Michael Emmett: “The ‘Let’ Rule Must be Changed”

Fri, Apr 19, 2013


Michael Emmett: “The ‘Let’ Rule Must be Changed”

Written by: Michael Emmett


***Michael Emmett is the Director of Tennis Operations at all Mayfair clubs.  He is a certified Tennis Canada Coach 3 with a Journalism degree from the University of Texas. Michael spent several years working in sports television at TSN and Sportsnet.  Michael is a former National champion who finished his last year of junior tennis ranked #1 in Canada.  Michael has coached several National champions when he worked for the All-Canadian Academy at the National Tennis Centre at York University in the early 90s.  Michael spent 2 years traveling the world playing the ATP tour satellite circuit as a member of the Molson National Team in 1985 and ’86.***


The sport of tennis is a game that will be with us for a very long time. It has all the components of a ‘great’ game – some would say it’s the best game of all because we call it the sport of a lifetime. We see just as many 8 year olds as we do 65 year olds bashing a ball from one side of the net to the other. Tennis is making a meteoric rise at the country club levels as we see the participation numbers continuing to grow across the board. Canada’s success at the Davis Cup level and the individual accomplishments of Milos Raonic certainly are contributing factors to these growing numbers from coast to coast. The coaching is getting better in our great country and the game is no longer looked at as a fringe sport. Tennis gets priority now in the newspapers and in the sport highlight shows. Tennis is now an Olympic sport and has an impressive reputation worldwide. It is no longer considered a ‘sissy’ sport as I’ve heard many times in my teaching career. An ESPN web poll once ranked Novak Djokovic as the top athlete in the world. Ahead of Lionel Messi, Lebron James and Tiger Woods!

From the social aspect in club tennis to the games’ top players playing international events we see all the characteristics from fitness to skill level to strategy that makes the game so intriguing. However, the sport needs to get with the times and make some rule changes. No sport is beyond rule changes. Rules were made as far back as the eleventh century when French monks started the game. Why has the game’s rules stayed largely intact for so many centuries?

Why is it that every major sport can tinker with their rules to make their sports better but tennis officials are reluctant to dabble with the guidelines because they don’t want to mess with tennis etiquette? Every sport needs updating and I’m not just talking about adding the Hawkeye system that has reinvigorated tennis viewing globally. This has been a wonderful invention but it is not a fundamental change to the rules of the game. It has made line calls substantially better and put trust in the players to focus on their own play and not on the officiating. But tennis needs to make a fundamental change that will greatly impact the way the game is played. Those with a closed mind or who despise modification will hate my recommendation – but I believe if you really think about it logically you’ll agree with my proposition.

Tennis needs to do away with the ‘let’ serve. It is unnecessary and it is killing the game. College tennis players in the USA have eliminated the ‘let’ serve – meaning a serve that hits the net and dribbles over is now considered an ‘ace.’ They have been playing without a ‘let’ serve for more than a decade and by all accounts it is working flawlessly. World Team Tennis is also playing by these rules. And in my opinion this simple change makes all kinds of sense. This rule should be changed across the board in every tennis match for the rest of time.

The fuzzy yellow ball hurtles through the air at top speed, so you move your feet and get your racket back. Suddenly, the ball nicks the tape at the top of the net, changing its pace, height and even direction. If this happened in the middle of a point, the player would have to adjust and keep playing. But in one of tennis’s oddest quirks, the rule is different during a serve that is good, when the action stops and the server has to try again. There is no logical reason to defend this silly rule, except it’s what we’ve always done!

Some rules will remain forever, however, some need to change to better the game and the ‘let’ is front and centre. When I asked a US college coach why they abolished the ‘let’ rule he said quite simply “it had to go, kids were cheating so badly – calling a ‘let’ whenever they would getting aced. It got so out of hand it was the only solution. The cheating got to a point where it was ridiculous. So many great serves were being called ‘lets’ that it got embarrassing for those involved. Balls that were at least six inches over the net were being called lets.”

Whoever invented the ‘let’ serve back when the Kings and Queens were wearing long white pants must have been drunk. When you think about this rule – it makes absolutely no sense. Why does a forehand travelling at a 180km/h or an overhead travelling at similar speeds that clips the net count any differently than a serve? The ‘let’ serve slows down the game, creates needless arguments and makes little sense – other than the fact that it’s been done since the game’s inception there is no logical reason to continue with this asinine custom. In the sport of volleyball where a player is asked to serve from the baseline over a net we have this silly rule. If the serve hits the net and fall over onto the other side the ball is in play and the point is started

So the three major reasons to eradicate this ‘let’ rule are as follows:

  1. Cheaters use it as a crux to eliminate aces from the big servers, calling a ‘let’ is too easy and too hard to detect most of the time. Most matches do not have chair umpires who have the luxury of being close the net at all times.
  2. The differentiation between an overhead hitting the tape and dropping over, or a serve catching a portion of the net and creeping over are one in the same. Both should be winners in my view.
  3. ‘Let’ serves slow down the game. Usually there is one ‘let’ in each and every service game. Over an entire match this may save each match about ten minutes.

One day this rule change is going to happen – that’s a guarantee. Why not make it sooner rather than later?

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2 Responses to “Michael Emmett: “The ‘Let’ Rule Must be Changed””

  1. 1
    LogicalFlaw Says:

    The problem with this is that it adds an incredible amount of luck to the game. No one can serve a “let” consistently on purpose and it takes away all hope of returning. By getting rid of the rule we would be taking some skill out of the game. It is a necessity of fair play.

    Volleyball is NOT similar. Even in two-on-two Volleyball, one player is standing at the net and therefore able to return the serve.

    In an overhead shot situation, it should be a put-away shot where the other player should not have a chance to return it to begin with. When they do hit the net it is a mistake which can sometimes benefit the returning player. A defending player should have every opportunity to return a serve unless the servers SKILL is such that it isn’t possible to do so.

    I understand the issue with cheating,but this is solved at higher levels of play with technology and umpires. The issue is not with the rule than, but rather with the lack of sportsmanship and fair play amongst youth tennis. An article on this would be much appreciated.

  2. 2
    Adam Arnott Says:

    One of the best aspects of the game of tennis is that it is such a fair game. In almost all other sports, be it baseball, football, hockey etc, it is possible to win the match by a single point. Not so in tennis. The idea of two is found throughout the game. You are allowed two serves, you have to win a game by two points and you have to win a set by two games (or two points in a tie breaker). The idea behind all of this of course, is that a person does not win by a fluke. The win must be earned. As such, the idea of allowing a let serve to count goes against this engrained principal of fairness in tennis. In all these other sports you can win with one lucky play. Not so in tennis and that is part of what makes it such a great game.

    To allow a let serve to count in tennis is to deny a player the opportunity to play the point. A dribbler leaves a player without any chance what-so-ever of returning the serve. But what about an ace you say? An ace is a winner that was the result of skill. A dribbler is nothing more than a fluke. No player in the world can hit such a shot on a regular basis. But a player doesn’t have a chance on an ace you insist. But a player does have a chance. The ball hit to them passed over the net without interference, its path is not disrupted and a player has a chance through quickness or out-guessing his opponent through careful observation, to return the serve. Every point is going to end with either a winner or an error so the fact that a winner happens on the first hit of the game is no different from a winner happening on the tenth hit of a game.

    So what about a dribbler that happens after several hits? Why does that count? Once the serve has been returned, each player has had the opportunity to end the point with a winner. The ball is in play, all is fair and what happens, happens. There’s little point in canceling a point after a twenty five hit rally. Both sides have had their chances. Net balls are also often returned and can lead to exciting finishes to a point. An allowed let serve would be nothing but a let down in excitement.

    So why does college tennis play with this rule? They said so themselves. Cheating. I have do doubt the rule change works “flawlessly” but the player who loses a match on such a shot is always going to consider himself robbed and that goes back to the fairness of tennis.

    Cheating by a very small fraction of the world’s tennis players is hardly a reason for a comprehensive rule change. Besides I have no doubt that cheating in college also occurs on line calls. So what do they do about that? The best solution is of course to teach the players not to cheat. They are in college to learn and their own coaches should overrule such calls. Failing that, they have to live with cheating on line calls as they have no other solution.

    Since a technical solution was found for both line calls and let serves in professional tennis, I can’t see why a cheap reliable technical solution cannot be created for let serves in all tennis. In the mean time I would propose to college tennis that they simply paint an additional line across the service box, approximately mid way, and if a let serve falls within the baseline side of this divided service box, then the serve is allowed. Legitimate aces are now preserved. Any let serve falling on the net side of the division results in a re-serve. Now that’s fair.

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