Tennis, or the art of losing


With a recalcitrant scoring system that confounds and antagonizes in equal measure, tennis has never been without affectation, and Wimbledon is its self-proclaimed cathedral. Its centrepiece is the All England Clubhouse, whose creeper clad façade conceals walls lined with the annals of its own history. The Master of Ceremonies escorts the finalists of each championship through its corridors past photographs of those deified by victory. The players are then led towards the arena in which they will stake their claim to join the other immortals. The eventual victor will emerge from the balcony of the clubhouse, brandishing their newly engraved spoils to the crowd below.  Decorated with its own achievements, its brand plastered on every sign, towel, and tennis ball, Wimbledon could not forget its own name if it tried.

The tournament’s first week pits giants of the court against relative minnows. Upsets amongst the  very top seeds are few and far between (Nadal’s second round loss against Lukas Rosol in 2012  ranks as one of the greatest upsets in the history of the sport) and matches are normally kept  short. In the 2010 Championships, the first two days were following the customary script; the more highly favoured players such as Wozniacki, Murray, Williams, and Nadal were easing their way through the early stages of the competition.

However, on the evening of the 22nd June, Nicolas Mahut began his game against John Isner. The first four sets of the match were unremarkable; the fifth was unforgettable. Even the scoreboard was unable to register the one­-hundred­-and-­thirty­-eight games it had just witnessed: seventy to sixty-eight. It took nearly forty-eight hours of play, recovery and aperiodic sleep for Isner to conquer his opponent.

It was not only the longest ever match in terms of both length, eleven hours and five minutes, and number of games, one­-hundred­-and-­eighty­-three, but it also had the most aces in a match with two-hundred-and-sixteen and the most consecutive service games held in a match with one-hundred-and-sixty-eight. But of all the stats, perhaps the most curious is the number of points won by each player; 502:478 in favour of Mahut.

This is the delicious imbalance of the tennis scoring system, where some points are more valuable than others. The Simpson’s Paradox, a statistical phenomenon where an apparent trend is reversed when you look at subgroups, is tennis’ most intriguing quirk. The sport’s non­linear scoring system, following a hierarchy of point-­game­-set­-match, means that players can win more individual points than their opponent, but still lose the match. It happens enough to be statistically significant: a study published in the International Journal of Performance Analysis of Sport put its incidence rate at 5%.

The sport’s nonlinear scoring system means that players can win more individual points than their opponent, but still lose the match

Isner himself has the strongest record in such games prior to 2014, winning nineteen of twenty-four (or seventy-nine percent). This is no accident. Isner is 6”10 with a serve that has reached 157 mph, but he is also one of the weakest returners in the top level of the game. When coupled with his admission that he conserves energy for his service games, it is unsurprising that he will often win sets by no more than a game or two, and typically lose non-service games to love or to fifteen. As Isner told Sports Illustrated in 2013: “If I’m up a break in a set, I can just ride out my serve. That doesn’t necessarily mean that I’m tanking the return games, but it gives me the opportunity to conserve energy for the service game, knowing that I have that break in hand.”

The player at the other end of the scale may be more surprising ­ Roger Federer. His record in such matches is four from twenty-eight (seventeen percent). This is difficult to explain given that other multiple Grand Slam single winners fare much better (with the likes of Agassi, Nadal, and Sampras all above fifty percent).  Fortunately for worshippers of Federer, his ability is not undermined but rather reinforced by this phenomenon. Unlike many big servers, Federer never engages in short-term strategic tanking while playing. He will often win his service games to love or to fifteen, and lose his service games only after one or more deuces. Tiebreakers he will normally lose by no more than two or three points. The behaviour of Federer’s opponents also contributes to his percentage. Dr. Brian Skinner describes the mentality of an underdog; “When facing a heavily-favoured opponent, an underdog must be willing to assume greater­-than-­average risk. In statistical language, one would say that an underdog must be willing to adopt a strategy whose outcome has a larger­-than-­average variance.” Federer’s extensive period of dominance in the 2000s might have caused players to adopt a high-risk, high­-reward approach. Aggressive second serves and returns lead to highly variable outcomes, which would contribute to the likelihood of Federer being on the losing end of the phenomenon over the course of a match.

Unlike many big servers, Federer never engages in short-term strategic tanking while playing

Despite its rarity when it comes to the breakdown of overall match statistics, on a set­by­set basis, the Simpson’s Paradox is omnipresent. Take the 2016 US Open quarter final between Andy Murray and Kei Nishikori, which Murray would eventually lose. Murray is up 6­-1, 3­-3. He has the clear momentum, having only been temporarily unsettled by Nishikori breaking back a few games earlier. Play is briefly suspended following a shower, and when the match resumes, Murray’s rhythm has been well and truly broken. Nishikori breaks and takes the set, levelling the match at one apiece: 1­-6, 6­-4. Murray has won a total of ten games, whilst Nishikori has won seven. And yet, in sets, and in competition terms, the match is equal. Being on the receiving end of this imbalance is mightily disheartening.

Without a time limit or a running score, the sport uniquely undulates in intensity and pressure.  Players not only alternate between sitting at the side of the court and engaging in flat-out,  high intensity effort, but between competing for non­service points at 0­-40 and attempting to  save break, set, and match points. Though both are scored the same at the most basic level, there are pivotal and not­so­pivotal moments. And so, players must constantly adjust to thousands of probabilities and possibilities, not least because there is no one else to fall back on. “In tennis you’re on an island”, Agassi says. “Of all the games men and women play, tennis is the closest to solitary confinement.”

No players know this better than Martina Hingis and Guillermo Coria, who hold the unfortunate honour of being the only Open Era players who’ve lost Grand Slam finals after having multiple championship points. Whilst Hingis recovered from her loss to Jennifer Capriati, Coria’s descent was alarming. His loss to Gaston Gaudio in the 2004 French Open final, in which Coria had two  championship points on his serve, led to the onset of the yips, a psychological condition which  affects athletes and causes the loss of fine motor skills. During the 2005 US Open, he served a combined total of 34 double faults in his fourth round and quarterfinal matches, being knocked out by a double fault. These service woes worsened in subsequent years, and he retired at the age of 27, stating in no uncertain terms that he “didn’t feel like competing anymore”. By this stage, he had dropped hundreds of places below his career high ranking of No. 3, which he had reached in the month leading up to the Grand Slam final that would precipitate his decline. Try telling Coria that all points are equal.

The psychology of a point, and its disproportional effect on the motivation of players, is integral to the appeal of tennis. It is a game which, in spite of and because of its quirks, is played on such fine margins that its smallest building block, a single point, can define a career.


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