Tennis Conscience – Do You Have One?

By Colleen Clery Ferrell


Imagine playing in a very tightly contested match. After a long rally, the shot you hit is close, yet clearly on part of the line. Your opponent puts up one finger signaling the ball is out. You stop in your tracks and stare in disbelief. Then the same scenario happens again. This time there is no question, the ball is clearly in, yet the opponent’s signal is once again out. A glance into the crowd on center court agrees that both balls were in. What’s the tournament player supposed to do? Question the opponent who thinks they made a fair call? Immediately call for an umpire? “Hook” the player on the very next close call to get even? Get upset and wonder how someone can play on after making two bad calls in a row? So you give them the benefit of the doubt and play on. They beat you in score and mental strength. What is the best option for the recreational player without an umpire or Hawk-Eye video review to help with the call?


Tennis is one of the few sports where players call their own lines, whether in or out. Self-officiating is part of the game unless the match is a final of a sanctioned tournament and then officials are usually present on the court. Players must be able to watch the ball and make a call. According to the Code, the Player’s Guide to Fair Play and Unwritten Rules of Tennis, here are some guidelines:


  • Player makes calls on own side of the net
  • Opponent gets the benefit of doubt
  • Ball touching any part of the line is GOOD
  • A 99% out ball is still 100% good
  • Players need to clearly see space between where ball hits and a line
  • Balls that can’t be called out are GOOD
  • Out calls can be reversed
  • The prime objective in making calls is accuracy


Here’s an examination of the options:


  • Option 1: By immediately questioning the opponent you let them know you are in disagreement. In doubles, by asking the opponent’s partner if she saw the ball, you will either get a double confirmation or an honest partner that may overrule the first call. Perhaps there was some doubt in each of their minds. On the other hand, many “self confident” players won’t think twice about changing the call. Hopefully it won’t happen again in the match. Give the opponent the benefit of the doubt.


  • Option 2: Should you call for an umpire? A USTA umpire at a recent tournament told me,”You give the opponent one bad call. After the second, you call for an umpire. You can’t let them think they can continue because they will keep making calls in their favor.” A former collegiate All American who played junior tennis for many years commented, “It happens all the time in the juniors. It’s no big deal to call for an umpire.” One senior player offered a pleasant dialogue on how to tell the opponent you want to call for an official: “We’re seeing the calls differently. Let’s get some help.” This way an umpire will offer another set of eyes.


  • Option 3: “Hooking them back” to even the score. “Taking the law into your own hands” happens at all levels and is definitely pertinent to the title of this article. Would this method of coping really make you feel better? The answer becomes a psychological issue – paybacks to get even. Conscience is defined as “the awareness of a moral or ethical aspect to one’s conduct together with the urge to prefer right over wrong.” Anyone with a true “Tennis Conscience” would not employ this method.


  • Option 4: Player gets upset and wonders how opponent continues to play well after making bad calls on important points. Nonetheless, they play on and complete the match. In the heat of the battle, players who feel they have been cheated need to overcome this obstacle and concentrate on the next point. After the match, one may realize that an umpire should have been called and be able to handle the situation differently in the future.


Tennis integrity on the court can lead to a clear tennis conscience. There is merit in walking off the court after a highly contested match and having a classy opponent say, “That was a clean match – no drama, thank you.” With the “win at all cost” philosophy, some players will do whatever it takes to win. Is this what the game is all about? Not really if you are a tennis purist with a conscience. Winning a fair match with no incidents on either side of the net should be the ultimate goal. A recent poster for Junior Tennis and the Net Generation reads: PLAY HARD – PLAY FAIR. Juniors, adults and seniors should all live by this motto.