The Third Ball

ballA reader question: “During a USTA singles match, my opponent wanted me to hold the third ball while she was serving. I refused, saying the balls should be on her side of the court while she was serving. She said she didn’t want the third ball on her side so put it on the “caddy” during her service game. She said there is no rule that says the balls have to be on the server’s side. What are your thoughts?”

My Reply:

For the reverse, there is a rule: you cannot (like some “controlling players” like to do) keep the third ball in your pocket if the server DOES WANT the third ball on her side. You have to give them all three when they ask.

But I do not believe there is a rule that says the server HAS to have all the balls on her side while she is serving. They provide balls in cans of three to speed up play; so that you are not always chasing down a ball, if there were only two – which is what you would have to do, if you put the third ball on the net caddy like she asked.

anyone know a rule?

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17 thoughts on “The Third Ball

  1. I know of no rule stating 3 balls must be on her side of the net – maybe she doesn’t like odd-balls. I am not sure she can take one out of play.

  2. Bill – if she doesn’t like “odd balls,” she wouldnt like you or me! thanks. george

  3. This is a very weak subject and almost does not deserve a comment. However it
    is so stupid it is funny. I can not imagine two men ever having this happen. It is
    almost like the kids playing basketball and one saying its my ball so its my rule
    or its my ball and now I am going home.
    If it were me and my opponent was serving I would gladly hold the third ball to
    speed up play. Regardless the third ball needs to be readily accessible. If it were
    on the caddy or at the net that would be the least accessible spot on the court.
    I would say that if know one wants to hold the ball it must be behind one of the
    two players against the fence and preferably behind the server.
    This story reminds of a situation that happened to my brother in law. His wife bought
    him a pair of tennis shorts without pockets!! Whoops

  4. Phil, i once played a player (who shall be nameless) who would NOT move the third ball from being near the baseline. I had to threaten to get a ref to get any action. george

  5. Tennis rules state that the third ball may be anywhere on the court that is not a hindrance to play, and is acceptable to all parties. If the server asks for the third ball, it must be given to the server because the condition of the three balls may be different.
    There is no rule stating that all three balls must be on the server’s side of the court.

  6. I encountered a player in National competition who did not want the 3rd ball to be visible on the court during play, when I told him I preferred having all 3 balls on my side of the court while I was serving. He asked to keep it in his pocket – he claimed that a 3rd ball visible along the fence behind the server was a distraction. Asking for all 3 balls to be on the server’s side, allows the server to choose the 2 balls he wishes to use during their next serve – though most players probably don’t choose.

    But what is the rule or, if there is no rule, what is the code (I have forgotten the of the document that codifies tennis if there is no rule – can someone provide its name? – thanks, in advance!)

  7. I agree with Phil. The situation described in this question seems kind of silly, and it almost seems that the dispute may have arisen because one or possibly both of the players wanted to get into the “head” of the opponent. I do not know the level of play of the two players at issue, but I have noticed a greater tendency among newer and lower NTRP level players to try to play mind games by making up rules that do not exist and also to misapply the rules that do exist — especially in the heat of combat of USTA league or tournament play. (Not that better players do not also try to pull psychological ploys, but at least the better players know the rules better so the mind games tend to take other forms.) I am guessing that may be part of what is going on here.

    As for the question that is posed, there is no relevant rule that I am aware of beyond the rules already cited that: (1) if the server wants to hold the third ball the receiver has to give it to him/ her and cannot hoard the ball (as some receivers, who are control freaks, like to do); and (2) an opposing player has to clear a ball away that is a distraction to the other player, at the other player’s request.

    But I do have one observation, not that it would necessarily dissuade the server from behaving as she did in the questioner’s situation. That is, especially on hard courts, and more so on courts that are “grittier” than others, tennis balls do wear out in the sense that the nap tends to lose fuzz over the course of a match. The worn nap affects the ability of the ball to grip the strings, and it reduces the ability to impart spin on the ball during a match. Also, if the players are harder hitters, that may contribute to some pressure loss in tennis balls over a match. These are the reasons why balls are changed every several games in the course of pro matches. They are also the reasons why we customarily open a new can of balls whenever we play “serious” (e.g., USTA league or tournament) matches, instead of friendly or practice matches.

    That point in mind, I have always felt it beneficial to try to use all three balls interchangeably throughout a match because it allows the balls to all wear down at about the same rate and then you do not have the situation of one ball being fresher and “newer” than the other two balls later in the match. This becomes especially important if the match has to go to a third set, and it probably applies more to singles than doubles because the greater amount of baseline play in singles, which lengthens the points, tends to wear out balls faster than the generally shorter net points in doubles. In the questioner’s situation, if the server is always placing the third ball on the “caddy” while she uses the other two balls to play her service game, that means the ball on the caddy will actually be subject to less wear than the two balls in play. Over the course of a match, this might make some difference in the wear of the three balls — especially if the same third ball sits on the caddy through multiple games.

    But it is probably true that the wear of tennis balls is more relevant to better players than weaker players, because better players tend to hit the ball with more spin and with more power (and also have greater racquet control, which probably makes them “fussier”). Therefore, I would guess that many recreational players would not even notice the ball deterioration, unless the hard court surface is particularly “gritty” and/or so-called regular (a/k/a soft court or clay court) balls are being used on hard courts instead of extra duty balls.

  8. As most people know, women don’t have pockets in their tennis outfits, so it’s necessary to stuff the second ball up one’s tennis pants while serving. Although one gets used to running around with a ball in such a place while serving, why would anyone put herself in that situation for her opponent? It’s one thing to do the favor for your partner while playing doubles, but your opponent? Not me!

  9. I agree with Nick that some servers (me) want all 3 balls so he/she may decide which one to serve with, particularly if the balls start to fuzz up. I also agree with Phil L. that if the receiver always placed the 3rd ball on the caddy it is not “accessible”, & slows down the game, & I agree with the refusal of the original poster to not always hold the 3rd ball for his/her opponent. So if there is no rule that covers the original question, what is the answer, a stand off?

  10. Marty – These two women are not novice, but in the 4.5 range. but on making up rules… there was a guy during a Florida dubs league match that, when challenged on using a “quick serve,” insisted there was an “eight-second rule”… where he was allowed to serve within eight seconds of making eye contact with the returner! george

  11. On the topic of putting extra tennis balls in pockets, or not, I have played matches in heat and humidity so extreme that neither player wanted to put an extra ball in their shorts pockets because the shorts had gotten completely saturated by sweat. In those situations, I recall reaching agreement with opposing players that it is just better to keep the spare balls on the ground, near the server but away from being a line of sight distraction to the receiving player. Kind of gross, I know, but it illustrates that many issues can be resolved with common sense instead of resort to a rule.

  12. George, over the years, I have seen all kinds of attempts by players to make up rules, sometimes even by so-called “better” players. Some of my favorites:

    (1) After the racquet spin, the doubles team winning the spin tried to choose BOTH to serve first AND which side of the court to serve on.

    (2) On a racquet spin, after the opposing team exercised its (little used) option to allow the other team to make the first choice, that team tried to exercise the option to require the first team to make the first choice — which, carried to its logical extreme, would mean that this could go back and forth forever.

    (3) On a disputed call (like a line call; an alleged “carry” or double bounce; etc.), the player questioning the other player’s call could require ANY nearby person — even a spectator; even a friend or family member of one of the players — to come on to the court and act as a line judge/ referee. (This occurred in a USTA match where there were a lot of such disputes but there happened to be no official present at the courts to act as referee.)

    (4) A point could be played “provisionally” in the case of a questionable line call. That is, if there was disagreement about the call, the same point could be played over again. If the player against whom the questionable call was made happened to win the replayed point, then that replayed point would stand — in effect, wiping out the questionable call. But if the replayed point happened to result in the player who called the ball out in the first playing of the point winning the replayed point, than that would affirm that the first call “must have been correct” and the first call would stand. (BTW, the guy who insisted that this was the rule is about a 4.0 level player who used to play a lot of tennis 25 years back but stopped playing for a long period of time and only came back to tennis in the last few years. When he insisted that there actually was a “provisional” ball rule like what I have described, my responding comment was something like, “I’ll bet you played a lot of golf in the years that you didn’t play tennis, right?” His response was, “Yes. How did you know?”)

    (5) On a clay court, if the ball hits a line — typically not painted on but made of plastic or fabric and nailed down — and it results in the ball skidding or shooting out sideways so it is completely unplayable, that must be counted as a let and not a point because the ball was “impossible to reach” and the effect of hitting the line is “no different than if the ball hit the net.”

    And my absolute favorite “rule” of all time:

    (6) When a bird flew down on to a grass court in the middle of a doubles match, interrupting play, and proceeded to poke its beak into the grass at several locations eventually to find a worm, which the bird then ate, this did not constitute a let (according to one of the opponents). The rationale from the opponent? “Because a bird is not a permanent fixture.” Whatever that means.

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