Getting a bad call may cost you a point, but your reaction may cost you the match! Our nervous systems are constructed such that feeling cheated calls forth emotions that are often out of all proportion to the simple loss of the point. Missing a forehand may be frustrating, but being cheated causes moral outrage – no point difference but substantial emotional difference. The counterproductive fallout involves anger, personal antagonism, dwelling on the purloined point, and, in the ultimate case, forgetting about winning the match and getting beaten. Obviously, the first order of business is to confine the damage to the loss of the point itself.
You must, at all costs, remain unemotional and practical about the situation. If you find yourself reacting too emotionally, recognize that this is usually a sign of your own competitive insecurity. In general, players that are confident of winning matches react less violently to bad calls than players that aren’t. Your opponent may be responsible for taking a point that isn’t his, but never forget that you are responsible for the rest of them. So take pride in having the strength of character to immediately get over bad calls and get on with the business of winning the match.
The most important thing is to keep your overall goals in mind. In most instances of recreational tennis, it is best to say nothing and simply forget about the bad call. Of course you would like to win the match, but your other goals of getting exercise and having a socially pleasant athletic experience are actually more important. Unless you dwell on it, the occasional bad call is unlikely to change the outcome anyway.
Questioning your opponent’s call is really questioning his honesty, and this is never conducive to harmonious social relationships. Even if you could win the immediate battle over the point (which is unlikely) you are prone to lose the war. If you have found someone who is giving you a good workout, your purposes are best served by being able play this person again if you choose. Getting into squabbles about line calls is a good way to preclude this.
If it is a tournament match, however, your response might be different. If you are not absolutely sure the call was bad, then it’s probably best to give your opponent the benefit of the doubt and assume the call was accurate or at least that it was made in good faith. (Note how often the pros challenge calls and the electronic replay shows they are wrong.) But if you are certain it was a bad call or if the dubious calls are repeated, then I would, without antagonism, say to my opponent, “Are you sure of that call?” This is code for, “I think you cheated me.” But it’s more socially acceptable. You will have put your opponent on notice, and in most cases the embarrassment will be enough to keep him honest for the rest of the match. If this doesn’t do it, and the cheating is flagrant, I’d stop the match and try to get an umpire. Unfortunately, this is often not possible.
The question then arises, “Should I just cheat my opponent in return?” I instinctively don’t like this approach. Though I certainly wouldn’t go overboard in giving my dishonest opponent the benefit of the doubt on calls, I would not advise retaliatory cheating. If you keep control of yourself and you are the better player you will win anyway, and you will keep your moral system intact.
I am reminded of the Davis Cup tie played in 1972 where the USA played Romania in Bucharest. Ian Tiriac and Ilie Nastase had elevated cheating to a level seldom seen at the professional level. But in the deciding match Tiriac faced America’s Stan Smith, who was a great champion and a great sportsman. Despite a raft of horrible calls and an unfair and hostile crowd, Stan remained cool and aloof and prevailed in the fifth set. Afterward Stan calmly said to Tiriac, “Ian, I’ve lost all respect for you!” It was a beautiful and fitting ending to the affair.
Of course being cheated out of a point is a problem (albeit, generally a small one), but as with any problem, your choices are to fix it or manage your reaction to it. Fixing it would mean getting the bad call reversed, so if you can do this (which is unlikely in that someone will have to admit he or she made a bad call) you are lucky. Problem solved! But if you can’t your next best choice is to stay cool and take it as a personal challenge to get over it immediately. (If Stan Smith could do it playing for his country – 10,000 miles from home on a foreign surface in front of a rabid and unfriendly crowd – you can certainly do it in a less important situation.) Remind yourself that bad calls are an inescapable part of tennis, and being able to get past them unemotionally is a necessary part of your tennis tool bag, just like missing a forehand or double-faulting.