Misunderstood Rules and Customs of the Game

Rules, rules, rules.  You'd think when we get on a tennis court to whack the ball around and have some fun, we'd escape all the rules and regulations that shape our lives.  Nope.  In fact, when we play, it's all about the rules; they form the only basis that we share with an opponent that we otherwise want to cream 6-0, 6-0.  Take away the rules, even in a social game, and things can get very sticky.  For example, Big Bob loves to serve as hard as he can but hasn't made a successful first serve in a little over a year.  In a match with Weak Willie, though, on the first point Big Bob paints the T for an ace.  It's as if the heavens have reached down and graced Big Bob.  He doesn't know whether to shout for joy or go down on bended knees in gratitude.  But Weak Willie says, "Gee, Bob, I just don't know whether that serve was in or out.  Let's play two."  Weak Willie thinks he's doing Bob a favor.  He doesn't want to call the serve a fault; he just isn't sure.  He's trying to keep it a friendly game.  The thing is, Big Bob becomes homicidal.  Man, can he spout some expletives.

There's a big book that constitutes the rules of tennis, and there's a corollary to the rules called The Code.  All players should at least read The Code, available from the USTA.  It clears up about every sticky issue that you can imagine.  Following, are the situations that I've found cause the most confusion on the court.  Some involve rules, some involve customs. 

Playing Two

The situation described above is typical of play.  If we're calling our own lines, often we're unsure, and most of us want to be fair.  So, it's a good thing that the rules of the game allow a let to be played in certain circumstances, your basic "do-over."  But, particularly in social tennis, the let is the most abused rule in the game, and typically out of mistaken generosity.  The basic principal articulated in The Code is that you should only make a call of out if you're certain; any confusion should benefit your opponent.  That's Weak Willie's mistake:  if he wasn't sure that Bob's serve was out, he should just give him the point.  What kind of favor is it to offer Big Bob another first serve?  Will he get an ace again?  Not likely, not until next year, anyway.  You want to encourage trust and harmony on the court?  You want to keep your opponents from becoming angry and nasty?  When in doubt, call in favor of your opponent.  Period. And remember, calling out after you've hit the ball is perfectly legal.  Again, if we're playing without linespeople, any ball near a line has to be hit; you just can't take the chance that it will land in and let it go by.  But the fact of hitting the ball doesn't make it good.  Just make sure the call is as immediate as possible.  You can't wait, for example, to see if your shot goes in before you make your call.  That's cheating.

Doubles Confusion  What about this situation?  A player returns a serve that he thinks is good, but his partner calls it out.  Any call of out immediately stops the point.  And two contrary opinions of whether the serve was good constitute confusion and should benefit your opponents.  Does the server automatically win the point?  Do they play two?  Well, it's a little complicated.  First, the returner should approach his partner and quietly let him know that the serve was in so that he can overrule himself, and perhaps suggest a visit to the optometrist.  Second, the most important question is whether the return went in.  If it did, the confusion inherent between the returner and his partner can't be construed to benefit their team.  The returner put the ball in play, but the out call stopped play.  In this case, they would play a let.  But if the return wasn't successful, a let isn't played, because that would mean the returning team benefited from the confusion.  This distinction keeps the retuner's partner from calling out every time he thinks the return has been missed.  That would be gamesmanship.  If the return didn't go in, the point belongs to the server because of the confusion on the returners' side of the court.

Interference  Let's say in the middle of a point a ball from another court comes into your court or a big dog bounds between the lines.  Do you play two?  Not necessarily.  If you've got a sitter, approximately the size of a cantaloupe, floating toward you when your opponent sees that ball rolling behind you, and she calls out to stop play, go for a smash and put the ball away.  That would be your point, as whether there was interference or not, you had a shot that was clearly a winner.  But what if we turn it around.  The ball's rolling behind your opponent and you get the same, fat sitter.  This time though, you hit it out.  At that point, you can't play two because you were interfered with.  Then, you would benefit from the "two chance" rule cited in The Code:  you can't miss a shot and then afterwards claim that you were interfered with.  Sorry.  But what if you call out to stop play and the ball is rolling behind your opponent when she can't see it?  She hits your shot back over the net and then claims the point.  She argues that she never saw the ball rolling behind her and that you made your call to stop play after you hit your shot over the net.  Well, it's decent reasoning, but she doesn't take the point as long as you make no play on her shot.  If you simply let her shot go by, the point is played over because you stopped play due to a legitimate call of interference due to the ball rolling behind her.  However, if you make an effort to play her shot back and miss, you can't claim that you stopped play because you didn't.  And, if your shot goes in and the rally continues, you can't after the point ask for two because you stopped play earlier.  You didn't stop play; the point went on. 

And, what about this situation?  The server missed his first serve and then a dog runs across the court before his second serve.  Does he get to play two?  Not necessarily.  In this case, it's up to the discretion of the receiver to determine how big an interruption was made, i.e. if the dog was really quick going across the court, the receiver could legitimately only grant a second serve and no let.  However, if it was the receiver who caused the interruption because his shoe fell off or his shorts fell down, the server is entitled to a let.

Watch Your Mouth

Doubles Talk  Communication is critical to a doubles team's success.  But there are times to talk and times for silence, according to the rules.  Let's say you put up a really short lob and you're certain your partner is going to get smashed by an overhead and likely need plastic surgery.  You like your partner and you want your partner to like you.  You shout, "Get back!" or "Short!" or "Watch out!" or "God help you!", and all of those comments will cost you the point for having interfered with your opponents.  Once you've hit the ball, you can't say a word, even if your shot hasn't yet crossed the net to your opponents' side.  If you do say something, no matter how quietly, your opponents have a right to let your shot go and claim the point.  However, the "two chance" rules applies here, too.  If you do say something out of turn and your opponent takes a swing at the ball and misses, he can't then claim interference because you spoke after you hit the ball.  Of course, once your opponent hits the ball, it's a different story.  You can legally recite the Gettysburg Address, or tell your partner to switch, or call, "Mine," or, more commonly, "Yours," without a problem.  You can even call, "Out!" to warn your partner not to hit a shot, and interestingly, this does not constitute a call of out, which can only be made after a ball bounces.

Singles Talk  The same principle applies to singles play.  The grunting and shrieking common in the professional game is not considered interference because the exclamations are (mostly) simultaneous with the ball's contact.  But anything spoken after contact would be interference.  Say you shanked your shot and you see that wounded duck wobbling high and slow to your opponent's side of the court.  Understandably, you grimace and mutter, "Oh, S__t!"  You've just lost the point because your opponent can claim interference.

Whose Call?

Generally speaking, the person on whose side the ball bounces makes all calls for her side of the court.  This includes the obvious, whether her opponent's shot was in or out, but it also includes some other instances.  In all of the following situations, your opponent must make a call, even if it's against her and costs her the point:


--If she's hit by the ball, body or clothing
--If she hits the ball on the second bounce
--If she miss-hits the ball and makes a clear second effort to hit it again (though it's legal for a ball to be "carried," remaining on the strings though rolling around before its struck back, and a double-hit is also legal if it's the result of one continuous swing and no "second push")
--If she reaches across the net to hit your shot before it has bounced on her side
--If she touches the net or the net post before the point is over (when the ball bounces twice or hits the fence)

The exception to this rule is when she's unsure of a call.  If she says that she's uncertain and asks her opponent for help, she's surrendered her authority over the call on her side, and whatever her opponent says stands as the final call.

Some calls can be made by both players.  Because the net is between them, either player can call a let or that the ball has passed through the net rather than over it.  In the latter case, however, it would be wise to return the ball over the net before you stop play and say that you saw the ball go through the net.  If a subsequent examination of the net reveals no hole, you would otherwise lose the point.

The foot fault is the only call that can be made across the net.  However, it should be a clear foot fault, and the returner should always first issue a warning that he's seen the server foot fault.  If he has, and the server doesn't fix the problem, the returner can then call a foot fault, even it if means a double fault.  Keep in mind, though, that the foot fault rule is confusing to people.  Basically, it tries to stop a server from shortening the court by hitting inside the baseline.  However, a foot fault is not made by being over the line, but only by touching the court; a player's body can be wholly inside the court when the serve is hit, as long as he doesn't touch the court before contacting the ball.  And there are other causes of foot faults.  You can't serve and have a foot behind the center mark; you must be clearly on the correct side of the center mark.  You can't serve from outside the court boundaries (singles or doubles sidelines), as that's a foot fault.  And you can't make a significant change of position, like a running start; that's a foot fault, even if you hit the ball from behind your baseline.

In Doubles Who Should Call?  Either player can make a call on her side of the net if she's certain the ball is out.  But The Code cites a principal called parallax, which basically means that calling down a line is more certain than calling across it.  As such, in calling a serve, for example, the receiver's partner should call the service line, but the receiver should call the sideline and the center service line.  Unless, of course, the receiver wears eyeglasses with lenses thick as a Coke bottle.  Then it might be better if her partner called all the lines.

Challenging Calls

Sadly, but inevitably, if you play tennis long enough, you're going to come up against a cheat.  If you do, there's little chance of having a fun match, but there's a way to keep your poise, and even get through the controversy and win the thing.  I call it the Two-Strike Rule.  You won't find it in the rule book or The Code; it's mine.

Challenging a Bad Call  If I've received a bad call--and I mean a clearly bad call--I walk up to the net.  I look my opponent in the eye and calmly ask, "Are you sure of your call?"  I don't make an accusation; I just ask.  I know almost immediately if my opponent becomes defensive that I've been hooked, but that's all I do, for the moment.  It's just one call, and one point; I could be wrong, or maybe he just made a mistake.  But if I'm the victim of another clearly bad call, I approach the net again, and again refuse to make an accusation.  As calmly as I can, I say, "That's the second time I think you've made a wrong call.  Let's get a line judge."  I want to punch the guy in the nose and shout to the world that he's a cheater, but if I get upset, his bad calls will have done too much damage.  I won't be able to get rid of my anger and frustration, and I'll likely lose the match.  The linesperson will stand at one net post, and my opponent and I will continue to call our own lines unless there's a dispute, at which point the linesperson decides.  However, in my experience, once the linesperson is in place, the cheating stops.  And if I'm in a situation where I can't get a linesperson, I find a way to quit the match.  Who needs that kind of aggravation for recreational tennis? In any case, I'm always glad that I carry nothing more lethal than an extra pair of socks in my tennis bag.  I've come up against my share of cheats, but I've never been charged with assault.

Challenging a Challenge  Hooks are clever folks, adept at getting into your head.  Not only will they make bad calls, but they'll accuse you of making them, and make a scene of it, as well.  "Oh, c'mon!  You called that out?  That's the worst call I've every seen!  What are you, blind?"  Having been wrongly accused, of course my blood begins to boil.  But I approach the net, look my opponent in the eye, and calmly say, "I'm sure of my call."  That's it.  I don't defend the call or apologize.  I walk away.  If I'm challenged again, in any manner, again I approach the net and invoke the two-strike rule.  As calmly as I can, I say, "I'm sorry you've lost confidence in my calls.  Let's get a linesperson."  Problem solved.

Note:  If you give more than two strikes, I can almost assure you that the resultant emotional mayhem will not be relieved or resolved.  It's a good bet that you'll lose the match, even if you're the better player or team.

To Smash Or Not To Smash

Your doubles opponent puts up a short lob.  Hit the overhead at the net person right in front of you, and you're almost assured of winning the point.  But what if you hit her?  What if she's hurt?  No, you change your mind and hit the ball back where it came from, at the baseliner, who takes the time to paint on a new coat of lipstick, shuffles her feet, and puts up another lob over your head to win the point.  You're a sensitive gal, but you've just lost the point. 

 In my coaching, women are the most concerned about this issue.  That makes perfect sense; they're more civilized.  They want to win, but they certainly don't want to hurt anyone.  They think hitting at a player is a "guy thing" or "dirty tennis," and I've never been certain if those two descriptions in a female mind are synonymous.  At any rate, I try to talk all players out of this hesitation.  Though you may not want to hit balls at your opponents in club tourneys or social matches, it's an accepted and fair practice in competitive play.  In fact, The Code states that your moral obligation is to offer your best tennis to your opponent.  So take the sure shot, the smash at the feet of the net person, because that's your best chance of winning the point.  And if your aim is high and you hit her, apologize.  Hold your racquet by the throat and lift it, a gesture which says, "I'm sorry I hit you with the ball; I didn't mean to.  But I'll hit at you again if I have the chance."  If she shouts, "Hey!  You had the whole court to hit to!  Why hit at me?", then again lift your racquet, and say, "You don't have to stand there.  But if you do, I've got a right to that placement."  Remember, you're attacking a space not a person.  Would you hesitate hitting a drop shot to an open court against someone fifty pounds overweight and wearing two knees braces?  Of course not.  So, in a competitive match, if the server puts up a puff ball second serve, drive it at his partner up at net.  If he objects or feels uncomfortable, he can always step back off the net.  The same holds true when you're poaching.  You'd be a fool not to attack the opposing net player.  Hit hard at his feet.  Fear can put your opponents on the defensive, and that's a very good thing.

Some Odd Rules

You don't have to hit the ball over the net.  Legally, you can hit around the net post into your opponent's court, even if your shot travels lower than the net.  And you shot can hit the net post and ricochet into your opponent's court.  That's legal.  However, if there's a scoreboard attached to the post, that's not considered a fixture.  If your shot hits that, you lose the point, no matter where your shot lands.

You can stand wherever you want, except the server.  Only the server must stand in certain parts of the court.  All other players have no restrictions, including, for example, standing in the service box to receive.  If you're hit by the ball, you lose the point, but you can stand there.  You can stand anywhere, in any doubles formation you choose, on or off the court.  You can stand on your head, though your split step won't earn as much traction that way.

You can reach over the net to hit the ball on your opponent's side if the ball has first bounced on your side, and wind or spin pushes it back over the net.  In fact, if you don't hit the ball on your opponent's side before it bounces twice, you'll lose the point, as wind and spin can't do your job for you.  However, in reaching across the sacred net, you must not have contact with it, as that will cost you the point.

You can swing twice at the same ball.  Say you whiff an overhead.  Embarrassing, to be sure.  However, if there's time, you can run back and take another whack at the ball, as long as your first stroke was a clean miss.  Or your partner can take a whack, as long as he's not laughing too hard. 

You can't throw your racquet to hit the ball.  I'm a short guy, so I sympathize, but if you throw your racquet at a ball otherwise out of reach, and the ball hits the racquet and goes over the net, you still lose the point.  Good try, but no go.

You can't take over points played to the wrong court or the wrong side.  Tennis is very wise about this:  you can't change the past.  As both players were dumb enough to commit the mistake, the play stands.  Once the error is realized, they correct it, even it that means serving twice to the same side or losing a change-over.

You can spin a racquet to resolve a disputed score.  If both players can't agree what the score is, they're supposed to go back until they can find a point where they do agree.  "I held, you held, I held, you held.  It was 2-2, right?"  If they both agree, they resume playing at 2-2.  But if they can't agree, they can spin a racquet to determine whose version of the score is correct.  You can read all about that in The Code.

c Keith Shein

Next Tip
Planet Tennis vs. Planet Earth:
What We Can and Can't Learn from The Pros