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by Kelly Campbell 

As pickleball has evolved, especially over the last 3-5 years, so has pickleball equipment. What used to be a simple, cheap plastic ball and wooden paddle has grown into a market with an expansive range of expensive paddles to choose from.

For die-hard players, there are now hundreds of options to choose from when selecting a pickleball paddle. Paddle manufacturers adding different materials, grips, weights, and more all claim to add and increase your likelihood of success –– but some have caused issues on the court. As more and more paddle variations come to market, picklers are seeing an uptick in disqualifications and faults — all because of this new wave of pickleball gear. 

A market boom for professional pickleball equipment makes sense when considering overall pickleball development. The fact that there are so many options out there signals healthy  pickleball growth, but it also begs the question – how do we fairly and successfully monitor and regulate pickleball gear to keep the sport fair?

Disqualified Dinkers 

Jill Braverman and Sarah Ansboury – In April 2023, at the PPA tour, pickleball stars Jill Braverman and Sarah Ansboury faulted and were a part of the first onsite paddle disqualification. Ansboury’s Gamma Obsidian Raw Carbon 16mm-paddle passed preliminary inspection, but failed secondary testing that was conducted after being challenged by their losing competitors. Ansboury’s paddle was deemed unfit as it exhibited an “unusual breakdown of integrity of the facial plies, bond, and core within the paddle.” They were forfeited from the semis. 

This has caused confusion and uproar from spectators and players in support of Braverman and Ansboury. They were penalized after following PPA-sanctioned guidelines and protocol. Now, despite their triumphs on the court, their integrity was called into question, and they had to forfeit their titles and prize money. One positive outcome from this situation is that it has opened doors for discussion surrounding paddle and testing regulations. Hopefully, we can use this situation as fuel to move forward and make better decisions and policies to avoid future disqualifications.  

Problematic Paddles & Paddle Tests 

Onsite paddle testing should ensure that all paddles are legal and fair to play with in professional matches by an industry-standard ultrasonic bond tester.

The USA Pickleball Official Rules of Pickleball state that any equipment to be used in a sanctioned tournament must be named on the list of “USA Pickleball – Approved” or “USA Pickleball Certified for Competition”. These have been tested and approved as conforming to the following specifications:

  • No homemade paddles 
  • The length & width of any butt caps and edge guards must not exceed 24”
  • The paddle cannot be longer than 17”
  • Paddles must be made of rigid and non-compressible materials that are deemed safe 
  • Surface Roughness – The paddle’s hitting surface shall not contain holes, indentations, rough texturing, or any objects or features that allow a player to impart excessive spin on the ball.
  • Reflection – The paddle’s hitting surface shall not be adversely reflective
  • Prohibited surface features – Anti-skid paint or any paint textured with sand, rubber or vinyl compounds, or any material that causes additional spin.

The PPA Tour looks for the following “failure” issues on each paddle:

  • Delamination and/or crushed core – “a paddle that has layers of the paddle separating or coming apart. In particular, the core of the paddle (thermoformed carbon paddles) separates from the outer layer” (the Pickler) 
  • Surface roughness

While this process seems clear-cut on paper, when put into action there seems to be some confusion and disagreement among spectators and players. 

Moving Forward 

Recent events in paddle disqualifications make one thing clear – something needs to change in the process of determining paddle compliance. Transparent testing and non-reactionary decision-making should be at the forefront of paddle testing. 

In the case of Ansboury, she and Braverman’s paddles were approved before the tournament. They played (and won) multiple rounds before their paddles were challenged. According to the PPA’s press release, “Ansboury’s paddle was found to have degraded over the official limitations and, as such, was no longer legal.” 

According to PPA’s official statement, “Sarah was given a warning before the semifinal match that her paddle had a high likelihood of crossing the legal threshold. The paddle [Ansboury’s] was found to have a breakdown in the integrity of the facial plies and core within the paddle.”

This was the first time that secondary testing was requested by a player challenge. Braverman & Ansboury maintain that they were told after being disqualified that numerous players’ paddles failed the second test. The names of those who failed were not released. 

“…Meaning players had played rounds 1-3 with failing paddles. But because none of those players’ paddles were challenged, there was no penalty for them. When they were informed their paddles failed, they swapped in a new paddle, which had passed the test,” Braverman’s statement says.

How can paddle degradation after one match have the power to disqualify a paddle mid-competition? Regardless of the result of secondary testing, it seems like the line for legitimacy and fairness is blurred –  Ansboury followed proper protocol and passed the initial inspection, yet was penalized after being challenged. How many other players passed inspection and won their matches with unfit paddles that weren’t challenged? What does it say about professional pickleball’s transparency and integrity that they have not released those names? 

These disqualifications make it clear that it’s crucial that the USAPA develops a new system of regulation. In doing so, we can begin to limit the effects these reactionary decisions will have for players, as well as paddle manufacturers who will greatly be affected by these decisions.