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CJ Johnson
Tony Roig
Tony Roig

Pickleball Rules 2021-The Rules Guru and the Drop Serve

We bet you’ve heard that effective January 2021, pickleball has a few new rules, including a drop serve. While Tony and I believe other rule changes will likely impact your game more, the drop serve is getting the most attention. Not surprising, the serve is a topic that fascinates pickleball players and consistently produces more YouTube views than any other topic.

We don’t believe that the drop serve is the new pickleball superpower, but we knew there would be questions. What better way to get answers than to have our good friend, Rules Guru, Don Stanley, explain the new serve to our VIPickleball community. Since rules are such an important topic, we decided to give Don a platform to share the change with the entire pickleball world.

Click here to view the 2021 rules changes

Who is Don Stanley, and why should you listen to him?

Some of you may know Don as a voracious contributor to the Facebook Pickleball Forum, setting right what many twist into knots. Many of you may recognize him from his time on the sideline as the Head Referee for the PPA. Others may have taken a class from this USA Pickleball Certified Referee and Certified Referee Trainer.

You may not know that he was one of the chief authors of USA Pickleball’s 2021 Rules Change Document, and this year alone spent 173 hours and counting on the changes.

Tony and I sat down with Don (you can see the full interview here) to discuss the changes for 2021, and here’s what he had to say about the provisional alternate drop serve.

Don, there are a few rules that people are buzzing about, but none more than the addition of the alternative drop serve. How did this rule come to be?

If you’ve been in pickleball for a while, you know that Steve Paronto has promoted this as an option for years. They (the rules committee) finally looked at it and said, OK, we’re going to try it this year.

You’ll notice in the rulebook or the change document; it says provisional drop serve. It’s on a beta test basis, so to speak. It’s allowed this year (2021), and we’ll see how it goes.

Let’s start with an overview of the rule. Tell us about the drop. Is it a drop or a bounce?

Here are the quick bullet points:

    • You can’t propel it downwards.
    • As high as you can reach.
    • Let it basically fall out of your hand, roll out of your hand.

The server can hold the ball as high as you can reach. Then just let it (the ball) fall out of your hand. The point is, you can’t propel it downward to create more speed. But as high as you can reach, even on your tippy-toes, you let the ball fall out of your hand.

The ball falls to the ground and bounces, and then you hit the serve.

Are there other rules concerning the drop that players need to know?

The key factors are this; both the ref and the receiver must see the release of the ball. If the ref doesn’t see it, the receiver doesn’t see it; it’s got to be a replay.

And the server has to do it. You can’t have Jeff Warnick reaching and dropping the ball for Sue Wong to serve

As long as you don’t propel the ball downwards, once it bounces, serve it, have at it, that’s basically it. So that’s basically the concept of the release.

Do you have to hold the ball in your hand, or can you use the paddle face?

You can hold the ball on the paddle face. Just tilt your paddle, let it roll off. It needs to fall naturally by gravity to the ground.

Where does it have to bounce on the court?

Does not matter. On the court, outside of the court, outside the extension. It does not matter.

Does contact below the waist, the upward arc, and paddle below the wrist (where the wrist joint bends), which is part of the “normal” serve, apply to the bounce serve as well?

None of that matters. If you drop it and you crouch down low, that ball could probably technically bounce above your waist. Go ahead and hit it. Nothing matters after the bounce other than the feet (position).

Here’s the key phrase, after that ball bounces, nothing matters but the feet.

Can you explain what you mean when you said nothing matters in the service motion but the feet?

The current rules where the feet can’t be touching the baseline or the court or outside the extensions are still the same.

As far as paddle above the wrist, wrist above paddle, upward motion, and not above the waist, none of that matters. You can do a slicing chopping backspin downward, arcing serve if you want.

On a drop serve, once that ball bounces, nothing matters (on the serve) other than the feet.

Want to know the best drop for the drop serve?

Once a player does a drop serve, do they have to keep doing the drop serve?

You can switch at any time you want from what, for the sake of this discussion, we’ll call the normal serve to the provisional drop serve. I can do the drop serve one time and a normal serve the next.

We’ve had a couple of questions, like can the ball bounce twice?

There’s no rule against it. I mean, it’s just going to bounce lower. So it’s going to make it harder to serve. But the point is, once that ball drops and bounces, you can let it bounce again. There’s no limit to the number of bounces before you serve.

Also, let’s say a person is doing the drop serve, and they propel it downward. It bounces, and they go, oh, crap, I wasn’t supposed to do that. They catch it and raise their hand again and drop it legally, and they serve, no fault.

No fault, because the first time throwing it down, that could be just you bouncing the ball. So that’s pretty much every aspect of the release.

One of Tony’s observations was that not only can you drop as many times as you want, you can drop it, drop it, drop it, and then maybe hit it out of the air. Whatever you want to do as long as it’s within the 10 seconds? Really the only constraint is that as long as you haven’t exceeded 10 seconds from the score call, you can do whatever you want.

Exactly. Exactly right.

This is just a different type of serve. The drop serve is not required, and you could mix it up with the normal serve?

That is completely accurate. You have two options this year. You can do one or both. Switch them up any time you want.

The change document says this is provisional for 2021. What does provisional mean?

This is basically a test for the next year. If it’s accepted, and not a lot of complaints, and everybody likes it, then they’ll probably make it permanent.

I think it’s the only time since 2015 that I’ve seen the rulebook basically say this is provisional. We’re going to give it a try this year and see how it goes.

Want to learn to hit a Killer Drop Serve?

Last year, you and I discussed what some people call a “COVID” serve. They didn’t want to touch the ball, so they put it on their paddle and, using the paddle head, flipped the ball in the air and then hit a serve. The “toss” wasn’t legal because it fell under the definition of a carry, rule 3.A.1. As I read the rules change document, that’s different, correct?

Yes, they are going to allow that “Covid” serve. You can put the ball on the paddle, sling it up in the air, come around and serve (the carry is legal) but just on the serve.

Is it correct to say the “Covid” serve doesn’t fall under the rules of the drop serve?

The “Covid” serve is what we would call the normal serve.

Like if I take my left hand (for a right-handed server) and toss the ball up. That’s what they’re allowing. Technically by rule, doing that on the paddle face was an illegal carry. So, they changed that rule this year.

Now it says after the serve, it’s an illegal carry. They’re allowing you to carry that ball on the face of the paddle just so you can sling it up in the air, so you don’t have to touch the ball.

So we’re talking about two different pickleball serves. The “Covid” serve, the old rules still apply to that. The drop serve falls under the new rules.

Yes

Tony, what questions have you got for Don? What did I miss?

Well, I had a couple of questions. My personal feeling about this, and I’m figuring out the whole thing about I can drop it 17 times, but the concept of a drop serve or a serve allowed to bounce. I won’t call it the bounced serve because of the propulsion part.

But the bounce idea or the drop serve idea. I think it is a positive addition to the sport. It allows players, especially when they’re getting started and still learning the game, to bounce the ball and serve. I don’t see it creating a competitive advantage. I’m a big fan of it. I don’t know if you know this, Don, but I have a video out there on service yips. My advice on the service yips is to bounce the ball in practice. Just drop it, so you get the rhythm of the serve. I think it’s a positive, and I’m a big fan of it right now.

Let me ask you this. You talked about the “Covid” serve, or what others call the sling serve, and that falls under the normal serve rules, but they’ve removed the word navel from the rule. The rule used to define the waist as the navel (belly button). So I’m not really sure where the waist is anymore. Can you clarify?

I thought the navel was easier to detect, especially if someone has a little gut like me and wears a tight shirt. I can see that little circle of their navel. Sometimes I don’t know exactly where a person’s waist is, but they wanted to remove both words and go with one word. After talking, most of us felt like the waist was easier to define. They just took the word navel out. Now it’s just waist.

Would you agree the waist level is a little bit lower than the navel? How do you look at it from a ref’s perspective?

In my opinion, to me, the waist is where like on a man is where your belt will go. Typically, that’s lower than the navel. Surprisingly, a lot of other refs felt like the waist is higher than the navel. So six to one, half a dozen to the other, my dad would say. I just said, well, we’re just going to go with waist.

So, you know, I’m talking for refs, I’ll say this; I don’t get bent out of shape on trying to be really precise, that was just above your waist. It has to be blatant for me to call it. That’s the main reason they allowed the drop serve to happen this year is now none of that stuff matters. None of that stuff matters.

We won’t get any arguments or debates over paddle head above the wrist, blah, blah, blah. So that’s the reason it was let in.

They’ll be arguments, but it won’t be about that anymore.

Do you plan on trying the drop serve or the “COVID” serve? Put your comments below.

 

P.S.Want to learn more about VIPickleball, the only online immersive pickleball focused learning community? Click here, and we’ll give you 7 Tips for Playing Awesome Pickleball in 2021.

23 Comments

  1. Tom Klein on December 19, 2020 at 3:23 pm

    My serve isn’t broken so no need to fix it. I don’t try to overpower
    my serves, but strike the ball firmly to the back third of the court
    about 95% of the time. Misses are usually due to serving to my
    opponent’s backhand which is a smaller target. I guess I owe this
    technique to a strong ping pong background. I have noticed that
    even some good players have weak serves and as the new drop
    serve will be hit as basically a ground stroke it may help some become
    more proficient at serving and improve their overall game. PS: Thanks
    for all the info you guys provide, keep up the good work. Stay Well

    • Cathy Jo Johnson on December 19, 2020 at 3:52 pm

      Great observations Tom. The serve is only one part of the game.

  2. Cam on December 19, 2020 at 3:42 pm

    I’ve already tried the drop serve as both a forehand drive and with chop and spin. For those of us with pretty powerful and reliable well placed serves… the drop/drive adds nothing and I feel MUCH more in control with the standard serve for both power & precision. I do think that those who struggle with standard serves but have a decent forehand will gravitate to the drop and have a better game as a result.
    What the drop offers me is the ability to chop serve as in ping pong. which will cause back and/or side spin and a lower, more unpredictable bounce. But due to the thigh high…not navel high… bounce, chopping consistently will require some practice work.

    It will also be a lot easier on referees to simply judge foot faults… while requiring more mobility on the part of returners, My big hope is that this is NOT the camels nose under the tent to eliminate the standard serve that has so many hours of practice put into it and can be much more of a weapon IMO. I’ll be interested in seeing what the pros do with this and if they can turn the new ruls to their advantage on the court.

    • Cathy Jo Johnson on December 19, 2020 at 3:53 pm

      Hi Cam, It will be interesting to see if any of the pros adopt this serve. I have a feeling some will but not sure we’ll see it in mass.

  3. Jim on December 19, 2020 at 3:43 pm

    USAPA is ruining their own game! Changing rules for the Refs and Umps, STUPIDITY! The DROP SERVE will RUIN the game! Eliminating the upward motion and highest part of the paddle below the wrist for their DROP SERVE, is pure STUPIDITY. Other Sports don’t change the rules to accommodate , Refs, Umps or others to make the rules easier to judge. I will use the Drop Serve because it’s legal and allows me to do anything I want when serving. NO RULES ON SERVING! Congrats on your first step to RUIN THE GAME, What’s next eliminating RULES on regular serve!

    • Cathy Jo Johnson on December 19, 2020 at 4:01 pm

      Hi Jim, at least it’s provisional. They’ll try it for a year and if people feel similar to you, they’ve said they’ll abandon it.

    • Dale Voigt on December 19, 2020 at 7:51 pm

      We would not want to blame the rule on one handed player or those with poor hand eye coordination.

    • Tom on December 19, 2020 at 8:39 pm

      A bit harsh… but thanks for sharing, I guess…

  4. Steve Louis on December 19, 2020 at 4:46 pm

    I’ve been practicing the drop serve after watching your webinar and I like it. I have a better-than-average serve so what if it takes time to get the drop consistent too, no biggie. I’ve been at tournaments where loud arguments about the serve have brought everything to a halt while tempers flared. Here’s an opportunity to see if the drop serve helps in that regard. Also, this new serve will bring in more deception and risk/reward to the start of each rally since there’s so many ways to hit it and mis-hit it.

    It’s also going to help me teach serving to beginners who have difficulty hitting a normal serve. I’ve been asked several times if it was permissible to bounce the ball first. Now I can say yes, no problem. Yay! If it helps expand the sport I’m all for it.

    After reading Jennifer Lucoure’s book “History of Pickleball – More Than 50 Years of Fun! it’s clear that rule changes have always been part of the game and made to make the game more playable and fun.

    • Sofia on January 9, 2021 at 9:51 am

      I am a beginner and really love the drop ball serve. Now I can get in the court unlike with the regular serve I was really having a lot of trouble. I am so happy so pls keep the new rule thanks.

  5. Jay on December 19, 2020 at 6:58 pm

    I agree whole heartedly with Jim. Don’t “fix” something that’s not broken and is a fundamental part of the game. It only serves (pun intended) to add unnecessary confusion and will only denigrate our sport in the eyes of others such as tennis where fundamental rules are considered rules. In my view it weakens rather than strengthens our sport.

    Dr J

  6. Dale Voigt on December 19, 2020 at 7:43 pm

    “One of Tony’s observations was that not only can you drop as many times as you want, you can drop it, drop it, drop it, and then maybe hit it out of the air. Whatever you want to do as long as it’s within the 10 seconds? Really the only constraint is that as long as you haven’t exceeded 10 seconds from the score call, you can do whatever you want.” The one catch is that if you choose to hit it out of the air, you are obligated to follow the rules of a normal serve.

  7. jeanette brown on December 19, 2020 at 8:31 pm

    I’m glad this particular change is provisional…it will be interesting to see what competitive/pro players do. I understand that it might eliminate some confusing aspects of the traditional serve for some and for referees, etc. (and bring up other confusing aspects of this serve!) Is this drop serve to abide by the same rules as those for the one armed or one handed players?

  8. Jay Walshon on December 21, 2020 at 6:39 am

    I am quite surprised by the forth of comments here. I wonder if this represents apathy, disbelief, few who have seen this posting, or just resignation of impotence.

    Since listening to Tony and CJ, and reading the few comments I’ve had some time to digest their opinions and have a few more thoughts.
    1. Regarding Steve’s observation of tempers flaring – this won’t impact that unless the “natural serve” and/or the rules that apply to that serve is eliminated. So that is not a valid enough
    reason for the drop serve.
    2. In his instructional video Tony says dropping the ball too close is bad because it produces a weak serve. That is true only if the server’s feet remain stationary, and doesn’t step back or to the side.
    3. There was a reason for the “let service” rule just as it is in tennis. Eliminating that let rule in order to remove any”theoretical potential for cheating” and the “difficulty in 100% accuracy” for players and judges to call is simply wrong-headed. A more important factor is to eliminate errant serves that occur by chance rather than player skill at the disadvantage of the service receiver. In tennis, most matches lack a net cord judge – yet player honesty seems to work well enough in rec play, and even in the majors tennis survived quite well prior to the net cord technological advances.

    If removing opportunity for cheating and errors is the motivation, then also eliminate foot faults and line calls. Arguments are exceedingly more common over those situations, those calls are usually far more difficult to ascertain with 100% accuracy than let calls in PB are, AND they offer FAR GREATER opportunity for a player so motivated to cheat at any point in a match.

    In every sport there is the factor of error – and daresay even cheating – that occurs and will never be completely eliminated, that even the best referees and judges get wrong, even given the best of modern technology. That is an unfortunate reality that every single sport somehow deals with.

    4. Allowing the “Drop Serve” because the “natural serve” is simply too hard for some players to learn is an astoundingly bad decision somewhat akin to not having “losers” but rather just handing out particpation medals. There are very good reasons for the 3 rules that govern the “natural serve” in PB and have worked well for half a century.

    I can understand Tony’s point and appreciation that this will help teach some beginners, give them the opportunity to participate and enjoy pickleball, and maybe help to expand the sport amongst a certain population. Fine. I get it. I’m athletic, yet it took me a fair amount of time and a ton of repetitive practice to teach myself a consistent and effective PB serve that confirms to the rules.

    So if this issue is an important one, then allow the drop serve as an option for beginner player levels – say below 3.0. A targeted solution is always best and is what’s needed.

    I dare say that any player who cannot master the skills and rules of the”natural serve” will never be able to play beyond that anyway. Hitting a reliable 3rd shot or consistent dink will most likely be equally challenging. Most if not all sports accommodate beginners and children in order to encourage their participation without fundamentally impacting the sport. Often this is done with equipment modifications, and even some rule accommodations. But they do not fundamentally change or remove rules for the sake of teaching or for the ease of enforcement. At some point big boy & girl pants need to be worn.

    5. Perhaps what is really needed is a sufficient supply of judges and referees, and the implementation of technological equipment for matches where it is actually important. Perhaps that’s where the USAPA should be focused now as the sport grows and contends to be an accepted player within the world of sport.

    But these rules charges will not get us there. It will only weaken the validity of PB being an established sport.

    JMHO

    Will these comments get to the powers that be at the USAPA?

    • Cathy Jo Johnson on December 22, 2020 at 5:59 am

      Hi Jay, thanks for your thoughtful response. I’d recommend sending them directly to USA pickleball if you’d like them to see it.

  9. Jim Morgan on December 25, 2020 at 12:20 pm

    When using the drop serve can I jump as high as I can then release the ball while still in the air with my arm extended overhead as far as possible? This will give a higher bounce than if I stand on tiptoes to release the ball. I’m still not propelling it downward but this allows me to use a double-handed baseball-bat like swing to get more power into the serve because the ball bounces above my waist when I do this so a baseball swing becomes possible. I tried this on Dec 23 with my usual pickleball group and there were some who had reservations about the legality but none could cite anything in the provisional rules that require my feet to be on the ground when releasing the ball in the drop serve…I do acknowledge that at least one foot must be on the ground and outside of the baseline and extensions of the centerline and sideline when I make contact with the ball when serving.

    • Cathy Jo Johnson on December 26, 2020 at 8:51 am

      Hi Jim as long as your feet are in the correct place when you strike the serve, yes you can jump. The question becomes does the jump and the higher bounce give a distinct tactically advantage that outweighs the risks. I’d define one of the risks as contacting the ball inconsistently because of the jump. Look at pro tennis players, they practice the serve toss for hours on end. Potentially the jump adds the same inconsistency. The other risk is being out of position for the return because of the jump.

      • Jim Morgan on December 30, 2020 at 1:08 am

        Thank you, CJ…I very much appreciate your opinion and agree with what you say regarding accuracy. However, watch a pro or college level tennis match and you will see that servers universally jump into the air when hitting the serve. Tennis does not require that either foot must be touching the ground when the serve is hit so to gain the height necessary to hit a powerful serve almost all competitive tennis players strike the ball while airborne.

  10. Rodney Rennie on January 2, 2021 at 6:41 pm

    I do not agree with the drop serve rule change that could potentially make the serve into the dominant part of the game for certain players. The excitement and enjoyment of Pickleball is “playing” the game. Reserve the drop serve rule for handicapped or beginner players to allow them to get the ball in play. The power players don’t need any more power on their serves. Ask yourself: Has tennis become more exciting to watch with the more powerful rackets and Raonic type of service game?? Let’s not do that to Pickleball, please. IMHO.

  11. Rodney on January 2, 2021 at 6:53 pm

    4.A.2.a. At least one foot must be on the playing
    surface behind the baseline.
    4.A.2.b. Neither of the server’s feet may touch the
    court on or inside the baseline.

    Is it just me or is this a little confusing – for no good reason???? A good rule change would be to simplify these rules. Thank you.

  12. Robert Yager on January 4, 2021 at 2:17 pm

    I like the drop serve. Several years ago I suffered a nerve injury that affected some muscles used in arm and shoulder motion. I could no longer serve consistently, but my forehand was still decent. After trying the drop serve, I find that I can serve more consistently (slightly different muscle use and position) and I can once again enjoy the game as I did before.

  13. Ed Bodker on January 16, 2021 at 8:25 am

    This new serve rule focuses basically on the serve itself. The critical point, however, is that this will have its largest impact on the return of serve and this could drastically change the focus of the game. With a backspin chop now being a new serve weapon, the area required to make the return of serve will be enlarged and will likely and negatively impact less mobile players. This is because once the evolution of the drop serve becomes refined, the server will be able to hit either a deep hard serve with top spin that requires the receiver to stand far behind the base line, but on the other hand, the server could also hit a soft drop serve that would require the receiver to run forward to try to reach it. Young players and many advanced players may be able to cover this extended distance but many elderly and less mobile players will be helpless to get the ball in play. This may take several years to show up as an impact but it should be considered when this rule is evaluated.

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