Fair Play Line Call System

“We have used the Fair Play Line Calling system for over 2000 matches this summer.  The most obvious improvement on the surface has been the elimination of conflict that arises from small disagreements. Third party intervention has been replaced by player-to-player communication.  In its depth, this system is teaching young players to honor the game and to respect others at a level that is worthy of what the true substance of tennis really is.”

Chuck Kriese, Senior Director of Competition and Coaching, Junior Tennis Champions Center, a USTA Regional Training Center

JTCC's Outdoor Courts

JTCC’s Outdoor Courts

The “Fair Play” Line Calling System

Junior and collegiate tennis events alike are being stressed by the ever-increasing costs of referees. At the same time, the decline in sportsmanship that has infected other sports is affecting tennis in general as well. As the stakes go up, so does intensity increase, especially at the Division I and national junior level. The solution has been to increase the number of officials—the approach that “if some is good, more is better”.

The rising cost of officials is forcing some junior and collegiate tournaments to cancel events, cut back on amenities, or increase entry fees. Increasing costs, like health care costs, put under-funded college programs at even greater risk. At the National Junior Boys Championships in Kalamazoo, the costs are estimated to be around $40,000 per year.

To add to the problem, it has also become difficult to find enough qualified umpires to meet this rising demand. Of the available officials, fewer and fewer have the flexibility to work part-time junior and collegiate schedules.

Perhaps even more sadly for tennis as a whole, in many refereed matches, the closer the competition, the more likely a player is to appeal on virtually every ball close to the line—in or just out—in hopes of getting a point. This is especially true in Division I college matches.  Referees, particularly roving ones, rarely get a good enough look to be certain enough to overrule. Sometimes after repeated protestations, however, referees will admit that they sometimes over-react. Collegiate players, juniors, and coaches recognize that the appeal process is neither consistent nor accurate, and that most matches would get on fine without referees.

Ironically, the more referees we have, the less responsibility each player—and each coach—must take in a match, with lower trust between players the result.

This trend is unfortunately in imitation of the more televised sports like hockey or basketball, where fouls are considered part of the game. If you’re not caught, it was a good play!

Tennis once had prestige as “The Game of Kings.” It was considered a sport of honor and integrity. Professional golfers—unlike their professional counterparts in tennis—still feel a responsibility to put the integrity of the game itself ahead of their own interests. This standard in tennis is unfortunately now more the exception than the rule.

Is it possible that we have been looking for the solution in the wrong place? More is not necessarily better. 

Is it time to examine ways to contain these costs, and simultaneously put the responsibility for a fair match back where it belongs—with the players?

Proposal: 

Begin to experiment with the line-calling approach that is now used in the ITA/USTA Campus Showdowns. The procedure is simple: you have the right to overrule your opponent’s call, but only “if you are willing to bet your life on it!” 

The implications of this approach are subtle yet powerful. In this system, overruling your opponent doesn’t imply he intended to cheat you. It means simply that you’re willing to bet your life that you had a better line on it than he did. Despite the fact that you both want to win, you’re in this…together.

The obvious objection is that a cheater will find a way to take advantage of whatever situation he is in. We can’t legislate morality. But 95+% of the players want to play a fair match and intend to call the ball fairly, but now spend their formative years in a system that teaches them instead how to lower their own standards – day after day, match after match.

Until we can afford to have every match governed by ShotSpot or Hawkeye, shouldn’t we at least be try to keep the cure from being worse than the disease we are trying (unsuccessfully) to prevent, and lower crippling costs at the same time? The Fair Play Line Calling System would encourage the honorable 95+% to live up to the greatest traditions of tennis, while still protecting them—perhaps even more effectively—from the occasional cheater.

Before you rush to judgment, let’s examine how this change places players in a more cooperative, rather than adversarial, relationship with each other, one in which they literally “share” the responsibility for calling the lines fairly.

Under normal playing conditions, even with a referee, when one player has the absolute power to “steal” a point, his opponent is in a “one down” position. Everyone has experienced the timely “hook.” We instinctively fear being taken advantage of and know we have limited choices, which makes many players wary from the first point. In the event of a bad call, we can ask for a referee (too late to help), OR we can resort to vigilante justice, as some junior and collegiate coaches have been known to advise, by “hooking him back and then calling for a referee.” It’s easy to lose perspective when an emotionally involved player is given permission by his coach to “even the score.”

Be warned—this “overrule” provision initially scares people. In my experience, however, due to the altered dynamic, most matches proceed without incident. When I make a call—no matter how much I want that call, or how much I might be tempted to make a call from my heart instead of my head, I know that my opponent can alter my call instantly. It forces me to consider my call in a different—and perhaps more equitable—light. On the flip side, if my opponent makes a close call and I’m not certain—as in no doubt, willing to bet my life, etc.—that he missed the call, by using my overrule unfairly, I will damage the relationship between us and must bear the consequences.

Coaches understand immediately that this approach has one appealing by-product. We have all known players who continue to let everyone know, sometimes long after a disputed call, that they are “victims.” The aggrieved player is, of course, blaming his losing on his opponent’s bad calls, not his own missed shots. In the Fair Play Line Calling System, the player must either choose to overrule—and risk opening Pandora’s box—or “shut up.” They usually just shut up. It’s very refreshing for spectators and coaches, and good for the player.

What Happens if the Match Gets Out of Hand? 

Players must know also that a similar safeguard is in place should one player try to take advantage of the other.

The solution is simple, and costs nothing. Return to the system that college coaches used for many years ago before we had referees, and also used by the U.S. Squash Racquets Association in all of its junior tournaments. If trust is lost, the head referee selects two players to serve as the appeal judges. If it is a team match, one player from each team is selected. In a tournament, bring out two players from the stands. Either make it a condition for playing in the tournament that players must be willing to serve in this capacity when asked, or pay them a nominal fee (as they do in Denmark). Players often trust this appeal process more than they do the calls of one roving linesperson. The fact that one of the two players selected may be a teammate of the aggrieved player alters the dynamic even more positively, as the player is less likely to treat his teammate as disrespectfully as some players now treat referees. The first “player-linesperson” either agrees or disagrees with the call in question. The second breaks the tie if necessary. These player-linespersons, when they are not themselves playing, are more objective—and likely more repulsed by a teammate’s shady call—than the player himself. And, of course, as players, they have pretty darn good eyesight! The morphine drip used in hospitals is an example of a similar built-in safeguard, because it has an automatic cut-off to prevent a patient from over-medicating.

Does This Work in Practice?

In a recent third place match between Harvard and Princeton in an important regional team tournament, the Princeton coach and I agreed to use this approach. My players were used to it already. Although the Princeton players initially looked to their coach (so used to appealing to referees were they), the players (and of course, their coach) soon recognized that the new dynamic was no longer as adversarial as they were used to. At match’s end, there had not been a single overrule in a hotly contested match.

An hour later, with three roving referees, the tournament final was also fiercely contested, but characterized by frequent appeals around close calls, disputes, and accusations. At the end of the match the award ceremony was delayed as each coach tried to calm their players, who were still upset at the other team’s sportsmanship and line calls. Having played against both teams, I didn’t think either team’s line calls were any worse or better than most other teams. I think one approach brought out their worst, while the Fair Play Line Calling System brought out Princeton and Harvard’s best.

The Fair Play Line Calling System could be tried in back draws first, with no titles at stake.  It would be compelling to try it in team events, also in back draws.  After a few years, a whole generation of players would have grown up using it, at which time it would be obvious whether it could be used more extensively.

Tennis has lost much of its shine with regard to sportsmanship. What do we have to lose by trying something else?

Implementation:    

Start slowly.  Start with matches where there is no championship at stake.  This would involve a culture change that can only occur over time.  Use it first in matches at USTA Regional Training Centers, and in back draw matches at team and individual tournaments.  Develop a short hand-out for players, parents and coaches.

Try it in the 16-and-under level and up.  Eventually kids in the 14s might be able to use it, and when they see the older kids using it, because they are not being trusted to use it, it might actually become a “grown up” right they demand.  Time will tell.

This article was authored by Dave Fish, Men’s Tennis Coach at Harvard.

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