July 20, 2022
Start off Right—With an Effective Serve!
By Sonny Tannan
Every point that starts begins with a serve. The team that is serving has the unique opportunity to score a point (in traditional scoring). So, if you haven’t thought about it, the serve is just that important in the game of pickleball. Why exactly is it that important? Think about this: While you might not always see a point won off an ace (a serve in which the return team fails to keep the ball in play), you may see the opportunity to score a point for your team disappear when you miss your serve (hit into the net or out of bounds).
So, the question you should ask is, “Just how important is it to have an effective serve?!”
Before we answer that question, let’s think about three common phrases that we have all probably heard on the pickleball court:
“Just get your serve in.”
“What happens when I get the service yips—what do I do?!”
“I don’t think I hit deep enough, or with enough power or spin.”
Have you ever found yourself saying these things to yourself or others to you? If you have, or other variations of them, it might be helpful to understand some of the basics of the foundation of the serve first.
Let’s even go a bit further by looking at what an effective serve might look like as you progress in skill level as well—which, as a recreational player, competitive player, coach, or even a first-time athlete, can differ from person to person. As my favorite military leaders used to say, “Slow is smooth, smooth is fast.” So don’t rush the process and take your time to learn at your own speed.
Basics of the serve
According to USA Pickleball, the serve is an underhand motion (or a low-to-high swing) and can be made with either a forehand or backhand swing. You must make contact below your waist (defined by the navel or belly button), and the highest point of the paddle head must be below your wrist (where the wrist joint bends) when you strike the ball. In 2021, a provisional rule was implemented to allow a “drop serve,” which means the server may drop the ball and hit it after the bounce. However, it may only be released from any height with no additional force (i.e., thrown, tossed, etc.) added to bounce the ball.
Remember that you must hit the ball while at least one foot is on the ground behind the baseline, and it must land crosscourt within play and past the Non-Volley Zone (also referred to as the kitchen).
Development skills of the serve
In a PPR (Professional Pickleball Registry) certification workshop, we typically cover four key development skills for the serve: hands, contact point, position, weight transfer. By linking these technical skills to your game, you start to build a foundation in your technique that ultimately can help you to develop improvement based on your own skill level:
Hands – This can include the type of grip that you have when serving (the most common ones being the continental, eastern with a finger and “v” or table tennis grip).
Contact point – Service motion should be a controlled swing from your shoulder (not wrist flick or elbow) that provides a hit-through of the ball along with a follow-through after contact.
Position – Stay aligned (commonly known as semi-open vs. closed) in your stance, which will allow you to minimize over-rotation and keep a good point of contact in front of your body.
Weight transfer – Appropriately engage your lower body and core when you feel comfortable with the rest of your technique to effectively generate flow and power for your serve.
Some things to consider based on your skill level
Beginner (1.0 – 2.5) – I am working on building a consistency in my technique so that my foundation in serving is as comfortable as I think it can be.
Intermediate (3.0 – 3.5) – I’m pretty comfortable with my technique, but I really want to start challenging myself to improve on certain aspects of my serve.
Advanced (4.0+) – My technique is solid more than 80% of the time and I’m ready to start adding some real variations to my serve when I play my games, not just in practice.
How do I create a routine that ultimately leads to muscle memory?
Be purposeful. This helps to get you settled both mentally and physically (this could include bouncing the ball on the ground or off of your paddle two to three times, setting your feet in a certain position, etc.). This can lead into developing your muscle memory and you should even include calling the full score (e.g., 0-0-2) during your routine to strengthen this habit for game play (recreation, tournament, etc.).
Visualize it. It’s OK to start with just getting the ball over the net and in play. But the more specific and realistic you can make your visualization, the more likely you are able to accomplish and meet that goal. It can be wanting to hit a deep serve, or targeting your opponent’s backhand, depth, even something as simple as improving your consistency of serve.
Slow down. How many times have you just finished an amazing point, rush back to serve—and miss?! Happens to the best of us. Getting settled into your first two steps above, and slowing down by adding a breath, can help any player to calm the nerves and get ready for that all-important next shot. So don’t forget to take that breath at the right moment, and especially before you begin your pre-serve routine.
Practice with games/drills
With many things in life, we don’t want to just learn; we want to have some fun while learning. So here are three games/drills that you can practice either on your own or with a fellow pickleball enthusiast.
Four cones – Set four cones (flat discs are great and safe for use) in a specific area in the box that you are practicing your serve within. By creating a smaller square box as your target, you are helping to make a visually appealing area to serve specifically within. But be generous as you are starting to first learn (maybe a 2' x 2' area) so that you are setting an attainable goal. As you get more confident and comfortable with your serve, think about moving the box to specific areas (for example, your opponent’s backhand) or even maybe making it a bit smaller to challenge yourself.
“3-D” (Deep Serve, Deep Return, 3rd Shot Drop) – This is a great game/drill for other parts of the game as well (return and drop). But for just the serve, you can set up some training strips (or a chalked line) 3' from the baseline. Try to serve so that your ball lands between the training strips (or chalked line) and baseline. This really allows you the opportunity to see how you can vary depth, height and even pace on your serves. It also gets you familiar with how you can develop a variety of serves for your own game.
Five-ball scenario – I ultimately like to challenge my students to get at least four out of the five balls in on each service side. It helps to build the mindset of, “If you can get in at least 80 percent of your serves on any given day, you are doing your part for your team to start a point in order to score a point.” If you get even more comfortable with your serve, try this out… I like to challenge my students to, on the fifth ball, close their eyes as they begin their swing to serve and see how their foundation in technique has developed. If you can serve a ball in with your eyes closed, imagine how confident you will be when your eyes are open.
So, just how important is it to have an effective serve?!
It is probably one of the most important things to consider as you continue to develop your own game, as the game itself continues to evolve. Remember, ultimately, options and variations are what’s important, since each player is and will continue to be unique in their own style of play. Consider working on a solid foundation in your technique for your serve, which will allow you to continue to build your own confidence no matter what your skill level. •
Sonny Tannan is a Team JOOLA sponsored player, PPR Clinician & Certified Teaching Professional, and USA Pickleball Ambassador.