What is a Code Violation in Tennis?

In tennis, a code violation refers to a breach of the code of conduct set by the governing body such as ITF (International Tennis Federation) or individual tournament organizer. A player can receive a code violation for various actions or unsportsmanlike behavior that is considered to be against the rules of the game. Code violations can lead to point penalties and fines.

The purpose of the code violations is to maintain good sportsmanship and respect toward the opponent, the officials, and the crowd.

Tennis Code Violations

Most Common Code Violations

Racket Abuse: Deliberate or excessive throwing or smashing of the racket.

Ball Abuse = Hitting the ball at an opponent, the crowd, the referee, or the court walls due to frustration. This may result in a warning, a points deduction, and a fine.

Verbal Abuse = Cursing or using offensive language towards the opponent, tournament official, or the match crowd.

Time Violation = Tennis players are given a specific amount of time between points, games, and sets. If a player exceeds the allowed time limit he/she can receive a time violation. The most common example of a time violation is a situation where the player is unable to perform a serve within the 30-second time limit (in a tennis match players have 30 seconds to perform a serve).

The purpose of time violation is to speed up the play and prevent any unnecessary disruptions in the match’s flow. Excessive pauses interfere with the game’s tempo and therefore are a great distraction for the opposing player.

Due to the disrupting nature of the pauses many professional tennis players such as Rafael Nadal tend to use the whole 30 seconds to perform the serve to irritate their opponent.

Unsportsmanlike Conduct

According to the rules of tennis, a player must behave in a sportsmanlike manner and respect the rules of the game, the opponent, and the officials. Any inappropriate behavior towards these rules can be seen as unsportsmanlike conduct.

If a player is considered to have behaved in a way that is contrary to these rules, the referee may give the player a verbal warning, a point deduction, or a disqualification depending on the seriousness of the offense.

Unsportsmanlike conduct includes any inappropriate verbal or gestural communication and physical acts such as throwing the racket or other objects such as water bottles.

However, the match umpire has the right to apply this definition at his/her discretion when penalizing players. For example, swearing may be considered inappropriate verbal communication, but it usually has to be significant to result in a penalty.

Foot Fault: In tennis, the serve must be performed with both feet behind the baseline, and only after the player has hit the ball may his feet touch the inside of the court. If a player’s feet touch the baseline or inside of the court before he has hit the ball, the player may be penalized for a foot fault.

The result of a foot fault is that the player loses that serve, for example, if the player has made a foot fault on his second serve, he loses that point.

The point of a foot fault is to prevent an unfair advantage when serving inside the tennis court.

Penalties for Code Violations

The severity of the penalties awarded by the umpire for breaching the code violations is discretionary. Depending on the umpire some code violations can lead to straight penalties while others lead only to verbal warnings.

In general, the penalty scale goes as follows:

Number of violations madeThe sanction for the violation
First violationVerbal warning
Second violationLoss of point (for example 30->15)
Third violationLoss of game
Fourth violationDisqualification (default)
Code violations can also lead to fines if they are severe enough

Examples of famous code violations

John McEnroe, 1981 Wimbledon Unsportsmanlike conduct

Serena Williams, 2018 US Open final Coaching (Coaching such as giving the player advice from the crowd used to be forbidden but now it is allowed in certain tournaments)

Novak Djokovic, 2020 US Open Unsportsmanlike conduct, Ball abuse (hitting the ball towards an official)

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Basic Tennis Rules