You have just finished two great sets in a United States Tennis Association (USTA) league match. You won the first set 7-5 and your opponent came back to take second set by an identical score. It doesn't get much closer than that. Great play, excellent shots, fair calls … everything you could ask for in a competitive match.
Now what? A chance for a third set to identify the winner? See who is in shape to play out this tough match?
None of the above.
What happens next is, what many consider, a far less than optimal solution to decide this match.
Enter the tennis twilight zone of the 10-point super ("stupid”) tie-break. The USTA's attempt to fit matches into ever tighter time schedules has resulted in a solution originally put in place to make non-major tournament professional doubles play address television's request for a more predictable time frame for those matches. For the pros, they have also included no-ad scoring, as well, in each of the first two sets.
Supposedly, after playing the non-major professional doubles matches in this manner for a while, and then analyzing the results, the higher seeded doubles teams tend to win more matches than the lower seeded teams. I have not seen any data on this, but accepting for the moment that the statistics bear this out, we are clearly not professionals, so I don't think one can accurately extrapolate their results to ours.
We are not on television, we do not have to deal with corporate sponsors, and we do not have to make our games fit into clean manageable breaks for commercials; all of these are great reasons for the professionals to play a 10-point super tie-break in lieu of a third set, but not for us.
To have a match come down to the 10-point super tie-break for the deciding "set" takes away from the foundation of the game as it has existed for many years and it can result in the lesser player/team winning a match due purely to being lucky. A ball that hits the net cord and drops in (or out), a bad call (either way), a single unforced error … any or all of these single items can affect the outcome of a hard-fought match.
These items can also affect an individual game within a set, but when they happen in the 10-point super tie-break, their importance is magnified to the point of potentially making the previous split sets seem almost irrelevant and therein lies the problem.
Yet another quirk exists in the 10-point super tie-break that we play in USTA league play on Long Island. If the 10-point super tie-break is in process when the time limit for the match is reached, the team ahead at that point gets one extra game. So, it is possible that one team has served, won that point to go up 1-0, time ends the match, and that team gets the additional game. The other team never even gets the chance to serve to even out that point. If the teams were tied in games won over the first two sets, the team that won this single point on their serve now wins the match based solely on that one point. Just like any other point that can determine the outcome for the entire match, that point could be the result of a net cord shot that drops in (or out).
So what is the USTA trying to accomplish for the amateur players in their leagues? Are they trying it to keep matches to a specific time limit given a lack of courts or their cost? We can all understand that.
Are they trying to prevent injuries or illness by keeping the matches shorter? While some of us can understand this, many others, including me, would argue that fitness is a component of one's arsenal.
So, if there is a need to address the rationale noted above, are there other more attractive options to consider to replace the 10-point super tie-break?
How about just playing a regular third set, and if it is not completed due to time constraints, just count up the number of games won in total for all the games completed up to that point on that court across the two-plus sets played. In a regular USTA match on Long Island, if the time ends and only one full set is completed while the second set is in progress, we count the total number of completed games won by each opponent to determine the winner on that court. If the total number of completed games won on that court is the same for each opponent, the court is split evenly.
How about playing the third set, if required in a match, with no ad scoring? We did this for a number of years on Long Island and, while not perfect, it at least kept the impact of a single "lucky bounce" to an individual game, not the entire match.
If those solutions are not sufficient to address the facility or time constraints, how about playing all sets with no ad scoring? Many high schools follow this format since most do not have enough courts to play all matches simultaneously (seven courts are needed in total; consisting of three singles and four doubles courts).
There are probably other solutions, but the key is to address the facility and time constraints for the match, while insuring that "luck" is not the overriding determinant of who wins and loses.
Granted, in a given match, three or four points can be critical to the outcome, and any of those can be decided by a “lucky bounce,” but the probability of this influencing the outcome of a match increases dramatically when using the 10-point super tie-break in lieu of a third set.
What do you think? Do you have any suggestions to replace the 10-point super tie-break? Do you even think it’s a problem?