serve bounce, the returning team gains a positional advantage as they can quickly move to the non-volley line, which is a strategic position on the court.

Additionally, hitting the return deep can make it more challenging for the serving team and keep them away from the non-volley line.

Can either player return the serve in pickleball?

In pickleball, only the correct receiver can return the serve.

As per Rule #4.B.7, the correct server must serve from the correct service court, and the correct receiver must receive the serve.

For example, if you serve the ball from the right side and lose the point for a side-out, you will then return serve on the right side. Your partner is not allowed to return the ball on your side of the court.

This rule ensures fair play and proper rotation of players on the court. It is important for players to adhere to this rule to maintain the integrity of the game and allow for a balanced and competitive match.

Key takeaways

  • Return of serve in pickleball is vital for keeping the rally going and gaining strategic advantage.
  • Proper positioning behind the baseline is recommended for a more effective shot and to give players time to approach the pickleball net.
  • The continental grip is universally recommended for return of serve, suitable for both forehand and backhand shots.
  • Various grip techniques offer pros and cons, with the continental grip being beginner-friendly and others like the eastern and semi-western providing more power or topspin.
  • Effective return strategies include hitting deep, aiming high to gain net position, and targeting the middle to create opponent confusion.
  • Choosing between topspin and slice on the return depends on the opponent’s weaknesses and the strategic goals of the returner.
  • Common mistakes include standing too close to the baseline, hitting the ball short or low, hesitating after the shot, and poor technique.
  • Improvement tips involve practicing footwork, timing, paddle position, aiming for deep returns, varying returns, and anticipating serves.
  • Rules specify the return of serve can legally land in the kitchen, must bounce before being hit, and only the correct player can return the serve.
  • Strategic gameplay focuses on deep and well-placed returns to challenge the opponents and control the pace of the game.
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