Nolan, can you say “Tennis Etiquette?”

Nolan, six years old, is standing at the net facing Elle, also six years old. They look across the net at each other almost to eye to eye. With the ball in his left hand, lightly holding it on the center net strap, he confidently looks Elle in the eye and says “ zero, zero. Are you ready?” after she replies “yes,” and the ball is dropped, Elle gently returns the ball back into Nolan’s side of the court. He attempts to return it but misses. And here it comes…… The pause, the glance over at me, and instead of smacking the ball to the fence, he bends over, picks it up and hands it back to Elle. Under his breath I hear him say, “tennis etiquette.”

Several months ago, when Nolan started playing this game at the net we call Finger Roll, almost every time he missed a shot, he’d whack the ball to the fence or onto the next court, along with some such comment as “Awe, nuts!” One day I looked at him and said, “Nolan, can you say etiquette?” After one or two attempts he had it down pat. He said, “what does etiquette mean?” I explained to him that another way of saying tennis etiquette, would be kind of like tennis manners. I said “You know what table manners are, right?” Of course! This is the kid that walks over to open the gate when a new player is coming on, and greets them with a warm, “so how’s it going? I’m Nolan. What’s your name?” A gentleman, at six years old!

But here we are on the tennis courts. He has missed a shot and he is totally disgusted with himself, not with Elle! His first instinct is to take out his frustration on the tennis ball. It’s usually not a big deal when this happens, because he’s not hitting the ball towards anyone. The ball just goes sailing some other direction. However, this is Tennis Etiquette! We don’t smack balls around on the court! Ever!!

This is a story I tell every time now to bring this point home.  It’s the story from February 2017 when the 17 year old, Canadian player, Denis Shapovalov, playing in the Davis Cup, smashed a tennis ball in frustration as hard as he could. Unfortunately, it hit the chair umpire in the eye causing bruising and swelling! This little outburst cost him and his country a Default, in addition to a Personal fine of $7000! This 2016 Wimbledon Junior Champion obviously didn’t spend enough time learning proper Tennis Etiquette with this Super Fun game of Finger Roll!

Kids and adults love to play this game. Once a player has had a few tennis lessons with the basic forehand and backhand strokes this game can be played even between a parent and a child.  Many subtle aspects to tennis etiquette can be learned from Finger Roll.

For example, in a regular tennis match, tennis etiquette expects the server to be sure their opponent is ready before the ball is served and to call the score. (Unless it’s at the professional level where scores are kept by the chair umpire.). Thus, in the game of Finger Roll, each time before a ball is rolled the score is called out with your own score first. and the question is asked, “Are you ready?” The ball should not be dropped until eye contact has happened & “yes” has been heard in an audible voice.

Let’s consider for a moment the seemingly simple act of making eye contact!  In today’s society where we text our daughter in the next room to see if she can come to the dinner table, eye contact is difficult for many young children as well as teenagers and adults.  Hours in our day are spent on Tweets, Instagram and Facebook posts to impress the masses. But sitting at a booth in the restaurant across from a friend causes uncomfortable jitters when it comes to looking eyeball to eyeball.  On the tennis court before a match, tennis etiquette expects players to meet at the net, make eye contact and determine who serves first by the spin of the racquet.  At the conclusion of a match, the players again meet at the net, make eye contact, shake hands, and say something such as “nice match.” We expect the same in the Finger Roll game.

Let’s also analyze the simple answer of “yes.”  So often I observe, that especially when the player is losing, it’s very difficult for him/her to look their opponent in the eye and say “yes.” Not some mumble of “mmmhmmm” or “yeah.” To actually have the ability to step outside the inner turmoil when the score is called 6–0 and the question is asked, “are you ready?” to answer YES, takes guts! Undoubtedly, this is a critical point. The game could be over after this next ball is rolled, after all. In the game of finger roll, the first player to get seven points wins. In a regular tennis match it would be similar to your opponent coming up to serve and calling out the score 40 – LOVE. In the game of tennis, LOVE means Nothing or zero… so this is game point! The pressure is on. It’s not expected in a regular tennis match to ask your opponent if they’re ready. However, tennis etiquette expects the server to observe if their opponent is in position to receive serve before the ball is tossed up. Just imagine yourself standing there with the realization “if I lose this point, the game is over. But yes, I’m ready to meet this challenge!” This is a life lesson I love to help kids learn using this game of Finger Roll.

As Nolan gently handed the ball back to Elle, he again glanced at me for confirmation and recognition of his accomplishment. It’s so amazing to watch Nolan, who’s grooving his shots every time he comes on the court, and as a Coach, this is so exciting to experience. But more importantly, he’s fine tuning his Tennis Etiquette, and as his friend and mentor, this makes my heart happy!