Pickleball Rules and Scoring
By: CJ Johnson | December 26, 2020 |

Pickleball Rules And Scoring-Out Calls, Dead Balls, Score Calling and MORE

The 2021 rules change document was more than 85 pages long. We’re extremely fortunate to have rules guru Don Stanley walk us through the changes and understand how the rule book changes will impact us on the pickleball courts next year.

Before we take a deeper dive into some of the pickleball rules and scoring changes for 2021, we talked about the drop serve rules in last week’s post.

I live in the mountains, and with a lack of indoor pickleball this year, I have yet to try it. Tony has a court right out his front door and immediately took it out for a spin. His initial thought was that it would be an option for some people but not a game-changer. We’ve now had a chance to watch a few serves and get comments from some pro pickleball players like Dayne Gingrich, and we’re starting to think it could be significant. Time will tell, but you might want to give it a try for yourself. If you missed it, make sure that you click on the link and read the drop serve rules.

This week, we’re focusing on items that affect every day pickleball. Things like pickleball scoring, calling out balls, replays, and wrong scores.

Don, let’s spend a few minutes on some general rule changes. There are some small changes in the document, but they might change how we play. One that I thought was interesting was the non-server calling the score. Is that correct?

Yes, the non-server can now call the team’s score.

There’s a good reason to talk about this. I saw a comment on Facebook about this the other day, and someone saying, what a stupid rule. UGH!  What that person didn’t know is that a mute person submitted the rule change.

They emailed and said, I’m not sure if I can do this per the rules. It doesn’t say I can, and it doesn’t say I can’t. So, they (the rules committee) thought, let’s make it clear and make pickleball inviting to a person with that issue.

Then it(the change) is talked about. What if they (the non-server) calls the team score? Can the server go back and call it halfway through a game? We don’t want to be confusing. If the server’s partner is going to call the score, they have to do it for the entire game.  Not the match, but you need to do it for the entire game.

We didn’t want to see the server’s partner calling the score, calling the score, calling the score, and suddenly, the server calls it, trying to get a quick-serve.

Unfortunately, people don’t know the process, and we can’t write another document of four hundred pages as to where all these rules came from. In this case, the person requesting it said, I appreciate your efforts to make me feel more welcome into the sport.

Don, it looks like the timing of challenging calls have moved. Can you shed some light on this?

Last year, different rules had different timings. I even put a chart on Facebook. Rule timings were before the start of the score call, after the score call, before the start of service motion, after the service motion, before the serve—all these different timing elements and when to apply certain faults or actions.

Now everything is moved to one point in time. The serve of the ball. Much simpler to remember, to denote and rule upon.

No rule is perfect. Most rules have some good and some bad to them. I think you take the one that has the most good and you go with that. I think it’s easier for referees and players now that every timing action is moved to the service of the ball.

Let’s talk about the wrong score being called. That doesn’t have to be challenged before the point of the service. It’s before the third shot. Why is that one different?

You can’t serve until the referee finishes calling the score. If a server gets to know my rhythm, cadence, and timing, they can probably time their service motion, so as I end calling the score, they hit the ball, which is legal.

It doesn’t give the receiving team much time to decipher, was it the right score, and are they the correct server. If someone is trying to quick-serve, they don’t have a lot of time to process.

That’s why they moved the challenge of a wrong score call to give you a little more time. Now it’s moved to the third shot. We realize there’s an opportunity you might be quick served, so we’ll give you a little more time to process it.

You can challenge up until the third shot is hit, but after that, it’s closed. Why?

You’re correct. The window of opportunity for you to challenge a wrong score call shuts after the third shot.

Why? Let’s say the ref called the wrong score and didn’t catch it. You go ahead and play out the rally, but you’re thinking, hey, you know what? Just in case I lose this rally, then I’ll pull out my wrong score called card out of my back pocket, and let’s have a replay. The window for you to challenge the wrong score called is shut after the third shot. After that, you should have said something because you’re not going to be allowed to use that as a get out of jail free card. That’s why that happened.

Don, this year the questions we can ask a referee changed. Can you cover those, and when that can be done?

You can now ask the am I in the right position. You could do that in 2016. They took it out in 2018.

When anybody asked a question (of the ref), there was debate over timing. If you’ve called the score, and the server says, hey ref am I the right server, you nod your head and keep the ten-second count going.

There were some scenarios where you don’t stop play. Keep the count going. Then there are other times when we needed to stop play. Rather than have some scenarios where you stop playing and others where you don’t, they(the rules committee) said, let’s make it consistent.

Anytime somebody asks a question, and by question, I mean, score, position, correct server or receiver. Any time you ask those questions, the ref will stop play, answer the question, and recall the score. Across the board, make it consistent.

In the scenario, you described earlier, when a player uses the ref’s cadence and timing to quick-serve an opponent asking the ref a question would stop that, right?

If a person is starting to quick-serve you, then right before they serve, say, hey, ref am I the right receiver. The ref has to call time.

What about the not ready signal now be honored up until the point of the serve?

That did not change. The current rule stands. The moment the ref utters the first syllable of the score is when not ready signals are irrelevant, meaning we don’t fault them and we don’t honor them—no changes with that. But you can ask a question.

I see I can ask a question, and that resets everything. I may have lots of questions now. What happens if the score is miscalled, you know, the score is 3-2-1, and 6-2-1 is called. If you don’t say anything before the third shot, is the score now 6-2-1?

No, you correct it after the rally. Say the ref (or the server) calls the wrong score. In reality, it’s 6-6-1, but the ref calls 6-6-2 or 7-6-1, whatever. If the ref calls the wrong score and the ref misses it, and the players don’t catch it until after that third shot you play on. After the rally, you might say, Hey, ref, did you call score right? Do we have six or seven? Then you clear it up after that. But after that third shot, you need to play.

Why even have that?

I can tell you why. I’ve heard some players say when the ref calls the wrong score, it gets in my head, and it bothers me throughout that entire rally.

I got it, Don. I thought this rule didn’t make any sense, just keep playing, but I got it now.

On a side note, I thought it was really nice to put in the rules that replay is always an option. When we’re playing in rec play, we can always agree to replay the rally. But I think for some players, especially new players coming in, they’re not really sure whether that’s even allowed. I think it’s an awesome thing to recognize the replay. If you’re at a loggerhead with somebody, replay the point, enjoy the day, and don’t lose your mind over rec play.

Let’s talk about the faults after a dead ball. Can you explain what you mean by that and why that rule was added?

Once the ball’s dead, you can’t call faults anymore. There are two reasons. Some people thought that it was the verbalization of fault that actually portrayed the timing of when the ball was dead.

For example, let’s say a ball hits the shoulder of the opponent. The ref sees it, and the refs inhaling to call it a fault, but before he gets the word fault out, the other team who hit the original shot does something like touch the net. Since the ref didn’t say fault until later, some people thought that that player who touched the net, that fault happened first. This change clarified it. Balls are dead, and faults happen the instant they occur, no matter when you happen to vocalize the word fault.

The moment that that ball hit the shoulder, the ball is dead. No other faults can happen other than the NVZ fault and technical fouls.

Don, let’s talk about line calls. Two players could look at the ball from two different angles, and because it doesn’t flatten like a tennis ball, one may be able to see the bottom of the ball and realize it’s out, and the other can’t see the bottom and calls the same shot in. It looks like the rule itself wasn’t changed, but the word clearly was added. Can you explain it?

OK, in a nutshell, the technicality you just pointed out of whether a ball is in or out, you’re exactly right. It’s the bottom dime-sized or smaller than dime size. It’s the bottom part of the ball that touches the ground. Technically, it’s only out if it’s one hundred percent out.

As you just pointed out, the problem is that we can’t see the bottom of the ball. That’s the problem. So what they are trying to do is, even though technically that’s the rule, and that’s what would stand up in court, so to speak. If we can’t see the bottom of it, they’re trying to get everyone to give grace and mercy when it comes to line calls. Basically, unless you see a gap, then don’t call it out, even though it very well could be out. I will say this, I ref pros all the way to 2.5. The pros play them. They play close ones.

And technically, those rules didn’t change. They took out some wording and took out that diagram.

Click here to learn more about calling out balls

Next week we’ll be talking about the rule that initially set everyone’s hair on fire, the let serve. Then we’ll end our discussion with a special section for tournament games.

What pickleball rules and scoring issues do you find most confusing? Put your comments below and we’ll get you an answer.


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)