A first-hand experience with cheating and lost trust in junior tennis—and how to fix it

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Monday March 20th, 2017

It’s set point. I’m up 6-5, 40-30. I wipe my sweaty hands on my shorts as I try to quell my nerves. After a long rally, I see an opening and I whip a backhand down the line. I sigh in relief as the ball lands inside the line, and begin walking toward the changeover, focused on starting the next set off well. 

“What are you doing? Your ball was out!”

I turn toward my opponent, incredulous and outraged by this infuriating—but on reflection unsurprising—turn of events. 

“Um, the ball was actually several inches inside the line,” I retort, even though experience tells me that protesting the unfair call won’t make any difference. Sure enough, after I call for an umpire, a charming senior citizen ambles over and gives me an ethics lecture about needing to “trust” my opponent. Exasperated and fed up with the unreasonable assertion that I have to accept my opponent’s calls no matter how ridiculous they are, I march back to the baseline and proceed to lose the next two points. Great. Furious, I wonder where is the fairness in the fact that even though I had won that set, fair and square, I now have to steel myself to battle it out in a tie-break.

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I would venture to guess that every competitive tennis player has experienced a similar situation. Unknown to most fans and adult players, junior tennis is rife with cheating. In the cauldron of junior tournaments, where the pressure to win sometimes seems to trump the love of sport and appreciation of fair play, cheating has unfortunately become accepted as “part of the game.” I am only 15, but I feel like I’ve already been through a life’s worth of cheating. Sometimes I am even predisposed to doubt the trustworthiness of my opponents. Some may accuse me of whining about lost points—and matches—but this isn’t about my personal grievance. We need to seek ways to reform the sport and restore trust.

Although I have lived the majority of my life in the United States, I am a dual citizen of the U.S. and France. I lived in Paris for two years, and I’ve spent every summer of my life in Normandy, where I’ve played in many tournaments. Playing tennis in both France and America has exposed me to the different systems—both very much imperfect—put in place to prevent cheating.

In France, when one player questions a call, the “juge arbitre” (or “judge arbiter,” the comically official French name for tournament director) will typically direct that the players replay the point. In some sense this is a better procedure, since it allows for a “do-over.” But the availability of this option has the unintended effect of encouraging players to constantly contest calls and replay points even though they had rightfully lost them in the first place.

In the U.S., if a player calls a ball out that landed in, no matter how many people are watching, umpires cannot overrule unless they were present during the point and are absolutely certain that it was a bad call. Similarly, if a player switches the score, an umpire will simply require that the two players go back to the last agreed upon score. One time I closed out a game, winning three straight points after being down 15-30 on my serve. Smirking, my opponent claimed that the score was deuce. I called over an umpire and we had to walk him through the sequence of the previous points, one at a time. But the other girl lied and said that she had won the point at 15-30, which would then justify her false claim that it was deuce. The umpire told us that we had to replay the game starting from the score 15-30. Absurdly, even though I had actually won the game, and even though my opponent maintained that the score was deuce, the umpire and the “rules” put me in a position that was actually worse than both the real score and my cheating opponent’s version.

Other players sometimes find especially creative ways to cheat. For instance, on a big point during a match played on red clay in Normandy, the girl I was playing called a ball out, erased the mark on the line with her foot, and made a new one next to it in the alley, in front of her parents and coach (who casually looked the other way). Although clay courts generally make it easier to overrule cheaters, the accumulation of numerous ball marks allows players to “choose” a mark when asked to show where the ball landed. And since players call their own lines, referees usually side with the person who makes the dubious call, even if the other player is able to point out the authentic mark.

Tennis is the only sport in which junior players are expected to call their own lines, which invariably leads to a lot of “hooking” (tennis lingo for cheating). Other sports—soccer, football, baseball and softball, basketball, hockey, lacrosse, field hockey, wrestling, boxing, and many more—all have umpires and referees present to make judgment calls and keep score. But the virtual absence of such umpires in junior tennis makes cheating as easy as saying “out,” with little risk of being penalized for this unethical behavior.

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When relatives and friends who are unacquainted with junior tennis come to watch me play matches, they are often amazed by the cheating that constantly occurs in tournaments. They express surprise at the lack of umpires (there are usually only one or two who patrol anywhere from six to 15 courts at a time) and at their inability to overrule effectively, given that they are responsible for watching so many courts.

Many people in tennis just shrug and claim that cheating is “part of the game.” But does it really have to be? Of course, professional tennis players do not have to worry about dishonest line-calling, even though line judges and umpires can certainly make mistakes—just ask Serena Williams, who might have one more Grand Slam to her record if not for perhaps the most poorly-officiated match in professional tennis history. But the four bad calls that Serena was subjected to in that match might even be considered a good day in the juniors. It’s bad enough when neutral umpires make officiating mistakes—as occurs in all sports at some time or another—but outright cheating should not be accepted as a rightful part of junior tennis.

Even if most bad calls don’t influence the final outcome of a match, they certainly can, and sometimes they do. In a tight match, a key point or two can make all the difference. I once won a match 6-4 in the third set, but only thanks to an umpire’s overrule of my opponent’s “out” call at 4-4, ad-out. Without that umpire, I would be down 5-4, and I could very well have lost the match. These situations happen all the time in junior tennis. It’s well known that the bigger the point, the greater the likelihood of a “close” call going against you, as some players save them for such occasions.

I’ve heard that some coaches instruct their players to “cheat back,” attempting to balance out the unfair calls on each side of the court. This can lead to a situation of mutual accusations and questioning of any out ball that is within a foot of the line. And reciprocal injustice surely can’t be an appropriate way to ensure fairness.

Fortunately, in the midst of this cycle of cheating and doubting people’s integrity, there are also many examples of honesty and fair play. In my own experience, opponents have played out balls, overruled themselves, apologized for controversies that occurred during matches and accepted my own requests for reconciliation after arguments. I’m obviously not perfect either, and I know that I too have made unintentional mistakes—and I have been overruled as well. The truth is that it is extremely difficult to call the lines accurately at all times. We see it in the professional ranks, where players are correct in fewer than 25% of their challenges. The difference can come down to millimeters, when we’re judging a ball coming at high speed, with spin, while we’re running and lunging for it. Sometimes we want a ball to be out (or in) so badly that we see it land that way.

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So while we all have our faults, it’s undeniable that in some cases the line is crossed, from mistakes to intentional cheating. And although I realize that hiring referees to watch every match during a tournament would be costly and impractical, the sport needs to take measures to combat this cycle of dishonesty. It might be possible to come up with inexpensive solutions that involve neutral parents, spectators, third party volunteers, or even other players. New technology might also provide solutions, just as it has reduced unfairness in the professional game—while also appealing to many fans who love the “challenge” system in which a player can challenge a call several times per set. The new “PlayFair Challenge system” recently introduced by PlaySight allows for challenges and video evidence at the amateur level. The technology is expensive and it may take time to spread to tennis clubs and tournaments, but it seems like a promising avenue for restoring faith and fairness. The recent release of the In/Out rig could provide an even better solution to rampant cheating because of its affordability. At a mere $200 cost, this innovation is by far the most inexpensive technology to limit cheating in tennis, but its reliability is still to be proven.

There is no simple and perfect solution to eliminate the incessant temptation to cheat in junior tennis, but the first step is to recognize that this injustice is a serious problem. To truly resolve this issue, we all need to brainstorm solutions, rather than accept cheating as inevitable. The status quo is unacceptable—both in terms of fairness of outcomes, and in terms of teaching kids honorable habits and having them learn life lessons. Until then, the expression “cheaters never win” might as well have an asterisk that adds “except in junior tennis.”

Zoe Howard is in 10th grade at Bethesda-Chevy Chase High School in Maryland. She trains with her coach Vince Pulupa at both the OSSA Tennis Academy and the Washington Tennis and Education Foundation.

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