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How to Deal
with Bad Calls

By Barry Buss

Printable Version

"Mistakes" are the same as cheating in taxes, but is that true in tennis?

Tax day is upon us again. If you, like myself, have found yourself starting to fill out the1040 form at 1040 p.m. on the night before the deadline, you know that attention to detail can be compromised. Honest mistakes are acceptable in most spheres of life, but not when it comes to our beloved internal revenue service. In that case mistakes are considered cheating.

Is the same thing true in tennis? The guys and girls who play on TV are fortunate not have to make their own line calls. Now, they even have shot spot to make sure there are no mistakes. Cheating in pro tennis might involve performance enhancing drugs, but line calls are not in the equation.

Unfortunately we in the larger tennis community are not strangers to inaccurate line calls. Most of us play by the rules. But everyone has encountered opponents who make performance enhancing line calls.

But unlike errors on your tax return, there is often an acceptable explanation for bad calls. Bad calls can be deliberate cheating. But they can also be honest mistakes.

The pros have shot spot, but club players have to fall back on their own resources.

If you receive a bad call, and everyone has this experience more often than they wish, it's important to try to figure out which explanation applies. A mistake, or a deliberate mistake. There are very different strategies to employ depending on the answer.

Of course it's not the actual loss of the point that hurts you when you get a bad call. It's what it does to your mind, especially if you happen to be the kind of person who files a scrupulously accurate tax return. It drives you crazy to think that another player would stoop to cheating in tennis. But was the call deliberate?

This is the determination you need to try to make. Everyone occasionally makes a wrong call. Players see the ball wrong and they make a good faith mistake. But other players use bad calls as a regular strategy—"if you can't beat them cheat them." This type of player knows that the effect of this strategy will go far beyond the loss of the point itself.

It's your reaction to the call, not the call itself, that hurts you in tennis.

There is a simple test to determine whether your opponent is in fact consciously cheating. This is to give him or her an easy way out. If you throw an instant tantrum, there is little chance of your opponent reversing his call.

Instead make an honest appeal to your opponent's reasonable side. Try to stay calm, don't raise your voice too loud, and in a non-aggressive tone, state "I think you might have made a mistake on that one...I had a good look and the ball looked good."

How he or she responds will be telling. If your opponent engages you in dialogue and shows you enough respect to respond to you, he or she is likely not prone to cheating and may have made an honest mistake.

In this case give them the benefit of the doubt, even if they don't offer to reverse the call. Remember, you cannot win the argument. It is their call.

If the opponent offers to replay the point, take it! It's technically against the rules but it is a clear declaration of fairness by your opponent.

All the rules, plus the code, truly a friend at court.

Take the reprieve from injustice if you can get it, unless there is a roving official closely observing the interaction. If both players are committed to fairness, you will probably both feel better and a potential source of tension can be dispelled.

But the main thing, whatever happens, keep your cool. It's just one point. In a close match you are going to lose half of them anyway as Allen Fox as astutely pointed out. (Click Here.) So don't sacrifice more precious points stewing over an iffy call.

And what if your opponent doesn't engage? If he opponent ignores you, there is a very good chance that you are getting jobbed.

In this case, don't just walk away. Ask again, but this time in a louder and firmer voice. The point here is not to start a confrontation, but just to let your opponent know that you are aware of what is going on. He or she may or may not respond, and probably won't. But you have made your point. You can then back off, for now.

Certain types of responses can also indicate what is going on. If your opponent uses your first name when making his call "John, I think you just missed that one" you are definitely being jobbed. The first name usage is an attempt to feign friendship and congeniality. Your opponent is trying to back you off with friendliness, and make you doubt yourself. Don't fall for it.

In a tournament match you can usually get an official.

If you are playing in a USTA officiated match, now is the time to seek help. If you want to be certain you can wait for it to happen again, but usually, this is something you can feel by instinct from the opponent's tone and demeanor. And in the overwhelming percentage of cases, the presence of a linesman will eliminate the problem if not necessarily the attitude.

When you know your opponent is cheating (as opposed to having made a mistake) it is even more important to keep your inner peace. It's crucial to your ability to keep playing well and overcome the situation. If your head starts to race, you're in deep trouble.

If your opponent acts as if he has been falsely accused, or continues to be overly polite, or becomes surly, don't let any of that affect you. Recognize it for what it is, an act and a tactic.

Now what about the worst case scenario—no official available and your opponent continues to cheat?

Sometimes you have to get in touch with your inner lawyer.

Here are some other viable strategies for keeping your sanity and minimizing the damage to the score and to your psyche.

The first is to get in touch with your inner attorney. If your opponent does not call the ball immediately and firmly, you have room to debate. Pounce on the hesitation.

If he ponders or the call is not immediately certain, the rules say he must give the benefit of the doubt to the opponent. Any use of non-certain terms such as "I think" or "I'm pretty sure" are openings for debate.

The Rules

In these situations to really protect yourself, you need to be aware of the rules that cheaters often try to work around.

Did you know for example that any player can call a let in singles or in doubles? Cheaters when receiving serve have been known to hit returns for "winners" when the serve was really a let, and then insist it is their call. Not true.

Was that ball really a let?

Did you know that in the case of a double bounce the player must make the call on himself? Your opponent can't tell you it's his point because the ball bounced twice on your side unless you agree.

Did you know that you can ask a player to take down a towel if he has wedged it in the fence right in your site line?

The USTA has a book you can order called Friend at the Court. (Click Here.) It contains not only the rules, but the code that governs unofficiated matches. It can provide you with the ammunition to settle these or almost any other of the countless tricky situations that can come up in matches.

Inner Brat

And finally, here is another strategy if you have the temperament to pull it off. Get in touch with your inner brat. Shame and humiliation can influence your opponent to play more fairly. Here is my personal favorite, which has been effective for me many times.

Grab a ball and place it just inside the line so your opponent can see. Point at the ball and ask him this "How far in do I have to it my shots so that you won't call them out? Could you show me so I know exactly where to aim, as apparently the lines are out on your side."

Ask the opponent to specify how far in is really in on his side of the net.

That may be an extreme solution that is required on occasion to fight back and keep your mental balance. In general though I believe if you put fairness out, you'll fairness back.

Histrionics are one thing, but never fight fire with fire by cheating back. Carry yourself with dignity and it will likely come back to you. Winning and losing is not a referendum on who you are as a person, but cheating is. Winning tastes a lot better when it is achieved the proper way.

Finally, if you find yourself overwhelmed during such match situations, I am available for a cheating lesson. We will play points and I will cheat in every imaginable way, and help you practice how to respond quickly and authoritatively.

So many contests are decided by the slimmest of margins. I can show you how not to get taken advantage of in your future matches. I'm in the greater Los Angeles area, but if you aren't I might come if you send me a plane ticket.

Barry Buss is an independent teaching pro working in the greater Los Angeles areas. Growing up in Boston and Los Angeles, he was a nationally ranked junior player before going onto to UCLA in the early 1980s. As a college player he tied Jimmy Connors' record by winning 22 consecutive college matches, and set the school season win record at 25. You can read his blog by Clicking Here. If you want to email him or send him that plane ticket, you can contact Barry at:

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