6 February 2020

Are you a rule maker or a rule taker?

You can't play tennis without rules, but who decides? We unlock the complicated hierachy of tennis power brokers and reveal the role you have in laying down the tennis law


ITF, "The guardians of the game"

When it comes to tennis, the International Tennis Federation (ITF) make the rules. Calling themselves the ‘guardians of the game’ they have (of course) a Rules of Tennis Committee. This monitors the game, makes recommendations to the Board which in turn makes recommendations to the ITF's AGM which is the ultimate authority for making any changes to the Rules of Tennis. Its site includes a link for suggested amendments to the rules, but don't get too excited. The link is not currently working. Maybe too many people had ideas.

The ITF rules also cover a number of Regulations, i.e. those for Davis Cup the Fed Cup, the Pro Circuit, Wheelchair Tennis, the Wheelchair Tennis Classification Manual, the Junior Circuit, the Junior Team Competitions, the ITF Seniors, the Beach Tennis Rules, and the Code of Conduct for Officials.

But the rules do not quite stop there.

There are Procedural Rules (governing procedures before an internal adjudication panel convened under ITF rules) and Grand Slam rules written in to the Grand Slam Rule book (all 85 pages of it). Grand Slam Rule bookThis says, among other things, that the chair umpire must know how to pronounce players' names, tell players where the on court clock is, allow toilet breaks only to the nearest designated bathroom and make the first determination on A Question of Fact (what actually occurred) and A Question of Tennis Law (an issue relating to the Grand Slam Rules,  Code of Conduct and/or the Rules of Tennis). The rules also say Grand Slams must provide sawdust for players  (as well as water, electrolyte drinks, cups, and towels). The sawdust is for sweaty palms and Ivan Lendl was such a fan of the stuff, he used to keep some in his pocket while playing.

Wimbledon's all whites ruleThen there the rules within rules. Wimbledon’s “almost entirely in white rule” was changed from “predominantly in white” rule in 1995 and for the avoidance of doubt, fashionistas please note, “White does not include off-white or cream”. What’s more, sweating is not a good enough reason for a code violation. “Any (coloured) undergarments that either are or can be visible during play (including due to perspiration)” are not allowed.

Even Wimbledon, however, is subject to rules. When it comes to going to bed, (or at at least stopping play), the local council (Merton) sets the rules. There is no up-all-night play in Merton as there is in Melbourne or New York. 11pm is cocoa time. This rule caused a great deal of anxiety in 2012 when Andy Murray was still playing on Centre Court at 10.59pm. The council was on the phone to Wimbledon’s chief executive and ready to bend the rules. Fortunately, the match finished 11.01pm and a relieved nation could go to bed in peace.

National governing bodies, like our LTA lay down rules for its events and for affilliated club events, while clubs themselves may have their own rules and rules committies to enforce them.

Whoever makes them, rules can be broken, or at least changed.  Promoted by anxiety that only the over 50s have the time or commitment for 3 or 4 hour matches, a decision was taken to make matches shorter and swifter for up and coming players in the Next Gen ATP finals (for 21s-and-under). Chris Kermode, then executive chairman at the ATP (Association of Tennis Professionals), said it was biggest shakeup of the rules in the sport’s history, aimed at preserving 'the product'. In came a shorter fromat (first to four games per set with a tie break at 3-all) and out went two points at deuce.   

Local Tennis League players, who play without the benefit of officials, will be familiar with the rules set out in The Code: The Players' Guide to Fair Play and the Unwritten Rules of TennisWritten by Colonel Nick Powell, a former chairman of the USTA’s Tennis Rules Committee, these apply to cases not specifically covered by the ITF rules, and are rules ‘covered by custom and tradition only'. As the Colonel says no system of rules covers every specific situation, but:

"If  players of goodwill follow the principles of The Code, they should always be able to reach an agreement, while at the same time making tennis more fun and a better game for all."

The Code is so well established, it is now part of the USTA's Rules and Regs and includes the rule that the server announces score, that each player is responsible for removing stray balls and other objects from their own end of the court and and that players call the lines on their side of the net.

Local Tennis Leagues uses these rules and those of the ITF (so far as possible) plus a few of our own. These include a surprising number you can make up yourself.

You can make up the rules (some of them)

You rule for example on where and when you play, who books the court, whether or not the courts are safe to play on (either player may object), if you play a tie break in lieu of a third set and if you are entitled to a walkover, whether or  not to take it or play the match at another date. Many of these rules depend on two players agreeing. But then as The Code says:

"Tennis is a game that requires co-operation and courtesy."

We could not agree more.