This article was written by Josh Graves, who leads PlaySight’s North America Tennis Division and was formerly Captain of the Northwestern University Men’s Tennis Team.
If you watched the 2012 US Open, you probably remember an oft-aired USTA commercial featuring Andre Agassi and Steffi Graf. In the commercial, the tennis-legend couple were shown reading a story to children that (successfully) encouraged the rollout of smaller courts, shorter racquets, and slower-bouncing balls to make the game of tennis easier and more fun for young kids. In the commercial, Agassi and Graf say, “Once upon a time, there was this little girl named Sophie who just wanted to have fun. So she tried tennis. But the court was way too big, and the racquet was way too heavy, and the balls bounced way too high. So she quit and took up soccer. The end.”
The third sentence in this commercial could have just as accurately said “But the cheating took the fun away and the poor sportsmanship in tournaments caused too much stress for her parents.”
The poor sportsmanship throughout junior tennis causes many “Sophies” to leave the game for other sports in which they don’t need to worry about cheating, or as tennis players call it, “getting hooked.” Why are bad calls in tennis more prevalent than in other sports? There’s a simple answer- because most matches don’t have a referee. This puts the onus on young athletes, with hopes of greatness and often intense parents, to accurately and honestly judge whether their opponent’s fast-moving ball is in or out, all while operating under the fog of war.
I played junior tennis from ages 10-18 and am all too familiar with the impact of cheating. I vividly remember the feeling of going up to the tournament desk and receiving the draw. I was much more concerned about drawing someone who was known for bad sportsmanship than about drawing someone who was better than me. The lead-up to playing someone known for cheating was the epitome of stress.
A quick story (sadly one of many) may serve as a good example. When I was 11 years old, I went to play a tournament in Lansing, Michigan. As soon as the draw came out, friendly peers and parents came up to me and my father warning us that the player I had drawn would cheat me. Despite winning the match, it was a terrible experience. The player did in fact cheat during the match, and not only that- his father repeatedly whispered obscenities to me throughout, from right behind the back-court fence! After the match, the disgruntled father came onto the court, towering over my eleven-year-old body, and threatened me. After I left the court, another kid’s parent who happened to be a psychologist came over to make sure I was okay. I told him I was totally fine, but it’s worth noting that while I barely remember a sixth-grade class or birthday party, this memory is forever cemented in my brain.
Looking back on this experience, I realize that I easily could have decided, perhaps if I’d lost the match and had just one other bad experience during that tournament, to quit the game that I now love so much. For every one of me that stuck with it, there are many junior tennis players that do in fact quit and try other lower-stress endeavors. It’s important that we in the sport recognize this significant problem and decide to do something about it, so we can expand tennis’s popularity and attract the best athletes around the world.
At PlaySight, we’ve spent the last several years developing one such solution, called the PlayFair Challenge system. Look no further than the NBA or NFL to understand PlayFair. Quite simply, it’s video review, known in the soccer world as Video Assistant Referee (VAR) technology, and in basketball as the NBA Replay Center. The flow works like this- a player challenges a call, the roving umpire comes to the court and reviews the line call frame by frame on a tablet device, and then the roving official either confirms the call (confirmed call or inconclusive) or overrules it (the call was incorrect).
We’ve just finished the final year of a 3-year PlayFair pilot alongside the ITA and college tennis, and due to its success, PlayFair has been unanimously and officially approved for the rulebook. What we found in college dual matches is what we also expect to find in junior tournaments- the players and viewers were more relaxed, there was a significant deterrence factor, there was a huge increase in trust between the players, and the overall sportsmanship improved greatly. The average number of challenges per match shows just how significant the increase in trust was- although players had the ability to challenge 6+ calls in a two set match and 9+ calls in a three set match (they keep the challenge if it’s correct), the average came to just 1 challenge per entire match. In other words, just because the challenge system was there and the match was being recorded, the players trusted that their opponent would make a fair call, and they used the challenge system judiciously.
The great thinker Hillel once said, “If not us, who? And if not now, when?” Let’s in the tennis industry take steps now to make this important change to sportsmanship in junior tennis.