If it can be counted, said the executive, it can be understood. If it can be understood, it can be controlled. And if it can be controlled, surely the keys to the kingdom can be grasped. Show me the numbers.
How does this play out in tennis? After lagging behind such data-intensive sports as baseball and football, tennis of late is on a quantitative binge. For the pros, information abounds – errors, first serve percentage, break points, net rushes, rally length, as well as yet more sophisticated data about depth, speed, placement. Such experts as Craig O’Shannessy (braingametennis.com) are constantly assessing these factors for the ATP, WTA and such teaching organizations as the USPTA and beyond. It’s also possible for civilians – ardent recreational players – to dig into this too thanks to tools like PlaySight, the technology device that can track a match inside and out.
But then there is one metric that has long been a part of tennis and is often overlooked: The scoring system – or more emphatically, the beguiling, diabolical, fantastic scoring system. Of course, every sport offers a certain metaphysical view of its scoring system. As the recent Super Bowl showed, a big lead and a ticking clock is no guarantee. Three-pointers can rapidly alter the score of a basketball game. In baseball, the clock is irrelevant. Fancy golf, where every stroke counts. All of these scoring systems can both comfort and blind.
In tennis, you can lose seven straight points and only be down 1-0. For that matter, you can win 24 straight points. Fancy that, a golden set. In basketball, that would be a significant half-time lead. The team losing would know it had serious ground to make up.
Yet to win the first set 6-0 is fool’s gold, the kind of score that can seduce the player in the lead into complacency – and the one who’s trailing into focus. Beware of the wounded bear. It might well be better to have scratched out a 6-3 or 6-4 first set; a battle of clear frontlines and a tussle well-fought. If the result was guaranteed, which score would you rather win by?
Hence, an intrusion on contemporary metrics. If at 2-2 a player breaks serve and goes on to win the first set 6-4, does it really matter if he failed to cash in four break points when his opponent served at 2-4? Should a netrusher, even if the point is lost, accumulate a quarter-point tax credit merely for forcing his opponent to come up with a passing shot winner? For surely those frequent forays to net early in the set are a form of cumulative pressure that can often pay off in later stages. Him, again. Do I really have to hit another passing shot? Among recreational players, how meaningful is serving percentage when a great many returners scarcely do more with the second serve return than the first?
There is no clock. A lead cannot be built and held. You must continue to score. But momentum barely accumulates, as if you were driving on one of those highways with frequent bridge tolls. Nor can the deficit be as far as you think. “I won the first set 6-0 and was up 2-0 in the second,” said the player. “There I was, up 8-zip. I had him.” But not really. All the player had earned for those first six games was this number: one. One set. And now, time to start another – point by point, toothpick by toothpick.