PROPOSING A NEW SYSTEM TO DISCOURAGE CHEATING IN JUNIOR TENNIS
Those of us teaching the game need to do more!
By Tim Noonan
I recently returned from a tournament and I am exhausted. I am a coach, so it wasn’t from playing tough three-setters in the Georgia heat. I had plenty of water and sunscreen, so it wasn’t from watching hours of tennis in that same heat. What exhausted me is watching tennis matches turn into Soap Operas, with gamesmanship and cheating making a mockery of what is supposed to be a “Gentleman’s Game”. Junior tennis today can be anything but. I recently read an article by esteemed coach Robert Lansdorp (former coach of Tracy Austin, and Lindsay Davenport among others) titled “Enormous Cheating has to Stop Now”. I agree that cheating needs to be stopped, but I also believe that the general ugliness that often occurs on the court and in the stands needs to be addressed. I have read many suggestions on the subject, but believe that most of the proposed solutions don’t really address the issue of why kids cheat or misbehave on the court.
WHY DO KIDS CHEAT
While, at face value, this question may seem rather absurd, I think it needs to be addressed before a solution can be proposed. The obvious answers are pressure from self or parents to win, the value of rankings to junior players, and the desire to obtain college scholarships when junior tennis comes to an end. I think that the real answer, unfortunately, is that the penalties for cheating or acting up on the court are not deterrents. The USTA Point Penalty System generally only comes into play for rather severe offenses, and once a tournament starts all players are treated equally in the eyes of the officials. This is absurd to me.
If I have stayed out of trouble on the court, why should I be treated the same as the kid with the tennis rap sheet longer than my Wilson racket?? The best analogy I can come up with is what happens every day on our roads. The police treat all of us equally as long as we obey the law, but when we get caught making a mistake, that officer (as well as your insurance company!) knows every past grievance you have had before he gets out of his car. You can bet your fifth moving violation will hurt a lot worse than your first! Why can’t we adopt the same system in our junior tennis tournaments??
Taking a page from my Jesuit High School!
I attended a Jesuit High School in St. Louis. Our fine school had the “Demerit System”, a penal system where a student could receive various numbers of demerits for an even wider list of transgressions. And the Jesuits were not tight-fisted with the demerits. They gave out demerits like Tic-Tacs on Prom Night! I believe that this system is what Junior Tennis needs. The current system doesn’t address a lot of the petty offenses that make junior tennis unpleasant; The constant questioning of calls, the comments made as players cross during changeovers or the parents at courtside making snide remarks loud enough for everybody to hear. Officials could give demerits to players based on the severity of the infraction, and, like the Jesuits, could be rather liberal with them if they felt it warranted. There, of course, would be standardized guidelines for offenses, but the on-site officials would have the authority to use a range of demerits based on their observation of the situation.
So how is this different from our current system??
My system combines the Jesuits tradition with our National Pastime, baseball. The USTA would take the total number of demerits accrued by a player and divide it by the number of matches they played in USTA-sanctioned tournaments. If I get 20 demerits in 20 matches, I am batting 1.000. 20 demerits in 60 matches and I am batting .333. The only difference is that a high batting/demerit average in this system is a bad thing. The current USTA system doesn’t take into account the number of matches played, which I think needs to be taken into consideration. At the beginning of a tournament, the officials are given a list of the participants at their site with a colored dot next to their name. Green dots are given to players with a demerit average between 0 and .333, yellow dots will be given to players with a demerit average between .333 and .667, and a red dot will be next to any player batting over .667.
The USTA could suspend any player who averages more than 1.000. Remember for now that all of these numbers are just for the purpose of this article and that the real values might be quite different.
It's tournament time! This is where the big difference comes into view. The referees roam the courts as they usually do, making overrules, calling foot faults, and handing out demerits as they do so. PDAs or on-site computers could be used to log the infractions at the end of each umpire’s shift. The only difference is the on-court penalty for these offenses. I have always felt that the overrule was a bit of a joke. Let me get this straight; if I cheat my opponent (whether intentional or not), and I get caught, then the penalty is the loss of the point that wasn’t really mine, to begin with? What kind of deterrent is that? If I rob a bank and get caught, can I just give the money back and call it a day? This is where the green, yellow, and red dots come into play. If I am a green dot player and I get overruled (the official must be certain of the overrule), then the penalty is one additional point. If I am a yellow dot player, it is a game. If I am a red dot player, it is a match. Sound harsh?? You bet it is. Kind of like losing The Masters for signing an incorrect scorecard!
The player with the red dot walks onto the court with two strikes. Demerits will be distributed equally among the players, but the on-court penalty will be different. I have dreamed of the day when kids play balls that are too close to call and parents watch matches while reading a book, and I think you would see this happening. Even the rather innocuous practice of getting a line judge would have consequences. The player calling for one would receive one demerit and the kid having one called on him would get two. This would eliminate “The Boy Who Cried Wolf” syndrome, where a kid losing a match calls for a line judge on the first close call simply to save face. “I would have beaten him if he hadn’t cheated me” is a line I have grown weary of.
Oh yeah, one more thing!
I have read some of the suggestions that my peers have thrown around to cure the current situation, but I think that many of them simply throw more people at the problem. More cops, less crime! Robert Lansdorp suggested one stationary official for every two courts. This would certainly reduce cheating, but the cost to the tournament would be high, forcing tournament directors to greatly increase the entry fees. Others have called for players to serve as officials for other matches (similar to what has been done in squash tournaments for some time), but I don’t think you are going to be able to convince a kid playing two singles and one doubles match in Macon, Georgia in June (average temperature 170 degrees) that he needs to hop up onto an umpire's chair instead of grabbing lunch and a change of clothes!
Some of my brethren are not going to like this, but the second step in my plan calls for those of us teaching the game to do more. How many times have we sat there watching a match, seen an incident with an official’s intervention, and said, “I could have handled that better”? As they say in Missouri, Show Me! I propose that both major teaching organizations have “Basic Tennis Umpiring” as part of their tests, and that anyone who is certified in their organization must umpire (paid as current umpires are) a minimum of 8 days per year. As a coach, I enjoy teaching. Teaching shouldn’t end when my players walk onto- the court to play a match. In my mind, nobody is more qualified than we are. I am tired of talking about it. I am ready to put on a striped shirt and get out there! In the unforgettable words of Bluto Blutarsky, “Who’s with me??”
Tim Noonan is a founder of Universal Tennis Academy in Atlanta, Georgia. Tim is originally from St. Louis, Missouri. He received his Bachelor’s in Architecture from the University of Notre Dame where he was a four-year letterman and captain of the Notre Dame tennis team. Tim worked as an architect for five years before returning to the game of tennis.
Tim was the Director of Tennis at both Sunset Country Club and Old Warson Country Club in St. Louis before moving to Atlanta in 1996, to become the head coach for the Atlanta Thunder. Noonan led the Thunder to the World Team Tennis finals that same year. Tim is USPTA certified Tennis Professional and the 2019 Georgia USPTA Pro of the Year.
Tim and his wife Karen have a stepdaughter named Madie and three rescue dogs. When Tim isn’t on the courts he enjoys playing golf and skiing. Tim enjoys coaching students of all levels and ages.
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