Tennis Rules Excitement at the US Open

One of the great sporting events in America, the U.S. Open starts on Monday in New York.  Aside from the entertainment value of watching the world’s best tennis players compete for one of the most prestigious trophies in sports, you can also get a crash course on tennis rules by watching the on-court action and listening to the commentators.  Here are a few memorable examples of tennis rules and regulations taking center stage in big matches at the U.S. Open over the years:

  1. Don’t Be Tardy to the Party (or Your First-Round Match).  From the late 1970s through the mid-1980s, John McEnroe and Peter Fleming were widely regarded as the best men’s doubles team in the world, winning seven grand slam titles (including three U.S. Open titles), but at the 1986 U.S. Open, they learned the hard way that the rules apply equally to everyone.  When their first-round doubles match was called at 2:00, the team was unfortunately still driving  to the tennis center.  They arrived at 2:21 to learn they had been defaulted six minutes earlier for not showing up on time.  Confirming there would be no special treatment for former champions, then-USTA President Randy Gregson was quoted as saying, “we go by the rules straight down the middle.” (see http://www.nytimes.com/1986/08/30/sports/mcenroe-fleming-are-disqualified.html).

LESSON TO LEARN:  Always know when your tournament match is scheduled and plan to arrive early.

  1. The Foot Fault Heard ‘Round the World.  Serena Williams and Kim Clijsters were in the midst of a competitive semifinal match at the 2009 U.S. Open.  Serving a second serve at 5-6, 15-30 in the second set, Serena was called for a foot fault setting up a double match point for Clijsters, who had won the first set 6-4.  Some argue the linesperson never should have called a foot fault at that stage of the match, but under the rules a foot fault is no different than a serve that lands five feet outside the correct service box—a fault is a fault.  In any event, Serena reacted by shaking her racket at the linesperson and making threatening statements laced with profanity, which earned her a point penalty for unsportsmanlike conduct, giving the match to Kim Clijsters, the eventual singles champion.  The incident can be seen online at: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=2Pg1AYtaL-Q.

LESSON TO LEARN:  Understand what is considered a foot fault.  Rule 18 of the ITF Rules of Tennis define a foot fault as follows:
During the service motion, the server shall not:

  1. Change position by walking or running, although slight movements of the feet are permitted; or
  2. Touch the baseline or the court with either foot; or
  3. Touch the area outside the imaginary extension of the sideline with either foot; or
  4. Touch the imaginary extension of the centre mark with either foot.

Also, players should understand that if an official or your opponent calls a foot fault on a server, there is really nothing the server can do to overturn the call, so he or she will be better off by staying calm and moving on with the match.

  1. The Mullet. The 1985 U.S. Open men’s doubles final turned on a critical “no call” in the third set tiebreaker of a hotly contested match between Ken Flach-Robert Seguso and Yannick Noah-Henri Leconte.  Video of the pivotal point can be found at https://vimeo.com/131096451.  Leconte hit a swinging forehand volley that whizzed past Ken Flach’s head and landed beyond the baseline.  The Frenchmen were convinced that Lcconte’s shot made contact with Flach’s hair, but apparently the chair umpire, Flach, and Seguso disagreed as no call was made and the Americans were awarded the point.  Noah and Leconte were so rattled by what they believed to be poor sportsmanship by their opponents that they did not win another game the rest of the match, and Flach-Seguso walked away with their first U.S. Open title.

LESSON TO LEARN:  A player is required to acknowledge if a ball in play makes contact with the player’s body (including hair) or clothing, the opponent on the other side of the net does not get to make that call.

  1. Hindrance. Poor Serena Williams committed another rule violation during the 2011 singles final against Samantha Stosur.  Down 30-40 in the first game of the second set, Williams hit a short forehand deep into Stosur’s backhand and screamed while the ball was traveling toward Stosur’s side of the court and Stosur was attempting to hit a return shot.  The chair umpire quickly and correctly called a deliberate hindrance on Williams and awarded the point to Stosur.  The whole incident and aftermath can be viewed at https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=nfBbGmL8BIA (interesting to listen to the TV commentator misinterpret the hindrance rule).

LESSON TO LEARN: A deliberate hindrance (e.g., screaming or yelling at your opponent when a ball in play is moving toward your opponent’s side of the court) results in loss of point while an unintentional hindrance (e.g., a ball accidentally falling out of a player’s pocket during a point) results in the point being replayed.

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