Unwritten Rule: Missing on Purpose
By Mark Renneson
I was at a tournament not long ago, watching a PRO mixed doubles match. This was a refereed, early-round match featuring some of pickleball’s top players. I want to keep this anonymous so let’s say that Team 1 included Kim and Chris and Team 2 was Ricky and Ramona.
It was the first game in a best-two-out-of-three match and the score was 6-8-2. Chris was serving. After an intense point at the NVZ, Kim flicked the ball right through the middle past Ricky and Ramona. The ball was very close but was called out by the line judge on the baseline. Kim immediately protested and Ramona, looking briefly at her partner told the referee that, in fact, Kim’s shot hit the line and they should be awarded the point. Ramona was overruling the line judge’s call in favour of her opponent. Ramona was being a great sport. But the ref didn’t see it that way.
Players Vs. Referee
The referee refused to accept Ramona’s overrule. The line judge made the call and the ref was going to stick by it. The competitors looked confused: all four players agreed that the wrong call was made and that Kim and Chris should get to continue serving at 7-8-2, but the referee wasn’t going to overturn it. He awarded the sideout on the basis of his line judge’s call and he was done hearing any protests.
That’s when the player’s took matters into their own hands.
‘Let’s Go Around’
Having been (unfairly) awarded the sideout, Ramona and Ricky were now in a great position to close out the first game. They just took the ball away from the other team’s second server, Chris, and were poised to go on a run. Especially with Chris and Kim still frazzled by the unfair call, the momentum was in Kim and Chris’s favour serving at 8-6-1.
But instead of serving right away, Ramona went over to Ricky and whispered something to him. She then looked at Chris and Kim and made a circling gesture with her finger. “Let’s go around” she said.
Ramona, remember, is one of the top players in the sport. She then proceeded to bury her serve in the bottom of the net. The crowd of 200 gasped. How could such a good player miss her serve so badly at this critical moment? She then handed the ball to her partner Ricky, who then hit the serve into the back fence on the fly.
The crowd was silent for a second, until one person started clapping. And then more. Next thing you knew, spectators were on their feet giving a standing ovation. I’m still not sure how many knew why they were cheering but nearly all of them were by the time Kim made it three in a row and missed her serve about 6 feet wide of the court.
In the eyes of the players there was an injustice — a bad call led to a sideout rather than a point — and the referee wasn’t any help rectifying it. So with a quick glance and a twirl of the finger, the players solved the problem the best they knew how. Ramona and Ricky both dliberately missed their serves to give the ball back to Chris and Kim. Kim then missed her so that it went back to being the second server’s turn — as it was when all this began. The players ‘went around’ to restore the score again to 6-8-2.
What I liked about this event wasn’t just that order was restored, but that it was done without a lengthy discussion or conflict with the referee. There is an unspoken understanding with many high-clibre players that if you’re going to win, it ought to be fair. And if the refs make a mistake, the onus is on the players to make it right. Missing on purpose is one way to do that.