By: CJ Johnson | December 19, 2020 |

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.


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.

CJ Johnson

Hey there — I’m a professional three-sport athlete and coach who has spent my entire adult life earning a living from playing and coaching sports. Since I started coaching more than three decades ago, one thing has remained the same: My commitment to see students not as they are but as what they can become and to move heaven and earth to help them realize their untapped potential. You should know that when it comes to helping pickleball players over 50 live their best lives on and off the courts, I'm an expert. Good pickleball is not just technique; it's the mind and body working holistically. That's why I'm also a personal trainer and weight management specialist. When I’m chillin', you'll find me watching Star Trek with my husband John and our two fur babies, Shirley and Ralph. (Yes, Happy Days)