11 Tips for a Winning Pickleball Return of Serve

Tips for Hitting a Great Pickleball Return of Serve

The return of serve is a key skill to master and one that sets you and your partner up to win the rally.

I’ve outlined 11 tips to help you master a winning pickleball return of serve

The first five skills are fundamental for new players to master.

For players who have mastered these five skills, learning the next six skills will give you the best chance of hitting more difficult shots.

Keep in mind that the serving team will be thinking strategically. If they know your skill level, weaknesses, and strengths, they’ll use this to their benefit.

The best players know that perfecting a good return of serve can make or break their game.

#1 – Learn how to return a Lob Serve

Learning how to successfully hit a return of serve for one of the most common serves, the lob serve, will significantly help your pickleball game. A lob serve comes over the net in an upward arc motion aimed for just inside the baseline of the receiving service court.

Many beginner players get caught off-guard standing just behind the baseline by a couple of inches, maybe 1 foot. 

But this is too close to where a lob serve will likely land and it will be extremely difficult to get a proper swing at the ball forcing you to make unforced errors.

You’ll likely end up crooked with your arm and wrist in a strange position trying to return the ball. 

The lob serve is not a difficult shot and one of the easiest ways to know that you’ll have a successful return is if you stand back a good 2 feet. 

This should give you plenty of room to get a proper swing at the ball and successfully hit a deep return of serve.

If you need to move up the court a bit, it’s simple enough to move up.

Two-Bounce Rule

Before hitting the return of serve, remember the two-bounce rule which means that after the ball is served, both the receiving team and the serving side must let the ball bounce once before volleying it. The two-bounce rule is unique to the game of pickleball.

#2 – Learn how to return a Power Serve

Learning how to successfully hit a return of serve for a power serve is a great benefit. After the lob serve, a power serve is the next most common serve.

Because the ball from a power serve moves fast with the player’s forward momentum, it can be tricky to return. It’s important to watch the direction and trajectory of the ball.

Anticipate where it’s going and prepare yourself to be where the ball is going but ensure that you stop moving before you hit the ball.

Make a complete stop and a full, proper swing to ensure that you connect correctly with the ball and can return it back over the net in a strategic manner.

One of the biggest challenges of beginner players is that they rush to get to the ball and lose the opportunity to properly set themselves up for a strategic return of serve.

Partner Positions Rule

The Partner Positions Rule states the correct server must serve the first shot from the correct service court to the service court that is diagonal and the correct receiver must return the serve. All other pickleball players can stand wherever they choose on their side of the net (Rule 4.B.7) .

#3 – Hit a deep shot, just inside the baseline

When hitting the return of serve, hit the ball to the back ⅓ of the pickleball court, as close to just inside the baseline as possible. 

Learning how to consistently hit a deep shot is one of the most important shots.

Hitting the return of serve ball deep helps keep your opponent at the back of the court while you and your partner move to the non-volley zone line (kitchen line) – which is where you want to be so you have a better opportunity to control the game and win points.

Hitting the return of serve deep can catch your opponent off-guard or unprepared to hit the ball successfully. 

Quite often, a new player will stand right at the baseline which leaves them in a difficult position to hit a deep serve that lands just inside the baseline. 

Players end up with their arms and paddles in precarious positions that make it difficult if not impossible to successfully hit a return of serve back over the net. They lose their serve and you and your partner now get to serve.

#4 – Move to the non-volley zone after hitting return of serve

For new players, it’s a common mistake to forget to make your way to the non-volley zone (kitchen line) immediately after hitting the return of serve. This is a crucial move to remember because pickleball games are won at the non-volley zone.

Immediately after returning a serve, make your way to the non-volley zone line. 

Lobs or soft shots to the back to the court should give you enough time to get to there. 

Or at least you or your partner should make it before the serving side hits their next shot (also called the third shot).

Suppose one of you ends up staying at the back of the pickleball court or in the transition zone. 

In this case, that player should make a move to the NVZ line as soon as possible before your opponent has you and your partner running around the court instead of you controlling your position at the no-volley zone.

Use the split-step strategy to help you move up the court.

#5 – Get Into The Ready Position

The ready position in pickleball is when a player has their paddle up in front of them in a position that allows them to easily react to a ball with a forehand or backhand stroke. Knees should be bent and open in a horizontal or slightly split position.

This one seems obvious, but new players are often so focused on trying to figure out how to hit the ball that they forget to get into their ready position.

Not only does this not prepare a player to respond to the ball once it lands in their service area, but it also demonstrates their skill level and makes it obvious to their opponent that they are new and not ready for the shot.

#6 – Hit the return of serve to your opponent’s backhand

Most pickleball players, especially beginner players, are more confident with their forehand than their backhand – I know I was. 

In fact, I would go out of my way to anticipate the trajectory of the ball and move into a position where I could return the serve with my forehand, rather than my backhand. 

hit the return of serve to your opponent's backhand

Anticipating trajectory and where the ball is going is good but probably not the best if you’re doing it to avoid using your backhand. 

So hit the return of serve to your opponent’s backhand. It could cause them to quickly lose the rally.

#7 – Hit the return of serve deep, down the centerline 

Your opponent is likely anticipating a lob or power hit and they’ll be keeping their eye open for some spin but they may not be thinking about a hit that goes deep, right down the center.

Hitting the ball deep, down the center line can cause your opponents to be uncertain about who’s ball it is and who should hit it. New players don’t always think to call the ball and just ‘go for it’.

Instead they wait (missed opportunity). 

Whenever you can, add some variety to how you play so that you keep your opponent guessing and whenever possible, avoid being predictable.

hit the return of serve deep down the centerline

#8 – Hit your return of serve with some topspin

While this might be a return of serve that’s more suited to an experienced player, once you’ve got a consistent return of serve, practice adding topspin to the ball.

It’s a great option that could win you the serve or at the very least, keep your opponent on the move.

To add topspin, hit the ball from a low angle below the ball and finish with your paddle towards your shoulder.

#9 – Hit the return of serve into a backhand back corner 

Hitting the return of serve into the back corner of your opponent’s backhand will be tricky for them to hit. They’re likely to think that the ball is going out of bounds, instead of landing just inside the corner. 

And, they’ll need to be standing back a good 1 – 2 feet from the baseline to get a decent swing and successfully hit the ball over the net. 

#10 – Hit a return of serve with backspin

Hitting with backspin is another great way to hit a return of serve that will take your opponent by surprise and make the third shot really tricky for them to hit.

I know that I find it one of the most difficult hits to return and it’s really a shot that is played by the more advanced players on both the giving and receiving end of the ball.

Hit a return of serve with backspin

So, if you’re able to nail a return of shot with backspin, you’ll definitely throw the opposing team for a curve ball! 

When backspin is applied, the opposing team will wait for the ball to bounce (two-bounce rule) and then get ready to hit the ball but with backspin, it will travel backward towards the net. The surprise factor of the ball moving backward will throw your opponent off guard.

I’ve been on the receiving end of a serve with backspin and wondered what the ???? happened to the ball?

#11 – Place a soft shot at the non-volley zone

For more experienced players, placing a dink shot or a soft shot with backspin on a short return that lands just the other side of the net is an option.

This goes against the other strategies that tell you the best way to hit a return of serve is to place the ball at the back of the court, not to hit a short serve.

The reason that a soft shot at the NVZ is even worth considering is that most players are standing at the back of the court, behind the baseline which means they aren’t in a position to return a serve that’s at the net (and may not get there fast enough).

But, this means you’re setting your opponent up at the net before you may have had the chance to get there.

This shot is only recommended for experienced players and if the serve is soft, making a dink shot / soft shot achievable.

If the serve is hard with power, this shot won’t work. Learn more about other common pickleball serves.

FAQ’s – 11 Tips for a winning Pickleball Return of Serve

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

Yes, in pickleball, the return of serve can land in the kitchen and on any of the kitchen lines. However, a serve can’t land in the kitchen or on the kitchen lines. If it does, it’s a fault or it’s a side-out if it’s the second server.

What is a drop shot?

A drop shot is a soft shot that is hit after the ball bounces deep in the pickleball court. The soft shot is intended to land on the other side of the net in the opponent’s NVZ (non-volley zone). 

What is the best return of serve in pickleball?

The best return of serve in pickleball is a serve that is hit down the center of the court to the back of the court just inside the baseline because your opponents may not know who should hit it so neither player hits the ball.

Does the return of serve in pickleball have to bounce?

Yes, the serve in pickleball has to bounce before being returned. The server should wait behind the baseline of the receiver’s service court and allow room to move forward to meet the ball in front of your body. Use a forward, underhand stroke to hit the ball with momentum.

Where to stand on return of serve in pickleball?

When hitting the return of serve, the USAPA official rules of pickleball state the receiver should stand behind their baseline, which is diagonal to the server’s court. It’s recommended to stand  1-2 feet behind the baseline to allow room to meet the ball in front of the body.

Can either player return the serve in pickleball?

No, only the correct receiver can return the serve in pickleball. According to Rule 4.B.7 in the USAPA Rulebook, the players on the returning team can stand anywhere on the court on their side of the net, but the correct receiver must hit the return of serve.

What is the double bounce rule?

The double bounce rule states that a ball can only bounce once, not twice, before being returned. Rule 3.A.7.

Summary – 11 Tips For A Winning Pickleball Return of Serve

Mastering how to return your opponent’s serve – the return of serve, is an important skill to master. It’s really almost, just as important as mastering your own serve.

Once you’ve perfected your serve and the return of serve, then you’re in a good position to set yourself up to control a rally whether you’re the team serving or the team receiving.

All the tips that I’ve mentioned above will help you with your return of serve.

Beginners should focus on the following 6 tips. Once you’ve mastered these skills, move on to the other 5 tips.

#1 – Learn how to return a Lob Serve

#2 – Learn how to return a Power Serve

#3 – Hit a deep shot, just inside the baseline

#4 – Move to the non-volley line (NVZ) after hitting return of serve

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