The Tennis Gamesmanship Guide

Players at all levels of the game bend the rules to gain an advantage or rattle their opponents with the aim of throwing them off their game. Sometimes they do it with sinister intent and sometimes not, but knowing these tricks in advance will prepare you to deal with gamesmanship and keep you focused on the match.  


The Cheater

Cheating, unfortunately, is a part of our sport. As long as players are able to call their own lines there will be cheaters. Sometimes, a bad call is unintentional, but often the bad call is on purpose, and at a crucial point of the match. Sometimes however a blatantly bad call can be a way to game your opponent into getting mad and throwing them off their game. Be prepared for bad calls. Give your opponent benefit of the doubt but if you suspect foul play, don’t hesitate to call an umpire or referee to your court to oversee the match.


The Towel

Using a towel during a match is completely legal between points as long as the player does not exceed the time limit. Be aware that some players will use the towel to break your momentum before big points (often when they are losing) or to frustrate you during a match with towel overkill. Know the time limits sanctioned between points for your event and if in doubt ask the referee to check that your opponent is playing by the rules. Don’t let the towel break your concentration.


The Score Changer

Players at all levels forget the score. Some do it on purpose. Whether it is the game score or the set score, this is where arguments get heated real fast. The most effective way to counter this is to use a score keep for games and sets and pay attention to the in-game score and how the points are being won and lost. If and when you call the referee to settle a score dispute, you are able to tell the referee, point by point, why the score is 30-30 while your opponent has no idea you will often get them to agree under the pressure of the ref. Calling out the score whether you are serving or receiving is another way to make sure both you and your opponent are on the same page score-wise.


The Insincere Compliment

This is a time tested classic! Particularly in ladies league matches. Picture this: You’ve just won the first set of your doubles match. You and your partner are feeling pretty confident that you are going to steamroll the next set and win the match comfortably. As you pass your opponents at the net post the following interaction happens.

You: ” 6-3. That was a great set ladies.”

Opponent: “It was a tough one. You guys are just so powerful up at the net!” 

As you change ends to start the next set you find yourself thinking about that compliment you received, and how powerful you are at the net. Next thing you know you are trying to overhit everything to prove it. Your opponents are now firmly in your head and you either hit yourself out of the match or end up so terrified to miss you hit everything right back to your opponents. You’ve just been gamed. Watch out for this one. If you receive one of these insincere compliments, be aware and stay focused on the match. You can exchange compliments once the match is over.


The Bathroom Breaker

Bad news. Bathroom breaks are legal, whenever you need to take them.

The USTA rule for Changeovers have the following: 90 sec changeover break between odd games. 120 sec changeover break between sets (regardless if the set ended even) A bathroom break can be taken at any time but it is preferred it during a changeover and the duration is reasonable.

This will lead to some of your opponents abusing this rule during your matches. Don’t get upset. Alert the nearest official to keep an eye on the time and what’s considered “reasonable duration”.


The Tantrum throw

The John McEnroe special. Sometimes your opponent will be so desperate that they will try to completely blow up your momentum with a time-wasting, attention seeking tantrum. Often after a line call or rule intervention from a referee or umpire (Foot fault etc.) Don’t be intimidated. Stick to your guns on the score or the line call, stay calm and let an umpire or referee deal with this obnoxious opponent. McEnroe is one of the very few players who actually played well after a blowup. Most don’t, so let them implode and reap the benefits of the free points headed your way.


The Accuser

The accuser is another classic gamesmanship tactic. They will call you a “Pusher”, a “Cheat”, a “Tree” (a reference to playing out of your mind), a “loser” or anything else that can take you out of your game and break your concentration. Being falsely accused is a sign your opponents mental game is weakening, putting you in a good position to take the match and having the last laugh. 


The Time Taker

Often this one goes hand in hand with the towel abuser but sometimes your opponent will decide they are losing control of the match and take as much time between every point as they can. This is a little bit of a power move, as you need them to be present to start the point. Many players will then angrily rush into points without a clear head or strategy.  A few obvious time taker moves are

  • Changing rackets
  • Changing grips
  • tying shoes
  • collecting or returning balls slowly
  • Taking maximum time between points

I’m sure there are many others but you get the point. Turtle time breaks momentum. Remain focused on your game. Remind them that the returner needs to play to the pace of the server and if it continues, get a referee.


The Injury Timeout

More prevalent in tournaments that provide athletic trainers. You will see this one quite a bit in the pros. Injury timeouts can be used in an attempt to ice the opponent, break momentum or to get a rest and refocus if the match isn’t going the way they wanted. When your opponent takes an injury timeout, review your gameplan stay warm and show your opponent (visibly with great body language) that they are only delaying the inevitable and you will be ready to continue the beatdown one their allocated time is over.


The Shoe Squeaker

You will encounter the show squeaker from time to time. Usually, this is done before you are serving in an attempt to make you miss but sometimes on easy overheads and put aways too. If your opponent is a shoe squeaker, let them know that you believe them to be breaking the rules under the hindrance rule. If it continues, alert a referee.


The Grunter

The intentionally distracting grunt is one of the most annoying gamesmanship tactics.

The WTA rule book currently states: Any continual distraction of regular play, such as grunting, shall be dealt with in accordance with the Hindrance Rule. … Maria Sharapova, who will return to the WTA in late April, has the loudest recorded grunt in the women’s game: 101 decibels.

Grunting is apart of the game and there’s not much you can do about it other than to notify a referee or official that you believe it to be a hindrance and let them enforce the rule if they believe it to be so. A strong mental game is needed to combat all of these tactics and this instance is no different. Stay focused on your performance.


Honourable Mention: Off Court Coaching

As we are all well aware, off court coaching is a no-no. This doesn’t mean it isn’t happening during your match. While you really shouldn’t be noticing sneaky coaching anyway because you are too engrossed in the battle, obvious off-court coaching should be dealt with by an umpire or referee. Stay out of any altercations with the coach and deal only with the ref or umpire.

Be aware of these tactics and dont let a gamesman get the better of you.

Good luck and see you on the courts!

Joel Myers
USPTA Elite Professional
Tennis Director
Manchester Grand Hyatt San Diego
Sheraton Hotel and Marina San Diego
(949) 485-8679

One Comment Add yours

  1. The McNeals says:

    Great post, Joel. (Not an insincere compliment.)(That tactic was a new one for me.) Tom



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