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Dealing with Cheating

Q. “How do I help my 10-year-old son, who plays quite a few USTA tournaments, deal with an opponent who consistently has terrible line calls. In numerous tournaments a line judge has been called on him by a number of different opponents. HELP!”

From Andrew

In my opinion, the only way you should help your son is to teach him the rules of the game, with a special emphasis on how to call balls out! Seriously. Have him read the rules and the Code. Focus on teaching your son how to make good line calls. Teach your player to care enough to make them as fair and as accurate as he can. Teach him to call the lines for others as he would want them called for himself.

As a player and a coach, I believe that a person’s ability to make better line calls is tied to their on-court experience. At the 10-and-under level, no one has seen enough balls to be perfect. The more balls you see, the more familiar you are with where you should be looking. I have seen and experienced many a bad line call in my day. You just learn to deal with it. Some players just learn to tough it out. They don’t hit so close to the lines. Others give a bad line call in return. Some call for a referee. At some point, and I think the sooner the better, you just ignore it. The people/kids who habitually make bad calls are usually used to causing drama. They thrive on the controversy. That is their comfort zone. So teach your kid to ignore it, and you don’t give any more power to these people. Teach your player that not everyone plays fair. Teach your son that some people don’t always pay close attention. At some point you may have to break it to him that some kids cheat. I believe that your son will be broadened by these experiences. These are the things that will help shape his character for the rest of his life – if it is put in the proper perspective. You are a caring mother to look for help for him. I’m sure with you in his corner, he will do great. Good luck!

From Doug R., Houston, TX

The good news is that the level of cheating declines as you move up in age and in ability. At least this has been my experience with 3 boys playing the circuit. Unfortunately, some young kids want balls to be out so badly that they call what they want, not what they see! You can also take comfort that cheaters do gain a reputation on the circuit so that they will not prosper.

I believe there are a few things that can be done: 1) On the first occurrence, ask, “Are you sure?” Regular cheaters get through this one easily, and unfortunately arguing with an opponent is typically counterproductive. 2) On the second, or if the first was particularly bad, call a line judge right away. Unfortunately, this will only help until the referee turns his back and there are typically not enough refs to follow all the courts. Calling an official does usually make one feel better that justice is at hand. I also believe that calling the ref puts the cheater on notice that he is getting a reputation, and I encourage my children to request a ref before setting foot on the court against a known cheat. 3) Some tournaments are starting to provide volunteers who will call lines. This is a great development. However, if none of this works, your child will have to keep the ball away from the lines and make sure that he or she doesn’t let the match get close. Above all your child will have to learn not to get bothered by the unethical behavior of an opponent, as difficult as that can be.

At the end of the day dealing with issues like this is part of life. Unfortunately, we all are forced to deal with unethical people in business and in the office from time to time. I still remember my loss to a cheater when I was young, and that lesson continues to help me today.

From Ramon M., Carolina, Puerto Rico

The only solution is for your son to refuse to play until an umpire is present officiating the match. The players may continue calling the lines, but the umpire will overrule any bad calls and the player making the bad call will lose the point.

From C.P.

Keep your son watching by calling a line judge to the court himself. The other player is always put on notice, but most importantly it empowers your son to feel like he is doing the right thing and going by the rules. At 10 he is likely to incur this many more times. Let him know that he has power with others that can help him make right calls!

From Dick B., Morrisville, VT

...”An umpire has been called numerous times”...

Sounds like the calls are not accidental! He needs to, after the second bad call, put his opponent on notice that , “I’m sorry but I’m just not seeing the ball as clearly as usual and on the next call I just feel to be fair to you to call for an umpire.” This way your son is not calling him a cheater but putting him on notice that an umpire will be called if he continues to make bad calls! If the calls continue then call for the umpire.

From JMJACD

Sometimes players create so small a target area that their ball often lands on the line, or just clips the outside of the line. When playing someone who has a tendency to see the ball “out” rather than “in,” it provides them with the opportunity to choose “out.” Therefore, tell your son to shorten his target a little so that the ball lands about 2-3 inches inside the lines.

From Bernie, Virginia

It appears that you are doing the right thing about calling an Official to watch at least part of the match. However, in most tournaments, the officials have many courts to cover and cannot spend an excessive amount of time on your son’s courts. Usually they should only watch a maximum of 2 changes (4 service changes). If a tournament director, or other teaching pro is available, the referee can temporarily appoint them as a deputy referee to continue to watch the match while the referee continues to move to the other courts (which may also have problems).

Based on very limited information, I would be concerned that your son is concentrating too much on his opponent’s calls. When he does this, he is not in position to continue to play the point. It is unusual that one player would have numerous opponents that would give bad calls. You might have an objective friend watch the match with you and see if both of you agree with your son’s concern about a call. Realize that you must be in a position to not only see the court, but also to be receptive to the friend’s comment – not just a friend that will agree with you if they see it differently.

Many players get used to playing out balls when just practicing or playing for fun. Then when they get in a match, their opponent will call a ball out that they are used to seeing played. Thus the misconception that they are being cheated.

From Doug G., Fairview, TX

Be patient. That’s the best advice I can offer. I have three daughters who play a lot of USTA events and all have experienced this problem. They all react a little different to it, but the end result is always the same; the match is completed, they win or lose and if it is the latter, they complain (legitimately sometimes) about being hooked.

Take this to the bank: “hookers” will always be around and everyone needs to deal with them on an individual basis- I have given advice to my girls on how to do this, but during a match it usually is either forgotten or they feel as if they want to approach it in a different manner. I know that boys are different from girls but a polite “Are you sure about that?” is not a bad place to start after the first questionable call, just to let your opponent know that you can actually see the ball.

As you probably know, the most accepted approach to bad calls is to ask for a line judge, if that is an option. However, this is time-consuming, disrupts play and no one seems to like to do it. If that is the case with your son, the following may help; I suggest he stop play immediately after what he believes is the third blatantly bad call (after asking about the first two) and approach the net, motioning in a cordial manner for his opponent to meet him. Once there, explain to him (briefly and very non-threateningly) that he is convinced that he has made a couple of (more than two) questionable calls. Ask him to try and maybe work harder at seeing the lines and let him know that he would prefer to play by the same rules, as it makes it fair contest that both of them can feel better about winning or losing. Don’t get angry and don’t get into an argument, as these both are detrimental to your son’s success.

I would never encourage “getting even” or “make-up” calls either, as it only reduces your son to his opponent’s level of integrity. Remember that it is difficult to make some line calls and that everyone is not perfect. I have seen many times where my daughters have thought that a ball was in or out when in fact it was not. A lot of times balls are actually played as “in” in their favor, when they should have been called “out” and they don’t usually question these, for some reason. Try and observe objectively and when a good call is made that your son perhaps disagrees with, you might let him know subtly with a nod or gesture, that it was indeed good. I have seen this done with younger players (I don’t look at it as “coaching” but it probably is, under a strict interpretation of the rules) and it may be beneficial in settling him. Remember also that the more your son plays, the better it gets and the more the questionable calls will diminish. I believe that the majority of players are honest in their line calling and try to play fairly. If a player is consistently cheating then they will eventually get a reputation, lose friends, be ignored and feel pretty lonely at tournaments – this is usually enough to elicit a change in their behavior. Good luck and try not to get discouraged.

From Sandy, Chatham, NJ

Kathy, we’ve experienced the same problem. In certain extreme circumstances your son may want to consider requesting a line judge “before” an important point, because afterwards it is too late!

Q. “I’m a senior captain on a top-ranked high school tennis team, with several nationally-ranked players. A good, but not great, freshman is coming onto the team who is a well-known cheater. Mostly, she just cheats about line calls, which isn’t an unusual problem, but she does it a lot! My teammates are worried that she will cause our team’s reputation to suffer. What should I do and what should our coach do?”

From Calvin, Los Angeles, CA

There are many ways to let this player know that you’re on to them. But first, do you need this person on your team? I had to turn down a so-called friend of mine in Fall-Doubles; there were issues between her and other members and she joined last. Here are a few tests: put a few balls along the baseline (5 or 6) and have a group, with this player in it, write down what they think about each ball (in or out). Another is to start having line-callers for your practice matches also call all out balls when rallying. The point is to point it out to the person and ask them to work on it.

From Ron H., Wilmington, NC

The reputation of questionable line calls should be addressed with the up-coming freshman. However, in fairness to this person the “cheat” label should not be used. At this point you do not know if the rumor is resentment from losing opponents, a question of eyesight (which should be checked), or true. The approach should be handled delicately, but warrants consideration for the good of the team. The Code embodies honesty and fair play. Its application by the individual player affects the person and impacts the team.

The loss of a game does not compare with the loss of one’s reputation and as a result, the reputation of the team would be “on the line.”

From Dick B., Morrisville, VT

It should take place during practice. The coach during the first meeting should go over the dos & don’ts of his/her expectations for the season and good sportsmanship should be discussed. It is not proper to call balls out that are in fact in as this is not the way to win. I always tell my players that if you feel that someone is cheating you, make sure. The first call could have been an accident. The second, well now it might be developing a pattern\. On the 3rd call, call the player to the net and tell him/her that you are not really seeing the ball as good as you should today and that you really feel obligated that if you make another bad call that you should call for a line judge. This has put your opponent on notice that you feel they are cheating and that if they continue you will call for a line judge, without directly telling them that you feel they are cheating.

From Christopher W., Seattle, WA

Because you are dealing with an incoming freshman, you are in an exceptionally good position to lick this problem and help your new teammate mature at the same time. Without saying a word about her reputation, you can advise this freshman as a mentor and teammate that in high school it’s important for her to be scrupulously fair, even generous, on line calls. You can tell her that your entire team tries to be fair if not generous, so that the team is respected and opponents tend to reciprocate and make fewer bad calls against your team. You can point out that the advantage of a generous approach is that all players feel better about themselves as people, are that much happier, and play with more confidence and better results overall. (If she asks you whether she has a reputation for bad calls, you can be candid, but point out that she is in a great position to build a good reputation in high school that will quickly bury the old one. You are in a better position than your coach to tell the incoming freshman that you are concerned for HER. Do not make it a team issue. It’s not yet a team problem, and you don’t want to create a rift between her and others by putting her on the defensive and making her feel like an outsider at the start of her high school experience. But it already is an individual problem, and you can help this freshman. If she dwells on it, emphasize that her prior reputation will soon be history, because you have confidence in her that she will be a team player and take the generous approach.) At this point in her life, it is very important for this freshman to “fit in.” You have a great opportunity to use this for the benefit of all concerned. Stick with the positive. Explain the benefits of being a generous line caller as if she were in complete agreement with you, so that she will feel accepted by you and feel a part of the team as you make your point. After all, she has yet to make a bad call in a high school match.

Your coach can give this same advice generically to the whole team at an early practice. It helps for all to hear it, and will confirm your advice. You and the coach can build a team culture that represents one of the best attributes of tennis – building the integrity that is a platform for self-respect. This leads to better social relationships and professional success as well. Keep the advice positive. For your coach, this is a “must.” If you know that some player on another team will be discussed by your teammates for dishonest line calling, and feel compelled as a fellow player to use a negative example to make your point to this freshman, refer to the player on the other team who is not respected because of her tendency to make bad calls that are always in her favor. Then confirm that such behavior is not acceptable on your team, where integrity is paramount, so teammates all respect each other. Think of this problem as being emember to making a tough line call. Give her the benefit of the doubt and be generous. She’ll probably reciprocate.

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