A “line call” is what happens when a player (or judge) sees the ball close to or outside of a line and makes a judgement of whether the ball is “in” or “out”. For the purpose of this discussion, we’re only going to talk about the ones that are at least CLOSE to a line, and not those that were clearly out.
There are a few instances when we must make line calls. On a serve, the ball may not touch the non-volley zone (“kitchen”) line. During a volley, the ball must stay in bounds.
WHAT CONSTITUTES “IN BOUNDS” IS THE TOUGH PART THOUGH!
When is a ball considered “out”? In the case of a serve, if the ball even barely touches the kitchen line, it’s “out”, and you lose the serve. During a volley, it’s the opposite – if the ball even grazes the edge of any line, it’s considered “in”. Simple, right? Not exactly. Here’s where we get to the hard part.
How do you know if the ball touched the line? For rec play, it’s usually best to only call a ball out if you see a gap between the ball and the line. Or, in the case of a kitchen line call, if the ball lands on the middle of the line. For those of us with tennis backgrounds, that seems pretty obvious. If you see a gap, it’s out, if you don’t, it’s in. Simple. But a pickleball doesn’t squish like a tennis ball does, and that affects line calls a lot more than you might think. It can compress SOME, but if it’s smashed hard enough to compress, you’ll probably not have a good enough view to be able to call it this close anyway.
Let’s show some examples (for now, let’s not worry about the kitchen line and just deal with the edge lines).
This example shows some very clear calls. The two balls on the left are well beyond the line. Even the one close to the line has some visible space between it and the line. The two balls on the right are clearly in bounds. The pickleball in the middle is directly on top of the line, which means it meets the criteria of the rules which states that it’s “in” if it touches the line even slightly.
Now let’s look at some NOT so clear line calls.
Here we have two balls that both appear to be touching the line. “But wait, touching the line should be ‘in’, right?” Yes, you’re correct! But “appearing” to touch the line and ACTUALLY touching the line are different things. In tennis, both of these balls would likely be called “in”, because the speed of the ball and it’s rubbery material would cause it to flatten significantly and actually come in contact with the line. In pickleball, however, the ball does not squish significantly (nor is it hit as fast). So for a pickleball to actually TOUCH the line, the center of the ball must be inline with the edge of the line. Wow, that still seems confusing.
APPEARING TO TOUCH THE LINE AND ACTUALLY TOUCHING THE LINE ARE DIFFERENT THINGS.
Let’s look at it from both angles at the same time.
If you look at the “top” section, both balls seem to be touching the line. However, when you look from the side, you can see that even though much of the ball is OVER the line, the ball on the right isn’t actually touching. To quickly tell whether the ball is in or not, you need to be able to see if the ball splits the line evenly (in) or if the majority of the ball is over the out of bounds area (out). To reiterate, even though the ball may be over the line, that doesn’t necessarily mean it’s TOUCHING the line. Would I ever call it this close? No way! I would call both of these IN. But it should help explain the concept.
BE A GOOD SPORT, AND GIVE THE BENEFIT OF THE DOUBT TO THE OTHER TEAM.
Now that we know what’s actually in or out, let’s talk about practicality. In general, you won’t be able to see and judge fast enough to tell the difference between the two balls shown above. Be a good sport, and give the benefit of the doubt to the other team. If it’s that close, just call it in. If you can see the ball clearly, and the majority of the ball is over the out of bounds area, even if some of it is OVER the line, it’s out.
Who Calls It?
When making a line call, only the team receiving the ball may call it in or out. If you’re unsure, you may let the other team know, and ask if they were able to see it clearly. If they were, they may make the call. If not, it is assumed to be IN. The benefit of the doubt should always be that it was IN. It SHOULD go without saying, but if you’re not either a referee or a player in the game, it is not your responsibility to make the call. Even if you see it clearly different from how it was called, you should refrain from voicing your opinion. Making line calls are difficult, and people make mistakes. It is rare, in my experience, that people will make bad calls intentionally. If you disagree, just let it go, and keep watching (or playing).
In OR Out. No Do-Overs!
If you can see that the ball is clearly out, call it out. Otherwise it was in. If for any reason you didn’t or couldn’t see the ball well enough to determine if it was in or out, then it was in. There are no “redo’s”, mulligans, or do-overs, lets, or replays.
When Do I Make the Call?
You must make the call “immediately”. According to the rule book, that means you must make the call before your opponent hits the ball and before you hit it out of bounds. If you were unable to make the call in that period of time, it was likely too close to call out anyway.
How Do I Call It?
Call it with your voice (“Out!”), with your hands (pointing one finger in the air), or both.
What If I Call It Before It Lands?
I’ve heard a number of arguments that have started when someone yells “out!” before the ball lands. However, there’s nothing wrong with doing so. It’s a common way to communicate with your partner and let them know you think it’s going to be out. Any call made BEFORE the ball touches, should be considered team communication only, and not an actual line call. Any call made AFTER the ball touches, is a line call and play should be stopped.
What If Partners Disagree?
If you and your partner can’t come to a conclusion on whether the ball was in or not, it was, by rule, IN. Yes, that’s right. This goes back to the whole “give the benefit of the doubt to the other team”. If it wasn’t clear enough that even you and your teammate can come to a consensus, then it was in. By rule, if you both make different calls, it’s then “in”.
What If the Other Team Makes Incorrect Calls on Purpose?
First thing to do is take a deep breath. It’s often tough to calm yourself down when the adrenaline is pumping and you’re in the heat of an awesome pickleball game/match. If you’ve taken a moment to breathe, and still think they intentionally called it out (for whatever reason), you may calmly, and politely, pause the game, and ask the tournament director for a referee. You may or may not be provided one, but that’s all you can do. You cannot and should not yell at the other team, start making the calls yourself, or banter with the crowd. You should not scream at them and call them blindy-mcgoo or cheater-mc-cheaty pants. It will not help. Try to remember, it’s just a game and attempt to have fun. If they really feel they have to cheat to win, you might be best trying to beat them with some balls played not as close to the line.
YOU SHOULDN’T CALL THEM BLINDY-MCGOO OR CHEATER-MC-CHEATY PANTS.
Making Line Calls in Pickleball
You should now have a good understanding of when the ball is in, when it’s out, and how clear it should be before making the call. Now get out there and play!
See the IFP Rulebook PDF for more specifics on Pickleball Line Calls.