Serves are a topic that divides players and experts alike in pickleball. In the piece below, we shall take a look at various types of serves in the sport, how to execute them, the correct time and opponent to execute them against as well as general tips to improve pickleball serving.
Traditionally the belief has been that a serve is not an offensive shot in the sport and it is just a way to get the ball in play. But as the sport has grown, modern players look at serving as a huge part of their game and consider it to be an important shot to win the point.
Before you look at the various types of pickleball serves and the tactics involved with them, it’s pertinent to understand the serving rules. Here’s our pickleball serving rule guide you might want to read before you get started.
How to Improve Pickleball Serve?
Before we start with various kind of serves and when to use them we shall take a look at some of the tips about how to improve your pickleball serve.
Now as many of you will know, the basic rules of a pickleball serve are that they must be played underhanded, the motion of the serve must be going down to up, the contact with the ball must be made below the waist and the paddle face must be below the wrist at the point of contact.
So the first tip to improve your serve is to practice. Yes, it may sound like a very basic but given the complex nature of what a legal serve looks like, it takes a lot of practice to perfect a pickleball serve and ensure that the correct process becomes muscle memory.
Once the routine is in place, the player should practice improving their accuracy and learning various angles, length and styles of serve.
No matter if you look at the serve as a way to gain an early advantage over your opponent or just a way to start the point, it is important to know which services to play at which time. And using a different kind of serves and mixing it up always keeps your opponent guessing and that in itself is a psychological advantage in the game.
What are the Different Types of Pickleball Serves?
There are multiple types of pickleball serves one can use. These are:
- Underhand Serve
- Hard Serve
- Backhand Serve
- Lob Serve
- Hook Serve
- Underspin Serve
- Drive Serve
- Jump Serve
- Net Serve
- Channel Serve
More information around these pickleball serves can be found below, which includes tactics around when to use such kinds of pickleball serves.
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This is the most common serve in the sport and used by the majority of the players. An underhand serve means that the paddle must move in an upward motion, the contact to the ball must be made below the waist and the face of the paddle must be below the wrist.
These are the conditions that must be met for the serve to be deemed as legal. But there are some tricks and tips that one can use to serve closer to how the pros do compare to how a recreational player serves.
In simple terms, a professional player serving underhand would look a lot like how a tennis player plays a forehand shot whereas a recreational player serving underhand would resemble closer to how someone would throw the ball while bowling. Rather than using just one side of the body while serving, the whole body should pivot upwards whilst serving underhand.
Starting from the knee to the hips and then the core should move forward and follow the similar upward motion to get more power in the serve. Another point to follow is that the paddle should go across the body whilst serving and not straight to generate power more efficiently.
And the third tip to follow to perfect an underhand serve is that the angle between the wrist and the paddle should be closer to 90 degrees to get the whip and spin on the shot. The straighter the angle is, the more the ball will loop whilst serving and the serve will be easier to return.
Generating pace and power is not one of the main aims of a pickleball serve because of the way the game is set up. An underhand serve is not an offensive option and more often then not, the more pace a serve has the easier it becomes for the other player to return the ball harder.
But there are times when a hard serve can be useful and especially when the wind is behind the server’s back. If used correctly and mixed up with other serves like lob serves and drive serve, a hard serve can make it difficult for the opponent to return the ball deep and set up an easy point win for the server.
The first thing to do when serving a hard serve is to serve from the further most corner of the court without stepping outside of the imaginary line parallel to court lines. What this does is that it gives the biggest possible area for you to serve in and provides more room to place your serve into which minimises chances of a fault.
An ideal hard serve is a serve that is deep and fast. This allows the opponent very few options to return the ball and increases the chances of them making an error or return with a weak shot. To get the maximum power and thurst on the stoke, one should start three steps behind the baseline and walk into the stroke whilst twisting their wrist right at the point of contact to generate topspin as well.
With some amount of practice, one can start getting more control over the hard serves. The best hard serves are hit towards the backhand of the opponent which makes it difficult for them to create a powerful return stroke from.
Backhand serve is a very rare thing to see in Pickleball. Most of the serious players do not prefer to play a backhand serve and that is with good reasons. The only slight advantage that a backhand serve gives over a forehead serve is that it generates a slight side spin that takes the ball outside of the court and that may be a reason why some players may want to try backhand serves.
Regardless of the reason why you want to use a backhand serve, there are some things that everyone should pay attention to. The first thing is to make sure that your body positioning is always sideways and not front on to ensure that the whole body contributes to the serve and not just your arms.
Secondly, it is advisable to use a continental grip whilst serving backhand to maximise the power. A continental grip is when you hold the paddle like you shaking hands or using a hammer.
It is also important that the impact is made around thigh high and out in the front to place the ball in the correct area and for it to also be deemed as a legal serve.
Lob serves are often looked at as a shot that is only used by beginners and players who are not very comfortable in their ability to hit an accurate powerful serve. But in reality, a lob serve is not a safe shot and is used by many professional players regularly to gain an advantage in the rally further down the line.
A lob serve should ideally land just a couple of feet inside the opponent’s baseline regardless of whether it is to their forehand or a backhand. What this does is forces your opponent to take a step back to return the serve and stops them from having a forward momentum whilst hitting the return.
This hands back the control to the serving player and makes setting up a point much easier from their second shot onwards. Majority of the pickleball players are also tennis players and they tend to hit a ball back as hard as they can.
Therefore taking the pace off the shots is a great tactic to frustrate your opponent and make them generate all the pace from deep in their courts which increases your chances of winning the point. One can also add some topspin in a lob serve which make the ball jump and sidekick a little making it very difficult to return with purpose.
It is also one of the safest shots to play and with some practice, one can ensure that majority of their serves are legal. Going for hard and quick serves are good but if one can’t find the consistency, it is just giving away free points to the opponents.
One thing to always remember whilst playing a lob serve is to make sure that the focus should be on the arch that the lob generates and not the height. A lob which is hit too high loses the control and sets up nicely for the opponent to place the return.
Hook serve is hard serve that is used to get the ball to kick towards the left once it bounces and helps in cornering the opponent to one side of the court to open up a bigger part of the court for the player serving.
It is a great weapon to have in the armoury and can be used against opponents who like to walk into the serves as the ball has a snap and kicks out wide leaving them limited options to return the ball cross-court.
The motion of this serve is similar to how a hard serve is done but just by stopping the follow-through of the hand. So the hand comes in from behind and the paddle’s nose cuts inside the ball and then just stops going forward to generate the spin on the ball.
Hook serve can be served short, medium or deep but normally works best when the player is serving from the right side of the court (assuming the server is right-handed) as this will take the ball away from the court.
Stu Hastings, a US National Championship Winner for Racketball popularised the underspin strokes which caught on across other sports including a snap serve or an underspin serve.
This serves almost looks illegal to the naked eye because it involves starting with the high backlift but then bringing the paddle right down and flicking the wrist on the last second to generate a lot of sidespins, topspin and junk.
This serve resembles closely with the undercutting drop shots we see a lot in tennis during the clay-court seasons. The impact is made by cutting across the ball starting away from the body and crossing it inwards. This serve acts exactly the opposite of a hook serve which jumps & kicks to its left after landing.
The underpin serve kicks to its right after landing and can be a perfect serve to dish out when serving from the left side of the court to corner the opponent to one side and open up the bigger side of the court.
Drive serve is similar to a hard serve but only it is supposed to be much lower and give the opponent less of a chance to return accurately. The trajectory of this shot is close to the ground and should be towards the backhand side of the opponent to set up a winner on the second shot of the point.
The drive serve is a difficult shot to get right consistently and if overused it can become unpredictable and it makes it easy for the opponent. Pickleball in its essence is a sport where brute force and the pace is not as important as some of the other racket sports and a drive serve will provide an extra bit of pace to the opponent who in turn can use it to his advantage.
In addition to this, a shot similar to a drive serve would be more effective if played as a non-serve stroke as there is a bigger court to aim for and a shot with pace can yield a better result.
So all in all, it is a great weapon to have in one’s game if they can do it accurately and use it tactically as a surprise to catch the opponent off guard.
A jump serve is where the ball jumps on the opponent after landing which is normally achieved by generating topspin in the serve. Topspin is a mechanism where spin is generated by brushing up on the back of the ball to provide acceleration upwards. This enables the ball to spin away from the hitter and spins towards the player receiving the ball.
A topspin also does a couple of other things, firstly, it reduces the distance that the ball travels. So when a serve is hit with topspin on it, the ball flies but falls very sharply with a dip and thus travels a shorter distance. The second thing that a topspin stroke does is that when the ball lands and bounces up back up, it doesn’t bounce in a normal way.
It jumps on the opponent and makes it tougher for them to deal with. For example, if a ball hit without any irregular spins on it jumps about five fits after bouncing three feet in front of the opponent, a jump serve would bounce higher than five feet after landing at the same distance.
Thus the opponent has to deal with extra bounce that it generates and the return that they are likely to play are going to be slower and loopy to provide a better chance for the server to control and win the point.
This is a great serve to use against players who like to come into the court and cut down on angles that you are using. Opponents who like to cut down on the distance or stand close to the baseline are difficult to play hook and underpin serves against because they don’t provide big enough distance to sidekick the ball either way.
Thus a serve hit with a jump would peg them beg or give them less time to adjust their stroke and push them back towards the baseline.
The net serve is a serve where most of the power has been taken off the serve but without really putting any lob or arch on the ball to make the angle very narrow for the receiver whilst providing them little pace to work with.
It’s a great option to use against players who are either standing further back on the court or are overcompensating by standing towards one particular side to cover their weaker side.
A net serve is a very soft angle serve where the serve is placed closer to the kitchen line and given no loop or pace so the receiver has to quickly run in to receive the shot and more often than not the only option they have to return is to lob it back because of the short distance from the net. This not only opens up a big side of the court to the server but also provides a slow, loopy return which can be attacked easily.
This serve is normally played with minimum top or side spin to make sure that the bounce is dead. Any kind of spin imparted on the shot provides extra bounce after the ball hits the court and gives the opponent a better chance to retrieve the ball.
The serve does require practice and a sense of timing as it is not a serve that can be played regularly but must be used as a surprise shot to catch the opponent off guard.
It is believed that the third shot of any rally is probably the most important shot of any point in pickleball. That is because unlike other racket sports the serve is not considered to be an offensive shot and the point is not normally decided in the first two shots of a rally.
A channel serve is not a specific type of a serve but it is where the player serves from to ensure that they have the best chance to receive the ball on their stronger side.
This means that when they are serving from a channel to maximise their chances of receiving the return on their forehand. Normally we see players serving right from the corner end of the court to maximise the angle and push the opponent to one side of the court. But what that also does is that exposes a big side of their court to their backhand which is normally a weaker side of any player.
A channel serve is a serve which is made towards the central part of the court when serving from the right side and going to the further most corner when serving from the left side. This effectively enables the server to have a majority of the courtside covered via their forehand upon the return which can be attacked strongly in the third stroke.
This is a technique that is used by many attacking players and also by players who have a very weak backhand and want to compensate for the same.
So all in all, there are many different ways to serve in pickleball. Whatever is your skill level and comfort during the serve it is important to remember that practising your go to serve and ensuring that you don’t give away cheap points and service turnover is very crucial. There is no point going for low hard serves if you are going to get it right only once in five attempts. it is better to play a lob serve if that is what you feel comfortable with.
At the end of the day, it is important to remember that every player has a different skillset and one should stick to things that they feel confident with rather than trying out serves and tricks just because other players are doing it.