Is Tennis’ Scoring System Helping Underdogs? This Study Thinks So

A University of Cambridge academic observed that the system improves the chances of an underdog winning a match.

Published
Tennis

Point, game, set, match – That’s how the scoring system in the game of tennis usually progresses. For the uninitiated, here’s a brief description.

Point: Starts at zero (also called love), and increases from 15-30-40-game.
Game: A game consists of four points, just as long as the leading player has at least a two-point advantage.
Set: Whichever player/team wins the majority of the sets wins the match. Usually, a match is an odd number, often either three or five sets.

This system of scoring in the sport dates back to the Victorian era. And according to a new study, it is biased towards the weaker player in the game.

A University of Cambridge academic in a blog wrote that the current system, instead of using total points as is done in games like basketball and football, significantly improves the chances of an underdog winning a match.

“Tennis has a weird scoring system. Point, game, set, match. This leads to lots of excitement, as mini-dramas unfold near the end of many games and sets. But it can also lead to unfair results. The better player sometimes loses. If tennis had a more straightforward scoring system, like basketball or cricket, just totting up the points scored, the results would be fairer,” observed Dr Chris Hope, Reader in Policy Modelling at Cambridge Judge Business School, in a blog.

Focusing on whether the player and opponents have a “good”, “moderate” or “strong” serve, Hope studied how much one would gain if a simple point-based system of scoring was used instead of the current ‘point-game-set-match’ one.

According to Hope’s model, the chances of the underdog are boosted in absolute terms if a player who’s strong on serve plays one who is exceptional – both in the case of men and women.

“For men, a player who is strong on serve against one who is exceptional will win 23.3% of the time with the actual scoring system against only 15.7% of the time if the scoring were points-based. So his chances are boosted by 7.7 percentage points.

For women, a player who is strong on serve against one who is exceptional will win 26.7% of the time with the actual scoring system against 23.5% of the time if the scoring were points-based. So her chances are boosted by 3.2 percentage points.”

Hope observed that chances are boosted most if a player who is moderate on serve competes against one who is exceptional. In this case, among men, the player who is moderate on serve will win 1.3 percent of the time against the 0.2 percent of the time, if the scoring is point-based.

“So his chances increase about six-fold. For women, a player who is moderate on serve against one who is exceptional will win 2.8 percent of the time with the actual scoring system against 1.9 percent of the time if the scoring were points-based. So her chances are increased by half.”

System’s Bias a Feature, Not Bug

With his study, Hope is, however, not looking at bringing change to apparent unfair system of scoring in tennis. Instead, he says that the “system’s bias in favour of the underdog” should be seen as a “feature rather than a bug”.

He even suggests that other sports learn from it.

“Basketball is sometimes boring, and cricket seems to be on a perpetual search for a livelier format. But it does make sense to be aware of just how unfair the present tennis scoring system can potentially be.”

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