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November 2004 Article

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Games That People Play…
Other Than Tennis

Ron Waite Photo
Ron Waite, USPTR

Approximately two months ago, a good friend of mine went to compete in a USTA National Seniors’ tournament. This player has been, and is, currently ranked nationally in his age division. The anecdote that follows is probably an all too common experience for players who compete regularly.

My friend played his first match on day one of the tournament and won fairly handily. He was scheduled to play his next opponent on the following morning. His opponent was a player whose first match turned out to be a very long, grueling, three setter. The next morning arrives and my friend is at the facility about 1 hour before his scheduled, second round match. He is stretching and getting ready. I am warming him up on a court.

Eventually, the time for the match arrives and my friend’s opponent has not yet arrived. No problem. My friend inquires about the situation, and is told that his opponent called and is stuck in traffic. Okay. These things happen.

Over an hour passes and still no opponent. Again, my friend inquires about the status of his match. Generally, a half hour or so is all that is allowed before a default is claimed. The tournament director stated that the opponent had finally arrived. My friend is elated. He wants to play!!! He realizes that "byes" do not sharpen his competitive game.

Another half hour passes. Still, there is no opponent ready to compete. He is in the locker room, stretching and applying muscle balm to his entire body. My friend inquires about the opponent’s readiness and is told, "Oh, I will be ready in a few minutes." Again, a half hour passes. By now, the match has been delayed by about 2 hours. My friend will have to play soon after this second round match, should he win. Obviously, he is concerned about fatigue, etc.

Eventually, the match begins and my friend wins in a decisive victory. However, his next match is scheduled to begin in about an hour. When playing senior tennis, recovery time is important.

Unfortunately, the next match for my friend does not go well. He loses in three sets. In the last set, I could see that his mobility was severely limited…even though his serve and strokes were sharp. Fatigue had set in.

Later, we learn that the opponent who had been "delayed" was, in fact, not stuck in traffic. Rather, he and his doubles partner (the third round opponent to whom my friend lost) had played a very long doubles match the night before, which went late into the evening. Both of these players were late for their morning singles matches (they did arrive separately, however). Could this be a coincidence? Or, were both players looking to have as much recovery time from their match the night before? No one but these two players knows the answer to this question.

My point in relating this story is to inform and console those of you who have experienced "gamespersonship." Despite the "Code" and the rules of tournament play, there are times when the competitive player will experience what, often times, may be obvious or subtle ploys to give an opponent an edge in the match. As a college coach, I have seen virtually every "trick in the book" at one time or another.

So this month, I want to address the issue of "games that people play" on the court. Can we always prove that our opponent is attempting to employ a technique to win that involves something other than hitting the ball? No. But, we need to know when it is likely occurring and we need to know what if anything to do about it.

In my opinion "gamespersonships" techniques generally fall into one of several categories:

  1. Pre-Match Delays
  2. Match Stalling
  3. Psychological Ploys
  4. Outright Cheating

What I described in my opening anecdote was an example of pre-match delaying. In this example, the opponent may have delayed to allow himself more recovery time from a previous match. Fatigue in senior matches is a critical factor. However, sometimes people deliberately delay simply in order to make their opponents wait.

Why would forcing you to wait for an opponent to arrive be beneficial to your opponent? Well, think about it. Let’s assume that you are the player waiting. You have arrived on time. From a physical (food, hydration, stretching, warm-up, etc) and psychological perspective you have prepared yourself to compete at a given time. Now that preparation has been totally interrupted. In addition, your opponent has taken "control" of the match before it has even begun!!! You now have an additional obstacle to address. In a game like tennis, being in an uninterrupted flow is critical.

How many pro matches have turned due to rain delays? I think playing Wimbledon is an exercise in patience for players because rain delays are not uncommon.

Stress is a factor that can make a player lose. These pre-match delays generate stress in the player waiting. Is this fair?

So, how does one deal with this problem? Simple. Follow the rules! Every tournament should have rules about late appearances. Generally, a half hour is the amount of time allowed for an opponent to be late. Some tournament directors will want to accommodate a player who is late for reasons beyond his/her control (e.g. legitimate traffic problems). I think some leeway needs to be allowed.

However, whenever an opponent is late, I always ask the tournament director directly, "When will the default time be enforced?" I make certain that the director gives me a specific time upon which the action will take place. I even make certain that our watches are in sync. When that time arrives, I take my gear and leave. I check out making certain that the draw sheet shows me getting a walkover.

Once a player has lost a match due to her/his being late, she/he is very unlikely to play this game in the future. Some may call you unreasonable. However, there are rules in place for a reason. If there are no rules, withdraw from the tournament. Otherwise, you are in for more stress than you bargained for.

If I am playing a non-USTA sanctioned tournament, I always ask what will be the rules before entering. If the tournament director does not have a specific answer, I do not enter…it just isn’t worth the risk.

Match stalling is a little more difficult to perceive, and certainly, more difficult to prove. Still, it does occur.

The rules of the game are designed to promote a natural flow and forward movement to the match. Apart from this helping players to play their best tennis, this approach assures that matches in a tournament move to completion in a timely manner. No tournament director should want to see a match take longer than it should. In part, that is why there are rules about the amount of time that can be taken in between points and games.

Years back. a local player, whom I will call Aaron, had a reputation for stalling. I kid you not. He would actually take over a minute between each point. He would walk the court, look at the ground, stretch, tie his shoes, etc…after every point. He had it down to a science. He would find more ways to stall than any other person I have encountered.

His opponents would, often times, complain to him. He would apologize, but move on to a different stalling technique. This would anger most of his opponents.

Anger is generally a counterproductive emotion in the game of tennis (John McEnroe excluded). Aaron realized this and was eager to exploit any means possible to frustrate and anger his opponents.

Sometimes, stalling is a means to recover from fatigue. The excessively long "bathroom visit," the inordinately long break between sets (I have had opponents leave the court!), the all too frequent water break are all examples of possible stalling techniques.

Usually, players are more subtle in their use of stalling techniques. They know when to stall and why.

There is really not much one can do to prevent this. However, if you feel that the opponent is deliberately stalling, and you have asked her/him not to stall, it is time to ask for a match umpire. Simply, go the tournament director and request that he/she appoint someone to be the umpire for this match. As part of the umpire’s duties, be certain that he/she keeps track of the time between points, games and sets. Usually, this corrects the action. However, the harm may have already been done.

Psychological ploys are numerous in type and almost impossible to prove. Still, they are a means that some players use to "get and edge."

For example, a player might say to you "Gee, that first serve of yours is deadly today." Is it a true compliment or a means to get you thinking about your first serve? I have seen this technique used many times. What happens? All of a sudden, your first serve starts going errant. Could this be a deliberate ploy on the part of your opponent? No one but she/he knows for certain.

Discussions that occur in between points and games can be another opportunity for psychological warfare. Ever wonder why the pros never speak to each other during a match? Well, they know that any dialog can be a diversion that will interrupt or unsettle their focus.

A year ago, I was playing a match against a player who I know likes to talk a lot during the match. Truthfully, I do not know with certainty if this guy is trying to psych me out or is just talkative. In either case, I didn’t want to have his incessant talking unsettle my play. So, I actually moved my seat to the other side of the court. I think his feelings were a little bit hurt, but I won the match. After the match, I made it a point to have a friendly discussion with him. As I said, I don’t know if he is so talkative deliberately.

There are often not such clear actions that one can take to defend himself/herself from these ploys. However, whenever this ploy is suspected, I take heart. Why? Well, I know that if my opponent is using these, he cannot have much faith in beating me with his game.

Outright cheating occurs in tennis. I wish it wasn’t so, but it is. The only thing to be done with a cheater is to call for help. Again, you want to approach your opponent with gentle accusations like "Gee, are you sure that was out?" or "Gosh, I saw that in…are you sure?" In reality, some calls that an opponent makes "wrong" may have been put forth in good faith. After three gentle "identifications," I call for a linesperson. I go to the tournament director and state, "My opponent and I are having major disagreements on line calls. Please appoint a linesperson."

Generally, I have not had to go as far as getting a linesperson. Usually, the second "warning" lets my opponent know that I am suspect of his honesty. More often than not, this corrects the problem.

If you do get a linesperson, remember that you have to ask her/him for a ruling on a call. She/he will not volunteer the call. She/he will assume the call that is made is accurate and acceptable to both players…unless one of you asks for a ruling.

Unfortunately, cheaters do win matches. There is very little consolation when this occurs. However, realize that the cheater will never reach his/her full potential as a player. It is a slippery slope. Once someone starts to cheat, they do so more often. Eventually, they are seen for the disreputable player that they are.

Hopefully those of you who compete will draw some strength and direction from this month’s article. The game of tennis should simply be played on the court, with racquets and balls.

Avoid the "games that people play" and you will become a tennis overdog!

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This column is copyrighted by Ron Waite, all rights reserved. Questions and comments about these columns can be directed to Ron by using this form.

Ron Waite is a certified USPTR tennis instructor who took up the game of tennis at the age of 39. Frustrated with conventional tennis methods of instruction and the confusing data available on how to learn the game, Ron has sought to sift fact from fiction. In his seven years of tennis, Ron has received USTA sectional ranking four years, has successfully coached several NCAA Division III men's and women's tennis teams to post season competition, and has competed in USTA National singles tournaments. Ron has trained at a number of tennis academies and with many of the game's leading instructors.

In addition to his full-time work as a professor at Albertus Magnus College, Ron photographs ATP tour events for a variety of organizations and publications. The name of his column, TurboTennis, stems from his methods to decrease the amount of time it takes to learn and master the game of tennis.


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