**Summary: I coached varsity tennis for both girls and boys for six seasons, and this series is meant to highlight those moments that I felt were real connections between player and sport, between player and coach, or between opposing players in a competitive setting. The real nature of a competitor is shown through how she/he deals with pressure, adversity, surprises, and expectations.
It was my first year coaching the boys team, and I had some real doubts about our ability to win actual matches. The crew was undisciplined and small. If there were just two players who didn’t show up for a match we would have to forfeit one of the positions. That’s how small the team was. But they were fearless, which was their best quality. Well, that and their sense of humor. Even though we had a horrible year in the win-loss column, we never gave up and we always played hard until the very end.
One of our early matches that season was with a school we matched up well against. In fact, my first and second singles players won their matches rather easily, as did their second and third doubles teams. That meant the match came down to third and fourth singles, and to first doubles. We sweated out the first doubles match, winning in the third set 6-4. The fourth singles match came down to the wire as well, but we lost it in the third set 7-5. And, as often happened in those high school tennis matches, when players finished their matches they gathered around to watch whatever matches were still in progress. That meant everyone on both teams, including both head coaches, was gathered around to watch the drama that was the third singles match.
Now, I was one of the few who had been watching that particular match on and off for its duration, so I was in a unique position to know what had been going on, and I wasn’t very happy about it. This was because the boy playing for the other team was cheating. The first set went to a tiebreaker, which is when I first noticed it. After my player’s shot hit the line and rolled to the fence, the other boy then called the shot wide and claimed the point. My player was livid, but it is the other player’s call. Of course, being livid, he then proceeded to practically hand the next six points over, and with it the tiebreak. After the abysmal tiebreak, I talked to my player.
“I know what he did there,” I said. “But I also know that it was one point. Don’t let that beat you. You are better than him.”
“But it was so obvious, coach,” he replied, still upset.
“And that one point cost you the next six,” I said. “Don’t let it cost you the match too. You have to get past it.”
The second set started, and I could tell that he had taken my advice to heart. He was playing hard and tough and took the first two games. Then the cheating began again as blatantly as the first time. The player on the other team began calling shots wide that weren’t, and calling shots in that weren’t. This was particularly frustrating for my player when he would serve and it was clearly out, but the other player called it in and won the point because of it. In this way he took the next three games and my player was seething. That’s when I talked to the opposing coach and asked him to talk to his player. They had a chat, but it continued.
By the time the score in the second set was 5-2 it had been enough for me. My player had refused to call in a line judge, which was his prerogative, but I was not about to lose the pivotal match based on cheating. After I had conferred with my player, I told him to wait by the sideline. Then I went to talk to the other coach and told him my player wanted a line judge for the remainder of the second set. Now, I know my player didn’t request one, but I also knew he was young (a freshman), and he felt that everything would shake out the right way in the end. I knew better, and I was using my authority to right what had gone wrong and give him the chance to win a match he should have won anyway.
In high school tennis when a player calls for a line judge, either one of the two coaches can go onto the court and confirm line calls from either player for a certain period of time (in our case, for the remainder of the second set). Because it was my player who called for the line judge, I asked their team’s coach to go in and do the judging. Then play resumed and it was obvious having the line judge affected the other team’s player. He wouldn’t dare call the balls in or out knowing that he could easily be overruled by his own coach. So he was forced to play clean, and my player benefited tremendously. He got his confidence back and easily won the next five games to win that second set 7-5.
The third set ended up being anti-climactic when my player steamrolled to a 6-1 win, and the pivotal match win. After the match he came right over to me and gave me a hug. I wasn’t used to such displays, but he was truly grateful that I took things into my own hands and allowed him to just play his game instead of being irritated over the cheating. He told me that from then on if anything like that happened again he wouldn’t hesitate to call for a line judge. I was so proud of him, and the entire team, that day. They had all learned a valuable lesson because they were all watching by the time the line judge was called, and they all knew that cheating didn’t pay. That was called learning a lesson firsthand.
It turned them into good competitors, and it also made them even better citizens. After that match I told the other coach what had really been going on, and he assured me he would have a talk with his player too, to make sure it didn’t happen again. I have no doubt he was true to his word. Everyone likes a solid competitor, but no one likes someone who feels they need to cheat to win.