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How Do Pickleball Tournaments Work?

Close-up of a pickleball on a pickleball court.

I’m not sure about you, but I find pickleball tournaments a little daunting. This is especially when there are a lot of players. I’ve found that knowing how a tournament works helps to make it all more manageable. It also calms my nerves.

All pickleball tournaments have a lot of players entering and one winner. There are a few differences in the details of the tournament, which I have unpacked in this post.

Types of Pickleball tournaments

A mixed doubles team competes in a pickleball tournament.

There are two types of Pickleball tournament:

  • Those that are sanctioned by one of the pickleball governing bodies. For example, the United States Amateur Pickleball association.

These tournaments follow specific rules. Certain elements have to be in place. The rules are strict and are consistent between tournaments.

The players that enter sanctioned tournaments are competitive, because there are often cash prizes for the winners. Sanctioned tournaments are also the place where players’ rankings are determined.

  • Unsanctioned tournaments

These tournaments are usually organized locally. They are on a smaller scale, generally for fun. There may be some form of prize at one of these tournaments: possibly cash, but also in kind, often from sponsors.

These tournaments follow the format and rules of Pickleball tournaments in general, but may also set their own rules. The results of unsanctioned tournaments don’t affect players’ official rankings.

Pickleball tournament formats

Four players compete in the mixed doubles division of a pickleball tournament.

All pickleball tournaments follow the format of rounds. Players / teams face others and play through different rounds, until there is one winner. To arrive at the winner, the tournaments follow two basic formats: knockout and Round Robin.

1. Knock-out tournaments

In pickleball, knock-out tournaments work on the principle that all players begin with round one. If a player loses, they are eliminated from the competition. A consolation tournament is offered as an option at most knockout tournaments.

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2. Single elimination knock-outs

This format of tournament works with players facing each other in different rounds. In each round, half of the players will be eliminated. The number of players determines the number of rounds.

The first final round is the quarter finals, where there are the last 8 players left. Prior to this round, a tournament will refer to the ‘final sixteen’. If there are only 16 players in the tournament, this will be the first round.

The winners proceed to the quarter finals. With larger numbers, the tournament may have one, two or even three rounds before the final 16. From the quarter-finals, four players go to the semi-finals and two to the final.

The winner takes first place and the loser second place. Some single elimination tournaments include a play-off. This is between the losers of the semi-finals for third and fourth place.

3. Consolation tournaments

A consolation tournament is a form of secondary / shadow tournament. It is offered at most knock-out tournaments. One of the advantages of these tournaments is that any eliminated player in the first round is guaranteed of at least one more match.

The consolation tournament runs parallel to the main tournament. The players participate in rounds, until a winner is found. In a single elimination tournament, the winner of the consolation tournament can achieve third place in the overall tournament.

In a double elimination tournament, though, those playing in the consolation tournament can play their way back into the main tournament. It is this possible for them to win the first or second position. A tournament may offer a double elimination pickleball option.

It works on the same principle as a single elimination. The winning player / team in the final of the consolation bracket will play the winning player / team of the main tournament.

4. Round Robin

A Round Robin pickleball tournament works on the basis that everyone plays everyone. However, if the numbers at the tournament are large, the first stage of the tournament is divided into pools. The winner of a game gets 2 points and the loser 1.

The two players / teams with the highest score per pool advance into the second round. This round may be played on a Round Robin basis. Again, depending on numbers, the second round may be based on pools, or everyone plays everyone.

Only the first-place winners of each pool will advance. In this way, the tournament will arrive at a final, with a winner. If there is a tie in the results of the pool, the players / teams involved play a form of ‘sudden-death’ game to determine the winner.

Round Robin tournaments often attract quite a large number of players. This means that the format of a Round Robin in every round is impractical. This is based on the number of matches that must be played.

A great option for a tournament format is to begin with a Round Robin structure in the first round. Then you can move into the next rounds on a knock-out basis.

Round Robin vs Knock-out Tournament

Two seniors play a game of pickleball.

The attraction of a Round Robin tournament is that players know they will play more than one game. This may attract more people. It is a much more inclusive type of tournament.

A knock-out tournament is more competitive and at least half the players will only play one game. You may find it attracts fewer players. The players who are attracted will be serious about pickleball and achieving a ranking.

Tournament categories

Mixed pickleball teams congratulate each other after a tournament match.

At a pickleball tournament, the players are divided by two categories: event and age. Every player will fit into both categories.

Event categories


  • Men and women
  • Doubles
  • Men: two men play in a team
  • Women: two women play in a team
  • Mixed: one man and one woman play in a team

Age categories

The age categories are basically under 18 and 19 and over. The over 19 category is further organized, beginning with 20-34. After this, gaps of 10 years follow, until 75.

The older players all play in the 75+ category.

Structure of matches

A senior mixed doubles team competes in a pickleball tournament.

Each match played at a pickleball tournament follows the same structure. This may differ between individual tournaments, though. There are two options for match structure that are usually followed: three games and a single game.

Three game structure

Most tournaments follow the three games structure. Each of the first two games is played for 11 points. The winner must win by two points.

The first player to win two games wins. If there is a tie (2 games each), the third game is the deciding game. This is played to 5 points.

The winner must win by two points. Sanctioned tournaments always follow this structure.

Single game structure

Tournaments may follow a single game structure. Each match consists of only one game, which may be played for 15 or 21 points. The winner must win by two points.

Some unsanctioned tournaments follow this structure. This is especially if there are large numbers of players involved.

Final thoughts on pickleball tournaments

Understanding how pickleball tournaments work will help you to make sense of the process. This is an advantage when you are playing in a large tournament. It’s also useful knowledge to have when you play in any type or format of tournament.