Cheating: It’s Not So Bad!

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Contrary to the growing roar of claims from many players, parents, and coaches, high level junior tennis is not completely infested with cheating. I just witnessed two full days of the USTA Boys’ 18s Mid-Atlantic Section (MAS) Championships in College Park, MD. Bad line calls were by far the exception and were confined to a couple of the top 32 players in the Mid-Atlantic region.

No, one weekend’s observations do not make for sweeping conclusions, but they do signal that sportsmanship, the foundation of tennis, still has a strong pulse among elite junior players. This is important because tennis is different from almost all other sports. You call the lines on your side of the court, and it can become a test of character on a close call: what do you do when no one else can see? Mix in teenage angst into an intense competitive struggle with no adult supervision (one or two roving officials), and the complexity of combustible mixes is mind-boggling.

free ball

Although I have positives to report on this occasion, we can’t discuss cheating in junior tennis without picking up the cow’s tail and looking at the worst cases right in the face. Everyone has seen outrageous, egregious examples of cheating in junior tennis. The motivation to hook doesn’t always come from within the kid. He/she is pressured by semi-delusional parents or coaches whose shouts or body language shrieks, “Win at all costs.”  The presence of a roving referee reminds the kids to play fair, but has little effect on the unfair kid.

I did see a couple of instances of the polished cheater’s nuanced techniques at the MAS Championships. It went like this: the ball skims the line, the hooker quickly raises an index finger while casually looking and sauntering away from the theft. The smoothness and casualness of the nonverbal hook is critical to selling his package. Through his slick body language, the hooker conveys that the ball missed by several inches, seeking to remove all doubt about the call. The victim is left to utter an, “Are you sure?” dripping with anger and frustration. The prey usually won’t call an official immediately unless it was at a critical point of the match, which is often too late to salvage a loss of emotional control or focus.

So although I did see cheating, it was not as rampant as some would have expected. Because hooking is out there, the victim’s reaction should be two-fold. First, understand that you have to be able to tough it out and learn to deal with it. If you are able to cope with being cheated, you will be stronger in the future because of being forced to answer the challenge now. Of course, there is a second alternative: call for a referee after the first or second bad call. This is the structure the sport has provided to deal with these situations.

We know that the rest of the world is as imperfect and unfair as competition can be on a tennis court. Hawk-eye in pro tennis shows that lines people mess up with regularity. We also see that pro players call their lines badly. Some pros request replays for strategic reasons (e.g., for a rest or to change momentum), but most are genuinely surprised when replays go against them on their side of the court.

Finally, even with the isolated instances of cheating I saw last weekend, not only did I see some great tennis being played by junior players, but I also saw some great young people who happened to be playing tennis. We know there will be no pro career on the horizon for nearly 100% of the kids playing junior tennis in the United States. Whether these kids have a future career associated in some way with tennis or not, having borne the rigors of dealing with an occasional cheating opponent, these kids will be better prepared for real life by having their integrity tested under pressure and choosing to do the right thing.

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