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The Tennis Rulebook Needs a Physical–Not Structural–Overhaul

Tennis Accent Staff

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Danielle Parhizkaran - USA TODAY SPORTS

By YESH GINSBURG

Special to Tennis With An Accent

The sport of tennis has a structural problem. We can all name several structural problems. But tennis has a far more fundamental problem than most people realize: The rule book makes no sense.

How do the rules of a sport make no sense? Doesn’t everyone know the rules?

The lines are in. The serve has to land in the opposite service box. Three incorrect challenges per set when Hawkeye is available.

Sure, the basics are all easy. But a sport has to have concrete rules so that judgment calls arise as little as possible–and when they do, they are legislated as such.

Tennis’s problem is with its rule book. The ITF publishes its “rules of tennis,” which it updates just about every year, as necessary. This rule book, though, is not written professionally. That causes serious structural problems.

How do we know the tennis rule book is a mess? Let’s start with the second paragraph–which is also the second sentence–in the rule book’s Foreword.

“To assist the ITF in carrying out this responsibility, the ITF has appointed a Rules of Tennis Committee which continually monitors the game and its rules, and when considered necessary makes recommendations for changes to the Board of Directors of the ITF who in turn make recommendations to the Annual General Meeting of the ITF which is the ultimate authority for making any changes to the Rules of Tennis.”

Aside from three missing commas, this sentence is technically correct, but it definitely does not get off to a great start in giving the impression that it will be a clear and concise rule book.

An awkwardly-worded introduction isn’t the worst thing in the world. As long as the rule book itself is clear on every detail of play, so that no confusion can arise, the sport will be fine. Does tennis have that? In short, not even close.

The prime example of a poorly-worded rule is, ironically enough, the same rule that caused such a major problem at last year’s US Open. I am talking, of course, about coaching.

Coaching

Last year, not that anyone needs a reminder, a Code of Conduct violation for coaching led to a point penalty for Serena Williams. That incident sparked an extended response from Williams, which ultimately ended in a game penalty against Williams.

The question on many people’s minds, aside from the general fallout, was whether the initial coaching penalty was correct. Coach Patrick Mouratoglou did admit that he was coaching. The defense is partly that everyone is coached, but it’s never called.

Was Williams coached? Does the defense hold water? Ideally, a sport’s rule book would give clarity on this issue. When should coaching be a violation, and what constitutes coaching? Once we know that, we can judge whether this was, actually, an instance of illegal coaching.

Here is the coaching rule, from the ITF rulebook. It’s Rule 30, on Page 14.

“Coaching is considered to be communication, advice or instruction of any kind and by any means to a player.”

That’s it. That’s the definition of coaching. (The rule goes on to mention that an on-court captain may coach at most changeovers and set breaks during a team competition, but all other coaching is prohibited.)

At first glance, this might seem like a reasonable definition. It’s flexible enough to let umpires realize what’s an instruction or what’s just cheering. On the other hand, it clearly prohibits what it doesn’t want.

That’s at first glance. On second glance, you realize that this might be the most idiotically-worded rule you’ve ever read.

First of all, it doesn’t say who is prohibited. Sure, we don’t want coaches coaching, but this rule prohibits fans, or anyone, from coaching as well.

Second, it prohibits all communication to any player. Sure, this could mostly be a comma issue–are the words “advice or instruction” modifying “communication” or adding to it? I don’t know, and neither can anyone else if this boils down to the lack of a comma. Then again, that brings up a far bigger issue–how do you write a rule book with confusing grammatical mistakes??

Let’s take the coaching rule as written: Any player may not receive any form of communication, from anyone, during a match. No advice, no instruction, and no communication.

Remember Mohamed Lahyani’s “pep talk” to Nick Kyrgios at the U.S. Open last year? Lahyani should have given Kyrgios a coaching violation. He received communication, if we are to read the rule book directly.

But wait, there’s more! Think about it. No one can communicate to a player at all during a match. No one.

When a fan yells, “Let’s go Roger!” or “Vamos Rafa!”, that’s a coaching violation. Heck, when a crowd cheers for a player, that’s a coaching violation–it’s communicating an appreciation of what they’re doing.

Consider as well the crowd’s responses to Gael Monfils’ gestures in Wednesday’s U.S. Open quarterfinal match against Matteo Berrettini.

Forget the applications of the coaching rule in tennis. The rule itself might be the worst-written rule in all of sports. That’s a problem.

Other issues

Change of Ends

Once we realize that part of the Serena-Ramos controversy last year came from the fact that the rule book is worded so poorly on coaching, it’s easy to spot other places in the rule book that carry similar issues. In fact, the entire rule book is riddled with the same problem. I’m not sure why we would expect otherwise, when the Foreword of the rule book already contained an unwieldy sentence, which was missing three commas to boot.

Even though the rule book is relatively short (only 41 pages), it is replete with instances of unclear or problematic wording. Going through every single one of them would get boring after a while, but I will provide a few examples to highlight this point.

Let’s start with Rule 10, the Change of Ends (Page 6).

“The players shall change ends at the end of the first, third and every subsequent odd game of each set. The players shall also change ends at the end of each set unless the total number of games in that set is even, in which case the players change ends at the end of the first game of the next set.”

There is nothing wrong per se about this rule. It’s just redundant, and highlights how little care went into making the rule book precise.

For starters, I’m not sure why the first and third games are mentioned. One and three are odd numbers, aren’t they? Also, what is the rule book adding when it mentions the end of the set? They change sides if the final game is odd, but not if it’s even.

Finally, the end of the rule (“in which case…”) is redundant in a manner that is contradictory and inaccurate. It implies that players only change ends after the first game of a set if the previous set had an even number of games. In reality, players change ends after the first game of each set, regardless of the number of games in the previous set.

The rule would have been much clearer had it simply stated,

“The players shall change ends at the end of every odd game of each set, including the final game of the set.”

Overrules

The purpose and job of chair umpires finally comes up in Appendix VI (Page 27)–after appendices discussing player analysis technology, advertising rules, and alternative scoring methods.

(I should also note that Appendix III, about player analysis technology, incorrectly refers to Rule 30, when it should refer to Rule 31. That is just another example of the lack of overall effort in the rule book.)

Each section provides “cases” to give theoretical examples of how the rules are applied. The cases for Appendix VI, though, are very problematic. Let’s just take two examples.

Case 4: A line umpire calls a ball “Out” and then the player argues that the ball was good. Is the chair umpire allowed to overrule the line umpire?

Decision: No. A chair umpire must never overrule as the result of the protest or appeal by a player

(Note that the period missing at the end of the “decision” line is not mine; it is missing in the rule book itself.)

This case makes no sense. If an umpire thinks the call was wrong, is the appendix saying that the umpire can’t overrule just because the player protested? Is the rule making the super-obvious point that the umpire can only overrule based on what he or she thinks is correct, and not based on what one of the players claims? If so, that was already stated earlier: “the chair umpire has the right to overrule… if the chair umpire is sure that a clear mistake has been made.”

Foolishly stating an obvious rule isn’t that big an issue, though. Let’s look at a case which rivals the coaching rule for idiocy.

Case 7: If a chair umpire or line umpire calls “Out” and then corrects the call to good, what is the correct decision?

Decision: The chair umpire must decide if the original “Out” call was a hindrance to either player. If it was a hindrance, the point shall be replayed. If it was not a hindrance, the player who hit the ball wins the point.

Again, at first glance this might seem reasonable. At second glance, it’s utterly foolish.

The key words here, of course, are “either player.” The rule states, explicitly, that if the wrong call was a hindrance to the player who hit the ball (even if it was a clean winner), the point is to be replayed.

So, let’s say a wrong out call startles the player who hit the ball or causes that player to instantly react in frustration. By the rule book, the point is to be replayed as a let. Obviously, no chair umpire would rule that way, but the fact that the rule book has a rule that is obviously ignored by anyone who has ever played the sport is a major problem in its own right.

If the rule book is written in ways which cause rules (or points of emphasis, if not both) to be ignored by chair umpires in particular and the sport on a general level, the integrity of the rules suffers.

Definitions

Every good rule book, by necessity, has a long list of definitions for anything and everything involved in the game. After all, a rule book cannot take things for granted. It has to define the basics so that there are no ambiguous or confusing elements throughout the rule book.

The tennis rule book has no such list of definitions. It does, however, do a pretty good job of defining the court, the balls, the rackets, and the scoring system. (The section detailing what happens at and after deuce is a bit wordy and redundant, but not contradictory or ambiguous.)

Of course, this lack of definitions leads to problems in other areas, because the rule book isn’t precise. The following example, in fact, is not particularly a problem. We all know what the rule book means. However, the fact that the rule book is still ambiguous is indicative of the major pervasive problem this rule book has–it is not made well.

Let’s look at Rule 17 (Serving), on Page 8.

“When serving in a standard game, the server shall stand behind alternate halves of the court, starting from the right half of the court in every game.

In a tie-break game, the service shall be served from behind alternate halves of the court, with the first served from the right half of the court.“

What’s the problem here? The problem is referring to a right-and-left directional context (though “left” isn’t expressly used here). “Right” is an inherently ambiguous term. Does it mean the server’s right? Or does it mean the right of someone facing the server?

Again, this example isn’t earth-shaking in its importance. Every person who has ever watched tennis knows the deuce court is the server’s right-hand side, when s/he is facing the net.

Still, the fact that the rule book can use terms like this without being explicitly clear on which “right” side it is referring to shows how little thought and care went into producing it.

Solution

First of all, I will respond to a potential challenge.

Maybe English isn’t the rule book’s main language, and that’s the source of all the issues here. Maybe? The rulebook is also available in both French and Spanish. For that, I will direct you to the Amendment to the Rules of Tennis (Page 18):

“The official and decisive text to the Rules of Tennis shall be for ever in the English language…”

So much for that question.

Tennis has a structural problem at its very foundation. Fortunately, it’s not a hard problem to fix.

Right now, the tennis rule book is a mess. It was clearly not written with the time and effort necessary to make a clean, finished product.

For the vast majority of matches, the rule book’s flaws don’t have any adverse effect, but the purpose of a rule book for a sport isn’t to cover the majority of cases. For that, we don’t need major rule books–we just need a general agreement on the basic rules.

The purpose of a rule book is to cover every single case and preempt any potential disputes. At that, the ITF’s rules of tennis fail. That continuously creates the potential for controversies which hurt the sport.

The concepts behind the rules of tennis don’t need to change. The official rule book, though, needs to be rewritten in its entirety.

The Tennis With An Accent staff produces roundtable articles and other articles with group input during the tennis season. Staff articles belong to the TWAA family of writers and contributors, as opposed to any individual commentator. Our staff produces roundtables every week of the tennis season, so that you will always know what the TWAA staff thinks about the important tennis topics of the times.

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