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By Blair Henley
Photo Credit: Brian Weed
Tennis Ball on Tennis Court
“Are you sure?”

“Do you have a mark?”

“How far out was that?”

I shudder writing those words. They immediately transport me back to my days playing on the junior tennis circuit where questioning your opponent’s line calls was as common as oversized tennis bags and overinflated egos.

Though I’ll never regret my childhood pursuit of tennis excellence, I don’t remember my junior career with particular fondness thanks to the dishonesty and gamesmanship that plagues the sport.

It seems the self-regulatory nature of tennis outside of the professional ranks often brings out the worst in its competitors. So much so that it can spoil what should be an otherwise challenging and character-building experience. The question players, parents, and the United States Tennis Association should be asking is whether something can be done to eliminate the game’s embarrassing cheating problem.   

I’ll never forget the day some football player friends of mine came out to see one of my college tennis matches. Afterward, they were incredulous.

“Wait…so you are your own referee?”

“So you just decide if the ball is in or out?”

“That’s crazy!”

Clearly they hadn’t seen a competitive tennis match before. But their reactions sum up how inconceivable calling your own lines can seem to athletes accustomed to umpires and referees.

Growing up in the highly competitive USTA Florida Section, I experienced firsthand how easily a match could turn on an opponent’s willingness to change an “in” to an “out.”  The human eye can’t make the correct call 100 percent of the time (Hawk-Eye technology has made that crystal clear), so players should certainly be given the benefit of the doubt – at first.

But often one bad line call leads to two, and so on -- a pattern that results in notorious 12-year-olds and squabbling 60-and-overs (believe it or not, bad calls are just as common in adult league play). I knew coaches who actually taught their students to call close balls out. And then there were the players who would make retaliatory calls if they suspected their opponent was dishonest. In fact, I played a national doubles tournament with a girl I quickly learned fell into the latter category. Our partnership was short-lived.

And the problem doesn’t end with poor line calls. Strategically timed bathroom breaks and injury timeouts are widespread. I’ve also seen parents plastered up against the fence, illegally coaching their child between points (some holding cell phones up to their ear to avoid suspicion). 

Other kids arrive to their first round match at the local park with a ten-person entourage. Though I’m certainly in favor of supporting your children, those sizeable cheering sections have a tendency to involve themselves in line call or scoring disputes, effectively bullying the opponent.

Parents can also contribute to the problem by keeping quiet. Recently I experienced the joys of working a tournament desk where I watched a 12-and-under boy repeatedly cheat (or hook, as it’s often called) his opponent on the court in front of me. His father sat just feet away and said nothing. Parents must hold their children to higher standards, valuing integrity over the outcome.

But the USTA is just as responsible for the cheating and gamesmanship epidemic in amateur tennis. Unfortunately, after reading a page on their website dedicated to answering questions on the subject, I’m not so sure the USTA is ready to acknowledge the severity of the problem. At one point, the author of the column says this: “I do not believe that cheating in junior (or college) tennis is NEARLY as bad as many parents think it is, but maybe I live in a vacuum.” Maybe?!

The unnamed author goes on to talk about the time John McEnroe encountered a “terrible cheat” and proceeded to overcome the bad calls with his intense focus and skill. “He responded the way a champion should respond: by overcoming the obstacle.”

What a lovely story. Though I certainly matured as a result of my dealings with dishonest opponents or pushy parents, those shenanigans should absolutely not be considered part of the game or something to be “overcome.” They are unacceptable. Period.

While code violations like racquet abuse and unsportsmanlike conduct now warrant immediate point penalties (instead of initial warnings), at sanctioned tournaments there are generally too few umpires and roving officials to enforce those rules. The USTA suggests one roving umpire for every four courts used and no more than six courts assigned to one official. With tournament hosts responsible for paying their own umpires, you can imagine how often they err on the side of overstaffing.

Given that the USTA rakes in north of $200 million in revenue during the U.S. Open alone, it seems reasonable that they might cover the cost of additional officials. 

And why not punish the cheaters? According to the USTA, “there is no hard and fast rule as to how many overrules is ‘too many.’” But they should take a page from the college tennis rulebook where a point penalty is assessed once a player’s line calls have been overruled by an official on three occasions. The player is docked a game for the fourth offense and is disqualified after the fifth.

Division I college tennis has even gone so far as to eliminate the service “let” on the men’s side because without officials on every court, players could claim a hard-hit serve tipped the net, effectively nullifying an ace.

You see, we romanticize the idea of honoring the tennis “code” (i.e. the opponent gets the benefit of the doubt), but the unfortunate truth is that often players will bend the rules until someone stops them.

The USTA could easily better the reputation of its tennis programs by enacting stricter rules and paying additional officials to enforce them. Until then, parents and coaches should stress the importance of fair play over wins and losses. Maybe then I’ll feel comfortable one day introducing my children to what I consider the greatest sport in the world.

 

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