Pickleball Serve Rules 2023
By: Tony Roig | October 1, 2022 |

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:

    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 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

    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 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

 

Tony Roig

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.