Published in New York Tennis Magazine

 is a commonly used tactic of psychological warfare on the tennis court.  I have many players who are not sure how to react to being cheated or what to do about it

It is a sad statement about junior tennis that cheating is so rampant in tournaments and an in-depth discussion about cheating and its causes and solutions would be the subject of an entire separate article.

Rather than tackle that bigger picture subject, I'd like to explore some practical solutions to the cheating problem and share with players and parents how I discuss this issue with my own students.

Four Options

I tell my students that if they are cheated, they can basically respond in one of the following four ways:

1. Cheat back to make it even
2. Don't cheat back and deal with it‎.
3. Quit the match. Refuse to play a cheater

I tell my students that there is one other option, a 4th option, that is categorically unacceptable--Excuse Making. Whining, complaining, losing emotional control, and usually giving up the match
‎Students who choose the 4th option allow their opponent to manipulate them psychologically and they adopt a losing mentality.‎ I tell my students that the Excuse Making option is the only option that I absolutely will not allow.

I think if more coaches and parents framed the options this way, kids would have a clearer understanding about how to begin to handle a cheater. 

The Big Ethical Question

The first step for a player is to decide whether he or she believes it's ever ethically right to cheat back.  Cheating back is a controversial moral issue. Many parents and coaches will draw an ethical line and say that cheating is wrong under any circumstances. But many others argue that while cheating is wrong, cheating back to make it even is more acceptable--even ethical.

Over the years, I've had many players and parents argue both sides of this issue, and my mind is still unresolved. ‎ The issue reminds me of ethical questions like: Is killing ever justified, or is torture ever justified? These are difficult questions to answer in black and white. Certainly a moral person would never ostensibly condone killing or torture, but what if you are killing to defend your friends or family from harm? Or torturing to save citizens from an imminent threat? Indeed, this question itself was a prominent them in the popular TV show 24--its an openly debatable question.

I don't encourage my players to cheat, or to cheat back--I don't think that is right or responsible--but I have many families who decide that it is morally justifiable, and their students cheat only in instances where their opponent has clearly cheated them. It's retaliation cheating.‎ It is reactive cheating rather than proactive cheating

A small minority of parents and coaches actually  encourage proactive cheating. They believe a player should "win at all costs," cheating with abandon at every opportunity. These folks believe "all is fair in war." But in my experience, most people fall into the first two groups I mentioned above, believing that cheating is always wrong, or that it can be justified as a retaliation in certain instances.

The majority of the families I work with believe in Option 2, which is that cheating is wrong under any circumstance, and that the player should have to deal with it and figure out a way to win even while being cheated. These families say "two wrongs don't make a right" and instruct their player:  "Don't stoop to the cheaters level!"

Some of these families, in the face of obscene and relentless cheating, will instruct their player to choose Option 3:  Quit the match and refuse to play, which is a legitimate plan of action against a determined cheater.

I recommend that the player and parents sit down together and form a strategy for handling cheaters, starting by determining which of the first three options they find acceptable and acknowledging that the Excuse Making option is totally unacceptable. And from that point, the family can craft a plan of action, which we will discuss in more detail in Part Two of this series

In his popular book, The Tennis Parents Bible (First edition), Frank Giampaolo has an excellent chapter on dealing with cheaters, that I highly recommend. In the chapter, he mentions a survey that he took at a national tournament of more than 20 junior national championship players. Shockingly, ALL of them admitted to retaliatory cheating to win national tournaments. Indeed, most--but not all--of the top nationally ranked kids I've coached are so competitive that this approach seems natural to them.  They hate to lose so badly that they will take the match into their own hands and "fight fire with fire."

I have had students who have cheated proactively, whom I ‎admonished and encouraged to develop better sportmanship skills. I have had students who cheated reactively, whom I didn't judge, but I asked them to find the correct moral path and plan of action based on their family's values in coordination with their parents. And I have had the majority of my students choose to never cheat no matter the situation.

In Part Two of this series, ‎I will discuss more specific skills and strategies, and help players and parents develop a plan of action for handling a cheater.

Part Two

In the first part of this article, I discussed the four options players have when facing a determined cheater

1. Make excuses, whine and complain, and give up 
2.  Fight and find a way to win--but never cheat back
3.  Fight and find a way to win using Retaliatory Cheating to even the playing field.
4.  Quit the match and extract oneself from the toxic situation

In Part 2, I will explore some specific actions and plans that players can take to help ameliorate the cheater's negative impact.

1.  Make excuses, whine and complain, and give up

This is a very common response players have when facing a bad cheater. I often have players report to me that they lost a match because of cheating
Here's how the conversation often goes:

Coach: "How was the tournament last weekend?"
Player: "Oh, it was terrible, I lost because the other player was a big cheater..."

Lets stop right there. While it is possible for cheating to swing a match in favor of the cheater, usually cheating does not, by itself, CAUSE a player to lose a match.
What causes a player to lose a match is losing mental control because of being cheated. It is a player's responsibility to insulate himself from the effects of the cheater. The player must not allow the cheater's psychological warfare to distract from his mental focus or emotional control.  It's important to frame the situation this way to honest players, and to teach them that using cheating as an excuse for losing is unacceptable‎.

2. Fight and find a way to win--but never cheat

For Never Cheaters, it's important to understand the dynamics of cheating and why the opponent is doing this.

There is a myth that cheaters cheat because they feel vulnerable and inferior to their opponent. The myth says that they cheat because they don't believe they can win in a fair fight. Of course, this does happen on the court, and cheaters tend to cheat more in close matches or when they are losing. However, many times a cheater is just a cheater--they will do anything ‎to win and cheating is a conditioned habit and one of many tools of psychological warfare.

I had a student--and I'm not proud of this--who was a pretty good player, around 60-70 in the country, but he was a terrible proactive cheater. He used to regale me with his cheating stories about how he messed with his opponents' head using dirty tactics. His favorite ploy was to change the score. His opponent would usually become apoplectic, and a big argument would ensue. He told me this was a great way to shift the momentum of a match, in his experience. I discouraged this behavior, but I'm not sure he ever abstained completely from cheating even after my intervention. For him, it was too easy to do under the current USTA rules and regulations, and he believed he should do everything in his power to win.

Honest players must understand that cheating is probably the most powerful tool of psychological warfare available to a tennis player, and they must fight to prevent a cheater from disrupting their focus and emotional control. Honest players must be very wary of letting cheating distract them from playing their best tennis in the zone. That's the goal of the cheater--along with getting some extra free points along the way!

Getting an Umpire

Players should have a plan about when to call an umpire. I usually recommend allowing one questionable call and then leave the court and request an umpire on the second questionable call. Some players may want an umpire immediately after the first instance of cheating.

Getting an umpire is a commonly 
solution. However, the umpire often cannot stop a determined cheater. A good cheater can still make bad calls at opportunistic moments and can twist the score in ways that the umpire cannot prevent. Oftentimes the umpire won't be paying attention, or will leave the court and roam to other courts, leaving moments for the cheater to do his dirty work.

It is also very unfortunate that the umpires often provided at tournaments are not very well trained and generally do not have an umpire chair to sit in to get a better view of the court. Sometimes there are too few umpires for a tournament. There are just too many matches to observe for the amount of umpires supplied. Smart cheaters take advantage of these loopholes in the system.

Playing Safer

Another commonly advised solution to cheating is to play safer and away from the corners and lines, where it is easier for a cheater to cheat. Players can also spin in the first serve more frequently and away from the lines to prevent the cheater from calling second serves out. While this can help the problem, a determined cheater will still call balls out, even balls that are not that close to the lines. In addition, a good cheater can find other ways to cheat that don't rely on line calling, such as changing the score or calling a phony let on the serve. (I have seen cheating players call a let after every service winner or ace!)

Furthermore, playing safer is only viable for consistent baseline type players who can play a patient, grinding style and win with that style.
For power servers and attacking players, and for those whose style is more aggressive, it's not viable to completely change one's strategy, spin in the serve, and become a baseline retriever in order to beat a cheater. In fact, a cheater would love to see his opponent switch tactics like this. It means the cheating is working, and getting in the opponent's head.

If you are a patient counterpuncher, however, serving higher percentage and playing safer can make it harder for the cheater to cheat the lines.

Here are few strategies for mental warfare that I recommend to my players to help fight back against a cheater:

Bathroom Breaks

As Frank Giampaolo recommends in his book, The Tennis Parents Bible (second edition), use bathroom breaks‎‎‎--which are legal--to fight back and put the freeze on the cheater after a big argument over the score or line call. Use the bathroom break to recover mentally and emotionally and also to dish back some mental disruption to the cheater. It's annoying to sit there waiting for your opponent to return from the bathroom, and the waiting player will often lose focus and get cold!

The Drop Shot

I teach my players to use the  drop shot as a tool for mental warfare‎ and it is almost as powerful as cheating in this regard. A good drop shot can really get under the skin of the cheater and frustrate him. Practice this shot frequently and deploy it liberally when playing a cheater to annoy them and fight back in the mental battle. The drop shot followed by a lob can drive the cheater nuts!

Challenge the Cheater

Players should not be afraid to challenge the cheater verbally and let them know what's up. The player can bring the cheater up to the net for a little tough talk. The honest player can tell the cheater that he is going to make him suffer with the drop shot, for example.

Threatening to call an umpire won't phase a cheater, but the player should establish that he will call one. Threatening to file a complaint with USTA is a good idea but probably won't phase a cheater either.

The bottom line is that cheaters will thrive on timidity or any perceived weakness. Competitors have got to act tough with them.  If a player is the sensitive type who doesn't like conflict, challenging a cheater can be a really hard thing to do.

I know many fights that have occurred in the parking lot after a match due to cheating. While it's not within the rules to threaten a cheater physically, you must make it clear that you will not be abused and that you are tough. Cheaters love that there is no physical contact allowed in tennis--it means they can cheat all the time with impunity. In football, wrestling, hockey, or boxing, for example, the cheater would get beat up for sure, and this is a deterrent against cheating. But in tennis cheaters know they are safe.

My friend told me a hilarious story of how when he was a kid, he got so angry at his opponent who was cheating him, that in the middle of the match he actually jumped over the net, chased down his opponent-- and tackled him.  He got some punches in and some retribution,  but guess who was subsequently defaulted from the match?  That's right, the cheater won the match right then and there. And guess who got suspended from sanctioned tournaments for the next six months? Hint: it wasn't the cheater.

Just make sure that, when challenging a cheater, a player does not lose his own focus and emotional control. The cheater is an expert at psychological warfare, and probably has more experience than the honest player in verbal battles on the court. Be aware that the cheater will say anything and everything to rile his opponent up and get under the honest player's skin.

It important for Never Cheaters to understand that sometimes, against a nasty and determined cheater, the honest player simply cannot win. It's a myth that cheating doesn't ever affect the outcome of a match. Of course it can.  A very good cheater can manipulate the score or cheat on important points that really can swing a match in his favor. Sometimes, even if the honest player does everything in his power, he will still lose to a determined cheater. This is a jagged pill to swallow, and therefore many competitive kids and high ranked players choose option three below.

 3.  Fight and find a way to win using Retaliatory Cheating to even the playing field.

For those players who are comfortable with Retaliatory Cheating, its important to be certain they were cheated in the first place before engaging in any cheating back. Remember, not everyone is a cheater; many players just make mistakes. The ball is moving fast and it's hard to see sometimes--that's a reality.

My top national kids almost all engage in Retaliatory Cheating. It's a shame that they have to do this to level the playing field--but they do.

Sometimes with one good retaliatory cheat--strange as it may sound--you can earn the respect of the cheater, and they may actually stop. It may be the only way to make a habitual cheater stop.

I have had positive reports from many players who have done this.

After the first retaliatory cheat, I recommend going to net for a tough talk. The honest player should explain that every time the cheater cheats, the honest player is going to take the point back. When a cheater realizes that his opponent is not going to be pushed around or manipulated, often times, he will save his dirty tricks for the next time.

Sometimes though, cheaters just can't help themselves. If the cheater continues to act badly, players must be prepared  for a long and dirty match indeed.
Honest players will need all their psychological strength to get through it. Thin-skinned players need not apply.

The most common tactics for Retaliatory Cheating are:

Call it out anywhere--On the point after being cheated, the player simply catches the ball after it lands or calls the ball out no matter where it lands.

The player can also call a second serve out, which is an easy way to take a point back and level the playing field.

Manipulate the score--The point after being cheated or later in the game, the player changes the score to reflect what the actual score should be. An argument will ensue...and the players will have to return to the most recent agreed upon score in the match.

It is tougher to level the playing field if the cheater has stolen a big point, like a game or set point. In this case it can be harder to retaliatory cheat in a fair way.

Retaliatory cheaters must be careful to avoid falling into the trap of assuming everyone is cheating them and of slipping into proactive cheating, which is a real danger. Watch out for the slippery slope and maintain ethical boundaries.

4. Quit the match and extract oneself from the toxic situation

Sometimes the cheating is so heinous and rampant that a player may decide to actually forfeit the match.  I once had a student do just this at a local tournament and I was shocked to hear that he chose to quit rather than try and tough it out.
Generally I would recommend that players try to overcome the challenge in front of them,  but in some instances of egregious and determined cheating, it can be healthy for a player to understand that this is only a game and that he doesn't need to play this cheater--he can choose to leave the tournament and play again another week. This should be a last ditch choice for very extreme situations.

In these instances, players should try to be respectful to the tournament officials and director. They can explain their rationale for forfeiting and file a complaint with the USTA competition chairperson.  ‎Unfortunately, the USTA does not have a lot of power under current regulations to censure or punish cheating players in these instances, and it's hard to prove a case against a cheater.


When facing a cheating player, it's important to never make excuses and give up trying to fight. Players need to determine whether they will choose to fight with Retaliatory Cheating or to fight while never cheating back based on their and their family's moral and ethical framework. They then need to follow a gameplan to work towards success.
In very extreme situations where the cheating is particularly offensive, a player always has the right to exit the court and forfeit the match. 

‎Until the USTA steps up and offers a more comprehensive solution to cheating in junior tennis, young kids will continue to face these challenges on the court. While some argue that cheating is a challenge that makes a competitor stronger--and it can make some kids stronger--it also turns many kids off from competition and reduces the participation rate of players in tournaments. 
I believe it is unprofessional and embarrassing that the governing body of our sport allows cheating to occur on such a widespread level in sanctioned events. ‎All concerned players, parents and coaches should continue to lobby the USTA to institute a stronger program to address and prevent cheating. While not the purview of this article, such a program could include better training of umpires and providing more of them for each event, requiring chair umpires for ‎every junior match, and the creative solution of creating a peer umpire program where tournament participants are required to chair another match in the tournament. The USTA could also have a better system of filing complaints, tougher guidelines, and stronger punishments in place for players found to exhibit a pattern of cheating. In addition, the advancement in camera technology, such as Hawkeye and Playsight Smart Court systems, offers hope that someday in the future, line-calling technology will finally offer a permanent solution to this stubborn problem.