To Really Know Someone, Play Some Competitive Tennis With Them.

If only you could play a tennis match with someone before hiring them, or even dating them for that matter. It would make life decisions much easier. You can learn so much about a person in just a few minutes on the court, especially if the stakes are high like in a playoff or tournament match.

“Anyone can be surprisingly deceptive for a short period.”

Just as you would off the courts, you tend to assess a person rather quickly upon first meeting. While Malcolm Gladwell, the author of BLINK The Power of Thinking Without Thinking, would tell you that people make up their minds about people in a few seconds sometimes subconsciously, I have found that to be a mistake in more than a few cases. Anyone can be surprisingly deceptive for a short period.

I do understand the value in Gladwell’s belief that it’s possible to take a very thin slice of a person, grasp their patterns and extrapolate pretty well on their whole being, but I personally need more data before making a firm evaluation.

Your first point of contact on the court only gives you a small understanding of a player. Some might be wonderful people, but they might get nervous before the game and are unusually quiet and can come off as unfriendly. As the game unfolds, you might realize they are decent people who are just trying to concentrate. Some are wildly friendly at the beginning of the match and then start getting sullen as you win the first few points or games. (More on that type later) Some set a terrible tone right at the beginning saying they have somewhere else to be right after the match so they need to get started without a warmup. This last case is where Gladwell is absolutely right. THOSE people, who feel like three other doubles players need to sacrifice their warmup so one person can get to their party, open house, whatever, can instantly be judged as fairly thoughtless, self-centered people and you can guarantee it doesn’t get much better than that.

Let’s start with the folks who seem almost too nice to be true at the beginning. They start fishing to see what teams you have played on in the past and who your coaches were and who you have played and beat before. They say they are just playing for fun until their competitive streak comes out as well as their ‘sore loser’ character flaws. They will start off by respectfully handing you the balls between games as the serve changes hands. Then they might leave them on the rack by the scorekeeper, which is not as cordial but still acceptable to most players. If they are losing badly, they might just leave the balls all over the court on their side as they switch, not bothering to help you out by scooping them up, as is better etiquette to do. This is an attempt to get back at the winning player and it is simply childish and bad form. It is stated in the USTA basic rules of tennis etiquette to “Retrieve balls for your partner and your opponent.” It is just basic politeness if nothing else.

Then come the ever-contentious line call issues. These situations really give you a clear window into someone’s ethics. I have played many matches when a line call was never questioned and that is the goal. But unfortunately, it’s not always the case. I’ve seen one side make a bad call and then the next ball over is called out on the other side when it is clearly in, as retaliation for the first bad call. It just becomes a nightmare to watch players stand at the net and argue that their ball was in and claiming the opponents are cheating or blind. As a captain, I have begged my teammates to never stoop to retaliation when a bad call is made against them. Sometimes the sun is in your eyes and players make the best call they can, which is what they are supposed to do. Some may have questionable eyesight and are not trying to cheat to win. My rule is to always allow one or possibly two bad line calls against you without getting upset. Most times that does not make or break the match. No one is perfect and you can usually gauge if they genuinely believe your ball was out even if it was on the line from your perspective. If it gets ugly, I would request an impartial line judge, if it is at a tournament where that type of person would be available. That tends to end the problem immediately.

The best line call I have ever seen was from one of my players during playoff season. Michele was playing on the last and deciding court to see if we moved on to the state championship. We had won a court and lost a court so it came down to this one to see who would move on. On top of that, they had won a set and lost a set, forcing them into a match tiebreaker, where the first to ten points by two, wins. It was point-for-point until the other team gained a lead making it 9–8. A lob was hit by the opposing team and it looked like it was just barely outside the back line to us as spectators. Michele took a minute, after other teammates were already clapping since they thought we were now tied up 9–9 and still had a chance, and then indicated the ball was safe. She was calling it in.

I know the team felt like she let us all down, even her doubles partner was in disbelief as she saw the ball as being out. But Michele judged, to the best of her ability, that the ball probably touched the back of the line and was calling it in. It was so questionable, even the opposing team didn’t think it had landed in. Regardless of what anyone else thought that day, she rose very high in my opinion. I knew how hard it was to make that call. So much was at stake for so many people. If she thought the ball was possibly in, she would leave that match feeling like she lied if she didn’t call it in. She had to. And that day, I knew that Michele was someone I could implicitly trust. As honest as they come.

I’ve had partners make bad calls in the past on my side and it feels terrible to go against them and switch the call to lose the point but to stand there and say nothing feels worse. It’s a lot better playing with someone who is going to make as good a call as they can or even one who’s ever generous and calls a few ‘out’ balls in. As frustrating as that might be to lose a point you didn’t have to, I will take that over someone who wants to win at all costs.

Which leads to the ultra competitive partner type. Most tennis players say men are more guilty of this attitude but I am here to say I have played with women who were the same way. It’s an equal playing field in this category, the ‘win at any cost’ people.

I had one partner, a really good, hard-hitting player, who’s theory was “All’s fair in love and tennis.” When I would shake hands and greet the opponents at the beginning of the match she would not and say, “I’m not here to make friends.” Once the game started, she would tell me to “hit them early on and show them who’s boss.” Again, not my style. I will aim for the feet if there’s no other viable option but I prefer to lob it over their heads or slide the ball past them in the alley without causing injury. Again, she was a skilled player but I was always a nervous wreck getting on a court with her for fear she would hurt someone or just as bad, worried we might lose and she would be unreasonably mad.

We won every match we played but the next season I chose a different partner. This one was not just there to win, she was also there to play a fun, fair game. Of course winning is a fantastic feeling and we did win a lot, but so is leaving the court knowing you maintained your decent, good character. The tennis world is small, especially as you get a bit better and start going on to tournaments, so your reputation could get out and you may find yourself not invited back onto teams. This favorite partner would laugh off bad shots, hers or mine. She hit a ball over the fence and shouted “beautiful!” It put everyone at ease and I found myself looking forward to matches instead of being stressed about winning them. I was excited for a fun night of tennis instead of worrying about only winning. I was more relaxed and actually played better without feeling the pressure.

She would also never blame me for losing a point or asking why I hit something that she thought was going out. When partners support each other, instead of pointing fingers at each other when balls are missed, they become a stronger team. I’ve seen opponents start to panic when they were losing and get mad at each other, That is when you know you have already won. They are so in each other’s head that they are no longer focusing on the game. It is the worst way to play.

Like me, my favorite partner also praised the opponents’ good shots, which is the sign of a true good sport. Good tennis is good tennis, and if someone hits a shot you admire, tell them. It takes nothing away from you and makes someone else feel good.

There are other very obvious signs of poor character that come out during a tennis match, such as refusing to shake the winners hand after the match and true story, I have seen a full-grown woman have a tantrum on the court where she threw down her racquet and broke it. It was shocking. If I saw my children doing that, I would pull them out of the game and make them forfeit for poor sportsmanship. I have seen a lot of bad behavior that would be unacceptable from children out there.

Here’s a cheat list of things to watch for:

1. Does the player introduce themselves at the beginning of the match and start on a positive note?

2. Does the player graciously deliver the balls to the opponent who is serving, whether they are up or not in the score?

3. Does the player argue about line calls or make repeated bad calls?

4. Does the player purposely try to hit the opponent to set an aggressive stance and win at all costs?

5. Does the player chastise their partner when they make a mistake or are they motivating, saying things like “you’ll get it next time, no worries?”

6. Does the player praise other people’s shots?

7. Does the player shake hands after a match, win or lose?

There are so many clues to learning about someone’s character on the court, but these higher-level measures to look for are a good place to start. It all starts at love-love.

One of my favorite partners who was as honest and kind as they come. :)
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