Why Tennis Should Not Abolish the Service Let

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    The ATP Board of Directors recently approved the elimination of service lets on the Challenger Tour for the first three months of 2013. ATP Executive Chairman Brad Drewett said the board believes “a trial at the ATP Challenger level will be a good way to test this initiative in a competitive environment and get feedback from players before deciding if it could be adapted more broadly.”

     Here are six reasons why this proposed rule change is bad for tennis.

1. Service lets are very infrequent, and the delays they cause are quite minimal. A survey taken during the 1982 U.S. Open revealed there were only 1.83 let serves per hour of play. At the 1996 U.S. Open, precisely 5.0 service lets per match occurred in 45 senior matches surveyed. A two-year International Tennis Federation study of 715 matches in the 1990s reported an average of only 4.1 service lets a match.

2. This reform would lower the caliber of play. Allowing the flukish service let rebounds—balls that dribble meekly over the net, pop straight up or carom wildly after hitting the top of the net—diminishes serving quality as well as inadvertently and wrongly increases consistency. And that de-emphasizes the importance of a sound and effective return of serve and thus further encourages mediocrity.

3. Billie Jean King claimed that since service lets are unpredictable and often bizarre, legalizing this element of luck “just makes for more drama.” However, tournament tennis and national team events, such as the Davis Cup and Fed Cup, are and should remain wonderful tests of skill and will. The present rules offer a fair test of superiority, a sine qua non of any athletic competition. The odds are excellent that the more skillful and stronger-willed player will eventually prevail. As Stefan Edberg, former world No. 1 in singles and doubles, averred: “It’s crazy. If the ball hits the net and drops [barely] over, it’s an ace? It would be a matter of luck. It’s totally unnecessary.”

4. Abolitionists assert: since play continues after net cords (when the ball hits the top of the net and then lands in the court) during the point, why not continue play after service lets that start the point? The rebuttal is that since the service let starts the point—and the server usually starts with an advantage—and the net cord happens during the point, the two situations differ considerably in this crucial sense.

5. Martina Navratilova claimed, “It [the no-let rule] doesn’t really give anyone advantages, the server or the receiver.” That is preposterous. Aside from rare “phantom” (viz., hard to detect) service lets, the vast majority of service lets consist of  1) balls that dribble a few inches into the court and would be certain aces if the rule were changed; 2) balls that pop up high into the air asking to be put away either by overheads or powerful groundstrokes; 3) balls that lose some speed and thus help the receiver; 4) balls that, due to spin, swerve in an unpredictable direction and thus help the server.

6. Disputes between players and chair umpires about whether a service let was called and should not have been, or vice versa, have become even rarer this century because of electronic sensor clips attached to the net. These electronic sensors are now used for all main draw matches at ATP tournaments and Grand Slam events, Davis Cup (for all World Group ties), Fed Cup, the Olympics and some ITF pro circuits.

     In 1999, the ITF ended a 16-year campaign to abolish the service let when Patrick Rafter and other players vowed to boycott the Australian Open if the time-honored service let rule were abolished. Steffi Graf ridiculed the elimination of the service let as“stupid.” Jimmy Connors criticized it as “nitpicking.” Boris Becker warned, “It’s not a wise change.” Pete Sampras blasted it as “ridiculous.” And Andre Agassi called it “horrific.” They are right.

     Summing up, the no-let rule is not just a non-solution to a non-problem.  It’s detrimental to the game.


     Paul Fein has received more than 30 writing awards and authored three books, Tennis Confidential: Today’s Greatest Players, Matches, and Controversies; You Can Quote Me on That: Greatest Tennis Quips, Insights, and Zingers; and Tennis Confidential II: More of Today’s Greatest Players, Matches, and Controversies. Fein is also a USPTA-certified teaching pro and coach with a Pro-1 rating, former director of the Springfield (Mass.) Satellite Tournament, a former top 10-ranked men’s open New England tournament player and No. 1-ranked Super Senior player in New England.

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