Tennis Unwritten Rules

Tennis Unwritten Rules

Did you know about the Tennis Unwritten Rules?

We have considered the rules of tennis, as set down by the International Tennis Federation (ITF), elsewhere on this site. The regulations are designed to be specific, in order to remove all doubt about what needs to be done in any given situation, and they include helpful examples.

Despite this, at any level of tennis, there are some widely followed unwritten rules.

Why Unwritten Rules Matter In Tennis

There are two ways of looking at this:

on one hand, if a rule was that important it would be written down, but, on the other hand, if rules are followed by the majority of people who play the game then they matter for that reason alone.

If you are a serious, competitive player, at or close to professional level, and follow high ethical standards, there are few unwritten rules that you need to concern yourself with.

If, however, you are a beginner wishing to join a long-established tennis club, you had better learn the etiquette or else you won’t be a member for long!

Etiquette For Serious Players

Competitive players work extremely hard to give themselves the best chance of winning, but they often travel to tournaments alone, so building relationships with their fellow players can be helpful.

A co-operative relationship with other players will ensure that practice partners are available when needed, and can limit the inevitable loneliness.

Regularly breaking the unwritten rules of sportsmanship will not win a player many friends.

The Code

The USTA, with an apparent total lack of recognition of the irony, have produced an eight-page, 46 paragraph, document called ‘The Code’ in which they write down a long series of supposedly unwritten rules which they would like players to follow.

In fairness, some of the points they make are either listed in or closely related to something appearing in the formal rules. Much of the document boils down to: ‘play fair and don’t cheat or try to put your opponent off’.

The Code seems to be more of a box-ticking exercise than anything else, as any player who would stoop to the kind of cheating and sharp practice they are trying to deter is hardly likely to take the time to read an eight-page document about how to behave on court!

Nonetheless, if you are anxious about doing the right thing on court, and are relatively new to the game, it may be worth a read.

Pros Breaking Unwritten Rules

Professional tennis players are trained to take every advantage within the rules in order to win, as their livelihoods depend upon it.

Here below will take you to a fascinating 12-minute YouTube video illustrating many examples from the WTA Tour of players behaving in ways which would certainly be considered unsporting at club level.

Nonetheless, you should remember that all of them will have been taught to respect the decision of the umpire, whether it goes for or against them (and even if it is obviously wrong), as such things tend to even out over a match.

Several of the things you will see players doing in this video are certainly against the spirit of ‘the Code’, although some of them may be blameless, as, for example, it is not easy to tell whether a ball has taken a second bounce just before you hit it.

Dancing around waving your arms and legs whilst hitting the ground with your racquet as your opponent is about to play, as demonstrated by Iga Swiatek and Maria Kirilenko, is probably covered by the (written) hindrance rule, and Kirilenko is shown being penalised for this.

Many of the disputes on the video actually arise from poor officiating, as the umpire has failed to observe that something is amiss.

Underarm Serving

Underarm (or ‘underhand’ in the USA) serving deserves a section of its own here, as it is a completely valid tactic which has the added advantage of providing extra entertainment for the crowd.

Despite this, there is still an opinion in some quarters that it is somehow contrary to the spirit of the game unless you advise your opponent beforehand that you intend to do it. This is manifestly absurd, as it is equivalent to being required to advise your opponent if, during a rally, you plan to play a drop-shot!

Here is an example of the mercurial Alexander Bublik making full use of his underarm serve by playing it six times in one game against Frances Tiafoe:

Tennis Unwritten Rules Summary

Tennis unwritten rules are numerous, but there are two main points to remember:

  • The most important thing is to follow the formal rules of the game. Break these and you will be penalised.
  • The unwritten rules will vary according to whom you plan to play with. At an old-fashioned club they will be far more numerous than at a modern facility aimed at juniors and performance players.

In general:

  • If you act ethically and do not try to cheat or distract your opponent, you will not breach many unwritten rules.
  • If you are concerned about the expectations of a new club, read ‘the Code’, which covers pretty much everything you may need to know.
  • Do not let anyone tell you that underarm serving is unsporting or needs to be announced in advance.

Have you had any bad experiences with unwritten rules? Let us know via the comments.

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