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Is cheating a growing problem at amateur level?

Clive Brunskill/Getty Images

LONDON -- Is cheating becoming a bigger problem in competitive amateur tennis? If you believe the accounts of some American and British juniors after they quit the sport, the answer is yes.

The pressure to win drives many young players to deviate from the sport's etiquette.

Even some of the top players in the world weren't immune. Serena Williams said in a recent press conference at Wimbledon that she used to cheat when playing against her sister, Venus, "I was young and I made mistakes," Serena said. "If it was close to the line, I just called it. She always beat me, so ..."

Jelena Jankovic said Maria Sharapova did it, too. "I remember those balls close to the line," Jankovic said. "She would never give them to me."

Today, Williams and Sharapova have line judges, a chair umpire and, usually, recourse to Hawk-Eye, the ball-tracking technology that uses 10 cameras and a sophisticated algorithm to adjudicate close calls at big matches, such as the one the two women played at Wimbledon last week. But amateurs generally are at the mercy of their opponents. Players will typically call lines on their side of the court, and they often call "out" when balls are well in to win points they should have lost.

An experiment this month at a 14-and-under tournament in Bogota, N.J., could change that. The club hosting the tournament, CourtSense, has installed a technology called PlaySight on each of its seven indoor courts. PlaySight uses four cameras to track players and balls during matches -- a sort of Hawk-Eye for the little people. It's not as precise as Hawk-Eye, but it should be better -- and more neutral -- than an unscrupulous opponent who cheats on a ball that's in by a foot.

"Many of those egregious calls will be picked off easily by the system," CourtSense founder Gordon Uehling, a friend of world No. 1 Novak Djokovic, said in a telephone interview. Players will be able to challenge as many times as they want, until they get one wrong. "It really is a failsafe, to know that they have it. If it's an important point, and they know that they're right, they can challenge."

The U.S. Tennis Association, which oversees the sport in the United States and runs the U.S. Open, is watching the experiment closely with an eye toward possibly using PlaySight at other junior events. "Similar to all sports, any cheating is problematic, and if this, or a similar system, can decrease or eliminate unsportsmanlike behavior that would be a very positive step," USTA spokesman Chris Widmaier said in an email.

Uehling is hoping to see less of the bad behavior he has grown used to at his club, including parents cheering on their kids' obviously bad calls. He's already using PlaySight to hold players accountable, playing them the video of balls they called out. "Sometimes competition can bring out the worst in people, and sometimes the best," he said. "If you have a system with a level playing field, the better player wins, and that's what everybody wants."