“Sport is entertainment, of course. But it must be credible.” − Francesco Ricci Bitti, former president of the International Tennis Federation
In 2001, the Australian Open shattered tradition by adopting tiebreakers in lieu of traditional deciding sets for mixed doubles. Doubles superstar Todd Woodbridge, then president of the ATP Players Council, warned: “If we start implementing a tiebreaker [instead of a third set] in mixed doubles, eventually it’s going to go to men’s doubles and women’s doubles, and in the long term, singles as well. And then tennis is no longer a true test of skill and will, and nothing like we’ve known it. We have a successful scoring system, and we’re changing that. What they’re doing to mixed doubles now is the beginning of the downfall of the whole game.”
Sadly, Woodbridge’s dire prediction proved prescient when the ATP Tour adopted this 10-point tiebreaker in lieu of entire deciding sets in doubles at all 2006 ATP events. The ATP further mutilated the superb, time-tested traditional scoring system by installing No-Ad scoring in doubles. The WTA Tour followed suit in mid-2007. However, the 10-point tiebreaker format was not adopted at the four Grand Slams tournaments, except in mixed doubles at the French and US Opens.
These scoring innovations were used by the ATP mainly to induce leading singles players to enter doubles events more often. Predictably, this proved to be a dismal failure because stars today don’t want to endanger their singles results by risking injury or exhaustion in doubles. During 2015−16, for example, not one of the singles elite played doubles at Grand Slam events. And at ATP tournaments, Novak Djokovic entered only 6, Roger Federer 2, Rafael Nadal 13, Andy Murray 8, and Stan Wawrinka 6.
If WTA CEO Steve Simon has his way, the last domino may fall in the doomsday scenario predicted by Woodbridge, and so feared by many in the tennis world. Simon believes it’s absolutely necessary to implement both the 10-point tiebreaker and No-Ad scoring in singles by 2019 or 2020.
Why? Because Simon is convinced some women’s singles matches take too long, even though they are all best two-out-of-three-set affairs. His ideal match length is 60-90 minutes.
“It will help us with [TV] broadcasts,” Simon told reporters during the Wuhan Open in China on Sept. 30. “It will help us keep people in the seats. You’re much more likely to sit there and watch that match, [one] that’s going to have a lot more action points. The No-Ad scoring creates drama in the middle of the sets.”
Perhaps it hadn’t occurred to Simon that some games in the middle of many sets don’t even have a seventh point that ends a No-Ad game. Or that “action points” can happen at any time during a match.
Simon claimed: “We need to begin embracing our future audience. Now if a video is more than 20 seconds it is too long and they won’t even look at it. The attention spans of the audience today are shrinking. Everybody wants it in very short nuggets, and to see somebody sit for two to three hours and watch anything anymore is getting harder and harder.”
Au contraire. Longer matches are actually more enthralling because they are closer and often quite unpredictable. Nadal knows that from his titanic duels with archrivals Federer and Djokovic. “I don’t remember one match in my life, not of me, or tennis in general, that finished in one hour,” said the 14-time Grand Slam champion. “I think it is not in the memory of the people, these kinds of matches. The kind of matches that stay on [in] the memory and on the history of our sport are a little bit long matches and dramatic matches that become emotional. Tennis has values that we need to follow, in my opinion.”
To encapsulate Nadal’s telling words: you won’t get epic matches if they last only 60 minutes.
Svetlana Kuznetsova lambasted Simon’s proposals. “I think it would be a horrible call,” said the two-time major winner. “Three [unabridged] sets, deuce, advantage, this is the point of singles game. I think it’s very interesting, and it’s going to be physical and everything. It’s not only luck. In doubles, it’s so much luck sometimes.”
Virginia Ruzici, the 1978 French Open champion and now Simona Halep’s manager, perceptively observes, “If the audience is going down in women’s tennis, it is not because of long matches, but mainly because of a lack of big rivalries which create intense dramatic matches.”
“I don’t understand why Steve Simon thinks WTA matches are too long,” says Mary Carillo, the astute Tennis Channel analyst. “The question of abandoning three out of five sets for the sake of player health and television audiences is a legitimate ATP/ITF conversation, but not this.”
The most legitimate conversation should be about what Francesco Ricci Bitti stresses: credibility. After Woodbridge, who captured 16 doubles and six mixed doubles majors, combined with compatriot Rennae Stubbs to win the treasured 2001 US Open mixed doubles crown, both derided the gimmicky scoring reforms as a “chook [chicken] raffle.”
“The third-set super tiebreaker is not a true test, and the best player or team doesn’t always win,” rightly contended Pat Cash, the 1987 Wimbledon singles champion. “It is usually the player or team with momentum at the time that wins. Two sets and a tiebreaker for an Australian Open or a US Open title and hundreds of thousands of dollars? You cannot be serious!”
Just as the radically changed, incredibly shrunken deciding set with a 10-point tiebreaker destroys the integrity of the set, No-Ad scoring damages the integrity of the
To prove that, let’s compare No-Ad with the traditional scoring system using five criteria.
1) Fairness Matters — Does the scoring system offer a fair test of superiority, a
sine qua non of any athletic competition? Under the present system, the odds are clearly greater that the more skillful and determined player will eventually win a given game. Unquestionably, the No-Ad method
unfairly boosts the chances of the underdog who needs only one point to win a game from deuce. This is because with the score deuce in No-Ad, the fluke shot, the bad bounce, the net cord, and the incorrect line call all assume an undue significance.
Second, No-Ad also unfairly helps the Wild Slugger. How? At deuce, the Wild Slugger knows that he needs only
one point to win the game and thus one great shot. So he is encouraged to blast away, particularly when his opponent is serving. Hitting one winner isn’t so hard, he figures. However, whacking winners to win
two points is another story entirely. Historically, the inconsistent Wild Slugger often failed when he tried to do this with the traditional scoring system, particularly against skillful, sound, and smart opponents. With a truly fair scoring system, the Skill Guy usually wins the close games and beats the Wild Slugger, and not the other way around.
“I played No-Ad in high school and I’m not crazy about it because it brings in an element of luck that favors the weaker player,” rightly argued Pete Sampras in
Tennis magazine (U.S.). “The longer the match is, the better chance the better player will win. Sometimes the [ATP] tour and the ITF [International Tennis Federation] panic and try to fix this and that. But nothing’s broken here.”
Third, the mental qualities of courage, grit, and resourcefulness have long and rightly been considered vital elements in tennis. As Cash points out, “The mental strength required to break serve or hold on deuce after deuce is one of the great skills of a champion and turns around matches.”
Fourth, physical stamina has been another hallmark of champions from Don Budge in the 1930s to Rod Laver in the 1960s to Federer, Nadal, and Djokovic this century. But the adoption of tiebreakers (which preclude protracted sets and matches), 90-second breaks during changeovers, and dawdling between points have reduced the importance of stamina. If the No-Ad method—where no game can exceed seven points—is universally accepted, stamina will be unfairly de-emphasized even more.
2) The Entertainment Factor — Is the scoring system interesting and suspenseful? Sudden-death tiebreakers at deuce are dramatic and climactic, but No-Ad’s frequent tiebreaker games generally lessen the
overall tension because they are so short-lived.
On the other hand, the fluctuating crises of ad-in and ad-out—which surround the temporary sanctuary of deuce—often bring out our best and worst, thus adding a true excitement and strategical richness to tennis. There are far more “key” or big points with ad-ins and ad-outs, even though they do not represent simultaneous game points, than with No-Ad scoring.
Indeed, many of the greatest matches ever played featured epic battles at deuce. The 1995 Wimbledon final most riveted fans when Steffi Graf battled tenacious Arantxa Sanchez Vicario at 5-5 in the third set for a fluctuating game that lasted 20 minutes and 32 thrill-packed points. Graf finally won that crucial game on her sixth break point and took the classic encounter 4-6, 6-1, 7-5.
The same “win-by-two” points formula also made possible the excruciatingly exciting 1980 Wimbledon final (who can forget the 18-16 tiebreaker) between all-time greats Bjorn Borg and John McEnroe. Countless matches have proved this point throughout tennis history. Other examples include McEnroe’s dramatic marathon Davis Cup matches against Mats Wilander in 1983 and Boris Becker in 1987, the quarterfinal duel between archrivals and ultimate warriors Graf and Monica Seles at the 1998 Chase Championships, and Nadal’s 6-4, 6-4, 6-7, 6-7, 9-7 epic triumph over Federer in the 2008 Wimbledon final.
3) The Time Element -- Can it meet the demands of tournament scheduling and television? The tiebreaker has eliminated marathon sets and matches by providing a definite ending (except at Wimbledon which doesn’t use a tiebreaker in deciding sets). This 46-year-old innovation has made life easier for tournament officials and has helped television’s coverage of tennis burgeon.
Whatever compactness and precision No-Ad adds to scheduling would not make an appreciable difference to tournaments in most cases. According to ATP statistician Greg Sharko, the average length of a men’s doubles match was 87.73 minutes per match in 2005 and decreased the following season to an average of 71.51 minutes—a mere 16 minutes fewer—when the format changes were introduced.
An irony is also worth noting. Sometimes the aforementioned inferior Wild Slugger will benefit from No-Ad to tighten up a match against the Skill Guy to extend what otherwise would not have been a close match into a tiebreaker or even a third set. So No-Ad can
prolong matches, too.
4) Your Money’s Worth — Can it give the paying spectators their money’s worth? Any system deemed unfair—as No-Ad clearly is—would dissatisfy customers as would a system that overly shortens matches. Lopsided No-Ad matches have lasted a ridiculous 25 minutes. We must remember that all women’s matches are best-two-of-three sets, and most men’s matches also are—except those at the majors, the Olympics final, and in Davis Cup.
In fact, an overwhelming majority of fans, many of whom identified themselves as Millennials, quickly condemned Steve Simon’s proposals on various tennis websites, especially Tennis.com and TennisNow.com. “The fans don’t want changes, the players don’t want these stupid changes,” wrote zola123 on Tennis.com. “It is only businessmen at the top of the WTA, ATP who have probably never held a racket in their hands.”
Simon should listen to Kitty Tennista, who asserted: “Rafa nailed it. Using the ‘millennials’ argument as justification to change the game into a Kyrgios-style, slam-dunk fest is [ . . . ]. The truly great sport that is tennis will shrivel up and die. You want to repackage the game to supposedly suit the mental workings of a generation of ADHD Xbox & cellphone addicts? What happens when they lose interest? What happens after they walk away?”
5) The Image of Tennis — The August 1974 edition of
World Tennis magazine published a letter written by John H. Gray, of Greenwich, Connecticut. It put both scoring methods into sharp historical and sociological perspective.
“The entertainment now being staged by World Team Tennis has so little to do with what the nations of the world call ‘lawn tennis’ that their use of the No-Ad scoring system does not give a dangerous boost to this method of scoring. However, the same cannot be said for the action taken by NCAA coaches in approving No-Ad for the collegiate championships.
“Have the coaches considered what will happen to a non-contact game such as lawn tennis if bodily condition, stamina, and courage are removed as part of the requirements? It will indeed become the “sissy game” which it was falsely called in the period 1900−14. Some other games which required skill only, and which were once very popular, such as billiards and croquet, have practically disappeared.
“A round of golf requires much more stamina and energy than Margaret Court had to expend in winning a 20-minute final using No-Ad scoring at a Virginia Slims tournament in Philadelphia last year.”
John Newcombe, a former Wimbledon, US Open, and Australian Open champion, stressed in 1998 that No-Ad robbed tennis of one of its prime attractions. “The No-Ad rule was tried in college tennis in the States, and it made the tennis very mundane and that much quicker,” he said. “It takes away one of the great things about the scoring system. If you can get into a long deuce game, you have a situation where you can wear your opponent down.” (No-Ad scoring was used in all of men’s Division 1 tennis from 1974 to 1988, and in women’s Division I tennis from 1981 to 1988; it was reinstituted in Division I in 2015.)
Strangely enough, America’s college experience only encouraged the International Tennis Federation, which wanted to dispense with the advantage rule in Davis Cup and Fed Cup matches. That decision dismayed Newcombe and others. “The ITF met Davis Cup captains of the top 16 nations at Wimbledon where the subject of the no-ad rule was raised, and they were all unanimous that they didn’t want anything to do with it,” Newcombe said in 1998.
Not deterred by that distinguished opposition, the ITF decided to experiment with No-Ad in lower divisions of the Davis Cup, the Fed Cup, and other events during 1999. In one of the summer studies of No-Ad at Satellite and Futures tournaments in Europe, the researchers found that “No-Ad matches [were] only some four minutes shorter on average.” Unfortunately, they failed to note what “shorter on average” was compared to. Was it the previous year’s matches, Satellite and Futures matches in 1999 in other venues, or what? At any rate, the time saved was minimal.
That conclusion should be noted by television sports executives along with tennis announcers, such as Cliff Drysdale, who believe TV must heartily embrace tennis for it to flourish. Tennis’ length-of-time problem on TV has less to do with long matches than with the uncertain length of a match. Virtually every other sports event is more predictable in total duration than tennis matches— although overtimes, extra innings, and playoff holes occasionally lengthen contests in other sports—and TV execs hate that uncertainty as much as anything.
As crucial as the scoring system is, Simon and other tennis administrators should realize that several other factors determine how entertaining and popular tennis is. These leaders should monitor the rules of tennis by asking equally pertinent questions: Is the sport a fair test of skill and will? What is the percentage of total match time that is “action time” when the ball is actually in play? Is the offensive-defensive balance reasonable and about right? Is there a diversity of styles and skills?
Summing up, the supreme irony of this proposed two-part reform is that it destroys one of tennis’ crowning glories: its brilliant and unique scoring system. Unlike soccer and ice hockey, which suffer from too little scoring, and basketball, which stockpiles points at an incredible rate, tennis points count more or less depending on the situation and the score. Hence, the exciting, big-point moments such as “break point,” “game point,” “set point,” and “match point.”
We owe a huge debt of gratitude to the game’s nineteenth-century pioneers for creating an ingenious and nuanced scoring system that tests players athletically, physically, technically, tactically, and competitively in ways that also entertain fans. Jimmy Van Alen, a revolutionary who invented and tirelessly promoted the tiebreaker in the 1960s, deserves abundant credit for giving sets and matches thrilling climaxes and definitive endings.
Since the tiebreaker arrived, however, advocates have fervently pushed ill-advised reforms, such as allowing only one serve (Neale Fraser), abolishing the service let (Martina Navratilova), on-court coaching (Billie Jean King), replacing the deciding set with a tiebreaker (Paul McNamee), and No-Ad scoring (Steve Simon).
Let’s hope coming decades bring judicious innovations to the rules of tennis rather than misguided revolutions born out of a perceived desperation.
Where They Stand
Richard Lewis, Tournament Director of Wimbledon and Chief Executive of All England Lawn Tennis Club: “I think the scoring system in tennis has stood the test of time and is one of the great strengths of the sport. Consequently, any changes should be very carefully thought through, well-researched, and implemented, if appropriate, on a gradual basis to assess their impact.”
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