Cheaters Can Prosper...If You Let Them: Tactics to Use Against Tennis Cheaters
by: Robb Julian
There are many topics I cover with the junior competitors I coach when preparing them for an tournament. The list includes several topics I enjoy such as shot selection, match strategy, and just good old-fashioned hitting a great serve. One topic I don't enjoy, but is necessary, is how to deal with cheating opponents. This is not a new trend. Wherever there is competition, there will be those who do whatever it takes to get an edge. For junior tennis players, knowing how to adjust their strategy and use the rules system in place can mean the difference between winning and losing.
In the world of USTA Sanctioned junior tennis tournaments, the word “cheating” can mean many things. It could be a player calling out the wrong score, and either convincing or intimidating their opponent to believe it. The most common form of cheating is the line calls. That is, one player calling the ball out, when it's actually in. That's what I'll be focusing on in this article.
The first weapon a competitor has against a line thief is provided by the USTA itself: tournament officials. For every tournament, regardless of level, there's a staff of officials roaming the grounds, doing their best to make sure the matches are played according to the rules of tennis. All players have the right to ask the officials to monitor their court for a short time (typically 2-3 games) to insure lines are being called fairly. The first mistake players make against cheaters is not involving the officials at all. This situation is very common and it's likely the cheating player will win the match. I advise my players to call the officials on court at the very first bad line call. It sends a clear message to the offending opponent their unlawful tactics aren't welcome. While officials aren't able to stay on the court more than a few games at a time, they can be called back repeatedly. I also advise players to call the officials back as many times as it takes to stamp out the bad calls. I had one player who actually had to call an official to the court 4 times in a 2 out of 3 set match...and he won!
USTA officials do a good job in these tournaments, but it's not enough. I coach players in the Metro Atlanta area where there are 4-6 tournaments of various levels every weekend of the year. That means junior players who start competing at age 5, can actually be battle-tested veterans by age 8. They can also be very skilled cheaters who know there are limits to what USTA officials can do. The moment the official walks away, the cheating resumes. That's when the great Clint Eastwood quote from the movie Heartbreak Ridge comes into play:”Adapt & Overcome!”.
The most common line call mistake I see is calling the first serve out. This is typically a flat serve hit deep in the service box, near or on the line. I advise my players to adapt and overcome by switching to a steady rotation of whatever spin serves they have (kick, topspin/slice, topspin, and slice typically). Even the boldest of tennis cheats has a tough time calling a serve out that lands 2 feet in front of the service line...then takes off with spin. This situation underlines the importance of junior competitors developing a wide variety of spin serves as quickly as possible (though it's not advisable for players in the 8u, 10, and 12u age groups to use Kick serves due to the strain on their rotator cuff and backs).
The next favorite target of the tennis cheat is the baseline on groundstrokes. They're taking away the same thing as the 1st serve: the deep shot. In this situation I advise my players to ramp up the topspin or slice on their shots, allow the racquet speed to stay high, and the ball to land well inside the baseline. The next move is to direct these shots as far cross court away from the opponent as possible. The moment those angle shots move the opponent outside the singles sideline, a charge to the net will typically result in an easy volley or overhead (commonly known as “the sneak approach). These are both high percentage point ending shots that should land well inside all lines.
There most certainly are bad lines calls made on sidelines. However the USTA has also provided a great solution to this problem: the 10u lines. For the 12u, 14u, 16u, and 18u players, the permanent 10u lines that are painted on most every tournament court serve as excellent targets for cross court shots. Aim those cross court spin shots at the 10u lines (3 feet in from the actual sideline), and you have built in safety. This target applies to all shots hit towards a sideline, including serves, volleys, and overheads. Assuming the racquet head speed stays high, a ball hit cross court with spin landing 3 feet inside the sideline should be enough to at very least do damage, if not win the point outright. For the 10u players themselves, I train them to hit with enough spin to land a full foot inside the 10u sideline. I've yet to see a 10u player so tough I thought my player had to hit winners on the lines to win the match.
The concept of cheating in amateur sports competition is not unique to tennis. However, official USTA tournament matches are 99% self-officiated matches (there are high level tournaments that have chair umpires like the pros), and this form of bad sportsmanship is rampant. Players who walk onto the court prepared to deal with this unfortunately common opponent will get help from USTA officials. They will also adapt their games and overcome the cheating through the use of angles and a ton of spin!