Pickleball Serve Rules-Should This Serve Be Legal?
Making the Case
The chainsaw serve has received plenty of attention of late. Ever since Pro Player Zane Navratil began using it successfully, many players have, rightly, asked whether the chainsaw serve is something they should add to their game. As you may already know, the chainsaw serve has been banned for 2022. But there’s another equally devasting alternative. The Morgan Evans’ one-handed finger-spun serve, which is still legal according to the pickleball serve rules for 2022.
Before we go deeper into this, I am not intending to criticize Zane Navratil, Morgan Evans, Porter Barr, or any other player who has used or is using this sort of serve: chainsaw or finger spun. It is (was) not a rule violation and is within their rights as competitors in this sport to find whatever advantage they can within those rules.
There is also no intention to criticize the volunteers, rules committee at USA Pickleball or the IFP who give their time to discuss and adopt the official rules of our game. Instead, this writing aims to make the case as to why the powers that be should, as soon as possible, ban the spin serve, whether chainsaw or finger spun.
To be clear, this is not about the basic serve with spin in the more traditional sense of spins being imparted by the paddle after the ball has been hit. Topspin and underspin are spins that often result from just regular stroke mechanics and are a natural part of the game. It would be impossible to play a game where the ball did not spin in some direction or the other after it was hit (i.e., where the ball traveled without any spin, like a knuckleball). That is not what we are talking about here.
The spin serves we address in this writing is where the ball is vigorously spun prior to being hit by the paddle, where a pre-serve spin is applied to the ball.
In the “chainsaw” serve, the player generates the spin by rolling the ball against the paddle, usually including the grip, as the ball is being tossed. The fast-spinning ball is then hit to complete the serve. The rotation imparted onto the ball is what makes it kick left or right or sometimes up or down. This serve, at least the part of it where you could previously roll the ball against the paddle to generate spin, will no longer be allowed in 2022.
BUT … the same serve can still be hit, just without rolling the ball against the paddle. Pro Player Morgan Evans perfected this serve. In this serve, the pre-serve ball spin is obtained with the fingers of the hand tossing the ball. Think of the fingers moving in a scissor motion squeezing and spinning the ball as it is tossed (we’ve included some videos below so you can see how it is done).
The net effect of this serve, which we will call the “finger-spun serve,” is exactly the same as the chainsaw serve. The serves have the same sharp kickout to the side or up/down when they land in the return box. In fact, if you were to look only at the resulting serve – without having seen how it was being executed – you would not be able to tell the difference between the chainsaw and finger-spun serves.
As noted above, the pickleball serve rules as modified this year ban the chainsaw serve for 2022.
We are not privy to the details of the communications that led to the rules committee adopting the chainsaw serve ban, but there can be only one reason: the spin imparted by that serve is inconsistent with the game. Otherwise, why would it matter whether the player tossed the ball from their other hand, their forehead, or the paddle face?
There is simply no difference between the chainsaw serve used by Zane Navratil, and the finger-spun serve used by Morgan Evans. They are the same in effect. We can think of no rationale for differentiating between the chainsaw and finger-spun serves. If one is going to be banned, then it would seem to follow, logically, that the other would be banned as well.
Here are 8 reasons why the finger-spun serve should be banned from pickleball:
1. It creates a too-big gap where a single shot can determine the outcome of a game.
There are numerous YouTube videos highlighting the skewed competitive advantage of the serve when the ball is pre- spun, whether with the paddle or the fingers. Several of these videos are linked below.
One game that has garnered particular attention, and deservedly so, is the Tournament of Champions 4.5 19+ finals game where 14-year-old Porter Barr used the chainsaw serve to complete an 11-0-2(start) game (no criticism of the player intended – see below). A few things of note from this game:
- This game occurred in the finals of the 4.5 19+ division at a national-level tournament. The players playing in the match were clearly 4.5 players, just from the fact that they had made it to the final match that day.
- The players were young and not hampered by age or obvious physical limitations in their movement.
- During the game, there were:
- 9 service winners: Nine serves were either not hit at all or resulted in a shot into the net or out. No successful shots were hit after the serve. At a 4.5 TOC finals.
- 5 serves were not hit: Half of the points in a pickleball game decided by service aces (a term seldom used on a pickleball court before now).
- The two rallies that did not end with service winners ended after the third shot, aided by the short/hampered returns that were hit. In other words, the longest “rallies” in the game were serve, return, third shot, and missed fourth shot. Again, at 4.5.
- The server’s partner, Livvy Phillips, did not hit – or have to hit – a single ball the entire game.
- On the receiving team, Lake Johnson did not hit a single shot other than two missed returns of serve. The other four times she was involved in a “rally,” the result was unhit returns of serve.
- The entire game lasted 2 minutes. I cannot stress this enough – this was not a rec game where uneven players were matched. This was a final game in the 4.5 division at a top national tournament.
If you have 2 minutes to spare, you can watch the entire Tournament of Champions game here: https://youtu.be/j-ImuiCjQvI. The question for you to ponder as you watch it “Is this the sort of game that we envision for the future of pickleball?”
If you are inclined to dismiss the relevance of this match because the server was using the now-banned chainsaw serve – the same serve can be accomplished with the finger-spun serve. Shea Underwood made this clear in his video on the finger-spun serve, which he called The Deadliest One-Handed Serve In Pickleball. Watch the video here: https://youtu.be/I70xk8fma7o.
2. It provides a different sort of competitive advantage.
The finger-spun serve is a singular shot over which one player (the server) has complete control and which, by itself, can determine the outcome of a game. The other shots that you may master still have to be used in conjunction with other shots as well as proper court movement and can also be countered. The finger-spun serve requires no other skills – except perhaps knowing to move forward to attack short returns of serve.
Compared to tennis, the serve in pickleball has never been a defining shot (a “kill” shot). The offensive “kill” shot nature of the finger-spun serve will start to skew pickleball towards favoring the serve over the rest of the game in a way that weights the serve too much; this is what has happened in tennis and is a great barrier to entry/improvement (more on this below).
The current regular serve is an important shot but not more important (and arguably less important – a discussion for another day) than the fourth shot volley. The serve would be 2 or 3 times more important than the fourth shot volley in this new world. Again, the finger-spun serve is a shot that can, by itself, determine the outcome of a game. This is particularly true at the recreational and < 4.0 levels.
Elevating the serve this far over the other shots in the game will vastly change the nature of pickleball play and will make it a unidimensional game (more on this below).
3. It changes the nature of the game.
One of the beauties of pickleball is the relative ease with which you can get into a rally. Just “bop” the ball into the big rectangle and start playing. Unfortunately, the finger-spun serve incentivizes going for it on the first shot, not allowing the players to even get into a rally.
If the finger-spun serve stays in the game, the best strategy will be to look for free points by hitting big offensive serves. Both teams should adopt the same strategy. Result? Lots of missed serves and missed returns of serve. This outcome drastically changes the nature (integrity?) of our game.
Pickleball players often cite exercise as a reason they play the game. Unfortunately, there is not much exercise in standing around while the servers exchange bomb finger-spun serves repeatedly. Watch the above 4.5 match and see how much the players moved as serve after serve scored point after point.
The Morgan Evans’ video below has garnered 100,000 views in 3 months. Zane’s video, also below, has 33,000 views, and Shea’s Deadliest Serve video has 75,000 views in 2 months. So the interest in the finger-spun serve is clearly out there … and growing.
As players figure out that they can gain an incrementally large advantage with this serve, should we not expect them to add it to their game?
4. It reduces competitiveness, including between levels and ages
Recreational play has always been an integral part of pickleball. Players from different levels and ages all get together and enjoy some pickleball. But what happens when you introduce a player with an effective finger-spun serve into the mix?
Recreational games in which one (or more) of the players has this finger-spun serve will simply not be competitive. And the difference between players of different skills and ages will be more pronounced. Younger players who adopt the finger-spun serve will not be able to play with older players who will have difficulty tracking or hitting these serves. This will be as it is in tennis where a player with a big serve can simply overpower their opponent, making it more difficult for varying ages or skills to play on the same court.
5. It makes pickleball unidimensional (a lowest common denominator)
One of the greatest aspects of pickleball is that it allows players with different backgrounds, including those with no sports background, to enjoy the game. Each player can craft a strategy that works for them. Tennis players will bang more. Non-racket sports players will play more of a third shot drop, reflex volley game. And so on.
The finger-spun serve will make pickleball a one-shot game. Think of it this way:
You are providing instruction to a 3.5 pickleball player (without knowing anything particular about that player). What would you focus on? Generally, it would be some combination of working on stroke mechanics and strategy.
If, however, the finger-spun serve remains a part of the game, this focus would probably no longer be the best. So instead, your instruction would shift to work on one thing and one only – developing a killer finger-spun serve. This approach would give your student the most wins with the least amount of effort.
And this would be the same instruction given to all pickleball players. As a result, the game would devolve into a serving contest and no longer be a game of rallies and strategy.
Speaking personally, if this serve remains legal, I would be remiss not to spend the majority of my training time mastering the finger-spun serve. When I play a tournament, my focus would be primarily on executing this serve to obtain the disparate competitive separation that it offers.
But, not to lose sight of it, the effects of the finger-spun serve increase as you move towards recreational play. And recreational play is what the vast majority of players come to pickleball to enjoy. Therefore, a rule (or lack thereof) that can have a devastating effect on recreational play should be carefully weighed.
6. It needlessly increases the risk of injury.
The finger-spun serve is, by its very design, unpredictable. After it lands, the ball jumps jerkily to the left or the right. The best finger-spun serve looks like it is going one way and then jerks the other way or dives down (like a slider pitch in baseball). If you have not seen it, watch the way the ball jumps around in the videos linked below.
Because of its erratic movement, the receiver’s body is quickly and often violently pulled in different directions as the player tries to track and hit the ball. Watching a few minutes of receivers trying to deal with these serves (see above and below video links) should leave no doubt of the violent movement the receiver is subjected to.
The players in the videos we have watched with the finger-spun serve are mostly younger. Despite their youth, these players have difficulty moving to the ball. One of them (at the 2:54 mark in the below Morgan Evans video) takes a tumble trying to return one of Morgan’s spin serves.
If a player my age or older fell as the player did in that video, the results may not have been just popping up off the court afterward. Morgan’s serve is even known by the name “the ACL Tear.” It is a catchy name but one that the recipient of an actual torn ACL may not find endearing.
I would suggest that the risks posed by the finger-spun pickleball serve are more significant than the risks posed by even the hardest tennis serve. This is because a tennis serve does not switch direction after it bounces on the court. On the other hand, the finger-spun serve ball quickly changes direction after its bounce.
This change in direction requires that the receiver’s body jerk one way or the other. To be clear, this sort of body movement is reflexive and involuntary. It would be silly to suggest that a player, in a competitive game environment, can just simply not move towards the ball as it changes direction.
A review of finger-spun serves in the videos linked in this writing and of the receivers trying to hit those serves clearly shows the risky nature of the receiver’s movement. Therefore, it is fair to conclude that this movement significantly increases the risk of injury to the players, which will only increase as more players head down the serve “arms race” that should result from the potential effectiveness of the finger-spun serve.
All sports come with a risk of injury, and pickleball is no exception. But the risks added by the finger-spun serve are simply not warranted.
7. It can engender frustration and lack of enjoyment.
Player frustration, alone, may not be a sufficient metric to impose or change a rule. But repeated player frustration to the point of being disheartened with the game should be sufficient to warrant consideration.
The finger-spun serve has the possibility of making games so unenjoyable for the players on the court that they leave the courts frustrated. Would it not be fair to expect that player to stop coming to the courts if that happens repeatedly? If there is no hope for a player to be able to compete because they cannot even make contact with the serves being hit, why would that player come back to play?
Pickleball has been the No. 1 growth sport in the United States for several years. This, certainly at least in part, is because players of all backgrounds can come in and start playing pickleball quickly and enjoy the sport. There is currently no single impediment to them enjoying the game.
The widespread adoption of the finger-spun serve (which is the only logical conclusion as players vie to gain competitive advantages in their games) would change that. The finger-spun serve is so different than anything else that a player will have to hit when they play that it will require players to learn a particular skill set (on both serve and return) to integrate this serve into their games. This will create an impediment to new players coming in and mounting frustration for those already part of the sport.
Just as the serve impedes new players from learning how to play tennis, the finger-spun serve will create the same impediment to the growth of pickleball.
8. It is effectively identical to the now-banned chainsaw serve
The master of the chainsaw serve is Pro Player Zane Navratil. In this video, Zane explains the chainsaw serve: https://youtu.be/TgihSyh9_Kw. The serve used by Porter Barr in the video linked above was also the chainsaw serve.
As Shea Underwood explained in his video, The Deadliest One-Handed Serve In Pickleball, the finger-spun serve can be used to the same (if not more offensive) effect as the chainsaw serve. Watch the video here: https://youtu.be/I70xk8fma7o.
You can see the finger-spun serve in the Pickleball Highlights video called 3+ Minutes of Morgan Evans ABUSING opponents with his serve (https://youtu.be/e5a6BirqS6M). As in the above Porter Barr video, the returners tripping over themselves trying to hit Morgan’s serves are advanced players. In one game, the score is 11-11. Morgan serves two service winners in a row and they win 13-11. Is that how a pickleball game should be decided?
In its latest rules, USAPickleball banned the chainsaw serve. But even though the finger-spun serve is the same in all effects, it remained untouched. There is no discernible reason to ban one but not the other. Consistency requires that either both serves be allowed – or neither. For the reasons articulated above, both should be banned, but, in any event, their treatment should be identical.
Curiously, the initial proposed rule included language that would have effectively banned both the chainsaw and finger-spun serves: an open-hand (table tennis style) serve. However, as the rule progressed through the process, it was modified to only ban the chainsaw serve. The reason for this progression of the rule as it went from committee to committee is unclear to me at the time of this writing. But the rule as presented to the USAPickleball Board for consideration banned only the chainsaw serve and left the finger-spun serve in place.
For the reasons set forth above, as well as the simple fact that the finger-spun serve is effectively the same as the chainsaw serve, the finger-spun serve should be banned from pickleball.
Two more subjects require attention: (a) timing and (b) method.
If players adopt the finger-spun serve in the same way they did the chainsaw serve, would it not be natural for USA Pickleball to ban the serve for the same reasons that the chainsaw served was banned this year? Given the foreseeability that players will adopt the finger-spun serve and that it will cause the same sort of issues as raised by the chainsaw serve, it makes sense to “nip it in the bud.”
Waiting will create another year with the above downsides (including the increased chance of injury) and wasted time for players who are going to spend their court improvement time to master this one shot, only for it to be disallowed (the same thing Zane Navratil must be thinking now that the chainsaw serve he devoted his time to learn is no longer allowed).
I am not an expert in the rules adoption procedures of the IFP and USA Pickleball (I actually learned a lot from watching Shea’s video on the process. You can watch it here: https://youtu.be/cy3iewYwu0o). But if there is any procedure where the rules can still be modified for 2022 to ban the finger-spun serve, I would urge the USAPickleball Board to do so imediately.
If you’d like to see our live discussion click the video below.
There are two ways that come to mind to ban the finger-spun serve.
First, there is the language of the original proposed rule: serve the ball from an open hand. This is similar to the rule used in table tennis. I am not completely opposed to this approach, but think it may add some needless complexity to the serve. Holding the ball in a flat open hand and then tossing it or dropping it into the strike zone can result in variability in the toss, resulting in needless errors.
Rather than the open hand, I would propose that we make the serve a drop/bounce serve, combining it with the already known three rules of the traditional in-air serve. The modified drop/bounce serve is one that returns the serve to its originally-intended rally starter. Of course, the server can still do some things with the serve: hit it deep or shallow, apply some paddle spin, hit it hard or not, etc. But it removes the ability to pre-serve spin the ball, no matter the source of the pre-serve spin.
There may be other solutions that make sense and those should be considered. The result, in any event, should be a ban to the application of spin to the ball before it is hit with the paddle as it is served. Feel free to leave your comments below.
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