Hope Springs Eternal, at Least in Tennis

To win a match in a high-level professional tennis tournament, you need to win about 100 points (unless the match is in the men’s draw at one of the majors, in which case you’ll need about 150). So it should be possible to simplify the famously elaborate scoring system for tennis, and possible make the game more fair. Why fuss with love-15-30-40, with deuce and advantage, with games, tiebreakers, and sets? Why not just tally up the number of points won – first to 100 is the winner?

That’s a really bad idea, a recipe for truly boring tennis.

The scoring system for tennis is one of the best examples of two related techniques for keeping it interesting: the fresh start, and the quantum effect. I’ll write more about the quantum effect in a future post, but for now let’s focus on the fresh start.

Each competition is a new story waiting to be told. Both sides can hope for a favorable result – it’s a new game, and it’s anybody’s game. As the story unfolds, it may become a fascinating, close contest, or it may become a boring, one-sided one. But there’s always a time of hope and expectation at the beginning, even if there isn’t much drama in the later play.

When, as in tennis, the competition is broken up into sets, there will be more than one time of hope and expectation, and more opportunities for an individual set to become a nail-biter. No matter how lopsided the previous play, drawing a line under the score so far and resetting the count to zero for a new set awakens the possibility that the ultimate result will be different. The player who wins the first set six-love cannot just coast on the accumulated advantage, prevailing not so much by winning as by not losing. Tennis is not a game in which a player with a lead can run out the clock.

And in tennis, there is another level of fresh start, with scores resetting to zero at the end of a game. Winning an individual game requires only four points, so no game has the chance to become boring – even at 40-love, there’s a reasonable chance that the player who’s behind will come back to take the game. But when a game is interestingly close, it’s allowed to continue indefinitely.

A tennis match, then, has not just one hopeful beginning, but many. And not just one opportunity for the drama or a close contest, but many. This makes tennis a better game, both for players and for spectators. So what if it’s not a fairer game.

Next, a notorious, improvised use of the fresh start – the Major League Baseball season of 1981.



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