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CJ Johnson
Tony Roig
Tony Roig

If You Don’t Know the 2023 Pickleball Serve Rule, You’ll Hate Yourself Later

It is almost assured that in the 2023 USAPA (USA Pickleball) Official Rules published for next year, the pickleball spin serve will no longer be 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 proposed change to the Pickleball Serve Rules is found in Rule 4.A.5 and reads as follows (the red portion is the proposed addition):

In matches without a referee, the server’s release of the ball must be visible to the receiver. The server shall not impart manipulation or spin on the release of the ball immediately prior to the serve. If the receiver determines that manipulation or spin has been imparted, or the release of the ball is not visible, the receiver shall call for a reserve immediately after the serve occurs.

This proposed 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 proposed 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 Proposed Serve Rule Changes Do Not Mean that the Pickleball Spin Serve Is Banned.

So far, the proposed serve rule change has caused a decent amount of confusion. A perusal of posts inside the Facebook pickleball forums makes this clear.

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 proposed 2023 pickleball serve rule change will ban 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 creates 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 Proposed 2023 Pickleball Serve Rule Change Banning the Pre-Spun Serve Are Not Persuasive

Players have raised several objections to the proposed ban of the pre-spun serve. The objections fall into one of 4 categories:

    1. Too many rules for pickleball – stop changing the game
    2. The rules change will stifle innovation – “dumb” the game down
    3. If a player cannot handle the spin serve, find something else to do
    4. I don’t like it

None of these arguments for the pickleball spin serve are persuasive.

    1. 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.
    2. 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.
    3. 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.
    4. 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 have 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

While we are in favor of the banning of the pre-spun serve, we are concerned with how it will be enforced.

Specifically, the proposed rule reads as follows for enforcement:

If the receiver determines that manipulation or spin has been imparted, or the release of the ball is not visible, the receiver shall call for a reserve immediately after the serve occurs.

The problem we see with this enforcement mechanism is

    1. The receiver is standing 44+ feet away from the server. Yet the receiver is charged with determining whether “manipulation or spin” has been imparted.
    2. 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.
    3. 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.
    4. The term “manipulation or spin” is vague and subject to the interpretation given to it by the receiver.

If you have played pickleball for 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.

19 Comments

  1. Stephen (Steve) Skinnet on October 1, 2022 at 8:32 pm

    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.

    • Curtis on November 13, 2022 at 2:49 pm

      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.

      • Dana Cole on November 20, 2022 at 3:57 pm

        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. 🤣

  2. Baron Budwig on October 1, 2022 at 10:32 pm

    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?

    • CJ Johnson on October 1, 2022 at 10:44 pm

      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.

  3. Joe on October 5, 2022 at 2:53 pm

    Ben Johns makes contact at chest level?

  4. Randall Dean Spelts on October 8, 2022 at 2:04 am

    When I drop serve the ball I let it roll off my hand then hit the serve will this be considered illegal in 2023?

    • CJ Johnson on October 8, 2022 at 11:35 am

      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.

  5. Bo on October 10, 2022 at 6:36 am

    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.

    • CJ Johnson on October 10, 2022 at 8:09 pm

      You are correct Bo. Sometimes when the words in the rules change we don’t always remember to update older posts.

  6. Matt on October 16, 2022 at 2:06 pm

    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. 🙂

  7. Charles carnaggio on October 31, 2022 at 12:07 am

    Would like to see length of court change to 50 feet so lob would be more offensive.

    • Andy on November 9, 2022 at 5:22 am

      Dont see how this is possible. Unless YOU want to pay for the 50,000 + courts to be modified.

  8. Tom on November 11, 2022 at 1:04 am

    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.

    • CJ Johnson on November 11, 2022 at 3:12 am

      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.

  9. Brian on November 13, 2022 at 2:15 pm

    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……

  10. Toby Berla on November 16, 2022 at 2:04 am

    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. 🙂

  11. Jerry on November 23, 2022 at 4:19 pm

    In normal rec. play, is the spin allowed or is it up to the players?

    • CJ Johnson on November 27, 2022 at 6:48 pm

      Hi Jerry, spin is allowed BUT you can not pre-spin the ball before the serve.

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