What is Pickleball, and How to Play?

The Basic Rules of Pickleball for Beginners

At first glance, pickleball may look like it’s just another version of tennis, only played on a smaller court with a wiffle ball and over-sized ping pong paddles. Although pickleball does share some similarities with tennis and badminton, it is an entirely different sport with its own set of rules and equipment. Pickleball was created to be a very inclusive game that can be played by athletes of all skill levels and designed to be quick to learn. If you have played badminton or any form of tennis in the past, the core rules are simple to learn:

1. Where is Pickleball Played?

Pictured above: Size and dimensions of a pickleball court, including terminology.

The game is played on a pickleball court, which is similar to the size of a badminton court, measuring 44 feet long by 20 feet wide. These are the court dimensions for both singles or doubles play, and indoor or outdoor play. A net, 36 inches high at the sidelines and 34 inches at the center, divides the court in half. Painted lines on the court define the boundaries and identify important zones. The non-volley zone, also known as the “kitchen,” extends seven feet from the net on both sides. Volleying (hitting the ball in the air before it bounces) is restricted in this part of the court and encourages strategic ground strokes. The baseline marks the back of the court, and a centerline divides the court in half to outline the left and right serving areas.

2. How Many People Play in a Game of Pickleball?

As mentioned above, pickleball can be played as singles (1v1) or doubles (2v2). While many people do enjoy playing singles, doubles games with a total of four players are much more commonly played. It is largely believed that the original intention of the game was to be played as doubles.

3. What do You Need to Play Pickleball?

Each player will use a solid-faced paddle, typically made of composite materials including carbon fiber, graphite, or fiberglass on the paddle face. The core is usually made of a strong, yet responsive honeycomb design, that is made of a polymer, nomex, or aluminum. You may also find some entry level paddles still made of wood or thick plastic.

The required namesake pickleball is a perforated plastic ball that resembles a smaller wiffle ball. The indoor version of the ball has 26 holes and the outdoor ball has 40 holes to mitigate wind influences.

Of course you need players and a court with a net to play too!

4. How do You Start a Game of Pickleball?

Pictured above: The red team begins the game as the serving team. The green team begins the game as the receiving team. The highlighted red square player is the first server and will be serving to the green triangle player.

All pickeball games start off with a serve. After mutually deciding which team will start the game as the serving team, all players will get in the initial serving and receiving positions. The serving team will stand on one side of the net and the receiving team will stand on the other side of the net. To begin the game, it is recommended that both serving players stand behind their respective baseline, the receiving player should stand behind or near the right service area baseline, and the receiving player’s partner should stand behind the kitchen line in the left service area. In singles, partners would not exist of course! The serving team’s player in the right service court will be the first player to serve in the game. The server will serve the ball, standing with both feet behind the right service area baseline, in between the centerline and sideline as required.

For the sake of learning the game, the serve must be underhand, striking the ball in an upward motion diagonally towards the opponents’ right service area. To be a valid serve, the ball must go over the net and initially bounce within the receiving team’s right service area without touching any part of the kitchen, including the kitchen line. The ball may bounce on the other lines within the correct service area. Also, the ball may make contact with the net before bouncing in the receiving team’s right service area.

After the ball bounces once, but before the ball bounces twice, the receiving player must return (hit) the ball back over the net to the serving team’s side of the court. The second bounce of the game must occur anywhere on the serving team’s side of the court, including the kitchen. Neither player on the receiving team may strike the ball until the ball bounces on their side of the court, and this is why it is important that both serving players initially start the game behind or near their baseline to allow room for the ball to bounce. The requirement for the ball to bounce once in the receiving player’s service area, then once in the service team’s side of the court before normal gameplay is allowed is called the “double bounce rule” and is a very unique part of the game of pickleball.

Pictured above: All four players are in the best position for both attacking and defending in pickleball. From this position behind the kitchen line, a player can also dink the ball effectively and strategically strike with more force when an opportunity presents itself.

Following the mandatory double bounce, any players not standing directly behind the kitchen line should be looking for an opportunity to conservatively get in position behind the kitchen line. This is important because the best attacking and defensive position in pickleball during normal gameplay is directly behind the kitchen line. From this position, a player can dink (gently hit the ball upward just over the net, targeting the opponents’ kitchen) the ball so that it is difficult for the other team to have an attacking advantage. Also from this position, if an opponent mishits the ball a little high, a player can strike the ball at many more favorable angles which would be much more difficult to defend. Since the margin for error is small, it is essential that all beginners learn how to properly dink in pickleball. Actually best practice for beginners is to try to hit the ball over the net but keep the ball low (ideally below an opponent’s knees) to prevent opponents from having an offensive advantage. You’ll thank us later for this advice!

Each time a team scores a point, the two players on the serving team switch service area sides. This means that if the server was serving from the right service area, then the server will serve next from the left service area immediately after the point was earned. The players on the receiving team do not switch sides.

When the server is serving from the left service area, the receiving player should stand behind or near the left service area baseline, and the receiving player’s partner should stand behind the kitchen line in the right service area.

5. How does Scoring Work in Pickleball?

In traditional pickleball, only the serving team can score a point. A point is awarded when the receiving team fails to return a serve or commits a fault. Common faults include hitting the ball out of bounds, volleying while standing in the non-volley zone (includes the kitchen line), or hitting the ball into the net without it going over. Games are usually played to 11, as long as the leading team is up by at least two points. If not, the game will continue beyond 11 points until a team is up by at least two points.

Unlike most sports, the scoring in pickleball is tallied by three numbers instead of two. The first number is the serving team’s point total, the second number is the receiving team’s point total, and the third number is either a one or two to designate whether the current serving player is the first or second server. A few examples of valid scores in pickleball would be 2-5-1, 10-10-2, and 12-11-2. In the first example, the serving team would be losing five to two and the first server is active. In the second example, both teams have 10 points and the second server is active. In the last example, the serving team is winning by one point (12 to 11) and the second server is active. Additionally, in the last example, the game continues even though both teams have at least 11 points because the lead is less than two points.

Note that during each team’s service, each player on a serving team will serve at least once with an exception at the start of the game. The first player to serve at the beginning of each game will relinquish the serve (side out) to the opposing team after the serving team commits their first fault. This is why the initial score of the game is always 0-0-2 instead of 0-0-1.

After the first side out by the original serving team, the first server on the opposing team will continue to serve until their team commits a fault. Then the server’s partner will become the second server and will continue to serve until their team commits another fault. When the serving team commits a fault during the second server’s turn to serve, the team will side out to the opposing team and the new serving team will start with their first serve from the right service area. After each side out, the first serve is always made by the player on the side of the right service area.

If you read these fundamental rules for beginners, you can start playing pickleball right away! To learn the most up-to-date and comprehensive rules, visit USA Pickleball’s website. USA Pickleball governs the sport of pickleball in the United States, which includes the official rules of the game. We also recommend that you learn best practices and beginner strategies while you are learning the game. Now you know the basics of the game and it’s time to learn hands on!