Tennis players shaking hands

Court is in Session: How to Discuss Rules During a Match

Patrick Mouratoglou, Serena Williams’ longtime tennis coach, once said that a tennis match is like a fight—it’s not meant to be enjoyable. Winning feels great, he added, but the process isn’t supposed to be fun. That may be true for top players, but the rest of us want to enjoy our time on court. Social and league tennis should be lots of fun—win or lose. And, most importantly, fighting should have nothing to do with it. Too bad it’s not all that unusual for harsh words to be exchanged on court. Simple disagreements can quickly overheat when USTA matches are at stake. Most often, players argue about line calls. But sometimes fights erupt over the rules. So, what can each of us do to prevent and/or diffuse these arguments?  Let’s look at the best ways to discuss the rules in a friendly manner, settle disputes amicably and keep fun in play.  


man and woman sitting on bench next to tennis court talking
Source: SeventyFour on
  1. Know the Rules

This seems obvious, right? We owe it to ourselves, our opponents and our partners to carefully read the rules of tennis. It would probably be a shock to learn how many active players haven’t done so. And, even worse, how that fact doesn’t stop them from arguing about the minutiae of the game! Don’t be that player. “Ignorance of the rules constitutes a delinquency on the part of a player and spoils an otherwise good match,” the USTA rule book tells us.

But let’s back up for a second and make sure we’re all on the same page.  It would help to qualify the ‘rules’ we should be following. The USTA Friend At Court (quoted above) is the best resource for social players and absolute doctrine for league players. This lengthy manual covers the basic rules of tennis as established by the International Tennis Federation. It also includes a section entitled The Code: The Players Guide to Fair Play and the Unwritten Rules of Tennis. The Unwritten Rules… did you catch that? USTA experts know well that situations arise outside of what’s covered by the basic rules of tennis. Most of us can keep score. We are aware that the alley is in for doubles and out for singles, for example. But what happens if a ball drops out of a player’s pocket during a point? If a cell phone rings during a match, is that a hindrance? Can a player ask a spectator for input on a line call? The answers to such questions are in The Code.

*In case you’re wondering, if a ball drops out of a player’s pocket or skirt unintentionally, only the opposing team or player can call a let, which allows the point to be replayed. This is considered a courtesy, but it seems like a no-brainer—no one wants to see an opponent twist an ankle by stepping on a loose ball. That said, if a player seems to be dropping balls on purpose to prevent losing tough points (really, who would do that?), no let is called and the offending player loses a point. But I would think long and hard about accusing someone of such shady behavior—better to suggest they find a more secure place to stash balls.  And always remember to silence your phone before a match. If your phone rings during play, your opponent can claim the point. As for asking spectators about line calls, the answer is always no.


  1. Stay Calm and Play On

This is much easier to do when you’re confident in your understanding of the rules.  Deescalating potential arguments works so much better when you know what you’re talking about—in tennis and in life. That doesn’t mean you have to become the overbearing rule police. People don’t react well to that approach. Try statements such as: “Good news, I was just reading the USTA rule book section that covered this exact scenario.”  Or, “this situation arises so often, it’s covered by the USTA code. Their policy actually makes sense and is fair to everyone.”

If you can’t remember a specific guideline—there are a lot—it’s best to say so. Try this, “I know this is covered by the USTA. I’m not sure of the specific regulation, but I think we can all try to agree on a fair solution.” This tactic can be quite disarming as opposed to coming in hot. And perhaps your opponent has the answer, so it pays to listen to their explanation. Of course, if it seems tailor-made to benefit them, I might be suspicious. But, again, staying steady and reasonable is best.

To settle disputes, many team captains carry a printout of the Friend At Court in their tennis bags which makes sense. Anyone can do so, but it might detract from the fun quotient to start flipping through pages during a match. So, what to do if an opponent simply won’t accept your explanation of the rules? Let’s first agree on what not to do. Don’t become angry or unkind—full stop. Try to cool things down, rather than raise the temperature. Certain players might never listen to fact or reason, so it pays to find a compromise in the moment, even if it involves replaying or conceding a point. You just can’t win some on-court arguments, so it’s no use getting upset. There are players who hope to fluster and distract their opponents by stirring up drama—don’t fall for it.  Turn your frustration into determination and focus on winning with your racquet and athleticism. Control yourself and lean into the underlying values repeatedly expressed in The Code which are all about ‘fair play.’  A Guide to Fair Play is part of The Code’s subtitle—it’s right there


woman taking a knee on tennis court holding water bottle
Source: AdobeStock
  1.   Ball of Confusion

If a player serves out of turn during a tie-break game and the error is discovered after an even number of points have been played, the error is corrected immediately. If the error is discovered after an odd number of points have been played, the order of service shall remain as altered. A fault that was served by the opponent(s) before the error was discovered shall not stand. In doubles, if the partners of one team serve out of turn, a fault that was served before the error was discovered shall stand.”  

 OK, so this is Rule 27d from the ITF regulations in the Friend At Court.  I think we can agree that this is confusing, at best. It also illustrates how tough it is to keep a working knowledge of every tennis edict and bylaw in your head. So don’t feel bad if you aren’t sure—just problem solve and play through as peacefully as possible. This positive attitude can be contagious. You can always refer to the rule book later to be prepared for next time. But don’t take points you don’t deserve or didn’t earn.  (Better to keep careful track of serving order, no?)

Of course, many teams/players can get confused during long matches and lose track of scores and serving/receiving order.  Here’s a reminder of what to do in this case: If a doubles team accidentally switches receiving order during a game, they stay that way until said game is finished. They switch back to playing their correct courts in the next game. If they make a mistake in terms of serving—the wrong player serves—the error is corrected immediately—during the game being played. Got it? As for disagreements on scores, the overriding rule is to go back to a score that all players can agree on. And don’t sweat it too much. This isn’t life or death.


  1. Good Sportsmanship Always Wins

The USTA Code clearly states that playing tennis with integrity enriches our lives, and who can argue with that? To do so involves ‘knowing the rules,’ ‘winning with humility and losing with grace,’ ‘being fair,’ ‘acting with character,’ ‘maintaining composure,’ and ‘giving others the benefit of the doubt.’ Doing all of that is reason to be proud; winning while behaving poorly is not. Trying to prevent a loss by looking for loopholes in the rules is just plain icky.

What’s important to keep in mind about rules: They are written to keep the game fair, and to prevent gamesmanship. This is the key to settling disputes on court. Make sure that everything you say and do is in the service of fairness. During a recent USTA morning doubles match I participated in, a flock of loud honking geese came seemingly out of nowhere and flew over the court just as a player was serving. She screamed and hit the ball straight down onto her own court. Everyone laughed and agreed to a let. She served again and all was well. Plus, we had fun!  





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