Tennis Gamesmanship: What is Legitimate and What is Over the Line?

Nick Kyrgios is a master of tennis gamesmanship

A simple google search will tell you that gamesmanship is defined as ‘the art of winning games by using various ploys and tactics to gain a psychological advantage’. In tennis, a sport of fine margins and only two possible outcomes, gamesmanship is prevalent at both the professional and club-level. There are a number of different tactics which are considered somewhat underhanded without technically breaching rules. But which are legitimate and which are over the line?

The underarm serve

Martina Hingis was booed in the 1999 French Open final for using it. Nick Kyrgios regularly employs it as a change-up tactic. But is it legitimate? Yes. It is permitted by the rules for a reason and requires a high skill level to pull it off, so if you have it in your arsenal, use it. It is a great way to break things up, especially against opponents who stand meters behind the baseline when returning. In fact, we should arguably be seeing more of it. Final word – A reasonable tactic that is unfairly maligned.

Taking a bathroom/ injury break

Not many people will admit to it, but often players who are behind on the scoreboard will visit the bathroom or take an injury break to try and change the momentum of the match. It happens often, but is clearly not acceptable. The problem is: it is extremely hard to police. How can you tell if someone is really genuine vs someone who is clearly trying to score an unfair advantage? Final word – Not on but difficult to stop.

Trash talk

Though it is more prevalent in sports like cricket, where it is known as sledging, any former player could tell you it does happen on the tennis court. And, truth be told, there is nothing wrong with some witty banter (think Muhammad Ali) and if you can distract your opponent, then why not give it a try. But outright abuse, such as Kyrgios infamously directed at Stan Wawrinka at the Rogers Cup in 2015 is certainly not acceptable. Final word – Can be entertaining, but keep it classy.

Moon balls

For those of you who aren’t aware, a moon ball is a high shot which is deep and usually hit with a lot of topspin. When played effectively, the opponent is pushed well behind the baseline. It is ugly as sin, but it is also an effective tactic, particularly against power hitters who love rhythm. Also, hitting a ball above your shoulder meters behind the baseline is bound to be uncomfortable and difficult for your opponent. Final word – It is OK to want to change things up.

Aiming for the players body

This is a legitimate, if unpopular, tactic. Players have a racquet which they can use to defend themselves. However, whether it is a fair tactic to use depends on the circumstances. If you are hitting a smash, and have the entire court to hit into, but still choose to aim for your opponent, you probably won’t win too many friends in the locker room and may want to consider a different approach. Final word – Borderline.

Outlandish court positioning

This is a reasonable tactic to use, particularly against players who favour a particular serve, say down the T or out wide. For example, if you are up against a player who cannot hit their forehand down the line, you might well gain a psychological advantage by standing deliberately wide, even in the tramlines. Final word – It’s cheeky, but it works.

Fair play is an important part of competing in sports, including tennis. But using tactics that are still within the rules to gain an edge on your opponent can be the difference between victory and defeat. And ultimately, as long as you do not take it too far, why should you not seek to gain every advantage that you can.

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