Disclaimer: This article is written of my own volition and experience. At no point has the USTA, Carefree Racquet Club, nor any individual helped, endorsed, or in any way, influenced my articles. As always, my contact information is at the end of the article and any readers whom are so motivated may use it for correspondence purposes. Thank you for reading.
My previous article focused on how there are times when the rules of tennis are used in such a way that may be considered to be at odds with the spirit of the game. I want to push further into this grey area and talk on gamesmanship. The term originates from Stephen Potter’s book, The Theory and Practice of Gamesmanship (or The Art of Winning Games Without Actually Cheating). Although gamesmanship may not be precisely against the rules, it is certainly not parallel to fair play. There are several techniques to use when employing this strategy and I’ll be describing just a few.
“Breaking the flow” of play is one tactic that can be used in the employment of gamesmanship. It is seen in both the professional and amateur level. How often have we seen professional players call for the trainer when their opponent is settling into a good rhythm? Maybe they actually need the trainer or maybe they don’t. Calling the trainer when they don’t is an easy way to break the rhythm of their opponent and attempt to come back. This is not against the rules, nor could any rules be created to prevent it since there would be too many variables to consider, the largest of which is how can it be determined if the player is not in real need of assistance. Matches at the amateur level see breaking the flow as well. Players can take longer to serve, ask for a third ball off in the corner of a court to slow the pace of play down, move slowly and casually back into position so that the game can continue, pretend to talk to a partner about strategy, or any other number of excuses. Breaking the flow is not against any rules and it would be difficult to create rules against the tactic; should players be prepared to accept this as part of the game?
Some time ago, an old mentor suggested that if I was having difficulty in a match with an opponent I had faced before that I should ask them if they had changed something on their forehand. I asked him why and he said that it would make my opponent overthink the forehand and result in a higher rate of errors. My immediate thought was that it was a devious ploy. I loved it, and although I have never used it, I consider it at times. Getting into an opponent’s head to make them overthink or underestimate a situation is another tactic under the umbrella of gamesmanship. One classic example is when one athlete says to another, “No pressure!” They’re trying to get into the head of their opponent to illicit a mistake. There are even times when you can practice gamesmanship on yourself, most notably when we tell ourselves, “Don’t miss” on a second serve.
Finally, there are times when opponents will make mistakes on purpose. This season, I have seen more of this happen than in other seasons. A great example of this is the no-call. A no-call is when an opponent does not make a call which leaves the other team at a disadvantage. The easiest scenario to point to is the let. A serve which hits the net and bounces into the opponent’s service box should be called a let. A no-call in this situation is when the other team plays it out, while the team serving is standing there wondering why they just lost the point. The other team can claim that they didn’t hear it and play moves on. This is probably the closest example to willful cheating, but it’s not prohibited in the rules.
There are plenty of other examples, such as squeaking your sneakers when your opponent is about to serve, excessively talking to your opponents in between points, moving to the other side of your baseline after you hit a serve out, or switching rackets inside a game without breaking a string. Gamesmanship is limited only by the imagination of the player using it. The tactics described are at best dubious, but are part of the game and no rules can be made to help protect against it. That being the case, tennis players should make themselves aware of it so that they can steel their minds in the wake of such grey attacks. Knowledge is power to the tennis player.
Miguel Cervantes III
Miguel Cervantes III teaches at Carefree Racquet Club and privately outdoors. Miguel specializes in teaching beginners, training juniors and coaching doubles. He may be reached by e-mail at UnderstandingTennis@gmail.com.