What is a Game Penalty in Tennis?

A female tennis player hitting a ball with her racket on an outdoor court at daytime.

If you’ve ever watched a game of tennis, you’ve probably seen the umpire handing out warnings to players. In some cases, this may even lead to a point of game penalty.

If you’ve been a fan of the sport for a long time, you know how explosive some of the players are, and I’m not talking about their speed.

To be fair, no human is perfect. When a game is on the line, emotions flare up, which is why warnings in tennis are so common.

What is a Game Penalty in Tennis and What Do These Warnings Mean?

These warnings mean that the player has been given a code violation.

Code violations are handed out by the referees according to their rulebook, depending on the tournament. These calls can be considered subjective, depending on who’s sitting on the umpire’s chair.

To make the calls more consistent, umpires must ask themselves several questions. This is to determine if the player is deserving of the violation or not. 

If they answer yes to any of these questions, that’s already a ground for handing a code violation.

Several Criteria for Code Violation

Two male tennis players shaking hands after a match on an outdoor court at daytime.

  • Unsportsmanlike conduct
  • Dangerous play by the player
  • Game delay by the player
  • Displays abusive behavior on the court

As you can see, these ‘criteria’ can be subjective and open to interpretation. However, it does provide a good outline for umpires on when to hand out code violations.

The unsportsmanlike conduct is enough reason to hand out a code violation. It’s a broad criterion that most violations can be inserted into.

But as for more specific rules—there aren’t any. It’s up to the umpire. Basically, they just want the players to act professionals and act as role models.

Most Common Types of Code Violations in Tennis

Here are some of the most common violations in tennis for Grand Slam Events. Take note that this is just a small sample size (from 1998 to 2018).

All Fines, 1998-2018 Men Women

Racket Abuse 646 99

Audible Obscenity 344 140

Unsportsmanlike Conduct 287 67

Coaching 87 152

Ball Abuse 49 35

Verbal Abuse 62 16

Visible Obscenity 20 11

No Press 6 10

Time Violations 7 3

Best Effort 2 0

Default 2 0

Doubles Attire 2 1

Late for Match 1 1

First-Round Retirement 2 0

Totals 1517 535

The data above was taken from NYTimes.com

As you can see on the data above, most of these code violations can be put into the unsportsmanlike behavior category. The only real exception would be the ‘coaching’ violation. That can also be considered unsportsmanlike, but for the coach.

But for the most part, it’s easy to determine which acts constitute a warning. Some umpires are stricter with it, and some are not. Some umpires allow their players to show fiery emotions on the court, while some don’t.

It’s easy to see why some of these calls can get controversial.

Response to Code Violation

A male tennis player reacting strongly during a match after being given a warning.

The first response to code violations is a warning to the player.

After the warning, another code violation should result in a point penalty. Another code violation from that point, and that’s a game penalty. 

If for some reason, the player managed to get another code violation, that could mean disqualification or forfeiture.

For ATP and WTA tours, code violations also equate to monetary fines, depending on the severity of the violation.

Biggest Fines in Tennis

Since we’re already talking about code violations, let’s discuss the resulting monetary fines.

Normally, the bigger the fine, the hasher the violation is. But that is not always the case.

Here are the biggest fines in tennis:

  1. $113,000 – Nick Kyrgios, Cincinnati Masters 2019 
  2. $82,500 – Serena Williams, 2009 US Open
  3. $80,000 – Bernard Tomic, 2019 Wimbledon
  4. $69,910 – David Nalbandian, 2012 Queen’s Championship
  5. $43,756 – Jeff Tarango, 1995 Wimbledon
  6. $26,000 – Daniil Medvedev, 2017 Wimbledon
  7. $20,000 – Boris Becker, 1995 Monte Carlo Masters Finals
  8. $20,000 – Fabio Fognini, 2014 Wimbledon
  9. $17,500 – John McEnroe, 1987 US Open 
  10. $17,000 – Serena Williams, 2018 US Open Finals 

One thing that jumps out of that list is the record by Nick Kyrgios. It was far and above everyone else’s fines. It was the single largest fine ever, and I would need a new article just to discuss it.

The long and short of it is he managed to rack up eight offenses: a total of 6 unsportsmanlike conduct, 1 leaving the court, 1 audible obscenity, and 1 verbal abuse.

The Most Controversial Code Violations

Since code violations mostly consist of outbursts inside the court, it’s safe to assume that violation calls often lead to controversy.

And nothing is more controversial than the most recent Serena outburst. 

Dubbed as the most bizarre match in recent memory, Serena Williams’ outburst in the US Open 2018 remains a hot topic to this day.

What happened was Serena Williams racked up 3 code violations. The first (warning) was for coaching. The second was for racket abuse. The third was for the verbal abuse of an official.

The third code violation ultimately awarded the game to her opponent, Naomi Osaka, making it 5-3 in favor of Osaka. Williams then lost the next game, which lost her the set, and ultimately the match.

Are Code Violations Fair?

A frustrated male tennis player holding his racket to the ground and having an emotional display after his defeat.

Not always. But they serve their purpose quite well.

Code violations should be enforced. The main controversy lies in how these violations are called. Code violations are subjective calls, and as such, it’s impossible to remove all biases around each call.

These rules are there for a reason. Players must act professionally to keep everything kosher and working smoothly.

That being said, an occasional outburst is acceptable. We’re emotional creatures. The problem is when it goes out of control and ultimately affects the image of the sport.

A little controversy here and there is all right, at least in my opinion. It adds color to the game and gives character to the players we see on the court.

A man holding a green bowling bowl, about to make his shot in a bowling lane.

21 of the Best Online Bowling Stores

Basketballs on a display rack of a basketball retail store.

18 of the Best Online Basketball Stores