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Sunday, November 15, 2015

Doubles Scoring and Player Positioning

My experience is that the single most confusing part of the game is keeping score when playing doubles. A doubles score is comprised of 3 numbers. Not 1 number, not 2 numbers, but 3 numbers! An example of a score would be “4-2-1”. What the heck do those 3 numbers mean and how did they get there? This post will try to explain their meaning as well as some other aspects of the scoring sequence.

There are 3 main principles to understand about the score and how it accumulates during the game.
  1. Only the serving team can score a point 
  2. Each player on a team serves in rotation every time they regain the serve, with the exception of the game-opening rotation 
  3. The sequence of the serve includes shifting between courts and teams
The first principle of pickleball scoring is that only the serving team can score a point by winning a rally. A receiving team that wins a rally does not add a point to their score. A rally win by the receiving team does accomplish two goals - it prevents the serving team from adding a point to their score and it advances the service sequence toward their regaining the serve.

With that understanding, what does the “4-2-1” example mean? The “4” indicates that the serving team has 4 points (having won 4 rallies while serving). Likewise, the “2” indicates that the receiving team has 2 points (having won 2 rallies while serving). The number of rallies won by the receiving (non-serving) team is unrecognized in the score. So the first 2 numbers are straightforward, representing the points earned by the serving and receiving teams, respectively. But what’s up with that third number? I can state that the third number represents the server’s position in that particular service sequence. However, that concept can only be understood after a discussion of how the service sequence works.

The second principle of scoring is that both players on a team serve during their team’s service possession. After a team regains the serve, the player in the serving team’s right court always serves first, as represented by Player B below. That server, as the first to serve, is designated by the number “1” for that rotation. Thus, his announced score includes “1” as the third number in “4-2-1”.

Player “1” retains the serve (and the number “1”) until the serving team loses a rally. When a rally started by player 1’s serve is won by the receiving team, player 1’s partner is next to serve and is then designated as player “2”, as the second player to serve in this particular rotation. Assuming no points were won on player 1’s serve, player 2 announces the score as “4-2-2”.

However, remember that I mentioned that there was one exception to the second principle rule that each team member serves in a rotation? That exception is the first service rotation of the game. The first service rotation of the game includes only 1 server. As usual, the server who started the game will serve until the serving team loses a rally. With a lost rally the serve will move to the opposing team’s player in their right service court instead of the first server's partner. This is the only time that both players on a team do not serve.

The exception to the usual 2-server rule also requires a unique (and confusing) score announcement. Despite being the first server in the sequence, player 1 is not server “1”. That designation inaccurately implies there would be a server “2” in the rotation. Instead, the first server of the game is announced as “2” or “start”, as in “0-0-2” or “0-0-start”. This convention serves to remind players that the proper sequence would be to move the serve to the opposing team when a rally is lost by the serving team.

I previously stated that a server retains the serve until losing a rally. I have not made clear the positioning of the serving team throughout a winning sequence. The first serve of any team’s serving rotation is by the player in the right court, who is then designated as server “1” throughout the particular rotation. If the serving team wins that first serve rally, they are awarded a point and retain the serve. However, server “1” does not stay in the right court for the ensuing serve. Instead, server “1” shifts to the left court for the second serve. This shifting of courts – right-left-right-left – continues until the serving team loses a rally. 

The loss of a rally on server “1”s serve means the serve moves to server “1”s partner, now designated as server “2” in the score announcement, such as “4-2-2”. Server “2” would serve from the court he was positioned for the start of the lost rally. Server “2” does not necessarily start his serve from the right court, but will serve from his established court position. Then, the shifting pattern would continue as long as the serving team wins rallies starting with server “2”s serves. When the serving team loses a rally, the “2” in the score indicates the end of the service rotation and the serve moves to the opposing team’s server “1” in their right court.

Some beginning players make the mistake of believing that they are assigned their server number throughout the game. In other words, they believe that the first server for a team is designated as server “1” and will remain server “1” throughout the game (and serve first in each rotation). Instead, the rules state that the server number designation is established anew with each rotation, i.e., each time the serve is regained from the opponent. Server “1” is designated as the player in the right court at the start of each service rotation.

Confusion about positioning is a very common occurrence. One simple rule of thumb to start in the proper position is to remember which team member started the game as the server and returner, respectively, for each team. That respective team member will always be in the starting (right) court on even points. Each started in the right court on zero and should be there when their team has 2, 4, 6, etc. points. Obviously, when their team score is an odd number (1, 3, 5, 7, etc.), that player should be in the left court. Rather than relying on memory (and to assist referees), many tournaments will give the first server and returner wrist bands to help identify their proper positioning.

One additional positioning issue should be noted. The receiving team should never shift from its original starting position for the service rotation of their opponents. The only shifting of starting position courts is by the serving team after a point is won. Players may move from side to side throughout a rally, but should return to their proper location to start the next rally.

A video from Pickleball Rocks called Pickleball Doubles Scoring Explained will help to explain much of the previous discussion.

To wrap this up, the rules state the server must announce the score prior to each serve. This is to ensure that all players are aware of the team points as well as the current service rotation. It is important that players understand what the score represents so they can get it right when it is their turn to announce it and to catch any mistakes during the game. While scoring can be confusing, it is necessary to understand all of the nuances in order to enjoy the game.


  1. Easy to understand now I see it in person and with score shouted out. Thanks, very clearly explained.

  2. Great, clear explanation. Thanks.

  3. Thank you for this. It cleared things up for me.