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How to Handle Gamesmanship on the Tennis Serve – Tennis Quick Tips Podcast 101

By Kselz @TennisFixation

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What is up with people and the crazy things they do before they serve? Some of the antics we see on court these days seem less about serve preparation and more about playing mind games. In this episode of Tennis Quick Tips, we're going to talk about something we've all faced at one time or another, or at least we think we've faced it. Sometimes it's hard to be sure. We're going to talk about gamesmanship on the serve - what it is and how you can deal with it. You can listen to this episode by clicking on the media player above or by listening in with your favorite podcast app. You can also subscribe in iTunes by clicking on this link:

How to Handle Gamesmanship on the Tennis Serve – Tennis Quick Tips Podcast 101


Back in Episode 49 of Tennis Quick Tips, which was called " How Much Time Is Too Much Time on the Tennis Court?", I talked about how much time the rules of tennis give the server to serve the ball. I also discussed this issue in a post on my Tennis Fixation website called, " How Much Time is Too Much Time in Tennis? " and that is the post that probably has the most interesting comments on it of any on my site. The podcast episode and the post both came about because one of my tennis pals asked me a rules question. No surprise there as I make it well known, both here on Tennis Quick tips, and with all of my tennis team buddies, that I am always up for a rules discussion. Anyway, my friend felt like, in a match she had played, her opponents were taking way too long between serves. And in fact, were doing this on purpose, using it as a tactic to fluster my friend and her partner.

What Is Up With The Weird Stuff People Do Before They Serve?

As the comments to this particular post show, this is not an unusual situation at all. Here's one of the comments on that post, from E. Chau:

Played WTT doubles match tonight in which receiver SAT DOWN on court because she felt that I was taking too long between serves. I quoted USTA and ITF's 20 second rules and she was astonished? It pays to know the rules!

And here's another one, this time from Debbie:

My partner and I played a lady today that tossed the ball anywhere from 4 to 8 times in the air prior to every serve. It became very annoying. I told her that she was over the 20 second rule (yes I was timing) and she responded that we needed to play at the pace of the server. Is there any penalty to her taking this long? Losing a point or serve, etc.?

And then there's this one, perhaps one of my favorite comments ever, from Maria on her opponent's serving mannerisms:

I just played a singled match where I won the first set and my opponent clearly changed her tactic. She would wave and smile and mutter something to the back of the fence when clearly no one was there. Then she would nod, move to her serving position, look out across the other courts, nod again, and finally say the score while starting her service motion. She did this between every point during the second set and it worked. She broke my concentration many times and won the match. Is this something I have to overcome? Can people do weird things like this and still be in the right?

I think we've all seen this happen. Or something very much like it. And the question is, what can you do, what should you do, if you think its happening in your match?

Here's What The Tennis Rules Say

Now, I'm not going to go over all of the nuances of the tennis rules on this here. That post and podcast episode go into them in detail and so I'll link to those in the show notes if you want to review those more closely. But, for purposes of this discussion, you should know that Rule 21 requires that the receiver play to the "reasonable pace" of the server and be ready to receive within a "reasonable time" of the server being ready to serve. And Comment 21.4 to that rule explicitly gives the server 20 seconds to serve the ball from the moment the ball goes out of play at the end of a point until the start of the next point. And Rule 29 goes on to state again that a maximum of 20 seconds is allowed between points. So I think we all are in agreement here - while we play to the reasonable pace of the server, the server has a maximum of 20 seconds to get the next point going.

Is This Gamesmanship?

So what's the problem? Well, as you can tell from the comments I quoted previously, sometimes these pre-serve antics seem to be less about serving and more about playing mind games. In fact, they often appear to be what is known as gamesmanship.

Just what is gamesmanship? Gamesmanship has been defined as "the art of winning games by using various ploys and tactics to gain a psychological advantage." It's not cheating, however. No, when people engage in gamesmanship they are doing things that are technically legal but are done just for the purpose of gaining a psychological edge over an opponent. So if we look back at the examples I quoted above, was it against the rules of tennis for Maria's opponent to wave and smile and mutter something to the back of the fence when clearly no one was there? Was it against the rules for her to nod, move to position, look out across the courts and say the score while starting her service motion? No, not if Maria's opponent was able to accomplish all of these actions within 20 seconds. These types of actions aren't against the rules of tennis.

The problem is that you can see how irritating this type of stuff is. If your opponent kept going through the waving, smiling, muttering routine on every single serve, after a while it could easily break your concentration. And this is where actions that are legal can become gamesmanship.

How Can You Deal With Gamesmanship?

The good news is that, if you think someone is engaging in gamesmanship, if you think they are doing something that is within the rules of tennis but is being done just to irritate you, there are some things you can do to deal with it.

1. Know Your Tennis Rules

First, know your rules of tennis. This is definitely your greatest weapon. You need to know if what your opponent is doing is or is not against the rules. Remember the comment of E. Chau who said his opponent actually sat down on court because she thought E. was taking too long between points but was unaware of the 20 second rule? That little silliness was quickly remedied because E. Chau knew the rules of tennis and knew that he was not taking too long between points. In an officiated match, that opponent who sat down on the court could in fact be penalized for violating the rules by not playing to the reasonable pace of the server, by not being prepared to receive within a reasonable time and by delaying the match by actually sitting on the court. I know the rules can be boring if you just try to read through them and are not trying to figure them out during a match. But I can't emphasize enough how important it is to learn the proper application of the rules of tennis. And when faced with gamesmanship, the rules are one of the strongest weapons you can use to bring it to a stop.

2. Remain Calm

If your opponent is truly engaging in gamesmanship, on their serve or otherwise, you can battle it best by remaining calm and refusing to let it get to you. Yes, I know that is easier said than done. But the fact is, people pull this stuff because they are hoping that it will work on you. Gamesmanship may be something they use all of the time because it is one of their only weapons. So one way to look at it is this - the opponent who engages in gamesmanship probably has other weaknesses in their game that they're hoping you won't notice. They think you don't have the mental toughness to deal with whatever their gamesmanship is. It is their greatest hope that their weird behavior will cause you to have some type of lapse in concentration or mental breakdown that will allow them to get away with playing their otherwise weak game. So, if you look at it that way, you should be happy when people start this type of weirdness. You should remain calm and let them know, this particular weapon isn't going to work on you either.

3. Say Something Or Not

Now, this is where your next step depends on you personally, the opponent you're playing and the dynamics of what is happening on court. It may be best to say nothing, just let any suspected gamesmanship go. Ignore what your opponent is doing on his or her serve, let it go, remain calm and just play your game. But I have to admit - that is really not my style. If there is a chance to get in a snarky comment, I am going to do it. So with Debbie's opponent who tossed 4 to 8 times on every serve, I would definitely be timing her and I would make it very obvious that I was doing that. Sure, that might not work or have any impact at all. But it would definitely make me feel better.

On Maria's opponent, the one who was smiling and muttering and waving, I would not say anything during the point but I might again start timing the person and make that very obvious. The truth is, when you start timing someone and they know it, that itself can be a little intimidating. They may think you are the one engaging in gamesmanship. I'm trying to think what I might say on the changeover but nothing comes right to mind. Maybe, "hey, who are you talking to back there? Because coaching is not allowed." Well, I probably wouldn't say that.

Finally, on E. Chau's opponent who sat down on the court, E. did the exact right thing. Just let them know what the rule is and that they are in violation of it.

To wrap up, gamesmanship happens on the serve a lot. It happens in other parts of the game but the serve is a really common place to see it. But you can battle it if you know your rules, remain calm and maybe, just maybe, come up with a snarky remark or two for your opponent so they know its not getting to you.

Have you had any experience with gamesmanship on the serve? Is this a tactic you use? Comment below and let me know as I'd love to know other thoughts on this topic.


Click for link to Tennis Quick Tips Podcast Episode 49 - How Much Time Is Too Much Time on the Tennis Court?
Click for link to blog post How Much Time is Too Much Time in Tennis?


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How to Handle Gamesmanship on the Tennis Serve – Tennis Quick Tips Podcast 101

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How to Handle Gamesmanship on the Tennis Serve – Tennis Quick Tips Podcast 101

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