NOTE: THIS ARTICLE WAS PUBLISHED IN THISWEEK NEWSPAPERS IN EARLY-MAY 2007.|
At the start of each season, Columbus Academy boys tennis coach Jeff Warstler places a ball on the back edge of the baseline, and he asks his players to call it.
The players, who stand just on the opposite side of the net, say it's in, of course. Warstler then moves the players behind the ball, where their opponent might stand, and wait ... the ball is actually out.
"So is it possible that in the emotions of the moment, somebody could call a ball out that truly is out, and you think it's in?" Warstler says rhetorically.
Of course it's possible, and it happens all the time in high school tennis, just as it happens that players occasionally make an incorrect call that costs his or her opponent a point.
High school tennis is imperfect, especially when compared to the polished product most fans see on television. There are no ball boys and girls running to scoop up every stray ball. There is no radar gun clocking every blistering serve. Except at the highest levels of the state tournament, there is no one to announce the score after every point. And every time a ball hits the ground, the responsibility of calling it in or out is up to the players alone.
But that's the way it is and the way it always has been in high school tennis, and it still works.
In both girls and boys tennis at the junior and high school levels, the players make every call. Most calls are obvious -- the play can go on for minutes at a time without a word coming out of either player's mouth. If a ball lands five feet out or a serve pops up high and drops in for a let, both players understand what the call was and move on.
Players are supposed to announce the score after every point, but even that often is left up to memory unless one of the players asks for an update.
If a ball is close, the returning player either plays it, indicating that the ball was in, or calls it out. Most of the time, the opponent accepts the call, but inevitably, disputes do occur.
Typically the disputes are resolved between the players, but if not, a coach can be called in to arbitrate. New Albany senior Ben Williams said that calling a coach in is a last resort for most players, and it doesn't happen often.
"I think probably in my high school career I've seen it happen 10 times," Williams said.
It's not a pleasant situation when a player is forced to call in a coach, but at times it does become necessary. Hartley senior Caitlyn Pecinovsky said she doesn't give her opponents much leeway if she feels they're making poor calls on purpose.
"My dad is a big tennis person and he tells me that you can give them one or two bad calls, but after that, you have to get a line judge," Pecinovsky said. "Otherwise, it's not fair to have someone cheating to win a match."
The coach still does not act as a line judge -- the coach will make a call only if a player asks for an appeal. At the state tournament, the OHSAA will provide one roaming umpire for every two matches on the first day of the tournament, and one chair umpire for each match in the semifinals and finals on the second day. Ed Wolff, coach at Cleveland St. Ignatius and an umpire at state for more than 15 years, said that while the umpires are necessary at such a high level, they still have very little involvement in the match.
"I'm going to say in a good match you're not going to make any (overrules)," Wolff said. "The kids usually know what they're calling and they're usually pretty good about it. You might have one overrule and one call appealed to you (in a match)."
It's about integrity
But the umpires in the state tournament do serve a purpose. Players and coaches agree that the level of sportsmanship and honesty is raised with an official standing by, and the umpires do have to make an occasional overrule on a crucial point.
Senior Chris Turner of Grove City never had played a tennis match before trying out for the team his freshman year, and he said he was shocked to find out that he would be making his own calls.
"I didn't even think about (not having officials)," Turner said. "I played basketball in middle school, and I played baseball and stuff growing up. Yes, it is surprising. You don't ever think that at a high school level you'll make your own calls."
So why not have umpires throughout the season?
The biggest reason high school tennis matches typically don't have officials is money. Warstler said some coaches choose to hire a roaming official or two for an important regular-season match, but it's simply not feasible to do it every match.
He said an official from the USTA typically will charge around $60 a match, and each team plays about eight or nine home duals a season. Even with just one umpire for all five individual matches (a professional match has 10 line judges and an umpire for each match), that adds up to around $500 a season for a sport that has virtually no revenue.
Aside from the financial concerns, some believe that tennis, like golf, is a sport that is meant to rely on sportsmanship. OHSAA assistant commissioner Duane Warns referred to tennis as a "gentlemen's and a ladies' sport," and said even with money out of the equation, high school tennis still might operate the same way.
"Finances certainly play into anything, but traditionally the sport has been able to function that way (without officials)," Warns said. "And I think if we change that, we might be taking away something that is good for the kids, having to make calls and be honest."
Not all agree
There is not a consensus, however.
Upper Arlington girls coach Shaun Stamps believes it would be ideal if umpires could be present at every match. He said that having players make their own calls tends to reveal the character of that particular player, but unfortunately there are times when players give themselves an unfair advantage with the calls they make.
He said that some players develop reputations for making poor calls, and that reputation is often a reflection of the tennis professional that works with the player year-round. Stamps talks to his players about sportsmanship at the start of each season because he doesn't want his players making calls that reflect badly on him and the program.
"If we could do it across the board, I would be for line judges," Stamps said. "It's more of a selfish thing, meaning the coaches don't have to get involved anymore. It's one of those things, where if you get a questionable kid, this kid reflects on the school, which reflects on the coach and the whole team."
Pecinovsky said she played against four or five opponents per season that she "knew made bad calls," and Turner said there is no question in his mind that some players are not honest with their calls.
"You really need to be on your toes more (without officials), I think, because you have to make sure that not only you're making the right calls and being fair, but that they're doing it, too," Turner said. "There are lots of people out there that are dishonest, and you need to guard yourself against that."
There also is the issue of actually making the calls during play. Occasionally players will let a ball drop in front of them, assuming -- and perhaps hoping -- it will fly long, only to see it bounce clearly in the court. Unprepared to swing, the players give away a point on a ball they could have played.
Warstler believes that making calls has virtually no effect on the flow of play, but Turner said that for players with no junior tennis experience, it can be a problem.
Central Crossing senior Josh Chandler said that if it were possible financially, it would be a no-brainer for him to use umpires.
"I don't like it. I mean that's just one more responsibility that you have to have," Chandler said. "It would be so much easier if I could just hit a shot and not have to worry about whether my opponent's shot was in or out."
Are you sure?
The OHSAA has no plans of bringing officials into the regular routine of high school tennis. That might not be a bad thing.
Placing the responsibility of officiating on the players may have benefits. In basketball or football, a player or coach will not complain about a poor call that goes his or her way, but tennis players across the board said they would rather win fairly than win because of a poor call by the opponent.
It's tough, but I really don't want anything that's not mine," New Albany sophomore Peter Kobelt said. "If it's in, it's in."
Every tennis player makes errors in judgment that result in disagreements and arguments. But Warstler said he tells his players to give their opponent the benefit of the doubt. He can't stand to be called into a match -- and his players know that -- but what he dislikes even more is the infamous "Are you sure?" complaint.
"I hate that," he said. "In the rulebook it says to make the call, you have to be sure. So if you're saying, 'Are you sure?' you might as well say, 'You're a cheater.' I tell them that if you're going to say that, you might as well go ahead and call the kid a cheater."
What is clear is that a majority of players don't cheat and matches run smoothly without the aid of officials. Without chair umpires, without instant replay, without ball boys or girls, without scoreboards, without radar guns and without line judges, high school tennis still works.
And it might even teach a lesson along the way.
"I think that in and of itself, with making your own calls, you have to respect your opponent, but you also have to respect the game," Williams said. "And that's with any sport. But especially not having a referee there, it definitely makes you want to honor the integrity and the honesty that is in the sport."