The case for getting rid of game scoring in tennis
The late Bud Collins, who popularized tennis by publicizing James Van Alen’s tiebreaker, compared tennis to boxing. “Strangely, although they may seem worlds apart, boxing and tennis have a certain kinship,” he said. “Two individuals head-to-head, probing for weakness and attacking it. Footwork, timing, and stamina are essential. Just you and your opponent until one of you is beaten. There’s no brain damage in tennis, although sometimes I wonder.”
After injuries, retirements and withdrawals dominated the start of the season, a conversation about tennis' scoring format began. One proposed solution is a simplified scoring system: tiebreaker-type sets to 24 points (win by two) where players switch sides of the net after the first five points and every 10 thereafter.
It’s time to abolish the game as a unit of scoring, and here are six reasons why:
1. No individual would bear the burden of serving more points than the opponent.
Serving is strenuous. The service was originally so-named because serves were literally delivered by servants. The act was too taxing for the rich.
2. It equalizes the time between changeovers, enabling competitors to hydrate, rest and recover at regular rather than random intervals.
3. It reduces the average number of points played per set.
In the last four majors, contestants played an average of 60 points per set. The proposed 24-point set—won even by a minimum margin—equals 46 points, which is a 14-point differential.
4. It normalizes relative match lengths.
Traditional scoring preserves and perpetuates inequity. It is unfair for a person to labor through a four-hour match, only to face an opponent in the next round whose previous match took merely an hour.
5. It eliminates the inequity of winning more points than an opponent, yet losing the set.
Disrespecting the clock makes tennis a timeless tradition, but making a mockery of mathematics amounts to nothing but madness. In game scoring, a player can win up to 10 points more than an opponent, yet still lose the set. No-ad is systemically even more unjust, allowing one to win as many as 16 points more than an opponent, yet lose the set.
Collegiate doubles and Junior Team Tennis have resorted to an eight-game pro set, in which the losing team can win as many as 14 points more than the opponent. No-ad is even worse, enabling the loser to exceed the winner by 22 points.
6. It democratizes tennis, making the sport fairer and friendlier by giving equal worth and weight to every point.
In reaction to these six reasons, several former players, coaches, tournament directors and other figures in tennis responded with their own thoughts on the sport's scoring system.
Michael Russell, formerly top 60 in the world, said: “It is interesting. However, to create change that radical I believe it will take many, many years.”
Bill Kingston, the nation’s winningest high-school tennis coach, said: “Once James Van Alen and USTA went to the tiebreaker, a slippery slope appeared which has continued to extract change. Today’s 10-point match tiebreakers, no-ad scoring, and new collegiate shortening of matches all speak to the same idea.”
Top tennis analyst Craig O’Shannessy said: “Without disputing any of your findings or suggestions, I am totally fine with how the game is currently arranged from a scoring standpoint. Once again, I want to steer away from wrong or right regarding your ideas. I simply like the mini-battles that take place to win the overall war.”
In O’Shannessy’s rhetoric of warfare, players are soldiers, games are mini-battles, sets are battles, and matches are wars. All is fair in love and war, but the rules of engagement tilt the field. Soldiers can win most of the mini-battles and still lose the war.
Many people are wed to the diabolical dimensions of the game.
Courtney Nguyen, Senior Writer for WTA Insider, wonders what life would be like without the game. “Tennis has always put a premium not on winning points but winning ‘the right points,’ hence our obsession with break-point conversion and break points saved,” she said. “Twenty-four point sets take away the ‘right points.’ I have no idea how I feel about that quite yet. Need to noodle on it more.”
Concerning the controversy about “the right points,” I like the advice of U.S. Davis Cup coach, Ed Faulkner, who said: “Win the last point.”
2015 USTA New Jersey District Tournament Director of the Year, Marc Vecchiolla, said: “If the 24-point set were implemented, John Isner would be top three in the world every year.”
Nguyen agrees. “I actually think the current system is way more democratic than yours. My hunch is that 24-point sets would heavily favor the [big] server, especially in the men’s game.”
Bud Collins’ imaginary Uncle Studley might wonder: Isn’t it easier to win one of two points against a big server than an entire game by a margin of two?
Chris Bennett, U.S. representative at the ITF’s Senior World Team Championships, supports the status quo. “Your proposal certainly raises some interesting points. Being of old school thinking, I am not in favor of changing the traditional format. I think your system reduces the importance of fitness, a topic that can separate the men from the boys.”
Regarding fitness, Nguyen begs to differ. “On the flip side, it could theoretically create even more mental strain on players, which is where injuries can occur. When you’re up or down 30 or 40-love, you’re more inclined to take the foot off the gas pedal for a few points. If you ask players to play 40-plus all-out points, you’re risking more injury than you see now. If you need a revolutionary way to fix tennis in regards to injuries, best of five needs to go the way of the dodo bird.”
Michael Sell, LSU women’s tennis coach, respectively rejects a simplified scoring format. “The game is becoming more physical. I would make the courts faster to bring back the transition/net game, which makes for more contrasting game styles. The only scoring change I would make is to implement a tiebreaker in the final sets of slams.”
Matthew Zemek, manager of tennis blog Attacking the Net, suggests: “At the major events, I think the strenuousness is part of the test and the drama. However, using this in tennis’s equivalent of the minor leagues, such that players aren’t worn out and chewed up when they get to the big leagues, seems like an appropriately democratic idea. I think the larger notion of democratizing the sport works at the lower tiers. The upper tiers, however, should be more meritocracy than democracy, at least in my view. This is a worthy idea, and I think that incorporating it into the lower levels of the tour is a bolt of inspiration.”
USTA National Coach, Richard Ashby, said: “There is a lot of uniqueness and history in the current tennis scoring system, but maybe if you are able to get some junior tournaments to try the 24-point set it may be valuable to tournament directors—especially if there is a time constraint. In theory, sets could go on for a long time since it is win by two points, but it would generally reduce the length of matches.”
Lloyd Pearson, former coach of Rutgers University-Camden women’s tennis, wrote: “I like the idea. I compare it to getting right to the point. Every point is very important. I feel that the USTA junior tournaments could really benefit from this, especially for the parents who have to make multiple trips back and forth all weekend. Sign me up!”
Jose Higueras, USTA director of coaching and former World No. 6, has worked with nearly every tennis legend in the last 30 years. “It [the 24-point set] would fundamentally change the sport, but at this moment I don’t think I can have an opinion in terms of affecting tennis in a negative or positive way.”
Katrina Adams is the first pro player to serve as USTA chairman of the board, CEO and president. “We are always looking for new ways to attract more players to tennis, and to keep them playing. Shortening the formats by changing the scoring might be one way to accomplish this. That being said, we are not at a point where we plan to adopt a new scoring method for sanctioned tournaments and leagues.”
Stanford University Director of Tennis, Dick Gould, led the men’s team to 17 NCAA championships during his 38 years as coach. Without taking a side, Gould said: “You make a compelling case. Tradition is not easy to change, but it is an intriguing concept that merits a serious discussion.”
What have we really got to lose by giving up the game? The game was made for players, not players for the game.
Gabriel Allen is a freelance sports writer who studied journalism and played varsity tennis at The College of New Jersey.