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Codified Tennis

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Ron Waite, USPTR

Truly the game of tennis is most unique. Unlike most sports, the vast majority of tennis matches (recreational or tournament) are played without a referee or external supervision. Tennis relies upon each player to be the judge of what is or is not within the rules of the game. Now, golfers know what it means to rely upon an "honor system" when playing the game. However, usually, there are four players traveling as a group. If there is a dispute regarding the rules, the collective wisdom of the group usually prevails and leads to a proper resolution. Granted, in doubles, there are four players…but only two teams. Therefore, the decision making process may ultimately lead to an "us vs. them" situation. Surely, the singles game pits one player against the other when a dispute arises. Fortunately, when playing a tournament, a referee can be appointed by the tournament director if disputes are reoccurring and not easily resolved. Regrettably, the weekend club player usually does not have the benefit of such an appointment.

The game of tennis relies upon honesty, fairness, and respect for one’s opponent. The Code of Conduct and the Rules of the Game are based upon these principles. However, each of us has encountered the reality of the less than honest player. A good number of my readers over the past two years have written to me with questions on how one best deals with this type of situation. Well, that is what this month’s article is all about.

Generally, code problems can be separated into three main categories:

    1. Violations that affect the score.
    2. Violations that relate to gamesmanship.
    3. Court conduct.

Let’s begin our discussion with violations that affect the score. The most common violation in this category involves line calls. Now, to be honest, each of us has made a bad call now and then. Frankly, we are all human and subject to the imperfections of being human. So, we must expect that our opponent(s) will make an honest mistake from time to time. Even the pros (who enjoy the benefits of linespeople) will receive a bad call every so often. Think about it. The ball travels so fast that it is often difficult to hit with 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).

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 but probably landed out but your opponent calls it in). However, these "gifts" 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 this 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 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.

In American baseball, it’s three strikes and you are out. Should a call again become a problem, you must 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. Should 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 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.

On one occasion, I was playing a tournament in Old Saybrook, CT. My opponent was hooking me beyond belief. Even the spectators were aghast at his calls. I tried all the proper discussions to no avail. Finally, I went to seek a lines judge. The tournament director had left!

His mother was minding the store in his absence. She was not about to give a lines judge without her son’s permission. He couldn’t be reached by phone. In disgust, I returned and finished the match. Needless to say, I lost. I never forgot this incident and will never play a tournament at this club again. I thought about writing to the USTA, but decided that even a tournament director is entitled to a mistake now and then. However, if you are reading this and ever serve as a tournament director, please don’t leave site without making proper arrangements for possible disputes.

The second area that affects the score 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, 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 (forgive the gender bias) 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 continuity (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 as you are about to serve. This is clearly a deliberate distraction.

There are so many different ploys that I could not begin to mention them all. However, if you feel 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 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.

Court conduct is the last general area that needs to be addressed. Unfortunately, John McEnroe must bear some responsibility for the situation that exists today. His court behavior and conduct was, to say the least, contrary to every principle of the Code of Conduct. His histrionics, profanities and general abusive nature spawned generations of players who believed that being bad was good.

Clearly, tennis can be a 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.). Truly, there is only one part of the game that is completely within our control…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. There is a tennis player in Connecticut who has literally behaved so badly that he has been banned from certain clubs and has alienated most of his doubles partners. His profession? He is an attorney! I wonder how many Judges would permit him to behave before the Bench as he does on the tennis court? Let’s face it. Sometimes you win out of good luck and sometimes you lose out of bad luck. 50% of all tennis players loose matches!

Poor court behavior will not improve your performance! If it did help John McEnroe (I truly believe that his conduct was a gamesmanship ploy!), he is the exception…not the rule. Positive emotion is certainly acceptable and probably desirable. However, negative behavior cannot and should not be tolerated. Whenever I encounter the player who yells, curses and 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 that I may not have otherwise.

So, 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! If you encounter such a player, take comfort in knowing that this player never will truly win. Even if they beat you in the match, they have lost more than they have gained. Unfortunately for them, they may never realize what they have lost.

The folks that created the modern game of tennis were incredibly wise. They set rules and codes for proper conduct that promote competition in the true spirit of sport! There is, perhaps, one overwhelming reason why each of should never cheat, use gamesmanship ploys nor behave improperly on the court…we will never reach our full potential as players if we do! The creators of this wonderful sport knew this.

So, play honestly and fairly, avoid silly ploys, and conduct yourself properly on the court and I am certain that in no time you will become a tennis overdog!

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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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