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Playing Fairly

Ron Waite Photo
Ron Waite, USPTR

Let's be totally honest. Each of us at one point or another have made a line call that in retrospect may have been incorrect. This is not to say that we deliberately seek to rob our opponent(s) of points. Rather, we are all human. As such, we do make mistakes which are indeed honest mistakes.
On the other hand, we all have been seemingly "victims" of our opponent(s) line calls which we believed to be totally wrong, and to us, were miscalled deliberately. In some instances, this may have been the case. In many others, our opponent(s) may have made an honest mistake.
In recreational tennis and even in more formal venues, the players of this great game are called upon to make determinations that directly affect the outcome of a match. I know of no other sport (save golf) where the "honesty" of the player is called upon to make these kinds of decisions. In our wonderful game of tennis, each player (or team) is not responsible for calling his/her (their) own shots. Instead, each player (or team) determines whether the opponent's or other team's shots are in or out! This game of ours is predicated upon the belief that each participant is indeed honorable. Most of us are!
There are several areas of tennis that are addressed in "The Code." For your convenience, I have placed the link to the 2014 edition of the Friend at Court which is published by the USTA. In this book, the all the rules and regulations associated with our game. Also, it contains the "Code" (Part Two) which should always be in place as we compete. You have a question about the specifics of our game? The Friend at Court has the answer!
I strongly encourage each reader to review this book. It can be purchased in a hard copy from the USTA, and it is a good item to carry with you in your tennis bag.
What I seek to address this month are three principle areas that are related to the "Code." These focus on line calls, keeping accurate scores, gamesmanship and overall court conduct. These are areas which for some players seem to be a bit "fuzzy."
Calling Lines
Even the pros have resorted to technology to assist in proper line calls... this speaks to the inherent difficulty associated with accurate and fair line calls. In many pro matches, the officials use sophisticated technology to track the path of balls. Players are allowed several challenges. The match is paused when there is a challenge, and the graphic technology shows on a jumbo screen the exact path of the ball. It measures this ball path down to millimeters!!! I have personally witnessed these devices making "judgments" that show a ball in or out by a "hair."
Even with well trained and unbiased lines people, mistakes do happen. Only the modern, computerized technology can do a "better" job. Some of us may even wonder if these "Cyclops-like" determinations are truly accurate. But, seemingly they are!
In most recreational and most competitive matches, players are asked to make their own calls. Why would we expect that they could do better than the "experts?"
Think about it. The ball travels so fast that it is often difficult to hit with even an oversized racquet. At 70+ miles per hour, it is really tough to judge the millimeters that separate an in from an out ball. This becomes increasingly more difficult when we are running. Sometimes, our vision is just not good enough to make the call with complete certainty. This is why the rule is written as it is: the ball must be clearly seen out! If there is any doubt, the ball must be played as if it landed within bounds. Yet, even when we are diligently trying to call lines according to this rule, we are going to err from time to time... and so will our opponent(s).
What is critically important to remember is that we must be absolutely certain that the ball is out. There can be no room for doubt. Even if a ball lands two feet out of bounds, a player must call it in if he/she did not actually see the ball land out!
Having said this, I must admit that I know of players who consistently call their lines inaccurately. There are really only two explanations: Either the opponent's eyesight is very bad (in which case one wonders how she/he is able to hit the ball) or the opponent is deliberately cheating or "hooking" on these line calls. Quite often, the "hooker" will give you a line call (you know it was close... it probably landed out but your opponent calls it in). However, these "gifts" seem only come on inconsequential points (e.g., the opponent is serving at 40-love). On a crucial point (e.g., your opponent is serving at 30-40), this same opponent now calls "out" on the ball that you clearly see landing in bounds! One has to wonder... is this coincidence?
To say the least, it is extremely frustrating to play a cheating opponent. What can you do? Well, first of all, don't be too eager to judge. Give the opponent the benefit of the doubt. You could be wrong, or he/she may have made an honest mistake. However, if the problem is reoccurring, your first course of action should be discussion.
Approach the opponent with a not so-threatening "are you sure that ball was out?" If he/she says yes, tell him/her that you saw it differently but you will respect his/her call. If it occurs again, you then must be a bit more forceful. Tell the opponent that you are beginning to lacking confidence in his/her line calls. Inform him/her that you need him/her to be more aware of the ball's bounce. Don't be angry or rude... but do be emphatic.
Should a call again become a problem, you probably should seek a line judge. Approach your opponent(s) and state: "We obviously are not seeing the ball the same way. We can't continue to have these disputes and discussions... it only interrupts continuous play. So, let's get the tournament director to appoint a line judge... we can go and tell her/him together." Again, you don't want to be angry or condemning. Rather, you are seeking an honest and reasonable solution to a problem.
If your opponent(s) disagree with your need for a line judge, don't argue the point... it is your right. Just go and seek the tournament director and request that she/he appoint the lines judge. If you are playing recreational tennis and do not have the luxury of requesting a line judge, my advice is to concede the match to your opponent. Simply state: "We obviously are not on the same page with these line calls. We are having lots of trouble seeing balls the same way. Maybe we are both just having a bad day. Let's call it quits. I concede the match to you. We'll try this another time when the lighting may be better." Don't be confrontational or condemning when you state this. If your opponent truly was cheating, she/he will know that you are not about to accept it. Maybe next time, she/he will call the lines a bit more accurately. If she/he truly was not cheating (and it is possible that you are wrong!), you will not have offended her/him.
You may have had a problem with a player in a past tournament. It may be that a lines person was indeed necessary in that specific match. What should you do if you see this player in another tournament? Well, everyone should start a match in good faith. This means that you should not expect your opponent to cheat or "hook" you. Presume that the previous encounter did not occur. Start fresh! Apart from any Code, this is critically important because a fear of being cheated again can ruin your focus. It is difficult enough to compete at our best levels. We don't need to have added stress and/or distractions! If the opponent does again call lines improperly, begin the entire process described above again. Hopefully, this encounter will not result in your having to request a lines person again.
Keeping Accurate Score
An area of cheating that is as irritating as improper line calls, but is less likely to be a problem, involves keeping track of game and set scores. It is the server's responsibility to announce the set score at the beginning of each game and the game score at the beginning of each point. It amazes me how often players do not do this. I learned my lesson some years back. I was playing a match and was winning 5-3. It was my opponent's turn to serve. Ultimately, he lost this game. I had won the set... or so I had thought. My opponent stated that he called the set score at the beginning of the game. He said he called the score as 4-2 in my favor. Thus, he stated that I had not won the set. Rather, he said the score was now 5-2 in my favor. Frankly, I did not hear him call out this set score. If I had, I would have immediately disputed its accuracy. However, I took him at his word. We tried to reconstruct the games to settle the dispute, but again, we had different accounts. Finally, I had to concede to his interpretation (even though I thought he was wrong). Why? I must afford him the benefit of the doubt that he called the score as he suggested at the beginning of the game. Since I did not dispute it immediately and since we could not agree on how the games should be reconstructed, I decided to defer to his position (after all, I could have been wrong!). Fortunately, I won my serve on the next game and ultimately took the set. However, in reality (at least my version of reality), I had to win this set twice. Now, I am always sure to be certain about set and game scores! I call out each loudly when I am serving, and I force my opponent to do the same.
Whenever there is a dispute on set or game score, the rules are clear. Try to reconstruct what has happened to resolve the difference. If you cannot reach a settlement by this method, begin playing from the last score that you both agree upon. In the situation I cited above, I voluntarily decided to accept my opponent's perception of score. If I had not, we should have started play at the last score that we both agreed upon.
Most players are completely honest about score. If they err, it is just that... an honest mistake. However, there are those players who will cheat you on score... if they get the chance. The best protection against this form of deceit is to call the score out loud every point!
Gamesmanship refers to any stalls, ploys, distractions or techniques that are designed to help a player gain an edge over an opponent. The only edge a player should have is her/his skill! Some players will deliberately stall to disrupt your rhythm or game momentum (e.g., the player who ties his/her shoe frequently or takes forever in between points). Some players will talk incessantly in between games. Here, the idea is to get you not to think about your game strategy or to interrupt your game intensity. Frequently, players will jump and move around excessively and conspicuously as you are about to serve. This can clearly be a deliberate distraction.
There are so many different ploys that I could not begin to mention them all. If you believe that your opponent is resorting to gamesmanship techniques, there is only so much you can do. You can approach the opponent with your suspicion, but he/she will almost always deny that they are deliberately trying to distract you or upset your game. You can report the problem to a tournament director. She/he may observe for a while to see if your concerns are warranted. Frequently, the behavior will disappear while your opponent is being observed.
The best defense against this type of "cheating" (and the rules of the game suggest that it is a form of cheating) is to simply ignore the behavior and play on. If my opponent is one who stalls, I simply use the time to visualize my next point. If my opponent is one who likes to chat between games, I simply move my stuff to the other net post area (away from my opponent)... even if this forces me to stand between points. If my opponent likes to run around and jump as I prepare to serve, I make certain that I do not look in his direction. I simply check to see that he is ready to receive. Then, I focus only on my serve rituals and serve contact spot. The most important thing is to remain calm and to try to ignore the behavior as much as is possible. Eventually, the opponent will give up the ploy when she/he realizes that it has no effect upon you. But, it is up to you to prevent these "tactics" from having any effect.
Proper Conduct on the Court
Court conduct is the last general area that needs to be addressed. Clearly, tennis can be a very frustrating game. Sometimes, things just keep going wrong. It seems unfair that so much of this game can fall outside of our control (e.g., wind, sun, bad court bounces, etc.). However if you think about it, there is always one part of the game that is completely within our control... our court conduct.
Cursing, racquet throwing, ball abuse are just a few of the common ways in which players demonstrate poor court demeanor. These are not limited to juniors! I can't tell you how many adult, seasoned players demonstrate how truly immature they are when they are on the court.
Poor court behavior will not improve your performance! Positive emotion is certainly acceptable and probably desirable. However, negative behavior cannot and should not be practiced during matches or practice sessions. Whenever I encounter the player who yells, curses and/or throws his racquet; I find myself becoming optimistic. Why? Well, I know that this player is too fragile to play his best tennis. Sooner or later, his behavior will help destroy his game and permit me a victory.
If you are prone to these failings, you must learn to control them. After all, the worst that could happen is that you might lose a silly tennis match! Worse things could happen!
You cannot allow improper court behavior to ruin your performance. You can always control your own behavior. If your opponent(s) are acting like fools, do your best to ignore these antics. Take comfort in the realization that this behavior is evidence of some "demons" within your opponent(s).
I honestly believe that every player who exhibits poor court conduct would never repeat this behavior if she/he could see herself/himself on video as they "act out." However, I have sometimes wondered if some players deliberately exhibit histrionics to unsettle their opponents. To me, poor court conduct can be a form of cheating, if it is indeed done deliberately. However, no one can truly "see" into another's mind and thoughts.
Tennis rules and codes for proper conduct promote fair competition in the true spirit of sport! There is, perhaps, one overwhelming reason why each of us should never cheat, use gamesmanship ploys or behave improperly on the court... we will never reach our full potential as players if we do!
So, take some time to read the Friend at Court. Elevate yourself not only as a skillful player, but also, elevate yourself as an honorable player! The historical greats who have played this wonderful game of ours, such as Bill Tilden, set some high standards. We owe it to them and to ourselves to maintain these high standards.
I am sure that if you review the Code and abide by it at all times that you will ultimately become a tennis overdog!

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Turbo Tennis Archives:
1996 - 2002 | 2003 - Present

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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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