Today’s discussion will focus on the safety zone – the 5 foot area between the short line and the receiving line. There seems to be uncertainty by many players about the interpretation of rules as they apply to both the server and receiver. For example, during the 2014 U.S. Open women’s doubles finals aired this year, the referee called the serving team for a foot fault for stepping back into the safety zone before the ball crossed the short line. Moreover, the announcers took the time to clarify the referee’s call without correctly explaining the rule. Mistakes happen in the course of refereeing and this example shows that even experienced players are subject to misinterpretation.
The safety zone, as the name would imply, was designed to promote a safe area between the server and the receiver. Anyone who has been hit by an errant racquet will appreciate the need to separate the server and the receiver. As I have reiterated in my series of rules articles, failure to adhere to these rules fosters an unsafe environment where players are more likely to sustain injury. It is important to note the safety zone applies to both the receiver and the server. Many players are quick to call the receiver for moving early into the safety zone, while dismissing the server for the same infraction. Failure to hold both the server and receiver equally accountable is unfair and unsafe.
There are two main rules designed to enforce the safety zone – Encroachment and the Safety Zone Violation. Let’s examine each separately:
Encroachment (Rule 3.11 (a)):
1. The receiver may not break the plane of the receiving line with the racquet or body until the ball either bounces in the safety zone or else crosses the receiving line. For example, if the receiver steps on the dashed receiving line with either foot (with any part of the foot contacting the line) before either of the two preceding things happen, a point shall be called for the server.
2. The follow through may carry the receiver or the racquet past the receiving line, but neither may break the plane of the short line unless the ball is struck after rebounding off the back wall.
3. Any violation by the receiver results in a point for the server.
Safety Zone Violation (Rule 3.10 (i)): An immediate loss of serve shall result if, after the serve has been struck, the server or doubles partner step into the safety zone before the served ball passes the short line.
The rule for encroachment refers to vertical planes extending upward from the receiving line and short line, while the safety zone violation refers only to stepping into the safety zone. For encroachment, one must consider whether the foot, hip, elbow, shoulder, or racquet crossed over into the invisible zone before the ball bounced or passed the receiving line. This is a daunting task, especially given the perspective of the referees located behind the back wall. This is where common sense and court positioning is essential to making an accurate call. For example, if the ball bounces six inches beyond the short line and the receiver short hops the ball, he is most likely guilty of encroachment (or the receiver is the comic superhero – Flash).
Also, note that stepping into the safety zone early is different from a foot fault where the server may have initiated the service motion while part of the foot is in the safety zone. While the Safety Zone Violation typically occurs during lob serves, many players dismiss the call for serves that bounce closer to the back wall. The threat that server and receiver may collide in the safety zone is not a condition to the Safety Zone Violation. Additionally, players that are allowed to retreat to center court early are given an unfair advantage as the rally ensues. It is important to realize the server is responsible to stay with the service zone until the ball crosses the short line – failure to enforce the Safety Zone Violation fosters an unsafe environment and an unfair advantage to the server.
Playing by the rules is everyone’s responsibility, especially the referees. I encourage players to observe all the rules of the game during recreational play. Players should be aware of the safety zone as much as they observe short and long serves. I highly recommend that all players attend a local rules clinic and consult the rulebook frequently.
Email Dave Stone If you have any questions about the rules, or would like to schedule a CRA rules clinic at your facility.