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Scoring

Q. There was a fine player watching our doubles match at the Southern Senior Closed. He and his partner were scheduled to play the winner of our match in the next round. Anyway, there was an honest disagreement about the score in a particular game. All four participants knew and respected the observer and would have accepted his opinion of the score. The rule is that we could not ask him what the score was. I do not understand what the objection to asking him would be. I was told that we were not allowed to ask and he would not be allowed to offer an opinion.

A. I get abuse for answering these “rule questions” with an opinion, as opposed to sticking strictly with the regulations, but here I go again…

Given the situation that you described, where all four players innocently forgot the game score, and to a man you respect the integrity of the observer, then I do not see ANY problem with asking for his input. Now, mind you, this is not a 12 & under junior match where over-involved parents are in the mix; instead, this is a Senior doubles match between gentlemen who understand our sport’s honor code. It is simply common sense to rely on this well-respected observer to clarify the score… so that you can immediately return to the objective at hand: Playing!

Q. What exactly is a "Pro Set" and how is it played?

A. An eight-game pro set is a regular set that is played to eight games (first to eight games by two, with a tiebreaker at eight games all). A ten-game pro set is to ten games. These were established during the old Pro Tour barnstorming days, thus the name “pro set.” It allowed spectators to see more matches per session that way.

Incidentally, eight-game pro sets are used during doubles for all Division I college dual matches.

Q. How do we keep score during a nine-point tiebreaker? When do we switch sides?

A. A nine-point tiebreaker (which used to be called a “sudden death” tiebreaker, by the way) has become increasingly rare. The first person or team to reach five points wins.

In doubles, team A serves two points (always to the deuce and then ad courts), then team B serves the next two points. Switch ends of the court. Then the other member of team A serves the fifth and (if necessary) the sixth point. Lastly, the other member of team B serves the final three points (as necessary). If the score reaches four points all, then the next point wins the set. The receiving player/team decides which side (and which player) receives serve for this “sudden death” point.

Q. My wife and I have a question. Was there a time in the distant past when a score of 4 - 0 won a set rather than requiring the sets to go to six?

A. Within the last few years, some tournaments have tinkered with the scoring format. The only scenario I can recall that is closest to the one you describe is when sets are played to four, and matches are best-of-five sets. This was done briefly in some men’s Futures events.

Q. Could you give some suggestions for teams to practice to overcome tiebreaker slump--that is to play 10-point match tiebreakers in such a way that they are more likely to win. I am on two USTA league teams and we need to practice something.

A. I would suggest that you might expect a team to win 50% of their tiebreakers. Why? Because if they split sets and then play a Match TB, it is apparent that they are pretty even. To succeed in tiebreakers (the regular 12-pointers- first to seven by two- or the Match TB’s), you need to execute the tactics that give you an advantage.

By that I mean that you ought to play your favorite shots, as often as possible, and make your opponent(s) play their least favorite shots. Make sure to take a little extra time between points to gather your thoughts and maintain your composure. Be positive. Negative thoughts can cause you to play a few bad points, and that is recipe for failure over such a short sample of points.

Q. Why is it that during "player challenges" that sometimes the winner of the challenge is awarded the point and at other times the shot is replayed? Replaying the point seems unfair as the challenger has already won the point.

A. If the chair umpire decides that the ball would have been a “winner,” then the point counts. If the umpire believes that the player would have had a reasonable play on the ball, then they play a let. It is solely at the discretion of the umpire, and usually it is not difficult to make this determination.

Q. I need you to settle an argument. It is my understanding that a final set (fifth for men and third for women) in Grand Slams is not decided by a standard tiebreaker resulting in a 7-6 score. Instead, the players play until someone wins by two games. Am I wrong? If I am right, is there a limit to the number of games, or can a final set be 17-15, for example??

A. The final sets in three of the four majors (Australian, French and Wimbledon, but not the US Open) are decided by “deuce sets,” which means that a player must win by at least two games. This also occurs in Davis and Fed Cup matches. I like this tradition. I also like the fact that in the US Open, tiebreakers can decide the final sets because it makes America’s Grand Slam unique.

This practice does not occur in regular (ATP or WTA) Tour events. During these events, tiebreakers decide all sets that reach six games all.

Q. When should you flip the game score card at mid court? Is there proper etiquette for this? And, if the score cards are black and red, then who is who?

A. Whichever player gets to the sideline first (on changeovers after odd games) ought to flip the score cards. This does not always occur, as usually the player who is losing is less inclined to switch the cards, because it announces the bad news to all spectators. Therefore, it seems like the player who is winning does all this “work.” It should be a cooperative effort though.

As for who should be red and who should be black, it is merely a matter of choice. If you are playing for a team (high school, college, USTA League, etc.) make sure that the teams use the same color on every court though.

Q. I hate the new scoring but my biggest beef is with the broadcasters for not showing more doubles on TV. Most recreational tennis players’ play doubles and we would LOVE to watch more at the Pro level. What better way to learn than to watch the pros do it! I'm convinced they'd have more viewers if they showed more doubles.

A. That is a ‘chicken or the egg’ conundrum. If the networks chose to broadcast doubles more frequently, would it ever out-draw singles events? In fact, ratings for ATP Tour singles tournaments are not exactly Super Bowl-like to begin with, so I can understand the reluctance from network executives to televise doubles matches with relatively unknown or obscure professional players.

On your other point, I agree that players can always learn by watching matches. However, the brand of doubles that the Bryan Brothers play (tactics, strategy, and the quality of shotmaking) is vastly different than, say, 3.5-level mixed doubles. Given this, I am not sure that watching is more valuable, from a learning perspective, than taking a doubles clinic from a qualified local teaching professional.

Q. I think the scoring in doubles should remain the same as the singles. In fact, I'll make the chicken-and-egg argument. By diminishing the doubles game the interest will continue to drop. The problem, as I see it, is fame. People are famous for their singles play, so people on the periphery of tennis relate to these singles players. This is a self-feeding loop. Seldom are there doubles teams that stay together. When there are, even with the poor promotion of doubles by tennis governing bodies, these teams gain some degree of fame and people want to see them. So the questions are: what do the players want? (a good livelihood), what do the tennis governing bodies want? (more interest in the game), what do amateurs want? (lots of exciting matches, (singles and doubles), what do the fans want? (to see their heroes battling). Bottom line, the tennis governing bodies need to figure out how to promote doubles. Thanks for letting me vent.

A. Thanks for venting, Tom. I will just address your first question/comment. The players DO earn a good livelihood, although I suppose that is a relative term. The concern that Tournament Directors have is that doubles players create far less value than do the singles players. There needs to be a legitimate return on investment for these tournaments to be profitable and stay in business.

Q. I am dead set against the new scoring used in doubles. Doubles tennis is a great game to watch and (especially for us advancing year players) a great game to play. The change in scoring seems like an attempt to turn doubles into a poor second cousin of the singles game.

Professional Tennis is missing a golden opportunity here. Let’s face it, the singles game in tennis, while exciting at times, can be difficult to watch when you have two baseliners slugging it out for an entire match. Doubles isn't singles tennis with four people on the court at once. It is also most definitely not the refuge of players who cannot make it in the singles game. It needs to be sold as a different form of tennis, a different product.

If the doubles game is marketed to the public in the right way it will not matter that the top single players aren't playing doubles. The doubles game will create its own stars.

A. You offer some interesting points. I will take the role of devil’s advocate in responding to your thoughts.

If doubles is not the refuge of players who cannot make it in the singles game, then why do so few of the top doubles players have comparatively excellent results in singles? Consider the teams who won the four majors this year: Kevin Ullyet & Wayne Black (Australian), Jonas Bjorkman & Max Mirnyi (Roland Garros), Stephen Huss & Wesley Moodie (Wimbledon), and Bob & Mike Bryan (US Open). Only one of these men is ranked among the top-50 singles players in the world. How many of those teams could fill an arena WITHOUT an accompanying singles match?

You bring up an interesting point about marketing the doubles game separately from singles. Would this work? Would a doubles-only event be financially viable? Evidence suggests that this would not be a successful venture, but I can assure you that there would be plenty of doubles-only players who would play in a tournament if the prize money were right.

Q. This is not a question but a response to your request for people to write about their feelings concerning the changes in the doubles format. I am totally disappointed in the way doubles has been handled by all aspects of the game. The NCAA has reduced the role of doubles in college tennis. The Tennis Channel has largely ignored their opportunity to fill the doubles viewing void. Changes in professional tournament doubles also reflect an interest in focusing on singles. As more players play doubles than singles I have started to hope that doubles will split off into its own organization, league, sport, coverage and sponsors the way arena football split off from the NFL. My feeling is that if doubles was packaged where team personalities were highlighted then there would be more interest. Strategy discussions between players and between teams and coaches during the match could be broadcast.

A. I will offer some counterpoints:

1. I believe that the ITA (the governing body for NCAA tennis) has highlighted doubles, not reduced its role, by starting every dual match with doubles.

2. Strategy discussions take too long between points in doubles, and that- to me- is the biggest weakness that doubles has a viable entertainment option. Teammates on the pro tours convene between every single point. Unfortunately a great majority of their points are decided with an unreturnable serve, an unplayable return of serve, or a volley winner on the first “play from scrimmage.” Of course there are many brilliant and athletic points in doubles, but I would argue that more time is spent discussing strategy between points than actual play time. That is a problem for viewers.

3. A doubles-only circuit? Hmmmm…

Q. While it seems a good idea to try and attract more attention to the doubles game, I don't think making an already short game a little shorter is the answer. The change in scoring makes the matches, and the level of respect afforded the players, seem diminished to me.

A. How about keeping the scoring format the same but limiting draw sizes and scheduling doubles in a round-robin format each week on the ATP Tour? That way the best teams would positively be around for at least three matches.

Perhaps there could be eight teams each week divided into two groups of four, the way the Masters is scheduled at the end of the season. Six teams could be direct entries based on rankings, one team could be a wildcard (perhaps two singles stars), and one team would earn their way in by qualifying. A tournament promoter might prefer this format because they would know that, for example, the Bryan Brothers would be available for at least three matches each week. This gives fans and viewers the chance to become more accustomed to seeing these top teams perform more frequently.

This format would eliminate the expenses that Tournament Directors resent having to incur on behalf of the “journeymen” doubles specialists and would allow them to maintain the programming benefits of doubles.

Q. I’ve often wondered why the zero to 15, then 15 to 30 AND the biggie, the switch from the 15's to 40? I see the jump in 15-pt increments, but why the last jump from 30 to 40? I've asked this over and over and nobody seems to give me a straight answer. Is there a reason? Why doesn't it go to 45, not 40? A tennis lover.

A. Originally, the scoring was based on the hands of the clock. Thus, the 15-30-45-Game scoring that would seem logical. Over time, 40 became “slang” (or shortened) from 45. By the way, “love” is zero- which looks like an egg. French for “the egg” is “l’ouef,” and when this is Anglicized it became “love.”

Q. My husband and I are arguing over a scoring question. I believe that the US Open is the only Grand Slam that uses a tiebreaker in the final set and he disagrees. He says it's the only Slam without the fifth set tiebreak. Please prove me right.

A. You are right.

The tiebreaker feels uniquely American to me because the US Open is the only of the four majors to allow for it in a decisive, final set. Is there anything in our sport that is more compelling than a fifth set tiebreaker? Certainly the recent Agassi-Blake match was as riveting as it gets. I prefer that it ended in a dramatic tiebreaker at 1:00 AM with 23,000 screaming fans in attendance than an indefinite deuce set (14-12, anyone?).

I hope that the US Open will always maintain this tradition of a tiebreaker at the end of every set. Frankly, I think that the matches are long enough, and the decisiveness of a tiebreaker is so dramatic that it adds considerable viewing value.

Q. Do you think numeric scoring (1,2,3...) will ever be a replacement for the present system? Can you explain how and when the present scoring system was adopted?

A. If Hall-of-Famer Billie Jean King had her way, the traditional method of scoring WOULD BE replaced. It is hard for me to imagine this, but it must have been difficult for many to fathom tie-breakers when they came on the scene in the early 1970’s. Change is good if it improves our sport.

To my knowledge, the current scoring was based on the model of the clock (15, 30, 40- shortened from 45- and then game). “Love” came from the French word for egg (l’oeuf), which looks like a zero. The Anglicized pronunciation became “love.”

Q. A situation recently arose in league play at our club. Our player announced the game score "6-5" prior to serving the first point of the 12th game in an 8 game pro-set match. His opponent claimed the score was 5-6. They debated the issue for a couple of minutes and then our guy gave in and said "You can have it, let's just play." If both players are sure they are correct about the score, how do you proceed?

A. In this situation, you need to revert back to the last score that is agreed upon and begin again from there. This is one reason why juniors are strongly encouraged to call out the score before each game.

Q. How did the "No-Ad" scoring method get started? And who thought of it?

A. Jimmy Van Alen, who Bud Collins refers to as the “Newport Bolshevik,” created the no-ad scoring method in an effort to shorten the length of long, boring matches. I am sorry to say that he created this about thirty-five years ago, yet some people are still complaining about long, boring matches. Oh, well. The revolution continues.

By the way, no-ad scoring is when you play to four points during a game. Typically, regular numbers (1, 2, 3, and 4) are used instead of our traditional (15, 30, 40, game) scoring. Thus, 40-15 is 3-1 in no-ad scoring. If/when the score reaches 3-3 in a particular game, then the next point decides who will win this game sudden-death style. In these instances, the receiver(s) decide(s) toward which side the server must serve.

This no-ad scoring was used when I played college tennis, but is no longer typically used at the Division I level. In some tournaments, it is used to, for example, shorten the length of consolation matches. World Team Tennis still utilizes the no-ad scoring system during the professional season and it has the potential for creating a lot of “big point” moments during sets.

Q. I am a teacher and I was teaching a group of my students how to play tennis last week. We were wondering if you could tell us why zero is called “love” in tennis.

A. A zero looks like an egg. To the French, the egg is “l’oeuf.” L’oeuf, when anglicized, sounds a little like “love.” Thus, “love” from “l’oeuf” which means “the egg” which looks like zero. I am NOT making this up!

Now, try explaining to your students why you need to win a 12-point tiebreaker by two or more points when you’ve reached six games all in a set. Just kidding.

Q. Does love mean zero?

A. Yes, unfortunately love does mean zero. Don’t get me started…

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