The holiday season is often a time to reflect on the year that was and set goals for the year to come. We have been doing some reflecting, and there are a few topics we have neglected to provide some commentary on. Before the next set of tournaments, we’re hoping to publish articles about topics that we feel are important to pickleball, but may not be directly in the forefront of people’s minds right now as things get lost in the shuffle of tournaments.
We’re starting off this unloading of thoughts series with serving talk. This is the first time in a couple of years where serving rules have not been a topic of major controversy to end the year. The spin serve being removed for 2023 was an expected outcome for most within the sport and, at this point, there is no bringing it back. That takes us to one of the bigger, unspoken conundrums that will likely intensify in 2023.
The above-the-waist serve controversy.
There have been a number of culprits in 2022 of the sidearm and/or above the waist serving with little repercussions. We highlighted Lea Jansen’s serve in a takeaways column in March after the PPA Riverland, and did not bring anything back up until Jay Devilliers started serving overhand at the PPA Takeya event in November to make a point about his doubles partner, Tyson McGuffin’s, borderline illegal serve.
With no more spin serves in 2023, players will still be looking to find an edge on the serve, and the obvious place for that edge to come from is by serving higher and higher above the waist, with the idea of getting a harder serve.
Dekel Bar is a player who has developed what is almost certainly the hardest serve in pickleball. Dekel has always served the ball hard but, with the development of the spin serve, Dekel has leaned into blistering his underhand rope at an unmatched pace. What has become apparent with Dekel’s serve, though, is that he has brought his contact point higher to the point that his serve is clearly illegal a lot of the time now, in our opinions.
For those of you who are unaware of the rule, the USA Pickleball rulebook states at Section 4.A.5 that:
(a) The server’s arm must be moving in an upward arc at the time the ball is struck.
(b) The highest point of the paddle head must not be above the highest part of the waist (where the wrist joint bends) when it strikes the ball.
(c) Contact with the ball must not be made above the waist.
We are more common-sense guys, rather than technical rules experts, so we understand there is going to be some debate with all of this. Things get crazy when you start talking about serving legality but sometimes we think it can be best to simply take the “ask the person at the bar” approach. If you walked up to a stranger at a bar who knows pickleball and showed them Dekel’s serve, would they think it is illegal?
Now, a referee cannot justify a decision to call a fault on the basis of the “ask the person at the bar approach”. That is, if they ever decide to call an illegal serve. Regardless, it was said in our takeaway about Lea Jansen’s serve and we believe it still holds true that if it walks like an illegal serve and talks like an illegal serve, then it’s an illegal serve.
Tyson McGuffin is one of the other higher profile pro culprits in terms of players who take advantage of the serving rules. Tyson goes in and out of how borderline illegal his serve is, and it appeared following the Devilliers incident that he would serve more towards the illegal end depending on the importance of the situation. Here is a look at some of Tyson’s contact points on his serves in the match where Jay Devilliers started serving overhand:
It is interesting that the contact point on Tyson’s serve looks lower during his match with Jay than it did at the PPA Bubly Team Championships, with low stakes:
Either way, the serves are questionable, to say the least. What we noticed in going back to look at the these serves closer is that the culprits are often going in and out of borderline legality. Dekel is does not serve illegally all the time as shown here in some cherry picked clips:
However, there are times over the course of the same Mesa tournament where Bar is serving illegally or borderline illegally:
The fact is that players are going to continue to push the limits on the serve rules for as long as the referees do not call them for it. The issue, as Zane Navratil has pointed out, is that when you have this grey area rule being applied to players of different heights, styles and ball tosses, it is a very difficult rule to enforce. Zane Navratil responded to our Twitter post of the Jay Devilliers’ overhand serving video with the following:
Dekel, as one of the taller players on tour, has probably benefited from this as his height naturally gives him a higher contact point than most players, but he has been moving that contact point higher and higher as we have mentioned. What Zane pointed out is that, in general, applying the rule consistently across different professional referees can be problematic.
On the other hand, there are countless other rules in sports that have a lot of grey area baked into them as well. Most football penalties, from holding to pass interference, are discretionary. Fouls in basketball. Hooking in hockey. The strike zone in baseball for players of different heights. There is discretion exercised from referee to referee with respect to how much is tolerated.
Similarly, we should probably be okay with it if some refs want to give Tyson or Dekel more leeway whereas others do not. Players can adapt their serves to referees who interpret the rule a little differently. It happens in other sports too, so why not pickleball? The important thing to us is that referees have to start calling players for illegal serves when it is less obvious than Jay Devilliers going overhand mode:
This may change for 2023 but our current understanding of the rule on the PPA Tour is that an illegal serve is still only a let-serve replay, which might be the most confounding rule that the PPA has implemented that deviates from USA Pickleball’s rule book of a service fault. Following the Devilliers incident, we think, but have not been able to confirm without a publicly posted rule book, that the PPA amended their serve rule that an illegal serve that goes out is a fault – amazingly it was not when Devilliers was making his point on the absurdity of the rule (Anyone who wants to clarify the PPA rule for us, please do so).
Notably, USA Pickleball has changed its rule for 2023 that affords referees the discretion to call for a replay or fault of a serve, depending on how certain they are of the legality of the serve.
The problem with the replay rule is that it incentivizes players to push the limits of the rules. When the biggest penalty is a re-serve, it is to their advantage to try to gain the biggest edge possible. It would be silly for these pros not to push the envelope when they are either not getting called on it or there is no penalty. In any event, until players start to get called for illegal serves, whether it is a replay or a fault, there are some that will keep pushing the limits.
However, once you start calling players for service faults, they will bring their serves down. Sure, there is some grey area when it comes to what the line is for an illegal serve, but it’s not a big change for players to fix it when they are close to that line. Call them on it, and you won’t have to worry so much about players being on the border nor will you have to think about changing the rules. They will figure it out. Lea Jansen immediately dropped her serve contact point after the PPA Riverland.
We know there are more examples out there in pro pickleball than Dekel Bar, Tyson McGuffin and, previously, Lea Jansen. Gabriel Joseph comes to mind as a player who hovers on that border. We expect, if no action is taken, there will be more high profile culprits out there, especially if the PPA is continues to allow them to replay the serve without penalty.
We’re hoping something can be done about this issue. It causes ongoing confusion amongst fans and frustration for the pros playing by the rules. We both think there is an easy fix. It’s a matter of whether the organizations and their referees can stomach the inevitable pushback that will come from the pros impacted by the stricter interpretation of the rule.
Agree or disagree? Let us know in the comments below or email us at email@example.com. Follow us on Instagram, Twitter and Facebook too!