The Tennis Scoring System

16:28 Sun 29 Jun 2008. Updated: 18:17 28 Jan 2009
[, , , ]

One of the things that makes tennis such a great game is its scoring system, which can be considered apart from the rest of the rules of the game, concerned as they are with valid ways of scoring points and procedural issues.

The scoring system involves four “levels”, which in increasing order of importance are points, games, sets, and matches. Matches could be considered apart, since winning the match means winning. That leaves points, games, and sets.

Points are the individual exchanges ending when one player can’t reach a shot or hits an illegal shot. In a sense, what constitutes a “point” here is irrelevant to the scoring system, which just requires that points can be scored in some fashion. Tennis games are played to four points, but the point scores (for unclear historical reasons) are, instead of 0,1,2,3, “love”, “fifteen”, “thirty”, and “forty”. If you score the fourth point and are two points ahead of your opponent, you win the game. Games must be won by at least two points—that is, if you’re tied with your opponent, you need to score two points consecutively in order to win. If both players reach “forty”, the score is called “deuce” (not “forty-forty”, or “deuce-deuce”), and when one player wins the next point, the score is “advantage “. The the player whose advantage it is wins the next point, they win the game. If not, the score returns to deuce. This can mean that the score returns to deuce many times before one player manages two consecutive points.

In tennis, players alternave serving each game.

After games come sets. A set is first-to-six-games, but players must win by two games—hence six-five is not a set-winning score, while six-four is. In the past, sets would continue until a player gained a two-game advantage, but modern tournaments use a tiebreak if both players reach six games (except in the final set of matches, mostly). The tiebreak is played to seven points, with players alternating serve after the first point and after every two points thereafter. A player must win by two points.

Matches are usually played best of three or five sets.

The first thing I love about the scoring system is the insistence on winning by two. I think that adds a tremendous amount to it, and helps a great deal in dminishing the impact of luck.

The second thing I love is the compartmentalization. Each game is truly that, a game in itself, in which both players start at nothing and must win. A player leading a set five games to love must still win another game, meaning the opponent can regroup, steel themselves, and attempt to fight hard for each game, while knowing that losing a single point in that game won’t doom them. There is a profound difference between that structure and, say, a system in which players alternated serve every four points and had to reach twenty-four to win a set. In that scenario, a player might be down twenty to five, say, and would be required to make an impossibly low number of mistakes in order to recover. With the tennis system, the breakdown into individual games gives them an outside chance.

The compartmentalization applies to sets, too—after a set is done, the next one starts with both players at zero. Many games use a set-based structure in which this is true, but don’t have the additional intermediary level of games between points and sets.

The scoring system therefore allows for a lot of ebb and flow, and for a great degree of psychological depth, one reason why tight tennis matches often have an epic quality.

When the ruling body for table tennis restructured its scoring system earlier this decade, changing games from first-to-twenty-one to first-to-eleven, I think they should have gone in the other direction, and used the tennis scoring system instead. There’s no way they would have, since they were looking to shorten the matches, not lengthen them, and table tennis using the tennis scoring system would probably take as long as tennis. They could have played to a single set, or best-of-three, but it would still have been longer than what they were looking for. Table tennis started as a parlor game, not a sport, so it’s expected to be a lot shorter than something like tennis, but I think that’s a shame, and would be quite interested in what would happen to the sport if they switched to the tennis system.

I often play Magic: The Gathering in sets, rather than as the best of three games, having come across the suggestion in a Mike Flores article some time ago. It makes a lot of sense. You can sideboard after four games, and apart from that, it’s just like a tennis set where an individual MTG game is the game unit (points are an irrelevant concept for MTG here). No tiebreak, though, but I think the longest set I’ve played ended up being eight-six. I’ve followed the tradtional MTG approach of giving the loser of the last game the choice of going first or second, but I think that I should try it with that choice alternating strictly, just as serve does in tennis.

I think that FPS deathmatch games would also benefit from trying the tennis system, counting each frag as a point and equating “serve” with “choice of map”—that would make for a completely different style of game, and I think the results could be really interesting.

Squash, racquetball, and badminton could of course use it as well, and again the main issue would be the amount of time it took to play the games. A big difference for some of those would be the ability of the non-serving player to score points, but the advantage of serving entire games would mean that the serve retained its importance.

Essentially, I don’t see why all individual sports/games don’t use that scoring system where they could…

One Response to “The Tennis Scoring System”

  1. babygurl Says:

    do you think tennis is a great sport. i really don’t know because i’m working on it on physical education

Leave a Reply