The Rec Player’s Guide to the 2020 Official pickleball Rulebook

The Rec Players’ Guide to the 2020 Official pickleball Rulebook

The 2020 Official Rulebook of the IFP (International Federation of Pickleball) and USAPA is now in effect,  And, although the organizations “formulate and interpret all the rules of the sport in a manner that preserves the traditional nature and character of the sport and skills traditionally required to play the sport,” the expressed purpose of these rules is only what is “necessary for organized league and tournament play,” including many rules “to be used only for the conduct of sanctioned tournaments.”  The preface to the Rulebook does not even mention recreational Pickleball play.

So, how should we recreational Pickleball players play with these new rules?  Most of them plainly have no application to us, because they require referee involvement.  But, many features of the Rulebook set out the essentials of the game — the Two-Bounce Rule, and the Non-Volley Zone (“NVZ”), for example.  And, surprisingly, some even offer excellent guidance, so here’s a quick survey of the rules that matter most to us recreational players.

 – How Popular Is pickleball?

Have you noticed that the word “pickleball” is no longer capitalized?  Pickleball — that is, pickleball — is so popular that it’s become a generic term, part of everyday vocabulary.  We can stop capitalizing, as the sport spreads across the globe like aspirin, bubblewrap, jet-skis, jacuzzis, onesies, crockpots, zambonis, breathalyzers, cellophane, chapsticks, popsicles and q-tips!

Here are the basics from the 2020 Rulebook:

  • What’s It Take to Win?

The first page of the Rulebook expressly states, “Typically, the first side scoring 11 points and leading by at least a 2-point margin wins.”

  • How Big Should the Court Be?

Keep this in mind when you mark a court for rubber markers or with tape:  Court measurements are made “to the outside of the perimeter and non-volley zone lines.  All lines should be 2 inches wide….”  [Rule 2.A.2.]  And, “All NVZ lines are part of the NVZ.”  [Rules 2.B.3, and 3.A.22.]  The court is “The area inside the outer dimensions of the baselines and sidelines.”  [Rule 3.A.2.].

Ideally, the margin around the 20 foot by 44 foot court should extend to 40 feet by 64 feet. [Rule 2.A.3.]  That is, ten feet beyond all sides of a court would be great.  (At the other extreme, if you’re playing at a larger open area, don’t forget that catching a ball that’s sailing way long before it bounces, is a fault in tournament play.   We rec players don’t have to stand and watch balls escape into the woods, water or roadway, as long as we remember not to catch a straying ball too soon on our visits to the big city.  (Rule 7.I.)

We can’t do much about net width when we play on a temporarily adapted tennis court but, when we can use our own 21+-foot-wide nets instead, “net posts should be 22 feet from the inside of one post to the inside of the other post” [Rule 2.C.2], and the net length should be at least 21 feet 9 inches. [Rule 2.C.3].  That is, net posts should extend only from 10 1/2 inches to a foot beyond each sideline.  That will enable your “ATP”!

  • The Net Height Police! 

Should rec players carry a tape measure in our bags?  Maybe: net height should be “36 inches high at the center of the sidelines and 34 inches at the center of the net.” [Rule 2.C.5].  So, tennis nets should be cinched down, especially at the ends, unless you want to blame the tennis net for bad shots.   And, while the net bottom should not drape onto the court [new Rule 2.C.7], it may leave as much as 4 to 6 inches open at the bottom. [Rule 2.C.3].  But, remember (especially when you camp in the NVZ as we discuss later), if your clothing or paddle touches the net, it is a fault.  [Rule 7.G.]

  • What Can We Use For Balls & Paddles?

The Rulebook won’t help you win most courtside arguments about balls and paddles, because its text is far too complicated for that.  Section 2.D lays out excessive details on specifications for, and approvals of, balls; and Section 2.E’s paddle specifications are impenetrable.  (For example, part of Rule 2.E.2 states, “Paddle roughness is determined using a Starrett SR160 Surface Roughness Tester (or equivalent.  The allowable limits for roughness shall be no greater than 30 micrometers on the Rz reading….”).  Relax: you can easily resolve ball and paddle debates by checking the online approved paddle list and approved ball list found on both USAPA.org and IFP websites [the site included in the rulebook — ipickleball.com — reroutes you to ifpickleball.org]. 

A few more quick items: “all approved balls are acceptable for indoor or outdoor play.” [Comment 2-3, on p. 5.]  At your leisure, skim the paddle rule remarks on writing, pictures, alterations, paint, reflections, testing and approvals, but not in order to make your own:  Homemade paddles are not permitted [Rule 2.E.8.] 

  • Distractions & Hinders

Several new definitions have been added to the rulebook, including “Distraction“.  [Rule 3.A.6.]  “Examples include, but are not limited to, making loud noises, stomping feet, waving the paddle in a distracting manner or otherwise interfering with the opponent’s concentration or ability to hit the ball.”  But, what about softly crooning a Billy Joel song, or silently lip-syncing The Who’s “My Generation”, or a cool stare, or telepathic interference?  Without a referee, who’s to say?  Just remember Unwritten Rec Rule #1, below: This is a Happy Place.

A definition of a “Hinder” has also been added: “Any element or occurrence outside of the player’s control that adversely impacts play.  [Rule 3.A.16.]  Examples include, but are not limited to, balls, flying insects, foreign material, players or officials from an adjacent court that, in the opinion of the referee, impacted a player’s ability to make a play on the ball.”  Rec players don’t need a referee for this.

  • Out Means Out

The preferred word to indicate a line call is ‘OUT.’” This can be used along with distinctive hand signals.  [Rule 3.A.19.]  This call should be made aloud promptly, no matter how far out the ball is.  [Rule 6.D.10.]   But, again, Rule 7.I (catching a ball in flight is a fault) — is an example of a rule worth breaking, if your recreational play takes place at a court where doing otherwise will send your long balls into the woods, drink or roadway.

An “Out” call while the ball is still in the air is merely a permissible inter-player communication and not a line call.  [Rule 6.D.11, and see also Rule 11.J.2 (team communications during play are not a “distraction“).]

  • Not off the ceiling, but a bounce in play before it hits a wall is okay!

Another intriguing rule, considering recreational venues, is Rule 7.J, which provides that a ball contacting any permanent object before bouncing on the court” is a fault.  But, if a ball hits the permanent object after bouncing on the court, ”[t]he player who hit the ball shall win the rally.”) [Rule 8.E.]  So, where the ceilings are low and the walls are tight — or at that daytime warehouse where the forklift’s parked along the cement court’s sideline — rec players can take advantage.

  • Some Stuff You Can Skip

Wait!  I said to skip this paragraph!  Okay, since you can’t help but read on, unfortunately a couple of the new definitions include ambiguous sentences.  See Rules 3.A.30 (“Receiver”) and 3.A.36 (“Server”): “Depending on the team’s score, the player who [returns the serve/serves] may not be the correct receiver.”  Skip these.  They’re just talking about when you switch sides, which you already know but sometimes forget to do, or which you do do when you shouldn’t.

  • The Hardest Part of Pickleball

The Rulebook section on service and scoring is worth discussing. 

There is no question that keeping score in recreational Pickleball is the hardest part of the game.  Indeed, an alternative scoring system has already gained universal acceptance among one lone player in a small village! 

Although, in multiple provisions, the Rulebook sets forth requirements relating to challenging the score, the timing of a challenge, and referee participation during tournaments, these rules offer a little guidance for rec players, too.  First, the score should not be announced until the players are ready.  [Compare Rule sections 4.C and 4.D, and Rule 4.E.1: “The service motion must not start until the score has been called in its entirety.”  See also Rule 4.A.1, below.]

The Rulebook also gives us grounds to badger our pals to stop saying things like “Zero-zero-start!” Because Rule 4.J mandates, “To start each game, the score will be called as “zero-zero-two.

The entire score must be called before the server begins the service motion.”  [Rule 4.A.1.]  In fact, it is a fault if the server begins the service motion before the entire score is called.”  [Rule 4.M.9.]    Annoying, often violated, and hard to discipline an octogenarian for, but it’s really helpful for us to do this.

Now, take a deep breath, and also suggest that your friends plunge into this paragraph, because everyone both older and younger than you is violating it!  (Not you, though!). The 2020 revision has set forth more details on position requirements at specific moments during the serve — some as the serve starts and others when the ball is struck:  “At the beginning of the service motion, both feet must be behind the baseline and the imaginary extensions of the baseline. At the time the ball is struck, the server’s feet may not touch the court or outside the imaginary extension of the sideline or the centerline and at least one foot must be on the playing surface or ground behind the baseline.”  [revised Rule 4.A.3.]. “The server’s arm must be moving in an upward arc at the time the ball is struck….” [Rule 4.A.5.]  “The highest point of the paddle head must not be above the highest part of the wrist (where the wrist joint bends) when it strikes the ball. [Rule 4.A.6.]  Contact with the ball must not be made above the waist level (Waist is defined as the navel level).  [Rule 4.A.7.] . At the moment when the ball is struck: your feet shall “[n]ot touch the area outside the imaginary extension of the sideline.” [Rule 4.L.1], shall “[n]ot touch the area on the wrong side of the imaginary extension of the centerline [Rule 4.L.2], and shall “[n]ot touch the court, including the baseline.” [Rule 4.L.3.]

Got it?  Illustrations are included in the 2020 Rulebook, on page 18. 

  • What if we think the score is wrong?  When is too late to say so? 

During competition, “any player may stop play before the return of serve to ask for a correction.”  [Rule 4.K.]. If the announced score was incorrect, the ball is served anew.  [Rule 4.K.1.]   If the score was correct, the receiver who stopped play loses the point. [Rule 4.K.3.]   But, in rec play, especially when these rules regarding timing and announcements of the score are largely disregarded, rather than stop play we might still raise the question after the ball is dead — that is, if our memories can hold out that much longer.

  • The Most Inspiring Rule

The Rulebook section on line calls — Section 6 — includes a Code of Ethics, which is worth embracing.  Rule 6.D, in the context of tournament play, states in pertinent part,  “The player … must strive for accuracy and operate under the principle that all questionable calls must be resolved in favor of the opponent.

In tournament play, with referees present, the Rulebook states “basic elements” including:

    • 6.D.1.  Players are responsible for calling the lines on their side of the court (excluding service foot faults and all non-volley-zone lines, if being called by a referee). …
    • 6.D.3.  The opponent gets the benefit of the doubt on line calls made. Any ball that cannot be called “out” will be considered “in…. 

These boldfaced phrases should apply equally in totally self-regulated rec play, because they’re not just abstract ethics.  More importantly, they will maximize the enjoyment of pickleball.  If a call is that close, then just give it to your opponents!  They’re not really your opponents — they’re your friends!  Admit it: secretly, you’re rooting for them.  [Unwritten Rec Rule #2, below.]. That’s the only reason why you lose to them anyway, even though you extol their prowess at the end of the game.  And, in the next game, one of them will be your teammate.

In the same ideal spirit, a new rule now expressly provides that players may call faults on themselves, and line calls against themselves.  [Rule 6.D.13.]

“Let” and “out” calls should be made promptly — that is, before the ball is hit again or declared dead.  [Rule 6.D.8.]

As before, the rules provide that spectators should not be consulted on any line call.  [Rule 6.D.4.]  That’s good: our goal as spectators is not to reprove other players (After all, there are already enough FIPs  [“FIPs”: “Formerly Important Persons”] in recreational pickleball!), but to tease them gleefully before reclaiming their court.

A player should not question an opponent’s call.”   [Rule 6.D.5.]  That’s easy enough in tournaments, when the player may appeal to the referee, but in the absence of a referee, is that asking too much of rec players regarding close end line calls?  Then, consider this provision: the laws of parallax” make it very difficult for a player on one end of a court accurately to make a line call on the far end of the court.”  [Rule 6.D.7.]  (Cut to Internal monologue: “Yes, yes, that ball 40 feet away clearly looked out, but — I dunno — maybe I should defer to the people who were standing right over it.  They obviously didn’t see the ball, or they would have hit it!  But I’ll be gracious and let it go.  Life’s balance is not hanging on who wins this point, or even who wins the game.  In fact, two minutes after this game is over, the score will have been forgotten — and, URR-2, below, states, I am secretly rooting for them anyway!”) 

If, in doubles play, the partners disagree, then the call is made in the opponents’ favor.  [Rule 6.D.9.]. A new rule provides that the opponents’ opinion may be requested for a line call on the player’s side but, if requested and a clear in or out call is made in response, it must be accepted.  [Rule 6.D.6.]   

In conclusion, though, keep in mind the Unwritten Rules of recreational pickleball:  No grumbling [URR-4], and above all no saying you’re sorry!  [URR-3.]  (A little teasing is okay, especially if it’s directed against yourself.)

  • Live In the NVZ!

Recreational players will also benefit by boning up on the Non-Volley Zone rules.  Too many of us stay out of the NVZ at all costs, even knowing that the ball will be bouncing there in a moment, and even after it bounces.  It is correct that you cannot volley while standing in the NVZ [See, Rule 9.B], and it’s a fault to leap from the NVZ in order to volley the ball and then land outside its lines [Rule 9.D].  And, there’s also the Windmill Rule: momentum that carries a player post-volley into the NVZ, even long after hitting the ball, is a fault — even after several further volleys and even after the ball is dead.  [Rule 9.C.]  It doesn’t matter how long you teeter — and your partner is not allowed to hold you out if he’s already in it!  But, “A player may enter the non-volley zone before or after returning any ball that bounces.”  [Rule 9.F.]  In fact, you can live in the NVZ, if you want, as long as you don’t touch the ball and it doesn’t touch you [Rules 9.G and 9.H] — but remember not to touch the net, either [Rule 7.G.]  

A Few Stray Items

New rules go into more detail on Double Hits (unintentional, continuous, single-direction is okay) [Rule 11.A], and Broken or Cracked Balls (if players can’t agree, the rally stands) [Rule 11.E.]  Also, Rule 7.H now goes into greater detail relating to balls hit off the hand rather than the paddle.  See also Rule 11.P (Player must be holding the paddle when it hits the ball).   And — sorry, you truly ambidextrous players — you may only carry one paddle.  [Rule 11.O.]   And, to repeat, it can’t be one that you made yourself!  Rule 2.E.8. 

  • Lastly, Unwritten Rules of pickleball

1.  A pickleball court is a Happy Place – even these formal tournament-oriented rules support this.

2.  Secretly root for your opponents, who begin and end the game as your friends and who will soon be your teammates.

3.  No saying “Sorry!”

4.  No grousing.

5.  “Five is respectable.” In fact, 5-11 is actually a winning score in some ancient numeric systems.

6.  If you score a point when you have only 1 point, then double Your Score!

7.  “Yours!” means: “I just missed the ball.”

8.  “I’ve got it!” means: “I am about to miss the ball.”

4 thoughts on “The Rec Player’s Guide to the 2020 Official pickleball Rulebook

  1. This is a great primer for pickleball rules.
    As a referee I realize most of the new rules apply to tournament play. But the book title now reads, “Official Rulebook”, not Official “Tournament” Rulebook. We should all be playing this great game under the same rules.
    My take on “respectable” (#5) is 7 points and I urge my partners to get to that number. Eight points becomes “very respectable”, 9 is “totally respectable”, 10 “uber-respectable”. Eleven becomes “WIN”!

  2. In regards 9C, there isn’t anything in the rulebook that states that you can’t help your partner from falling into the NVZ (in older rulebooks there was). You just can’t be in the NVZ yourself when you do so.

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