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Rules Disputes and Bad Line Calls

            When I was in grad school, my schedule was pretty packed, and I didn’t play any matches for the team at my club in the fall. Going into the spring, I hadn’t played any real matches since the summer, but I decided I needed to compete more (to complement my studies and for fun), so I made myself available. In February, I got the call to make my spring debut against a tough team that we always played pretty close against. Because of the layoff, I was a little nervous, or at least I wasn’t feeling very confident, especially on my serve. Our opponents were Rick, who I’ve played a million times, and an older lefty named Jim (I changed their names.). In the first set, I started to recognize that Jim had great hands. Not powerful, but he would hit his spots pretty well (Later, I found out he’s in the USTA New England Hall of Fame!). At any rate, we slipped through the first set by a break, 6-4.

            Then, it got weird. Jim was serving to open the second set and he hit a serve long. I bumped it into the net and said, “Out.” Instead of setting up to hit a second serve, he walked over to the ad-court and said, “You can’t call it after you’ve already hit into the net.” So we discussed it,

            “It was out. Second serve.”

            “You already missed it. That’s too late.”

            “It’s my call. Out. Second serve.”

            “The rule says you have to call it as soon as you see it.”

            “This is ridiculous. I’ve been playing in this league for 5 years and I have literally never     heard anyone talk about this. Second serve.”

            “Are you saying that I don’t know the rules?”

            “I’m saying that that’s not how the game is played.”

At this point my partner tried to convince me that we should just let it go, but I was fired up and the exchange continued for another 30 seconds or so before I angrily relented.

            What followed was about 45 minutes of the most distracted, horrible tennis of my life. I started out just trying to kill the ball (particularly at Jim), then recognized that I wasn’t helping my team and tried to settle myself down. After dropping the second set, we found ourselves fighting for the match. In our league, if neither team wins two sets, the winner is decided by total games at 90 minutes. In this case, we split the two sets evenly and so needed to be leading in the 3rd set when time elapsed to win (The second set ended with about 10 minutes left, so there was no possibility of finishing the match.).

            To my recollection, I had settled myself down to some degree (using some techniques from my studies) and was feeling “normal” by this point, at least for a tight third set. After Jim and my partner both held serve, the other team hurried to start the next game before time expired leaving us with a tie. Sure enough, the buzzer sounded after the first point; according to league rules, this would be the last game. As fate would have it, the game came to 40-40, so in our No-Ad league, this would be the last point, and the winner would win the match. We had choice of who returns, and I turned to my partner and said, “I want it.” He gave me a confident look and we lined up. Rick doesn’t have the biggest serve, and, he told me later, decided to spin the first one in and get to net in order to avoid the risk of double-faulting. I was focused, moved my feet and unleashed a good, dipping cross-court forehand return. I thought I had won the point, but Rick was equal to it, and got down for tough backhand half-volley. Unfortuantely for him, my partner had closed in to the net, in prime position to put away the ball as it came across the middle. Easy put away, celebration, relief.


            Jim was not gracious in defeat, but his partner apologized profusely, as did other members of the club who had overheard from other courts. They said he always tries little tricks to rattle his opponents. I am honestly not sure that he does this stuff consciously, or even realizes that nobody else in the league does. However, I have to acknowledge that he is tough, that he saw that his team was losing and needed to change the feel of the match, and that he totally disrupted my rhythm with his little gambit.

For my part, I learned so much, that I have considered writing him a letter of thanks. First, I need to prepare myself better for matches. The doubts I had going in did not help me, and I felt pressure to prove myself to my teammates, which also did not help. I think that this pressure put me closer to the edge when we had our dispute.

            Second, I recognized that I am sensitive to arguments like this. They really get me out of sorts. There were several things about this that were significant:

            -I had never seen a dispute about this before. I know how to handle myself if someone disagrees with my call, but nobody else has ever tried to take a point because of a late call on a serve.         

            -I didn’t like the implied accusation that I was cheating by calling the serve out after I know I missed. I like to think that everyone in our league wants to play competitively, but fairly, and I was not trying to cheat and should have the benefit of the doubt.

            -I didn’t like the idea of being bullied about my call, letting him have his way because he was more insistent than me. I still felt like I was right.

            -Once I started arguing, I was in Panic mode. If I had stopped and let it go quickly, I could have gotten back to playing, but I lost my composure before I realized this. It’s a personality trait of mine (I often never feel truly angry until I raise my voice.), and I usually avoid getting so agitated. I think I got there quickly because this was such an unexpected argument.


            I did a lot of the right things to settle myself down, but I still felt my face burning 15-20 minutes later. I tried breathing more, taking perspective (Geez, this was the first point of the set! Who cares if it was in or not?), recognizing that I was playing his game instead of mine, trying to get to the task at hand. All of these things helped, but it was a slow recovery. I wouldn’t have been able to get back if this had been later in the match. I need to be able to do this more quickly.

            I was glad to have the opportunity to take control on the last point and swing through a return. I promised myself that I would attack the ball. Of course, the reason we won the point was that my partner made the right move and finished it, to say nothing of the friendly first serve. I was proud, though, that I was pro-active about the finish and didn’t shrink from the chance. 


Jim was still was under my skin 6 months later. His team was playing at a district championship with us. In the first round, we were both playing other clubs, but he was on the court next to us. One of his opponents had a weird serve style where he would start 2 steps behind the baseline and move forward during his service motion. He ended up hitting just about the same serve as anyone else, and definitely kept clear of the baseline. It was such a unique motion that it caught my eye, even though I had my own match to play.

Shortly therafter, Jim started calling foot faults, which is only done at this level when someone is blatantly stepping into the court and it’s not even common then. Beyond that, I saw a few that he called where the server clearly didn’t step into the court! Jim saw that they guy did something unusual, surmised that he might be a little self-conscious about it, and poked at the weakness. It totally rattled the guy, and in some ways, it rattled me a bit too. Thankfully, I stayed with my match pretty well, we played well and won, but I think that at that time, I would not have played well against him.


            After watching that match, I decided to change my attitude about Jim. I think he’s is just a different kind of challenge to play, a fading but formidable physical talent who will try to rattle his opponents, especially when he’s not winning. We went down to his club again to play them some months later, and I decided I wanted Jim to play against me. I think that what he does gives me a good chance to practice controlling myself, preparing for the unexpected, focusing on the task at hand. No luck. He played against our other team (and amazingly lost by one point again!), while my partner and I took a nice 7-5, 7-6 (2) win. Nothing unexpected happened this time.


            Aside: This same partner and I had another match with a disputed call more recently. In the third set, we had a scramble and I switched to the ad court to get a lob. My shot wasn’t particularly good, and my opponent at net went for an angle volley to the deuce court sideline. I was about in the center of the baseline and my partner was turning around on my right after the switch. The volley looked to me to be out, giving us two break points at 15-40. I called it, and the volleyer went a little ballistic. At first I wouldn’t yield. I actually didn’t think it was that tough a call. My partner said he didn’t see it, and neither did the other guy. We lined up to play the next point, and I stopped it. I thought I was right, but the guy was so sure, and he was closer, so I decided that my mind would be much more settled if I gave him the benefit of the doubt. Good decision? Not for that game, which we lost, but definitely for my mindset, as we were more composed than them the rest of the way and won the match.

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Reader Comments (2)

Hi Mason,

I know exactly who 'Jim' is and that type of behavior is standard operating procedure for him. When playing Jim, I find that I have to be prepared for an incident no matter what and treat it as normal. His goal is to distract one from focusing on the match so if I'm ready for the incident, I'm able to get through it much more quickly.

Sorry you had to go through that.

February 23, 2011 | Unregistered CommenterBrian Lomax

Hi Brian,

Thanks for dropping in! I guess I wasn't able to obscure who I was talking about completely. I'm not sure it matters, either way, but I'm not trying to call attention to him specifically. There certainly are a number of guys who act like him to one degree or another.

And, years later, I'm not sorry I went through it. It's part of the process and I think it made me tougher. You're absolutely right that you have to have a broad range of things your ready for when playing someone like this. This guy is creative, and it's your reaction to the unexpected thing he does that makes the difference.

This guy talks about these tactics a lot: http://www.sportsharking.com/



February 23, 2011 | Registered CommenterMason Astley

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