The ITF Rulebook: You Haven’t Read It All… Until Now

My, my, my, what a first week of Wimbledon it has been. Federer fans are not done mourning, but tennis – like life – goes on. There’s a full tournament to cover, and what better time to resume blogging about Wimbledon than Middle Sunday, when the event takes a one-day break?

We’ll tackle this remarkable week of tennis in two installments — the off-court dramas and the on-court action. Both realms of theater provided enough discussion topics to last through the coming lull in the tennis season before the Canada tour stops (Montreal for the men, Toronto for the women) in early August. In this space, we’ll focus on the off-court dimension of Wimbledon 2013.


You might not realize this, but you have not read all of the International Tennis Federation’s rulebook for the four major tournaments. The crack team at the Picket Fence uncovered two pages at the end of the rulebook. Many tennis fans think that these rules have been ignored for quite some time, while other fans think that they were never written down. Those who claim that these rules were never written down are the people in sports debates who do not believe in “unwritten rules.” However, we have finally found these rules in written form. We hope that tennis controversies – especially those stirred up on message boards, match-call threads, and Twitter – will now cease to exist.


The ITF Rulebook For Matters Pertaining To The Criticism of Players By Other Players

Section 1. A player is allowed to criticize another player, but only under certain conditions.

Rule 1. A player is allowed to criticize another player if of the same gender. If a player is not of the same gender, any “equal prize money” references are acceptable if uttered by a WTA Tour player, not an ATP Tour player.

Rule 1-a. Janko Tipsarevic is permanently prohibited from criticizing any other player. A lifetime ban was imposed by the ITF in 2012, when it just got sick and tired of the act.

Rule 2. A player is allowed to criticize another player if s/he has made the semifinals of a major or the final of a Masters 1000 / Tier 1 tournament.

Rule 2-a. If a player has won a major tournament, s/he can criticize other players for life, regardless of how grating or unbearable the player’s personality might be to tennis fans on, Twitter, or other like forums.

Rule 2-b. If a player has not won a major, s/he gets to criticize other players for three years. If, in that time period, the player does not make at least two other major semifinals, thereby showing that the first major semifinal was not a complete fluke, the player will lose criticizing privileges.

Rule 2-c. A player without a major title – even if able to criticize players under the “three major semifinal rule” – is not allowed to criticize a player with at least six major titles. A player who falls under the “three major semifinal” rule can criticize everybody else, but stay the heck away from Federer, Nadal, Djokovic, and Serena Williams.

Rule 3. Allowable criticisms by players toward other players must also meet ITF standards for fairness, legitimacy and accuracy.

Rule 3-a. Criticisms about other players’ tennis – technique, break-point conversion rate, power, variety, touch, etc. – will be reviewed by each major tournament’s own committee. Wimbledon can, for instance, use its seeding formula to determine if a criticism leveled during Wimbledon meets reasonable ITF standards of legitimacy. The criticism doesn’t have to be 100 percent accurate, but it must contain at least 34 percent truth, 33 percent debatable material, and no more than 33 percent factually inaccurate content in order to be upheld. In other words, a criticism must be more accurate than not in order to be upheld at each of the four major tournaments. 

Rule 3-b. Any criticism about another player’s state of mind, attitude, or other intangible quality not related to physical fitness or tennis technique will be reviewed by a panel of psychologists who will receive case files on all 128 players at the beginning of each major tournament. A panel of five psychologists will review each criticism in a room on the grounds of the major tournament at the end of each day’s play. If the criticism is ruled invalid, the player will be docked half of his/her prize check at the tournament.

Rule 3-c. Any criticism of another player must include two supporting details, just like anyone’s high-school or college essays and research papers. If a criticism is advanced, two examples must be cited. Failure to provide two supporting details immediately invalidates the criticism and brings about a half-paycheck penalty at the tournament.

Rule 4. Players will be able to consult a Criticism Referee before each tournament to be updated on the three-semifinal provision, the six-major-champion provision, the two-supporting-detail provision, and all other rules outlined above. Results of each major tournament plus behavioral highlights at each tournament (willingly conceding points at Roland Garros by rubbing out marks, not threatening U.S. Open linespeople) will be recorded and then inserted into personal case files for the following major tournament, thereby altering the parameters for allowable criticism. The Criticism Referee will tell players which opponents can and can’t be criticized; other provisions (the two-example rule and the difference between making criticisms of tennis as opposed to criticisms of an opponent’s state of mind) will be conveyed to the player by the Criticism Referee.



We hope you enjoyed reading that added section of the ITF Rulebook.

Humor aside, let’s not make this thing any more difficult than it needs to be: Any human being has a right to criticize any other human being. That doesn’t mean Person A SHOULD criticize Person B, but having the right to do something should be respected. Tennislandia IS a free country, or at least that’s the way I was raised to think.

However, of course, with expansive rights of free speech come great responsibilities.

Fans should not be upset that players speak their minds — we should welcome, not hate, expressiveness on the part of athletes, who (in my experience as a sometime-journalist and frequent editorialist) use dull, boilerplate speech far too often. Fans should be upset when professional athletes, people who are supposed to KNOW something about the craft they are trained to master, utter pure nonsense that is bereft of any basis in fact, empirical evidence, or studied observation. 

It’s hard to knock an accurate criticism, even if it is delivered tactlessly or with some layers of attitudinal spice. It’s when a criticism is so evidently foolish — either unmoored from reality or (if within the realm of possibility) not backed up with concrete examples — that a criticism becomes genuinely unfair.

Purely as competitors, tennis players and any other athletes are supposed to be fair between the white lines. They are supposed to honor the rules of play and not show up an opponent, restraining the urge to indulge in gamesmanship to the point that the opponent loses respect. It is reasonable to say that, beyond the white lines (off the court), players do not have to like each other or respect each other. McEnroe, Lendl and Connors created a hate-fest that, undeniably, made their three-way matchups tasty and enticing as showcases of entertainment (and more specifically, television).

However, there’s a difference between not respecting another player and not being fair with another player. Being brash or cocky is one thing – it might rub people the wrong way, but it’s ultimately just an attitude.

Saying inaccurate things – and therefore, unfair things – about another person? That matters so much more in my book.

Maybe, though, tennis fans with other points of emphasis and interpretation are reading another book.

This whole debate – which came to the fore during the first week of Wimbledon 2013 – is precisely why the above ITF Rulebook fantasy hopefully enabled you to laugh a little bit at the absurdity of the human condition, tennis-style.


About Matt Zemek

Sportswriter, political writer, tennis commentator... and more.

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