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Tennis Issues: It’s All in the Score

Gilles Simon exhausted during his 2013 Australian Open match against Gael Monfils

By Jane Voigt, owner of DownTheTee.com 

February 6, 2013 — It’s the best kept secret in sports. Tennis scoring. For every tennis fan who sees 2-6, 6-4, 7-6 (11) on the ESPN crawl and thinks, ‘that must’ve been a heck of a tie-breaker,’ factor in 100 viewers who just see a stream of random numbers with no idea what it means.

Who can blame them?

The bizarre function of a clock face as score keeper dates to 14C France. Theoretically, the 15-minute increments — 15, 30, 45, 60 – marked points in a game, but as theories go this one has never been proven as fact.

As time passed ’45′ became ’40′ and ’60′ was replaced by ‘game.’ The evolution of ‘love’ as meaning ‘zero’ also came from the French. ‘L’oeuf’ means egg and an egg looked like a zero. However, another theory speculated ‘love’ was more closely associated with betting on tennis and the honor that came with a loss.

As the saying goes, ‘Love means nothing to a tennis player,’ has adorned many a tee-shirt. But, in the end, it causes some confusion.

All this is amplified when various networks, from NBC and ESPN to Tennis Channel, try to make sense of it all with fancy graphic scoring boxes. They seem to only heighten the confusion.

For example, ESPN2′s blanket coverage of the first Major of the year pleased ardent tennis fans. Yet however blessed these folks were with hour-upon-hour of matches, some were left scratching their heads when they saw this scoreboard:

Simo2540
Monf2615

If you recognized the players on screen, ‘Simo’ translated to Gilles Simon and ‘Monf’ translated to Gaels Monfils. Following that bit of detective work, the first column displayed the number of sets these two had played. The second column was the current set’s score, and the final column was the score in the current game.

What would a casual viewer think having stumbled upon this match and its tiny scoreboard tucked in the corner of their huge television screen? They would watch a few points then grab the remote and skedaddle. Maybe they would pick up results on their favorite smart-phone app later or, most probably, have forgotten about it all together.

Here’s how an imaginary conversation might go … What match? Oh you know the one with that 70-shot thing, with those two French guys. Yeah … I saw a little but couldn’t figure out what was going on. Couldn’t tell the score or who was who.

Tennis loses thousands of possible fans because of its scoring, and the methods used to display it.

And it’s one sport that flexes a flexible attitude toward messing with scoring, too.

Take Division I college tennis. In the summer of 2012, the NCAA dropped the regular best-of-three sets scoring in singles competition, by eliminating the third set. Instead a first-to-ten 10-point tiebreak was inserted. Doubles went from an 8-game pro set to one 6-game set.

“‘By shortening the format and bringing greater excitement to the dual match, programs will be able to attract fan support and attention to tennis,’” the NCAA said, as reported by The New York Times.

The backlash to this decision was swift and loud. College coaches knew more people wouldn’t see these matches because college tennis has never impressed traditional broadcasters. Plus … how does a 6-game set differ from an 8-game pro set. What is an 8-game pro set. Questions like these were found at the USTA website. Astonished? You should not be. Convoluted scoring is an across-the-board dilemma.

“‘The system of scoring for college tennis is like no other sport,’” Phillip Foster wrote on Livestrong.com. And the same goes for pro tennis.

Not too long ago the ATP and WTA wanted to encourage singles’ specialists to play more doubles and thus expand tennis’s exposure. Therefore, the governing bodies swept away the established best-of-three set format. Instead, no-ad scoring (4 points wins a game) for the first two sets and a 10-point super tiebreak for the third set was put in effect. The decision covered all levels of tournaments — from Grand Slams down through Challenger Tours — except Wimbledon and Davis Cup. At these two events doubles remained a best-of-five format with regular scoring, as does singles (for men).

And about Davis Cup … its ‘ties’ and ‘rubbers’ used in lieu of the common terms ‘tournament’ and ‘matches,’ plus its international country-by-country competition took the most bizarre of tennis turns at its inception in 1900. This prestigious competition is lost on most.

In September, the ATP announced that the ‘let rule’ — serve is redone if a ball clips the net and falls in the service box — would be removed as a trial for the first three months of 2013 on the Challenger Tour. The experiment’s goal was not conceived to dramatically shorten matches, but to “‘have a positive impact on the flow of the match,’” Brad Drewett, former executive chairman and president of the ATP, told The New York Times.

College tennis uses the ‘no-let’ rule, too, as does World Team Tennis (WTT) along with other unorthodox rules.

Billie Jean King, the founder and creator of WTT, wanted her brand of tennis lively and fantastically fan friendly. Out was the quiet stuffy and traditional atmosphere associated with the sport.

As a result WTT has been at the forefront of wacky colored tennis courts, boisterous crowds and music. Along with legal lets, WTT uses no-ad scoring. A set is five games. Scores are summed for each team’s results in singles, doubles, mixed doubles, and men’s and women’s doubles. The team with the most points at the end of the night wins the event.

Take a look at one of these matches and how its scores are depicted on screen. Many are left shaking their heads. Not because they are mentally challenged, but because it’s confusing and different from ordinary, or what has been thought to be.

With all this said, perhaps our sport might have a better time expanding its fan base if scoring were a bit more consistent. Not many viewers are confused by a football score or basketball score or even baseball, which can be challenging with all the stats scattered across a scoreboard.

Yet many are faced with a steep learning curve when it comes to tennis scoring. The method will not change, in all likelihood. Perhaps, though, the way it is presented and the numerous permutations of its original intent could be roped in. That could pull aside the veil from the mysteriously conceived game and give it a better chance of becoming something more than a second-class sport.

Jane Voigt lives, breathes and writes tennis. She wrote about John Isner’s ground-breaking wildcard run at the formerly named Legg Mason Tennis Classic in 2007 for Tennis.com. She has written tennis commentary for the late, great Tennis Week print publication and online version. Hundreds of articles from Jane have been seen on TennisServer.com, too. She now maintains her own website at DownTheTee.com, and has traveled throughout the U. S. and Canada to cover tournaments. Ask her to play tennis, and she’ll prefer singles to doubles.

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