The Intercollegiate Tennis Association (ITA) has mandated experimental rule changes for NCAA Division I College Tennis beginning January 1, 2014 though the Team Indoor Championships in February.
The current system in use was championed back in 1993 by Coach Paul Scarpa of Furman. The “Scarpa Scoring System” is playing 3 doubles matches in an 8-game pro set format followed by 6 singles matches in a best of 3 set format. All singles and doubles matches consist of regular scoring. Make an important mental note right here that all games are played with regular scoring because it will be a pivotal point by the time you finish reading this.
- 3 doubles matches in 6-game pro set format with no-ad scoring* and tiebreak at 5-5.
- 6 singles matches in a best of 3 set format with no-ad scoring* and tiebreak at 5-5.
- No warm-up permitted prior to matches.
*No-Ad scoring means that at the “deuce” point of a game one sudden-death point is played to determine the outcome, eliminating the need to “win by two.”
- 3 doubles matches in a 6-game pro set format with regular scoring and tiebreak at 6-6.
- 6 singles matches in a best of 3 set match format with regular scoring and tiebreak at 6-6. However, if competitors split sets they will play a tiebreak in lieu of a 3rd set.
- No warm-up permitted prior to matches.
Now that we go through the logistics I can really get to what this post is about, just stick with me here because this is going to get good…
College tennis programs across the country have been cut and continue to be. The ITA’s rational for the rule change is pretty simple, they want to increase the fan-based, generate excitement, garner support for programs, and they believe shortening the format is they key to doing so. I love their vision and I believe the people at the ITA have the best of intentions. However, I believe the ITA is going about accomplishing their mission all wrong and I am going to lay out some very strong supporting points and logical solutions momentarily. Before I do everyone should know that I am not alone in my opinion. In fact, players and coaches are outraged at these changes because the changes destroy the integrity of tennis itself. These rule changes literally change the way the game is played (more on that in a moment). If you want to find out more information and join the movement to stop these changes please do so by joining a Facebook Group entitled Official College Players Against the ITA Rule Change or simply use the #SaveCollegeTennis hash-tag in social media.
So now let me explain why these rule changes and thought process behind the rule changes is destroying the integrity of the greatest game on earth.
First let me be honest, tennis does not exactly have the reputation of being a popular, mainstream, tough-guy sport. In my opinion it has been marketed poorly because the true essence of the game is lost in the tennis whites and country clubs of yesteryear. Tennis is like walking into a gladiator arena where two people are going to fight, one remains victorious and the other perishes. In that arena there is no time clock or judges, just two people fighting until one remains victorious. Do I have your attention? Good, because tennis is literally the same exact thing! Two people (singles) or two teams of two people (doubles) take the court and fight it out until one is victorious. It is eye-hand combat just like two men fighting it out in the Roman Colosseum. The only difference is you do not destroy the other person with a sword or battle ax, instead you destroy them with a racket and a fuzzy yellow ball and thankfully no one dies at the end.
People love this kind of stuff and have for thousands of years! Could you imagine the different response if we approached marketing tennis this way? How about we get Russell Crowe to do some commercials to promote tennis? Youth sure do play enough violent video games that work on the same premise…
Instead of changing the scoring system or format I think a different marketing strategy is where the ITA should focus their efforts. Shortening the length of a match will do nothing because people are missing the simple message as to what tennis really is. Good marketing is nothing more than placing a clear, consistent, and simple message with a product. Someone says, “Starbucks” and you think “coffee.” That is all good marketing is. When someone says, “tennis” we need people to think “eye-hand combat where nobody dies, awesome!”
Second, the scoring system in tennis is strange. What is with the Love-15-30-40-Deuce-Ad all about? Well the truth is it is the scoring system that might be the most genius part of the game. It really does present a paradox because the scoring system is so complex yet built around the simple idea of grouping points.
Let me continue by explaining a little about the history of the scoring system because it really simplifies everything. I read this in Oscar Wegner’s book Play Better Tennis in 2 Hours. The scoring system of tennis was born on a court with a broken clock. The broken clock became the scoreboard. One player was the hour hand and the other the minute hand. When a player won a point their respective clock hand was moved to the 15-minute mark, win another to the 30-minute mark, and a third to the 40-minute mark. If the score was tied with both players at the 40-minute mark it was called “deuce.” Deuce is an old French word meaning “two” which signified that 2 more points were needed to win the game. Win the deuce point and your clock hand was moved to the 45-minute mark signifying it was your advantage or “ad” to winning the game. Lose the advantage point and back to the 40-minute deuce mark. Win the advantage point and win the game. Then both clock hands go back to the 0-minute or “love” mark and signifies the start of the next game. Thinking of scoring tennis with the face of a clock sure does make it easier to explain to people doesn’t it?
What is even more fascinating is the idea of winning by two. This is unique to tennis and is one of the sacred heirlooms to the sport. You see tennis is unlike most other sports because you must win by 2. The entire game is built around grouping points together. Think about it, if you lose the first point of a game you must win 3 points in a row or 4 out of 5 to win the game. Knowing all this look at the rule change to no-ad scoring and now you understand how it is fundamentally changing the way in which tennis is played! These drastic changes to the scoring system is what has the players so upset.
On a side note, the whole tie-break system was only invented and added with the birth of televising tennis matches to prevent marathons. Which is kind of amusing because I think the most famous and most televised tennis match in recent years was Isner and Mahut at Wimbledon in 2010 where the score was 70-68 in the 5th set. Interesting how the match without the tiebreak at the end of the set was televised the most?
Again, marketing is all about being unique and become easily recognized. Instead of trying to make tennis like every other sport where you can win by just one point we should be championing how tennis is unique and different from every other sport because of the sacred scoring system based on grouping points and winning by two. Again it comes down to the idea of going into eye-hand combative battle with your opponent. The founders of the game wanted tennis to be a game where you had to finish off your opponent just as a gladiator would have to do.
Finally, I do not understand why tennis is not more popular in America because it fits our society so well. American’s pride themselves on individuality however the most popular sports in America are team sports. Before I continue I do not want anyone to think I am against team sports because that is not my opinion at all. Young athletes should be able to choose whatever sport they enjoy competing in and strive for excellence in it. Team sports are absolutely wonderful and very American. However, I think college tennis and tennis in general could do a better job of leveraging how the game of tennis itself aligns so well with American value of individuality. In fact, college tennis could be the only sport that has individuality and team competition rolled into one event.
To wrap up this post I hope it sheds some light on this hot topic of the rule changes to Division I College Tennis. I hope you now see how drastic the ITA mandated rule changes really are and how they do in fact fundamentally change the way the game is played. I think a better solution would be to look at marketing tennis for it’s truly unique traits as opposed to trying to make it like every other sport. “if you do what everyone else is doing, you will get the same results. However, if you do the opposite of what everyone else is doing you will get unique results.” I think we need to take the approach of championing the game for it’s roots because it is exactly what makes tennis different and the greatest game ever.
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