24 May 2019

Net cords - Why saying sorry sometimes hits the wrong note

What are the rules surrounding net cords and do you really have to apologise for them? We look at a surprisingly controversial part of the game and discover that though technology has come to the aid of the pros, the days of the service net cord may be numbered

Every tennis player knows the problem: a rally is going really well, possibily in your favour, when your opponent's ball clips the net, even seems to sit on it for a moment, and then trickles over on to your side of the net. Your opponent, more by luck than judgement, wins the point. A convention has therefore grown up around the 'net cord' that the other player acknowledges his or her good fortune and apologies.

The problem of course, is that if you win the point, you are secretly pleased. As one local club puts it in its etiquette guide, "It is polite to apologise when you win a point mainly because the ball hits the net cord and do try to sound like you mean it even if everyone knows you don’t." But apologising for a winning shot is almost uniquely a feature of tennis - it just doesn't happen in most sports. 

The reasons for apologising are lost in the mists of time but owe something to the "gentlemanly code" that can itself seem to be impossibly outdated today and even to be a reflection of a stuffy, hierarchical society that many of us would prefer to leave behind.

And yet, there is something to be said for this tension-calming acknowledgement of the role of chance in our sport and when a player doesn't apologise it can seriously wind up the other player. In a recent Miami match, the Russian player Daniil Medvedev and rising Greek star Stefanos Tsitsipas appeared to fall out over the lengths of toilet breaks. Then Medvedev lost a point to a net cord and no apology was forthcoming, despite his very vocal demand for one. Not best pleased after the match he tore in to the Greek: “Man, you better shut your f--- up, okay? You go emergency toilet for five minutes during, and then you hit let and you don’t say sorry? You think you’re good kid?” Stefanos's reply was not quite audible. Good karma it was not.

Do you need to Apologise

  • There is nothing in the rules of tennis that insists you say sorry for a net cord. If you don't want to, don't.
  • Not all net cords have to be treated the same. Acknowledging a point won by a fluke may be nice; exaggeratedly apologising for a shot that was likely to be a clean winner anyway, may simply be irritating.
  • Unless you are really in to the "winning ugly" philosophy of tennis, don't use your acknowledgement of a net cord as a way of winding up your opponent. Fist pumping or laughing hilariously at your good fortune is unsporting and could even breach the League's courtesy rules!
  • Build in your reaction to net cords into the way you want to be seen as a player. According to USA Today, Roger Federer - as you might expect - has it sussed: 

Federer says apologising can be overwrought. He doesn't always do it and admits he sometimes mocks the custom.

"Oh, I'm so sorry man, I hit that net cord," the Swiss laughed when describing the fake apologies he issues in training.

In matches, Federer says he communicates contrition with a stare before the next point. "Eye contact and a little gesture, tiny, but the opponent knows I meant it," he says.

Still, the decorum-conscious Swiss calls apologising "classy," and "expected" even if a lucky winner is such a "small part of the puzzle" during a match that it's not really necessary. "I think it's a bit exaggerated to do it every single time," he says.

Net cords on serves

Apologising for a net cord on a serve is far less common and unnecessary as the point is re-played. But the service let is itself under threat. Its critics believe it unnecessarily slows down the game and they suggest that returners should play balls that hit the net but are not otherwise faults. American junior tournaments have done this for the last decade and the Aussie FAST4 format actively champions no-let serving.

On the main Tour, the ATP uses no let serving for its young guns Next Gen annual tournament: "The No-Let rule is applied to serves, bringing in an additional element of unpredictability at the start of points," says the ATP. "This rule removes any ambiguity over let calling from umpires, ensuring the rule is consistent with normal ‘let’ occurrences during regular point exchanges."

Some critics go even further: in the main tour, when a serve hits the net, it can be taken again if the ball lands in the correct service box. But if the logic is that the ball becomes 'dead' as soon as it hits the net, does it matter where it lands? Shouldn't all serves which hit the net cord be re-played, irrespective of whether they land in the service box or not.

The net cord sensor

Umpires on the Pro Tour have the benefit of net technology to tell them if a serve is a let or not. Wimbledon introduced a net cord sensor back in 1974, craftily adapting the pick-up from an electric guitar to capture vibrations but despite this retained its net cord judge (finger on cord) for many years. 

Controversially, there have been occasions when the net cord sensors appear to have got it wrong with suggestions that Hawkeye technology would be a better judge of whether a ball trajectory had been affected by hitting the net.

At Local Tennis Leagues the let rule on serves remains in place, and we leave it up to players to decide whether or not they want to apologise for net cords during a rally.

Main pic Escuela Virtual de Deportes