Tag Archives: tennis

Tennis Stats Have Been Left Behind

Fivethirtyeight.com has a fascinating post on the state of statistics in tennis:

Old, an avid player himself, meticulously charted every shot of every rally to figure out how to play the game optimally. A scientist, he broke down the sport scientifically — then wrote about it in a series of books endorsed by some of the best American tennis players of their day.

Sometimes his son, Randy, watched matches with him. “It was boring,” Randy said, laughing. “He didn’t talk. He had this huge notebook, and he just was concentrating.”

In a typical story of a sports stats pioneer, I’d show how this early work inspired others and led to a revolution in analysis of the game.2 Not this time. Nearly six decades after Old’s first book hit shelves, no one is producing stats like his. Old’s stats on how often pros hit overheads for winners, or hit their returns down the line, aren’t available in tennis today.

The author of the post showed Old’s 60+ year old book on doubles to some modern players, including the record-setting Bryan brothers, and they found that much of it still applied to the modern game:

Last month at the World Tour Finals in London, I showed the doubles book to the Bryans, to Fleming, and to Daniel Nestor, a 12-time Grand Slam champion. None had seen stats like Old kept — on winning percentage on volleys depending on where they were struck, or on which shots were most likely to yield winners.

They said some data-driven tenets from the book still held: Come to net.12Crowd the middle of the court. Keep returns low. Others, like taking speed off the first serve to allow time to come to net, don’t apply in today’s power-dominated game, the current stars agreed.13

Unfortunately doubles is the red-headed stepchild of tennis and so these kinds of stats aren’t available to even the pros. While the tenets are all well and good, it would be helpful for them to have stats like these on specific opponents. After all, you might find that a certain player’s success rate drops if you hit sliced low returns versus aggressive hard returns. That kind of information can mean all the difference in matches that are often decided by two or three critical points.

Fixing Tennis?

I love tennis, both watching and playing it, which is why Scott Adams’ suggestions for fixing it in his Sports are Broken post caught my attention:

For example, when tennis was invented, serving was just a way to start the rally. One player bunted the ball into the service box and it was on.

Fast-forward to 2014.

Now the pros are 6’8″, their rackets and strings are made from exotic materials, and they are trained to serve at 140 miles per hour. As you might imagine, that creates a lot of double-faults and aces. Both are boring.

To fix tennis, eliminate the serve. That is already happening where I live. A group of folks in my town already play without the serve. Under the no-serve rules either player can start the rally and the point is live on the third hit. You play to 21, win by two, so no more funky tennis scoring with the 15-30-40 ridiculousness. This version of tennis is about twice as fun as playing serve-and-miss while wishing you were getting some exercise.

As someone who relies heavily on his serve this would not be good for me – when I’m practicing with guys at the same level as me and we play games that don’t involve serving I lose more often than I win – but I tend to agree with his assessment. I also really like the first to 21, win by two, idea. That rewards fitness due to less breaks in the action and helps reduce the likelihood of losing to someone who hits a hot streak like you see in regular seven- or ten-point tiebreakers.

On another note, even if we keep the serve I think the “let” call should be eliminated as John McEnroe has suggested in the past. That will speed up play and add an element of adventure to points just as regular net cord shots do.

Even if the pros don’t do it I think amateur play would be greatly enhanced by these kinds of changes.

Tennis and Life – A Wonderful Story

Wall Street Journal sports columnist Jason Gay has written the finest story involving tennis you’re likely to read:

For 40 years, my father, Ward Gay, was a tennis coach, at Cambridge Rindge and Latin High School in Cambridge, Mass., the city where he grew up. When he started, rackets were wood. The No. 1 men’s player in the world was Ilie Nastase. My dad studied tennis bibles written by Rod Laver, Bud Collins and Harry Hopman, and taught himself the rest through years of little victories and mistakes.

He liked natural gut string, one-handed backhands, the serve-and-volley, the chip-and-charge. He was also a science teacher at the high school, and he enjoyed how tennis was a game that rewarded mental acuity as well as physical skill. His favorite tennis maxim was the well-known adage he borrowed and passed on to every player: You’re only as good as your second serve…

My dad admired the pristine grass at Wimbledon and the red clay at Roland Garros, but the kind of tennis he really adored was city tennis. Cracks in the hard court. Rusty chain-link fences. Holes in the nets. Trucks howling by on the street. Country clubs weren’t his thing.

Tennis was for everybody, he felt…

In early March, just days away from the first tennis practice of the season, he was diagnosed with pancreatic cancer.

He resigned from coaching the team. He told me about it matter-of-factly, but stepping away after doing this for so long had to have been devastating. Spring afternoons on the hard court had been a ritual for him, a sanctuary…

Last Thursday, Aug. 21, in a Boston hospital that overlooked a pair of beautifully ragged tennis courts on the Charles River, my dad died. He was 70 years old.

The next day, my brother and I walked down the street to the courts we grew up on. We pulled out a couple of our father’s old rackets we’d uncovered in the garage, and hit like we used to hit when we were young. Dad had given us and so many others a sport we could play for the rest of our lives, but his reach was much more than that. We ran with our rackets back, ready for anything.

A French Egg and a Clock

From the excellent Now I Know comes one theory for how tennis got its bizarre scoring system:

Eggs are, of course, oval shaped, much like the number zero. And in a few sports, they’re used as such — “goose egg” is common in American sports, and “duck,” short for “duck’s egg,” is common in cricket. Tennis may be an addition to the list. The sport most likely dates back to 12th century France, and, as such, many of the rules and much of the terminology has carried forward since. The French term for “the egg” is “l’oeuf,” which, if you’re not a French speaker, sounds a lot like the word “love.” It is likely that a series of English speakers simply replaced the French word with its English homophone.

As for the actual numbers? Certainty as to their origin has been lost to antiquity, but the most likely explanation involves a pretty simple way to keep score: clock faces. The first point would earn you one quarter of a revolution, or 15 (minutes or seconds), the second point moves you to 30, and the third to 45. When the game ended, both clocks would be reset to the top. Easy — except that tennis games have to be won by two or more points. If both players were on a 45, then what? Even moving the hand half-way wouldn’t work, as 60 minus 45 is 15, which is not divisible by two.

The inelegant solution? Move 45 to 40. When the players tied at 40-40 (“deuce”), the next point would be worth 10, moving the clock to 50. If the same player earned the subsequent point, he or she would get another ten points and win the game. If not, his or her clock would be reset to 40, and the players would be deadlocked at deuce again.

No wonder so many interesting characters are attracted to tennis. Don't think so? Check out any local USTA league and you'll soon change your mind.

Yes, Tennis Players are Picky

Below is a great video of 13-year tennis pro Michael Russell being tested to see if he can pick his racket out of a bunch of very similar rackets.  In one case he could tell a 1 gram difference in the weight of a test racket compared to his personal racket.  Everything else – model, string tension, etc.- was similar. 

For someone who plays regularly I'm a weirdly unpicky player when it comes to things like strings. Most players know exactly what kind of string they want, but I care mostly about tension. I've come across a couple of strings that I don't like but for the most part I don't pay much attention.  99% of regular players do care very much, but I've never felt my game was fine tuned enough for it to make much of a difference.

BTW, I had the chance to see Russell play in the qualifying rounds of the Winston-Salem Open two weeks ago and it was amazing to see how much steadier he was than his opponent.  The guy is a hitting machine, and I was very pleased to see him put on a great show versus Andy Roddick earlier this week in a night match in Ashe Stadium at the US Open.

Anyway, enjoy the video.

A “Did You Know?” About Tennis

I recently subscribed to a great daily email newsletter called Now I Know that delivers a seemingly random piece of information each day.  Today's was about tennis, and more specifically, about the gold medalist in tennis at the 1896 Olympic Games in Greece.  What fascinated me about this was:

  • Tennis was one of the nine athletic events at the first modern Olympic games
  • The guy who won the gold medal started out as a spectator but was convinced to play and, having no proper gear, played in dress shoes with heels.
  • The gold medalist also won the gold in doubles by partnering with a guy from another country he'd defeated in singles, meaning the gold medal for doubles is shared by two countries.

I highly recommend you subscribe to the newsletter. It hasn't disappointed me yet and I've learned something new every day.