Tennis is a funny game, different from most, in that you get 30 seconds between each point, rests between games, and lots of opportunity for mental disruption. There is a lot that happens in between points, and there are a lot of ways players can try to affect the outcome of the match when the ball is not in play. Gamesmanship. Unfortunately it’s an aspect of the game that cannot be ignored, and it is important to understand all the subtle games that can be played so you can recognize them and not let it bother you.
I’m going to list some of the things that I’ve encountered over the years, just so you can be aware of the games. By knowing of these mental games, you will never feel like you are not in control, and the power they may have over you is mostly removed.
1) Delaying beyond 30 seconds – some players will purposefully wipe down with their towel after a point, slowing the game down dramatically. Instead of standing furiously at the baseline fuming about how they are breaking the rules by taking so long, use the opportunity to towel off yourself. You can mention to them politely at the net that in between points there is a 30 second limit before the next point must be played, and you think they may be going over. If they continue to take a ludicrous amount of time between points, you can either get a tournament umpire to watch the match, or if that is not an option, find a nice place in the shade to stand or talk to a spectator. Be calm. Have fun. Do NOT show to your opponent that you are bothered at all by their stalling, or you will just encourage it more. They’re doing it to try and get into your head. If you don’t react, or take advantage of the extra time, they will be less likely to do it again.
2) “was that out”, “that wasn’t out”, “are you sure?”
These are common questions annoying players will pepper you with anytime you call a ball out. Even if it’s way out, they’ll still ask, just to be annoying. The rules of tennis state that you can only call a ball out if you are 100% certain it was out. If you are only 99% certain it was out, then you must by regulation call the ball good and lose or replay the point. If they ask you one of these questions, and you hesitate, you are encouraging them to keep bugging you, and if you say that you are almost positive, then technically you are not completely positive, and the ball should have been called good. So with these players, just say with authority – “Yes. It was out.” and that’s that.
3) “What’s the score”
Some people will ask you this, or as you toss the ball go “wait, wait. What’s the score” to try and mess up your rhythm. You should be in the habit of calling out the score at every point, so it’s maybe good for you as annoying as it is.
4) “you didn’t call it”
This is a common phrase used by annoying dolts. If a ball was clearly out and you didn’t indicate that it was out through either a verbal call or a pointing motion, then they’ll harass you about not having made the call. If you admit that you did not call it out because you thought it was obvious, then that is not legal according to the rules of tennis. The ball must be called out either verbally or by a pointing motion. If your opponent obnoxiously tries to get a point replay using this rule loophole, the best thing to do is just say you called it out softly, or they must not have seen your finger or something. But again, you should be in the habit of calling each ball out clearly, so this annoying habit of theirs may be good for you.
5) Technical tips, or talking between changeovers “you should keep your arm more bent”, etc.
By far and away the best way to screw up someone’s game is to say anything technical to them. “Gee, Bill, you’re really snapping your wrist nicely on that forehand” or “Your backhand would be just great today if only you were turning your shoulders more”. Any kind of technical talk or ‘tips’ during changeovers will get the opponent thinking about their technique, over-thinking, and tight. There should be no talk during a changeover if it is a serious match.
Also, in more social matches, they can ask you about your girlfriend, or something outside of the game that they know your mind is on – it will pull your focus off the match.
6) Not calling out the score when serving, and then arguing over the score later in the game. Call it after every point, out loud so there can be no dispute.
The server should always call out the score loudly before each point – their score first, followed by the score of the receiver. If the server does not call out the score, then you as the receiver should call out the score for them. Too many times I have been in competitive matches where the server does not call out the score, an extremely long point is played, and then instead of being up 40-30, the server claims it is something like 30-30, and you have to go back and retrace all the points you previously played to get to the right score. If they’re a particular jerk, they just lie about some of the previous points, and you’re completely stuck with your word against theirs. I suppose they could do the same thing even if the score was not being called out loudly before each point, but they are less likely to do so. Honest people make mistakes too, so keep track of the score and make sure you are in agreement before each point. If they’re a known cheater in this regard, probably the only way to guarantee proper scorekeeping is to have an umpire watch the match, or set up a video camera that can easily be replayed in the event of a disagreement.
7) Returning an out serve into the net, and then slowly clearing the ball from the court to disrupt your service rhythm.
This is a common one. The returner calls the serve out, and then whacks the ball into the net. The ball then rolls into the returner’s court, and they slowly walk to clear it. Meanwhile, as the server you are standing there cold, waiting, watching, and generally losing the rhythm of your serve. It’s annoying. It’s bad etiquette to return a serve that was called out, but sometimes it’s unavoidable. But if they take a very long time clearing the ball, it can begin to hinder you as the server.
Technically, according to the rules of tennis, if the returner has to clear a ball from their court and it disrupts the server’s natural rhythm, then the server gets their first serve again. The server’s natural rhythm is said to begin as soon as you initiate the service motion, so rocking back onto your back foot, or bringing your arm up. As the server, if you feel your opponent is trying to disrupt your rhythm between your serves, you can use this rule to thwart their mental gamesmanship. Conversely, some servers like to use this rule even if you clear a ball quickly and do not disrupt their rhythm.
8) Returning an out serve hard back at you.
Idiots do this to try and intimidate you on your serve. You can ask them not to, and instead just let it go, or clear it into the net. If they continue, just whack it back hard at them.
9) Generally being obnoxious – saying ‘come on’ when you make an error, etc.
There’s not much you can be done about this. Yes, it’s annoying. But it’s very silly. And at the end of the day, your opponent is a tool you are using to improve your own game. So if they want to be a very annoying jerk out on the court, and try to get you to hate them, then that is an obstacle you must overcome – just as if they have a good forehand and you have to learn how to deal with it intelligently – so must you learn to deal with their antics, and win the ‘inner game’. Not letting yourself get bothered is winning in a way.
11) Faking injuries and taking time-outs.
Nothing can be done about this, but it occurs frequently. Remember that you get the time-out as well. Use the time to get hydrated, go over your game plan, stay focused, breathe, have a banana, etc. Don’t fume over their gamesmanship.
12) Calling a ‘let’ on an ace
Nothing can be done about this really. You’d need an umpire or a video replay to prove it wasn’t.
13) Showing up late to the match
In tournament play you are awarded games and sets for each few minutes your opponent is late. Take advantage of this if they decide to come late. Ask the umpire for the official
15) Bathroom breaks
Yet another time-changing tactic. Bathroom breaks stop the match for a few minutes and can change momentum of the match. Don’t let it bother you.
16) Getting coaching
This happens all the time and it’s against the rules. People get hand signals, or even get coaching from their parents in the bathrooms. But really it doesn’t matter. If anything it’s going to mess them up mentally to constantly be trying to please their coach and change up their strategy. Just deal with the changing tactics as they come.