The Broken Serve

Tourneygeek is enjoying its annual pilgrimage to Mason, Ohio, for the Western and Southern Open, one of the leading tennis tournaments leading up to the U.S. Open.

In past years, I’ve used the opportunity to explore such things as the effect of the draw on the expectations of individual players, and the effect that tennis’s distinctive tiered seeding system has on the way a tournament plays out.

This year, I’ve mostly just sat in my implausibly comfortable seats and enjoyed the tennis. But on the second day of the tourney I watched a match between John Isner and Dusan Lajovic, and this put me in mind, again, of the fact that one element of tennis, the serve, is broken.

You know that a game is broken when some development in the way it’s played forces you to consider changing the rules. And John Isner’s style of play finally, this year, forced Wimbledon to change its rules.

Once upon a time, a set in tennis had to be won by two clear games, and it was continued until that happened. Thus, while the usual set was won by a score like 6-3 or 6-0, if it happened to be tied at 6-6 additional games were played until a score like 8-6 or 10-8 could be reached.

This made individual tennis matches uncomfortably open-ended for the taste of television sports, and even hard to fit into limited time intervals for social play when court time was a scarce resource. So tennis invented the tiebreaker, a special game that, in effect, counted for two so that it could prevent matches from growing too long.

Traditionalists resisted this innovation, and the last holdout was the Wimbledon tournament, in which the fifth set (or third set for women) would be played without a tiebreaker. But this year, Wimbledon decided that even it would use a tiebreaker in the fifth set to prevent matches from being greatly prolonged, and that happened at this year’s Wimbledon.

So, what happened to break tennis?

The problem is one of balance, here between the serve and the return. In the hands of someone like John Isner, the serve is simply too great an advantage. Isner is a spectacularly effective server, and a somewhat below average returner of the serve. In sets he plays, it’s common for the first twelve games to play out with no breaks of serve, so that they are decided by a tiebreak. But it’s not just Isner. In tennis, the serve is usually regarded as an advantage, so that between well-matched players most games will be won by the server. But in recent years the science of serving has advanced to the point where the advantage is overwhelming, and breaks of serve are scarce. And so, increasingly, only the special tiebreak games, in which both players get a chance to serve individual points, matter to the outcome in tennis. And it’s not a good thing when large parts of a competition become irrelevant to the outcome.

What’s needed, in tennis, is better balance between the serve and the return so as to increase the likelihood that the non-server will win an individual game.

I offered a few thoughts on how this could be done in a previous post, but now let me look at the problem more generally.

An imbalance between the server and the returner is not, in itself, the problem. In volleyball there’s a huge imbalance in the other direction, so that it’s much easier to win points for the team that’s returning. If the players simply alternated between serving and returning, as they do in tiebreak games, the imbalance would not be a major problem. What makes it one is the fact that one player enjoys the server’s advantage for all of the points in a single game. If all games were played like tiebreaks, there would be no problem. But the alternation of serve in entire games is well established in tennis. If the only games played in tennis were like tiebreaks, the sport would lose a good deal of its distinctive texture.

What’s needed, then, is a way of slightly diminishing the server’s advantage in tennis. I have a modest proposal for a way to do this, which I’ll offer in my next post.

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