One of the more interesting laws associated with tennis the Hindrance Rule and very often it leads to a controversial match situations and bit of a tête-à-tête between the aggrieved player and the chair umpire. Below we explore more about what is the hindrance rule in tennis, when is it invoked, and cite a few examples of when it happened in the past.

Hindrance, in English, is a noun form of hinder, which means to obstruct or to hamper or make it difficult for someone to do something. The same principle is used in tennis for the Hindrance rule, when an opponent or anything or anyone else makes it difficult for a player to continue playing.

So, what exactly is the Hindrance Rule in Tennis?

According to the ITF law book, a tennis player can claim hindrance if he/she is either hindered or obstructed in a deliberate way by the opponent, or unintentionally by the opponent or someone or something else.

When can the Hindrance Rule be Invoked?

There are multiple examples where the Hindrance Rule is invoked in tennis.

  • Talking by singles players isn’t allowed and can be cause for invoking the Hindrance Rule
  • During doubles play, players in the same team can talk to each other when the ball’s heading towards them but not when it’s going towards their opponent, and doing so is another cause for the Hindrance Rule
  • Any other form of deliberate disturbance

When is it Not a Hindrance?

  • A player is allowed to feint with the body, and also allowed to change positions at whatever time before or during a rally but making sounds, or waving arm or racket isn’t allowed
  • A player cannot claim a hindrance against someone who inadvertently lets out a scream (say if hit by an errant ball or stung by an insect)

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In the above causes a let can be called and point replayed. However, a let won’t be called out if the player at the receiving end wouldn’t have been able to complete the shot in any case.

Examples of When a Hindrance Can Be Claimed

  • One of the doubles players plays a poor return and shouts at his partner to get into position for a smash, and ends up distracting his/her opponent
  • A player makes a return and then bangs the racket on the court deliberately while anticipating his/her opponent’s return
  • A player shouts ‘come on’ or something similar after smashing the ball but before the point has been won

How to Claim a Hindrance?

Depending on the situation any of the players can call a Hindrance. In order to call a hindrance the player must stop play as soon as possible. At times, the umpire can also call a Hindrance as was the case during Maria Sharapova’s match against Maria Kirilenko (check the examples below).

Instances of the Hindrance Rule in Top Tennis

Maria Kirilenko v Maria Sharapova, 2012 Indian Wells Open

It was the quarterfinal and happened on Kirilenko’s serve when she banged her racquet thrice on to the court while waiting for a return from Sharapova.

The chair umpire immediately called a Hindrance and awarded Sharapova the point. Kirilenko argued with the umpire, but the latter explained she might have been more lenient had the Russian knocked it once but she had to take the call for hitting it thrice and distracting the opponent.

When asked about the incident after the match, Sharapova said:

“It’s very rare. It’s one thing if you do it once, but I think she did it three or four times. That’s a whole ‘nother story. It’s not like a hockey puck or something. She forgot, I think, the sport.”

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Serena Williams v Maria Sharapova, 2015 Australian Open

Sharapova was at the receiving end of another such Hindrance incident in a match against Serena Williams. It occurred in the final of the 2015 Australian Open against arch-rival Serena Williams. Williams was serving at 3-3 in the second set after having won the first and on one of the serves she sounded like she screamed out “come on” before Sharapova could return her serve.

Robin Haase v Gonzalo Lama, Protejov Challenger

Here Haase lost the point after he was found to have deliberately distracted his opponent in the middle of a rally by letting out a grunt which he hadn’t been doing earlier. Interestingly, Lama had been grunting throughout the match anyway.

Serena Williams v Samantha Stosur, 2011 US Open Final

This incident came more than three years before the 2015 Australian Open final incident and it was Serena Williams at it again. Serena lost a point to this rule after the chair umpire Eva Asderaki ruled the American had screamed out “Come On” before Stosur had a chance to hit the ball, thereby distracting her opponent.

Unlike in 2015 Australian Open final though, Serena was petulant and attacked the chair umpire for the call. She said:

“You’re out of control. You’re a hater, and you’re just unattractive inside.”

Stosur went on to win the match and the title.

When Hindrance was not called but…

Aryna Sabalenka v Ash Barty, 2018 Australian Open

While Ash Barty revealed she wasn’t affected by Aryna Sabalenka’s grunting the problem in this one wasn’t about the grunting sound the latter made. It was the different forms of grunting which came through, forcing analysts and other players to comment on the situation.

Barty went on to win this match but not before the chair umpire had quieten an irate Melbourne crowd for Sabalenka’s continuous grunting. And it did not end there for the Belarusian who was at the receiving end of criticism from off court as well.

Pam Shriver, a former player and commentator tweeted:

“Sabalenka has 347 different sounding grunts. What a talent.”

Caroline Wozniacki, who was the second seed in that competition said the umpire needed to show more responsibility in calling out the hindrance rule.

“I think obviously it’s the umpire’s job to cut down on it. Also if the player feels that it’s disturbing, to go up to the umpire and say so. I think it’s different if someone has the same grunt. We have some players that have the same grunt. That’s one thing. You get used to it. It’s not really a big deal.”

“But it’s different whenever the grunts change from ball to ball and point to point.”

Todd Woodbridge also questioned the grunting while Tennys Sandgren said the grunting was affecting her play.

The problem here was there were a few fans and critics who alleged the grunting came after the ball was hit in what was a deliberate strategy to disturb Barty’s focus.

Which brings us to the next question…

Is Grunting a Form of Hindrance?

Grunting in tennis isn’t illegal but if the chair umpire reckons it is causing an issue for a player, it can be called under the Hindrance Rule. According to the WTA rules book “continual distraction of regular play, such as grunting, shall be dealt with in accordance with the Hindrance Rule.”

What this implies is while grunting by itself hasn’t been outlawed, it could be called out by a player for hindrance and then, on the basis of what the umpire decides, a point could be awarded against the offending player.