What is the tennis hindrance rule? Why does it matter?
The tennis hindrance rule was introduced to prevent any tactics designed to affect a player’s concentration or psychological state during a match, and is designed to make sure that opponents cannot put us off our shot, either deliberately or accidentally.
This rule is in stark contrast to the football World Cup Final in 2022, where Argentinian goalkeeper Emiliano Martinez was able to distract and unsettle opposing penalty takers by means of various ploys designed to affect them psychologically, which is legitimate (if not universally approved of) in football. But what constitutes a hindrance, and how does the rule work?
Tennis Hindrance Rule – Wording
The ITF hindrance rule which governs the vast majority of tennis events is as follows:
‘If a player is hindered in playing the point by a deliberate act of the opponent(s), the player shall win the point. However, the point shall be replayed if a player is hindered in playing the point by either an unintentional act of the opponent(s), or something outside the player’s own control (not including a permanent fixture).’
In other words, if your opponent puts you off by accident, a let should be played. If they put you off on purpose, it is your point. However, this kind of ruling will only be made when there is an umpire, as the players are unlikely to agree!
One of the most controversial applications of the hindrance rule is where an umpire hears a player speak or shout out during a singles point. In this event they will normally deem it a deliberate hindrance and award the point to the opponent. In doubles, players are allowed to speak to their partner, but not when their opponent is about to hit the ball.
In reality, examples of voice hindrance rulings are rarely clear-cut, as the next section illustrates.
Tennis Hindrance Examples
Apart from voice hindrance, a hindrance can be called for causing a distraction, perhaps by your hat flying off in the wind, or a tennis ball falling from your pocket. These will be deemed unintentional the first time they happen, and a let called. Any repetition will be deemed deliberate, and a penalty point awarded.
Grunting can be regarded as a hindrance if an umpire considers it excessive. While they do have the option to penalise players under the hindrance rule, this is rarely done. This example, involving Robin Haase, is therefore very unusual:
Voice hindrance examples often cause bewilderment among the players, who may very rarely have encountered such a ruling. The next example shows Serena Williams being penalised in the 2011 US Open for bellowing ‘Come on!’ before opponent Sam Stosur had a chance to try to return the ball. The hindrance call is quite correct, but Serena was not pleased!
A slightly more amusing example is the following one featuring Daniil Medvedev versus Alexander Bublik. Medvedev almost hits a vulnerable Bublik and says ‘Sorry!’, but Bublik somehow manages to return the ball. Medvedev puts the easy ball away, but is docked a point for speaking during the rally.
The Raised Hand Trick
There are cases where a hindrance should be awarded, but the umpire is not alert enough to realise.
One famous case took place in the 2003 French Open, where, with Serena Williams serving, Justine Henin raised a hand to indicate that she was not ready as Serena hit her first serve. Serena asked for another first serve, but did not get one, as the umpire had not seen the hand and Henin refused to confirm that she had raised it! (13mins 50sec on video).
Possibly even worse was this example featuring Hsieh Su-Wei and Aryna Sabalenka. As Su-Wei’s second serve lands, Aryna ostentatiously raises a finger to challenge the call of ‘in’ and walks off, casually slicing the ball gently over the net. Su-Wei does not react, feeling that Aryna had stopped the point, but the umpire puzzlingly awards the point to Sabalenka!
Tennis Hindrance Summary
The tennis hindrance rule is designed with the best of intentions, to avoid players losing points due to being unfairly distracted. To sum up:
1. An accidental distraction should result in the point being replayed.
2. A deliberate distraction by an opponent should result in the point being awarded.
3. Examples of hindrances include:
- Speaking during the point
- Excessive Grunting
- Dropping things on court
- Signalling in a distracting manner
4. Umpires can be a little unpredictable in their application of the rule.
5. Some players do not help by denying what they did if they think the umpire did not see it.
Have you ever been involved in a match where a hindrance was called, or should have been? Share your experience via the comments.
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