A rule quickly gaining traction in the tennis world is “no-ad scoring,” which eliminates serving advantages.
Many tennis fans have mixed feelings about this method, arguing that while it opens the game up to chance, it regulates the pace of the match and almost guarantees a conclusion within two hours. This is billed as a benefit for players, since every game is finished within nine points, and a positive change for spectators, since they can plan their day around a match. However, what proponents of no-ad scoring downplay is the effect on players’ perseverance and strategy, both of which are crucial to success on the court.
Tennis scoring is almost always a source of confusion for non-players. The system is fraught with exceptions and bizarre conventions. For example, you have to win each set by two games – unless it is six-all, in which case you have to play to at least seven points, switching sides every six points played. And bear in mind that the person who serves first only serves once before each player trades off serving two at a time.
This may seem like madness, but there is a rhyme to the reason. In fact, each seemingly minor regulation, exception, and convention was designed with a single goal in mind: to eliminate chance from the game.
As tennis evolved, it became clear that a number of factors outside a player’s control could influence the outcome of the match. Rules were developed to minimize the effect of those factors, ensuring neither player would benefit from outside factors alone. Players had to develop strategies to thrive regardless of the prevailing conditions. Their skills had to be holistic and adaptable in order to withstand outside influences.
Perhaps the most famous element of tennis scoring is the “win by two” requirement. Unlike most sports, where clinching the last point is grounds for an ESPN special, tennis requires each player to win two points in a row to solidify their lead.
However, no-ad scoring adds chance back into the mix of factors with which players must compete. Now a single error, whether from an inopportune divot in the court, a gust of wind before a second-serve toss, or the occasional bird winging over the court, can cost players games, sets—even matches. We all know someone who has lost a pivotal game due to the chance as a result of no-ad scoring. Many of us have been that person.
No-ad scoring also has unintended effects on player strategy. For example, knowing that a tied game might depend on the next shot, a normally aggressive player might opt for a conservative approach to keep the ball in play. No-ad scoring encourages this approach: there are no ESPN highlights, because no one wants to take a risk, and players shy away from trying new strategies that might shift the balance of power for the rest of the match. Adding chance doesn’t merely change the rules; it fundamentally alters how the game is played.
Of course, it can be refreshing for the audience to know when a match will finish. And there is an argument to be made on behalf of college and high school coaches, who might have to pay for courts by the hour.
Still, too many times strategically strong players have lost matches because of a few lucky shots from their opponents. No-ad scoring dampens the air, encouraging conservative play at the expense of more vibrant strategies and rewarding players for luck. Beyond this, it’s important to recognize that players aspiring to become pros might be disappointed to learn that the tactics they developed and trained with during their early careers are now irrelevant in the ATP or WTA.
In short, without ads, tennis is no longer tennis.
From fans, to coaches, to pros, the tennis world needs to have a frank discussion about no-ad scoring. Although there are benefits to spectators and school programs, tennis should be first and foremost about the players. When these athletes are out on the court, there should be no doubt that the winner was the better sportsman: someone who played cleverly, read their opponent, and pursued a range of strategies to achieve their goal. With no-ad scoring, there’s not a player in the world who can guarantee that will be the case.
Chris Sabaitis is the founder and CEO of AceSpace, an app that connects tennis players with courts across the country. A former member of the varsity team at Columbia University, Chris continues to get on the court every weekend. Reach out to him at firstname.lastname@example.org.