What's In a Score

Thursday, July 18, 2013 /by
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Steve Tignor will return from vacation next Monday. In the meantime, we'll be running some past articles from Steve, including this one, on the beauty and variety of the tennis score:


Seeing the unlikely final score—7-6 (0), 1-6, 7-6 (4)—of John Isner’s high-wire win over James Blake Thursday night in D.C. brought back memories. I was fascinated by score lines like that when I was a kid, where one player would lose many more games, and many more points, but still find a way to stagger through two of the three sets. Those matches underlined the unique quality of tennis’s scoring and how it elevated certain moments over others. The sport, by starting fresh each set, gave you second chances; but you had to be tough and resourceful, not to mention forgetful, enough to take them. I can only remember winning one match with a score like that, a 6-4, 1-6, 6-4 victory in a 16-and-under tournament in Bloomsburg, Pa. As you can see, I recall the time and place and all the sets very clearly (twenty-five years later I can even tell you the song I was singing in my head, but I’ll save that nugget of information for another day). Coming through in the tight sets, navigating around the middle-set debacle, and winning the match despite losing more points than my opponent made me feel like a player.

The Isner-Blake match also reminded me that tennis’s scores aren’t just noteworthy for how they force players to play, they’re also interesting simply for the way they look. Baseball games and soccer matches are won 3-2 or 1-0; a basketball game might be 101-95; an American football game, scored in multiples of three and seven, might be 24-17. Other racquet sports, like squash, racquetball, badminton, and ping-pong, are generally first to 9 or 15 or 21. Lawn tennis began with badminton-style scoring—first to 15—but the All England Club, when it took control of the game, borrowed the distinctive and arcane point-game-set scoring of court tennis, partly to connect it to that ancient royal sport more closely and give the new lawn game an air of history and class. Court tennis scoring may or may not be classier, but it is more complicated. Which was part of the point; the aristocratic game also had dozens of other bizarre scoring aspects that no novice, or common shmoe, could possibly understand; thankfully, lawn tennis jettisoned almost all of them, while keeping the cool ones like love and deuce. But tennis scores still come with commas, set reversals, and, since the advent of the tiebreaker, parentheses. The possibilities are, if not limitless, extremely variable.

All of this is just as complicated psychologically. As far as I know, no other sport involves so many winner-take-all moments—you can win three, five, even 10 points and still lose a game; you can win six games and still lose a set; you can win 18 games and many more points than your opponent and still lose a match. Perhaps in consolation for this mental torment, tennis’s score line is the only one that offers the loser, if he manages to take a set, a moment of temporary glory. 

This helps give a tennis score, especially for a five-setter, a life of its own. The final of the World Cup might be 1-nil or 3-2, but that doesn’t tell you nearly as much about that what happened as, say, the score of the 1980 Wimbledon final: 1-6, 7-5, 6-3, 6-7 (16), 8-6. I love that score for its tongue-twisting rises and falls, and its final leap up, and then up some more. The scores from that era, when I was a maniacal young fan, are burned into my brain forever, but I couldn’t tell you, off the top of my head, the exact score of any major final of the last five years, with the exception of the 2008 Wimbledon men’s final. That one—6-4, 6-4, 6-7 (5), 6-7 (8), 9-7 was simple and symmetrical, but it also had that dramatic final leap upward, from a classic fourth-set tiebreaker to an extra-inning fifth set, just like in ’80.

There’s a poetry to tennis scores, and, to me at least, a meaning. Here’s what I read into a few of them:

6-0, 6-0: I’ve served and eaten the double bagel. As a junior in high school, I was the first seed in our local high school district championship. I played one early-round match on the court next to my main rival, who was the second seed. We were playing no-ad, and my games with my opponent were continually going to 3-all, and I was continually winning them. From the next court, the match must have looked pretty close. When it ended and my opponent and I walked off, my rival next door asked me what the score had been.

I said, breezing past, very casually, “oh and oh.”

He couldn’t believe it: “What!?” he yelled.

"Oh and oh," I said, without turning to look at him.

In college, I got my comeuppance. I was in the middle of a horrible slump, and the kid across the net didn’t miss—a less-than-promising combination, and it led to "oh and oh" in his favor. When I think back on how I felt after that match, I realize the point of the double bagel: It’s there to show us that failure—abject, humiliating, no-excuse-possible failure—is real, that it can happen to you, that everyone will know about it, and that you have to suck it up and live with it. Like the scores would indicate, you feel naked, like you’ve got nothing, when you lose like that.

6-1, 6-1: When I see this score at the pro level, it makes me think: tank. Someone played just well enough to avoid getting bageled, but no better.

6-2, 6-2: If I could choose to win a match by a score, it would be this (or maybe 7-6 in the fifth set). Two and two is elegant, symmetrical, and it doesn’t look you needed to prove anything by winning 0 and 0 or something.

6-3, 6-3: My main memory of this score also came in college. I was a freshman or sophomore and one of our popular seniors was playing a challenge match against a walk-on, a kid that no one wanted on the team. When it ended, our friend came over to join our drills on another court. We could tell that he had won, but someone asked him the score. He grinned: “Threes, baby!” It was all under control, baby, nice and easy, 3 and 3, no need to worry.

7-5, 5-7, 7-5: What are the chances of this? But it was the score line of an excellent match between Lleyton Hewitt and Roger Federer (won by Hewitt) in Shanghai early in the last decade. When it was over, Bud Collins asked, rhetorically, “Have you ever seen a better match?”

7-6, 7-6: A macho score; at least on the surface, neither player had their serve broken.

6-1, 2-6, 6-1: There’s something disappointing about an up and down score like this. It went on for a while, it had a change in momentum, but the players likely never played well at the same time. It doesn't add up.

7-5, 6-0: From the winner’s perspective, an exercise in willpower and breaking an opponent down completely. The opposite, unfortunately, for the loser.

0-6, 7-6, 6-4: A choke. I would know, because I choked and lost a junior match by this score. The thought of it, two decades later, still makes me detest myself a little. I try not to think about it.

I could go on, obviously. But to close, let me say what I think, purely from an aesthetic, poetic standpoint, is the best score in tennis. It is this:

6-4, 6-7, 7-6. There’s the symmetry of the first and third sets going to the winner; what was started, was finished. There’s simplicity—only three numbers are used (provided you're not curious about the tiebreaker scores; why ruin a good thing with useless information?). There’s smoothness—going from 6-7 to 7-6 flows well vocally. And there’s drama in those numbers: The match went the distance, and built to a cliff-hanging conclusion.

It’s a great score; I just wouldn’t want to lose by it.

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