Tennis courts have not always been the rectangular, tram-lined shape we know and love today. In the sport’s infancy – during the 12th and 13th centuries- French aristocrats engaged in a form of tennis within their own halls and courtyards. They made creative use of irregular walls and improvised dividers to fashion a playing area, often utilising whatever spaces they could adapt.
As the popularity of tennis journeyed across the English Channel and took root in England — largely attributed to the patronage of Tudor King Henry VIII — a distinct form known as ‘royal tennis’ emerged. This version of the sport was far removed from the well-groomed grass courts we now see on our television screens.
Through the Victorian era and well into the 1900s, tennis court designs varied substantially from one location to another. Even the way to discern in-bounds from out-bounds was a matter of debate, with different court markings employed in a variety of places.
But the consistency of court size and line markings is important. That’s because many of the biggest controversies and dramatic moments in tennis history have been caused by disputes related to tennis court markings. These incidents highlight the significance of precise line markings in ensuring fairness and accuracy on the tennis court. Let’s delve into three classic examples where the outcome of matches hinged on the meticulous placement of these critical lines.
1. McEnroe vs Borg – 1980 Wimbledon Final – “You cannot be serious!”
It is perhaps the most famous line in the history of tennis, spoken by one of the most exciting, fiery players of the 70s and 80s, and repeated on every amateur court across the country. McEnroe’s outburst was the prelude to a match-long debate between McEnroe and chair umpire Edward James – who had called the American’s serve against rival Bjorn Borg out.
During the debate, McEnroe did nothing to shed his pantomime-villain-reputation, instead calling James an ‘incompetent fool’ and ‘the pits of the world’, earning him boos and jeers from the crowd, as well as giving away a penalty point.
But who was right? Looking back at the footage, it appears to be McEnroe. After all, the white chalk did fly up when his serve hit the line, an obvious indication that a point is good.
While this intense match – which McEnroe went on to win – displayed a ferocity within the sport, it is also an exception to the rule. The chalk dust used as tennis court line marking will more often than not give a definitive indication as to whether a ball is in or out. It just so happened on this occasion that the umpire got it wrong and became the target of one of the most legendary on-court meltdowns in tennis history.
2. S Williams vs Clijsters – 2009 US Open Semi-Final
Another passionate outburst, this time by legend of the sport Serena Williams. Just as Johnny Mac’s fiery words became synonymous with a Wimbledon final, Serena’s emotional flare-up would forever be etched in the lore of the US Open.
She was down one set and losing the second against Belgian Kim Clijsters. At such a pivotal moment in an important game in the tournament, the Williams sister faulted on her first serve and followed it up with a foot fault that left her just one point away from going out. In response to the unfavourable decision, the women’s world number one embarked on a tirade of angry words directed at line judge Shino Tsurubuchi.
The result of that tirade was a point awarded to Clijsters, a match loss for Serena Williams and a $82,000 fine to accompany it. Kim Clijsters would go on to win the tournament, making her the first-ever female wildcard player to win a tennis grand slam.
But apart from being a memorable sporting moment, what does the foot fault – the root of Williams’ dissatisfaction – teach us about the importance of accurate and consistent line markings?
Well, the lines serve as the bedrock of the sport’s fairness, enabling players and officials to navigate matches with accuracy and confidence. Often taken for granted amidst the thunderous serves and captivating rallies, line markings are unassuming but can quickly become a focal point. Williams’s unfortunate foot fault, amplified by these markings, initiated an emotional avalanche that reshaped the trajectory of the match and, in turn, the entire tournament.
3. Djokovic vs Carreño-Busta – 2020 US Open Fourth Round
Line judges occupy the best possible position to determine whether a ball lands within the boundary markings or outside of them. This proximity, while crucial for accurate calls, also entails an inherent risk that was underscored in the 2020 US Open Fourth Round match between Novak Djokovic and Pablo Carreño Busta.
During a moment of frustration, Djokovic inadvertently struck a ball towards the back of the court. Unfortunately, the ball veered off course and struck line judge Laura Clark in the throat. Clark quickly recovered, and Djokovic apologised profusely, but the Serbian was ejected from the tournament, fined and penalised with a reduction of ranking points.
While the incident doesn’t relate to a disagreement over line markings, it did call into question whether line judges are needed when Hawkeye exists. If – and this is crucial – the tennis court markings have been laid out accurately, the computer vision system can make decisions that are an improvement on even the best, most qualified human eye.
Furthermore, while human subjectivity might one day be taken out of the game, high-quality, non-debatable line markings will always have their role to play.
Tennis is a sport of passion, skill and energy, where a great shot can go down in the history books just as easily as an incorrect call. But it’s not only the illustrious courts of Wimbledon, Queens, or Roland Garros that need accurate court markings; all age groups at any level of tennis can benefit from correct, consistent boundaries.
Outside of the world of tennis too, we can provide line markings and paints for a range of sport centres and outdoor or education facilities. By ensuring that your court line markings are accurate, you remove any potential guesswork from each point, ensuring you’re clear on the ins and outs of every game.