In racquet sports, a serve is a serve but there are rules. A served ball must travel over the net and hit in the prescribed place in the opposite court for play to continue. This is understood by everybody who plays racquet sports: A legal serve goes completely over the net. A serve that hits the net is a net fault and results in loss of the serve.
Another universally understood truth is that every rule has the exception that proves it exists. In the case of serves, the exception is the let serve.
A let serve is a rule that originated in tennis and table tennis that also existed in pickleball. Under the let serve rule, a serve that hits the net and continues to hit the correct service box anyway is called a let and must be repeated. This rule has changed in pickleball, which will be discussed shortly, but originally was the same as in tennis.
What Is A Let? An Overview
In pickleball, like in tennis, a serve must cross the court diagonally and land within a certain part of the court to count as a legal serve. There is, or was, an additional requirement that the serve must not strike the net.
When a serve strikes part of the net and still falls legally, the receiving player in a recreational game or the net judge in a competitive game can call the serve a let. This will end the current ball and the server receives the ball back to allow another attempt.
Because the let is a part of play, and a relatively rare occurrence, players were permitted to call lets whenever they felt that a let had happened. An unlimited number of lets were allowed, permitting a server to continue serving until they had a legal serve.
The Origins of the Word “Let”
Because tennis is a sport that dates back centuries, the let was originally a necessity for play. The earliest tennis courts were mown grass that could be home to any number of animals or people. The call of “let” has many origins, but one of those is from the Old Saxon word “lettian,” which meant to hinder or prevent something from happening. A let, or obstacle, is anything that prevents a point from being completed normally.
A distraction from a stray pigeon, a sneeze, a passerby in the crowd, any of these things could be a let in tennis. Lets in pickleball are specifically serves interrupted by the net that otherwise land legally.
Why Are Lets Controversial?
Over recent years, lets have been controversial in racquet sports. Because they are a way to rescind a serve that lands legally, there has been a temptation over time for receivers who lost an ace serve, to call a let when there was no contact between ball and net to try to get a second chance to receive a serve.
This is more of an issue in tennis than in pickleball. In pickleball, a serve will generally arc upward rather than downward. This is because the pickleball serve must either be underhand, or come from waist level or below in the case of a drop serve, since being made of plastic, pickleballs generally bounce lower than rubber tennis balls.
What Happened In 2021?
In 2021, all rules governing let serves were eliminated by USA Pickleball. The effect this had on play was to remove the let serve entirely from the game. Before and after the rules change in 2021, serves that hit the net and either fell into the server’s court or continued to strike the court between the net and the kitchen line were and are faults. As such, they could not continue to be played and would count as a loss of serve. This has not changed; a fault is a fault is a fault.
What has changed is that lets in pickleball no longer exist. A serve that would have been a let serve prior to the rules change is now simply a serve. If the serve strikes the net and still falls into the service box opposite the server, the serve counts as a full serve and must be played as one.
In Pickleball since 2021, like in tennis, a serve is either a serve or a fault. The original elimination of lets in tennis was specifically to remove the situation of players losing an ace serve and attempting to call a let on their opponent. This itself was disliked by players because it implied bad behavior on the part of players.
What About Non-Service Lets?
To this point, the only lets that have been discussed in this article are let serves. Specifically, let serves and their removal from the game in 2021. In pickleball, those are the only ball called a “let,” and have been removed in the 2021 rules update.
The other major category of let from tennis that commonly happens during recreational play is the intrusion of a ball into one court from an adjacent court. In recreational pickleball this is also a reason to suspend play. In pickleball, this is called as “hinder” or “ball,” and is treated the same as an intrusion “let” in tennis. An invalid hinder is penalized by having committed a fault, and will lose the serve if it was their serve.
If you are in a situation where your ball enters another court, it’s incumbent on you to call out the intruding ball as quickly as possible, so the pair or quartet on the other court are warned to suspend play. In no case should you follow a ball into another court if you lose one off the sides. Instead, wait until play has been suspended on the adjacent court before retrieving your ball.
Let serves are a rule that has been part of pickleball from tennis and table tennis. A let serve in pickleball only describes a serve where the ball has touched any part of the net and legally lands in the opposing court. Prior to 2021, the let serve was allowed to be called as many times as it happened. In 2021 and afterward, let serves are to be played as standard serves. There is another common kind of play interruption in recreational pickleball. This is the intrusion of a ball from another court, and is called out of play as “hinder” or “ball.” An invalid call of “hinder” can be penalized, as a form of unsporting conduct. Lets in tennis or hinders and balls in pickleball are part of playing these sports recreationally.
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