If You Don’t Know the 2023 Pickleball Serve Rule, You’ll Hate Yourself Later
The 2023 USAPA (USA Pickleball) Official Rules are published and the pickleball spin serve is no longer allowed. Now let’s be clear it’s the pre-spun, more commonly known as the finger spin serve, that will no longer be allowed.
The change to the Pickleball Serve Rules is found in Rule 4.A.5 and reads as follows:
4.A.5. The serve shall be made with only one hand releasing the ball. While some natural rotation of the ball is expected during any release of the ball from the hand, the server shall not impart manipulation or spin on the ball with any part of the body immediately prior to the serve. Exceptions: Any player may use their paddle to perform the drop serve (see Rule 4.A.8.a). A player who has the use of only one hand may also use their paddle to release the ball to perform the volley serve.
This language effectively bans the pre-spun pickleball serve (some players may know this as the Morgan Evans serve, named after the pro player who popularized the spin serve technique). A possible flaw in the rule is the enforcement mechanism that puts the calling of a pre-spun serve on the returner. Let’s take a more in-depth look at these points.
First: The Serve Rule Changes Do Not Mean that the Pickleball Spin Serve Is Banned.
When USA Pickleball announced the proposed serve rule change in late 2022 there was a decent amount of confusion. A perusal of posts inside the Facebook pickleball forums makes this clear.
This video was shot just prior to the final version of the rule change but it will help you understand what is banned and what is allowed.
Pickleball players may spin the ball with the paddle.
This spin is imparted to the ball as the paddle contacts the ball and propels the ball forward. Specifically, a player may impart topspin or underspin to the ball as part of their serve (if you want to read more about pickleball spins and our position on them, read this article.)
In fact, virtually every shot you hit imparts a spin on the ball, whether you intend it or not.
The only limitation to putting spin on the ball with the paddle is the three conditions for a legal pickleball serve. In a traditional volley serve, the service motion must be executed in the following manner:
1 – ball hit below the navel
2 – paddle below wrist at contact (the highest part of the paddle below where the wrist joint bends)
3 – paddle traveling in an upward arc. (upward motion)
These three rules ensure you cannot chop down on the ball as part of your service motion.
But, as long as you comply with the three rules, you can still attempt to impart spin to the ball when you serve it. If you want to see an example of a spin serve that is still allowed, check out this video showing a sidespin serve – and how to hit it: https://youtu.be/OLDh7MJF19M.
Now: The Pre-Spun Ball or Finger Spin Will Be Banned
The 2023 pickleball serve rule change bans the pre-spinning of the ball before the ball is hit. This means that players will no longer be able to add a spin to the ball with their hand as they release the ball before the serve.
If you are unsure what the pre-spun serve looks like, check out this video where we show you varieties of the pre-spun serve: https://youtu.be/Xb4PEsNHT28.
In short, while it can be viewed as exciting or “fresh,” the pre-spun serve exceeds the parameters of the game of pickleball. It raises the offensive capacity of the serve to a level beyond what makes sense for the framework of pickleball: a game that is intended to have a rally of exchanged shots rather than a one-shot ends all approach.
The serve has always been intended to be a rally starter.
The word “serve” comes from the original serve in tennis, which was made by a servant serving the ball into play so that the players could exchange shots afterward. The tennis serve has deviated from this original purpose and the deviation radically altered tennis such that the serve plays an outsized role compared to the other shots in the game. Pickleball is better served by being a game of multiple shots.
In addition, one of the most important characteristics of pickleball is that it is open to players of all ages, levels, and athletic backgrounds. It is one of the few sports that can be enjoyed by multiple generations of players on the same court.
The finger spin pickleball serve created a potential chasm that is inconsistent with this characteristic and would serve to undermine it, making it less likely that players of different skill sets could play together.
The Objections Expressed to the 2023 Pickleball Serve Rule Change Banning the Pre-Spun Serve Were Not Persuasive
During the rule review process, players raised several objections to the proposed ban of the pre-spun serve. The objections fall into one of 4 categories:
- Too many rules for pickleball – stop changing the game
- The rules change will stifle innovation – “dumb” the game down
- If a player cannot handle the spin serve, find something else to do
- I don’t like it
None of these arguments for the pickleball spin serve are persuasive.
- Every sport has limiting rules. It is unpersuasive to cherry-pick curve balls, three-point shots, or some currently allowed part of a game and say, “ban this next.” For each currently allowed part of a game that is picked, there is a contrary “part” that is limited or banned: tar on a baseball, the 3-second rule in basketball, and the length of a tennis racket. Every game needs rules for the game to make sense. It is just a matter of balancing the rules of pickleball to get the intended general parameters of the sport. That balancing is a fair debate but just suggesting that the pre-spun serve cannot be limited because, well, then you will ban everything else is not persuasive.
- There is no evidence that removing the pre-spun serve will retard the game’s development. The pre-spun serve was always an outlier shot that few players used, yet the sport has continued to get better and better without even considering the pre-spun serve. This doomsday argument, without more, is unpersuasive.
- This argument is just plain selfish. “I want pickleball to be for me, and the way I want it, and everyone else can pound sand” Really? A person advancing this argument should do some soul searching. We all share this planet – and our local courts – with other people. They have as much right to enjoy pickleball as anyone. This self-centered argument will not, as is often the case, carry the day.
- This stopped being a persuasive argument sometime between the 2nd and 6th grades (depending on the person) and requires no response.
It is fair to disagree with the service rules changes.
A player may argue that pickleball should include a pre-spun serve because X or Y. But, with few exceptions, that is not what players are arguing. Instead, the arguments devolve to one of the above – none of which has merit.
We include this section here not to change the minds of those advancing the above arguments – though if we do, all the better. The above is included for those players who are indirectly attacked by the above arguments. We have always championed pickleball as a sport for all who wish to play it and will continue to advocate this position.
But-Enforcement of the New Pickleball Rules May Be An Issue
Just as when the Chainsaw Serve was banned back in 2022, we have been in favor of banning of the pre-spun serve. However, we are concerned with how it will be enforced.
Specifically, the rule reads as follows for enforcement:
In non-officiated matches, if the receiver determines that manipulation of spin has been imparted prior to the serve, or the release of the ball is not visible, the receiver may call for a replay before the return of serve.
The problem we see with this enforcement mechanism is
- The receiver is standing 44+ feet away from the server. Yet the receiver is charged with determining whether “manipulation or spin” has been imparted.
- Players will be confused about the rule being about the pre-spin rather than the spin serve. It is easy to foresee receivers calling foul on a serve because it has a spin on it, or it’s just a fast-spinning ball– the problem is that a spin on a serve is allowed.
- Receivers have enough on their plate without asking them to rule how the server is tossing the ball. Receivers should be able to focus on their return without these ancillary considerations.
- The term “manipulation or spin” is vague and subject to the interpretation given to it by the receiver.
If you have played pickleball any time, then you know that the existing pickleball serve rules (the three rules of the volley serve) already create plenty of on-court disagreement about whether a serve is legal.
From our vantage point, we respectfully suggest that the sport does not need another point of friction where players may disagree about a call. Particularly not when the rule is as subjective as this one.
The solution? While it may not be a popular solution, the easiest way to address the pre-spun serve while at the same time quieting any need to argue about an illegal serve is through the use of the drop serve.
The drop serve does not lend itself to pre-spinning the ball. The spin would be neutralized when the ball bounces on the court. The spin might also lead to bounces that are not in the interests of the server. Thus, no reason to pre-spin the ball.
And, as the three rules of the traditional volley serve no longer apply, there is less chance for arguments about whether the serve was legal or not. The only potential source of friction would be if the receiver thought the server was propelling the ball downward on the ball release.
Again, not a popular solution – but pragmatic and consistent with the spirit of the game, including the serve as a rally starter.
Here’s a free PDF download of the USA Pickleball Rulebook
Hola. Hello. Konichiwa. After 40 years playing tennis, I am now a full-time pickleball player and professional. As a 5.0 rated Senior Pro Pickleball Player and an IPTPA-certified Master Teaching Professional, my focus is on helping players like you learn to play their best pickleball. In 2016, shortly after starting to play pickleball, my friend Tom and I jumped into the highest division at the first US Open in Naples, Florida. That morning it became clear just how much there is to learn in this seemingly simple sport – a lifetime of learning if you so choose. Since 2018, I have been on a mission to share my knowledge of pickleball so other players can enjoy the game at a higher level and attain their pickleball objectives. When not studying or playing pickleball, I like to travel with my other half, Jill.
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Glad to hear that the spin serve will be banned. It really does give an unfair advantage to server forcing the receiver to attempt to read the rotation of the wrist to determine the “kick” of the ball after the bounce. Another contributing factor is the surface texture of the paddle face of some USAPA approved make and models having a non-smooth ribbed face which of course adds spin to a ball. Let’s keep the paddle face glass smooth. Variety in stroke will yield different spins that most people can develop over time without the need for a spin serve that only a select few can master using the legal ribbed paddle.
Gee Steve. I always thought it was my job to improve and get better. Not tell my opponents that they are too good, or their (approved) equipment is too good. Does every ball player use the same bat? Do Tennis players have the same tension in their strings? Same golf ball? Clubs? I’ve always read the spin on the ball while it was in the air on its way to me. It’s my job. While I do agree that rules should reevaluated, and sometimes changed… They shouldn’t be changed it to simply achieve parity.
According to USAPA, the reason for outlawing the pre-spin serve (and I may be wrong but I think 524 superseding 369 actually outlaws ALL spin-serves) is that, for example, players might travel hundreds of miles to a tournament, only to be eliminated in the first round by a “trick” serve which many people can’t detect. They may be referring mostly to amateur tournaments rather than pro tournaments, and it seems to me they are trying to keep the game fun for everyone, young, old, amateur, and pro. Personally, as a duffer, I like the change. 🤣
In a non officiated game, what’s to stop the receiver from calling reserve whenever they hit the ball into the net, pretending that they couldn’t see the server release the ball?
Unfortunately, nothing. That’s what we think may pose a problem with the rule.
Very good comment Curtis. To me, the new serving rule is selfish and childish in reverse as previously mentioned. I don’t even have the ability to spin the ball out of my hand and serve. Now you basically have given some idiot permission to say, the ball toss was hidden, you need to reserve it. Maybe we can abolish all scoring, call the game after 15 minutes, and hand out cookies after game.
Actually I’m known to have one of the best spin serves in my area and I prefer a paddles with no grit so that it doesn’t remove the finger spin I put on the ball.
If you can’t read the spin of the ball, how are you going to determine a server spun the ball out of his hand from 44 feet away which leads to, how are you going to call it. Are you going to call for a reserve every time the ball jumps after hitting the court. I’m more a fan of serving to the ability of the opponent and i can’t even spin the ball out of my hand but I can read it and prepare for a successful return. Its all part of taking it on as a challenge to improve as a player and develop your game instead of another rule to allows someone to complain about something they don’t know happen or how to interpret what occurred. The biggest problem I have are the little dink serve with spin that hit close to the sideline and kitchen that are next to impossible to return given my age of 60 years however I would be the last one to complain or want a rule prohibiting it. I enjoy the challenge in finding ways to beat these 20 to 30 year olds but despise playing against, i’ll call them players instead of jerks that complain about spins off the paddle, being in the kitchen when you’re not, and your ball toss on the serve was hidden due to the new 2023 serve rule change all in an attempt to create their own advantage.
Have to disagree. Last year I spent six months (April – Aug) watching Morgan evans and countless YouTube videos and countless hours on the court by myself practicing the spin serve. And yes – it gives me as a server a huge advantage in pulling the receiver off the court when the ball kicks right or left, opening up that side of the court for a kill shot – and that’s if they return it. The point being, anyone can put the time in to learn. So for the whiners out there, learn your craft.
Inquiry on the legality of a service practice: I am left handed and when I serve the ball from the right side of the court to start a play period, I often hold and hit the ball to be serviced while I hold the ball beyond the centerline of the court thereby initiating the play from the left side of the court, but my feet and body are on the right side. The ball is never bounced on this serve. Is this service profile legal?
Hi Baron, your feet need to be inside of the imaginary extension of the centerline and behind the baseline. It sounds like you are legal.
Ben Johns makes contact at chest level?
When I drop serve the ball I let it roll off my hand then hit the serve will this be considered illegal in 2023?
Hi Randall the rule for 2023 doesn’t apply to the drop serve. There would be little point to spin because when it hits the ground it would likely spin away from the serve. But I’m not certain that letting it roll off your hand is consistent with the current rule for the drop serv. Here is the rule 4a.6.a Servers must release the ball from one of the server’s hands or dropped off the server’s paddle face from any natural (unaided) height and hit the ball after the ball bounces. There is no restriction how many times the ball can bounce nor where the ball can bounce on the playing surface. The server’s release of the ball must be visible to the referee and the receiver. In matches without a referee, the server’s release of the ball must be visible to the receiver. All that said I think that an arguement could be made that letting it roll off our hand would not be considered a drop.
You write regarding the current serve rules:
1 – ball hit below the navel
That is not correct. Contact with the ball cannot be above the waist. No mention of the navel in the rulebook and an important difference with above/below.
2 – paddle below wrist at contact (the highest part of the paddle below where the wrist joint bends)
Not correct. Highest part of the paddle cannot be *above* the *highest* part of the wrist.
You are correct Bo. Sometimes when the words in the rules change we don’t always remember to update older posts.
Another issue with enforcement is the potential interpretation that all serves will now be illegal. How can you drop the ball without spin? If the rule read, “no more than x rpms per y foot” I can see how we have a firm rule. This rule seems to rely on the “we know it when we see it” understand. I think that pickleball communities are largely very sporting and folks will comply with the spirit of the new rule even if it is unenforceable. Sorry, my pedantic nature is kicking in and I can’t see that a no spin ball drop is humanly possible. 🙂
Would like to see length of court change to 50 feet so lob would be more offensive.
Dont see how this is possible. Unless YOU want to pay for the 50,000 + courts to be modified.
The logic that only a few can master the spin to me is off. You could make that claim in any part of the game, some are better than others. When they mention unfair advantage, what about players that are very tall and thus can initiate the serve much higher, which absolutely gives an advantage.
If you practice a lot on returning spin serves and trained yourself to observe the spin being placed on the ball, it is really not that impossible to always return.
Hi Tom, when it comes to mastering the spin serve you don’t have to look much further than the pro’s, there are very few ever at that level that have been able to master the spin serve.
To be sure, baseball has its ban on spitballs, greaseballs, and many other foreign substances (as well as gambling on the game). (Other ball sports probably do as well.) In table tennis, you can spin the ball – you just can’t hide the spin; and there are other illegal serves, but none because the serve may “…exceed the parameters of the game….” Racquetball, tennis, badminton, and other racket/paddle sports….. All have their unique game-specific serving rules. I don’t know whether there any other racket/paddle sports with similar serving limitations such as this finger-spin ban?
This rule appears to be solely intended to protect the sport so that it can be “…enjoyed by multiple generations of players on the same court…” Certainly, a laudable purpose. But, should this be made illegal at all levels of play, even at advanced and high-skill play?
Under current rules, my observation is that players of different skill sets already don’t play together, and a higher-level player would be unlikely to use this finger-spin serve against a lower-skilled player anyway. So, it would seem to have little competitive impact at the neighborhood courts. (Much of the current conversation that I hear is on “rally scoring” that may be coming, and already exists in some facilities, not on finger-spin serves.)
Just a few Sunday morning thoughts……
Instead of a rule change allowing players to complain about something they don’t know how to interpret accurately, why not emphasize a rule of etiquette play. Rule #1, Serve to the level of your opponent. I often see players blast serves to beginners in order to win points. This is a far more common problem then spinning the ball out of your hand serve. Players should be encouraged to work on drops and dinks when facing an inferior opponent, instead of blasting shots they can’t handle.
The USAP rules committee could have made the rules for serving much clearer, if they had just looked at the official table tennis rules:
2.06.01 Service shall start with the ball resting freely on the open palm of the server’s stationary free hand.
2.06.02 The server shall then project the ball near vertically upwards, without imparting spin, so that it rises at least 16cm after leaving the palm of the free hand and then falls without touching anything before being struck.
As for the real reason the spin serve needed to be eliminated: BECAUSE IT MAKES THE GAME LOOK STOOOOPID! The name “pickleball” is bad enough, without the spectacle of receivers completely missing a legally served ball. 🙂
In normal rec. play, is the spin allowed or is it up to the players?
Hi Jerry, spin is allowed BUT you can not pre-spin the ball before the serve.
I’ve just read the draft of the new 2023 rules posted on the USA Pickleball website. As you noted, the new rule allows the receiver of a serve in a non-officiated match to call for a replay if they believe the ball was illegally spun or if the release of the ball was not visible. Unfortunately, the new rule goes on to say that the receiver of a serve in a non-officiated match “has no authority to call for replays or faults for service motion violations.” This effectively removes the service motion rules for most recreational play.
If this new rule is in fact implemented, it will lead to even more controversy over serves in recreational play. Without the ability to enforce service motion rules in non-officiated play, there is nothing to prevent those that can from using overhead tennis serves or other patently illegal serves. The receiving team’s available remedies are not good: 1) they can walk off the court, potentially forfeiting games; 2) they can refuse to play against known violators, again potentially forfeiting games; or 3) they can call an illegal spin serve every time they see any kind of service motion violation. These are not good solutions; they are not within the spirit of pickleball and they will only lead even greater arguments than we have now.
Removing the ability of the receiver to call fault or to demand a replay for a service motion violation makes no sense to me.
I am of the school of thought that, like mentioned, the serve is to get the game started. My friend and I played a game against a man who did the screwball serve. Now, we are all seniors. I was coming off a knee replacement, and my (older) partner — well, she’s not real athletic. The guy serving can barely walk. I mean, he looks like he has cerebral palsy, it’s that bad. He screwball serves so hard the ball actually makes a “C.” He could make it land and go out just past the kitchen at court’s edge. He served 8 points straight like that. I couldn’t run and my partner is not one to try. As a result, no one but him played those 8 points. Real fun. The only time his partner got to play was if he happened to miss (which was rare). I finally said something to him and he changed his serve. This wasn’t in a tournament; this was supposed to be rec play. He’s not even an advanced player because he can’t really move around the court, but if something is close to him he can get to it fine.
Looking at a video of the screwball serve, I still think it should be illegal because you HAVE to go right-to-left (if you’re right-handed) to spin the ball even if you are hitting forward, and especially in the case of this dude I described and the severity of the curve. I think it should be banned below 4.0 or 4.5 in competitions, at least. While people are still learning and working their way up the ranks (if that is what they even want to do), I think the object is to get the play going and then prove that you are a good player in the GAME, not the serve.