Tried by the Centre Court

The long Wimbledon semi-final match in which Kevin Anderson defeated John Isner 26-24 in the fifth set put me in mind of a Flanders and Swann monologue called “Tried by the Centre Court”. Here’s an excerpt:

Wimbledon.  June.  Ladies’ Singles.  Third Round.
. . . .

Miss Hammerfest leads by two games to one in the third set, having won the first by 18 games to 16, lost the second 25 to 27.

I never liked tennis.

The piece is purportedly a (mostly) interior monologue by an umpire at Wimbledon, who has the bad luck to officiate at a particularly long and dreary tie.

Why is it that professional tennis preserves a format that invites such ridicule?

The underlying problem is one we’ve seen before: the need to avoid ambiguous results. But in tennis, it presents itself in a novel way. The basic scoring system in tennis is not particularly conducive to ties – the match is played one point at a time, and each point has a winner. But for both the individual games and the sets composed of those games, there seems to be a reluctance to choose a winner if the scores are too close.

Thus, to win an individual game, one needs not only to win four points, but also to win two more points than one’s opponent. And the same is often applied to games in a set – one needs not only win six games, but to win two more than the opponent.

This makes sense to me as a device for enhancing fairness (C) – in fact, rather a clever one. Long matches are better at distinguishing between the skill of closely matched opponents, but they consume more resources, and are as likely to extend the time needed for tedious, one-sided contests as for close, interesting ones. Tennis adds points and games to a match only when the score is so close that the added points and games might make a difference.

The price to be paid for this extra measure of fairness (C) is making the duration of the contest indefinite. And the trend in tennis seems to be an increasing reluctance to pay this price.

Accordingly, special longish tie-breaker games are played in lieu of making the winner win by two clear games, and increasingly even in lieu of a tie-breaking third set. Individual games can become closed-ended by using “no-ad” scoring, in which winning four points is sufficient even from a score of deuce.

What might tennis do to prevent matches like today’s Anderson/Isner tie from happening?

The most obvious response is to simply use tie breakers, even for decisive sets, as is already the practice for the U.S. Open, and most lower-level tournaments. A smaller change, which offers a gesture of respect to the traditional practice, would be to employ a tie breaker if necessary, but to use it only when the score reaches, say, 10-10.

This is likely the approach to be taken when (and it does new seem a matter of when, rather than if) the rules of tennis tournaments are altered to address the problem. But there is another approach that’s interesting to consider.

Why is it that the problem has surfaced now, despite the fact that open-ended set scoring has largely been relegated to decisive fifth (for, for women, third) sets at three of the four tennis majors? For many years, all sets were potentially open-ended, and yet in fact there never seems to have been a match so extended as today’s Anderson/Isner match, much less the legendary Isner/Mahut match on a decade ago, in which the third set was finally decided at 80-78. The fanciful Hammerfest/Hunter-Dunn tie from the Flanders and Swann piece never actually happened.

The reason, I suggest, is that the imbalance between serving and returning has been increasing. Long series of games where the players trade back and forth for long runs of games happen because the advantage of being on serve is, at least for some modern styles of play, so great.

If the server’s advantage were a little smaller, breaks of serve would be more common, and long sets much less common. This could be accomplished in a number of ways. You could make the service box – the section of the court that needs to be hit for a serve to be legal – a little smaller. Six inches should do.

Or how about this. Instead of giving the server a do-over second serve whenever the first serve is out, give the server three do-over serves per game – after the third fault, each additional fault loses the point immediately.

Other sports seem more willing than tennis to address perceived imbalances that develop in the game. Soccer added a rule governing back-passes to the keeper in response to what was perceived as a surfeit of uninteresting defensive play. In baseball, the mound can be raised or lowered to alter the balance between pitching and batting. In American football, the rules governing pass interference have been tweaked, either explicitly or by promulgating new interpretations, to alter the rate of scoring.

I suspect that the increased imbalance between serve and return is tolerated because the big serve is seen as an asset to the game rather than a liability. Ace serves are like strikeouts and home runs in baseball – both of those are on the increase, and increasingly seen as separately admirable markers of skill. The problem for tennis is that unlike homers and strikeouts, which tend to balance each other, there’s nothing that balances the big serve. It might be possibly to add one. Let’s consider adding to the game a returner’s fault – if the return of service is played into the alley in a singles match, it will be considered a returners fault, which can be replayed once.

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