Cheating in High School Tennis

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Branson’s home tennis courts at College of Marin.

A basketball player takes one too many steps without dribbling and immediately pauses. “I’m sorry, I travelled!” she announces, handing the ball over to the other team. A baseball player slides into home plate, clinching his team’s victory. “No, you’re out,” the catcher tells him a moment later. “I caught the ball before you touched the base.” A forward rushing into the box during a tight soccer game thinks she sees an opponent’s hand meet the ball. “Hand ball! Our penalty kick,” she screams, eager to secure their lead.

Imagine if everybody made their own calls in high school sports. Each player would have the authority to decide both their opponent’s mistakes and admit their own. Anybody who’s ever played in or attended a high school athletic competition probably agrees that this reality would create chaos. That’s why, after four years of Branson tennis, I still don’t understand why matches manifest in this exact way.

During a normal match in the MCAL season, players act as their own referees. If I call a ball out, I win the point, and if the ball bounces twice before I reach it, I have to admit my error for the point to end. In high school, sports are meant to build character, demanding sportsmanship in the form of honesty, integrity, and a willingness to accept defeat. But again, as most would probably expect, competition perverts morality.

In a given match, I might question one or two of my opponent’s calls. It’s a difficult task to try to hit the shot while watching where the ball lands in relation to the court’s line, but ultimately the number of balls that a player calls out wrongly should balance with the number of balls they call in wrongly, assuming the error is genuinely an error. Often, however, these mistakes aren’t really mistakes.

When I receive a consistent streak of unfair calls, I attribute it to one of two possibilities: passive or active cheating. I think passive cheating stems from a place of insecurity or doubt. The player wants to win so badly that they subconsciously make calls in their favor. They often call the ball before it bounces, reflecting a sense of desperation. Others make bad calls strategically, actively cheating in the early points to throw their opponent off, the important points to clinch a game, or the convenient points when no fans are present beside the court.

Like all other sports, tennis requires both a physical and mental strength. There’s so much time to think between points, reviewing earlier shots while overthinking the next. When a player consistently makes bad calls, I have a tendency to fall apart. I have trouble letting go of those points and moving on to the next. And even though every coach will tell you the same thing, that cheating’s a part of the game, I can’t fully accept the notion that I should have to prepare for an inherently unfair match.

Ultimately a tennis match becomes completely arbitrary when players begin to cheat. Maybe this cut-throat desire to win stems from the intense culture of youth sports or maybe it’s the very nature of a teenager placed in such a setting. In any event, the absence of any external referee really seems to heighten this habit of cheating.