… then you are apt to have what one of the tournament’s press bus drivers
describes as a “bloody near-religious experience.”
—David Foster Wallace. “Roger Federer As Religious Experience.” The New York Times, 20 Aug. 2006.
Not much gets by the New York Times, unless it’s the non-existence of WMDs—or the rules of tennis. The Gray Lady is bamboozled by the racquet game: “The truth is,” says The New York Times Guide to Essential Knowledge, Third Edition, not only that “no one knows for sure how … the curious scoring system came about.” But in what might be an example of the Times’ famously droll sense of fun, an article by Stuart Miller entitled “Quirks of the Game: How Tennis Got Its Scoring System” not only does not provide the answer its title promises, but actually even only addresses its ostensible subject by merely noting that “No one can pinpoint exactly when and how” the ostensible subject of the piece came into existence. So much, one supposes, for reportorial tenacity. Yet despite the failure of the Times, in fact there is an explanation for tennis’ scoring system—an explanation that is so simple that while the Times’ inability to see why tennis is scored the way it is is amusing, also leads to disquieting thoughts about what else the Times can’t see. That’s because solving the mystery of why tennis is scored the way it is also could explain a great deal about political reality in the United States.
To be fair, the Times is not alone in its befuddlement: “‘It’s a difficult topic,’” says one “Steve Flink, an historian and author of ‘The Greatest Tennis Matches of All Time,’” in the “How Tennis Got Its Scoring System” story. So far as I can tell, all tennis histories are unclear about the origins of the scoring system: about all anyone knows for sure—or at least, is willing to put on paper—is that (as Rolf Potts put it in an essay for The Smart Set a few years ago) when modern lawn tennis was codified in 1874, it “appropriated the scoring system of the ancient French game” of jeu de paume, or “real tennis” as it is known in English. The origins of the modern game of tennis, all the histories do agree, lie in this older game—most of all, the scoring system.
Yet, while that does push back the origins of the system a few centuries, no one seems to know why jeu de paume adopted the system it did, other than to observe that the scoring breakdowns of 15, 30, and 40 seem to be, according to most sources, allusions to the face of a clock. (Even the Times, it seems, is capable of discovering this much: the numbers of the points, Miller says, appear “to derive from the idea of a clock face.”) But of far more importance than the “15-30-40” numbering is why the scoring system is qualitatively different than virtually every other kind of sport—a difference even casual fans are aware of and yet even the most erudite historians, so far as I am aware, cannot explain.
Psychologist Allen Fox once explained the difference in scoring systems in Tennis magazine: whereas, the doctor said, the “score is cumulative throughout the contest in most other sports, and whoever has the most points at the end wins,” in tennis “some points are more important than others.” A tennis match, in other words, is divided up into games, sets, and matches: instead of adding up all the points each player scores at the end, tennis “keeps score” by counting the numbers of games, and sets, won. This difference, although it might appear trivial, actually isn’t—and it’s a difference that explains not only a lot about tennis, but much else besides.
Take the case of Roger Federer, who has won 17 major championships in men’s tennis: the all-time record in men’s singles. Despite this dominating record, many people argue that he is not the sport’s Greatest Of All Time—at least, according to New York Times writer Michael Steinberger. Not long ago, Steinberger said that the reason people can argue that way is because Federer “has a losing record against [Rafael] Nadal, and a lopsided one at that.” (Currently, the record stands at 23-10 in favor of Nadal—a nearly 70% edge.) Steinberger’s article—continuing the pleasing simplicity in the titles of New York Times tennis articles, it’s named “Why Roger Federer Is The Greatest Of All Time”—then goes on to argue that Federer should be called the “G.O.A.T.” anyway, record be damned.
Yet weirdly, Steinberger didn’t attempt—and neither, so far as I can tell, has anyone else—to do what an anonymous blogger did in 2009: a feat that demonstrates just why tennis’ scoring system is so curious, and why it has implications, perhaps even sinister implications from a certain point of view, far beyond tennis. What that blogger did, on a blog entitled SW19—postal code for Wimbledon, site of the All-England Tennis Club—was very simple.
He counted up the points.
In any other sport, with a couple of exceptions, that act might seem utterly banal: in those sports, in order to see who’s better you’d count up how many one player scored and then count up how many the other guy scored when they played head-to-head. But in tennis that apparently simple act is not so simple—and the reason it isn’t is what makes tennis such a different game than virtually all other sports. “In tennis, the better player doesn’t always win,” as Carl Bialik for FiveThirtyEight.com pointed out last year: because of the scoring system, what matters is whether you win “more sets than your opponent”—not necessarily more points.
Why that matters is because the argument against Federer as the Greatest Of All Time rests on the grounds that he has a losing record against Nadal: at the time the anonymous SW19 blogger began his research in 2009, that record was 13-7 in Nadal’s favor. As the mathematically-inclined already know, that record translates to a 65 percent edge to Nadal: a seemingly-strong argument against Federer’s all-time greatness because the percentage seems so overwhelmingly tilted toward the Spaniard. How can the greatest player of all time be so weak against one opponent?
In fact, however, as the SW19 blogger discovered, Nadal’s seemingly-insurmountable edge was an artifact of the scoring system, not a sign of Federer’s underlying weakness. Of the 20 matches the two men had played up until 2009, the two men played 4,394 total points: that is, where one player served and the two volleyed back and forth until one player failed to deliver the ball to the other court according to the rules. If tennis had a straightforward relationship between points and wins—like baseball or basketball or football—then it might be expected that Nadal has won about 65 percent of those 4,394 points played, which would be about 2,856 points. In other words, to get a 65 percent edge in total matches, Nadal should have about a 65 percent edge in total points: the point total, as opposed to the match record, between the two ought to be about 2,856 to 1,538.
Yet that, as the SW19 blogger realized, is not the case: the real margin between the two players was Nadal, 2,221, and Federer, 2,173. Further, those totals included Nadal’s victory in the 2008 French Open final—which was played on Nadal’s best surface, clay—in straight sets, 6-1, 6-3, 6-0. In other words, even including the epic beating at Roland Garros in 2008, Nadal had only beaten Federer by a total of 48 points over the course of their careers: a total of less than one percent of all the points scored.
And that is not all. If the single match at the 2008 French Open final is excluded, then the margin becomes eight points. In terms of points scored, in other words, Nadal’s edge is about a half of a percentage point—and most of that percentage was generated by a single match. So, it may be so that Federer is not the G.O.A.T., but an argument against Federer cannot coherently be based on the fact of Nadal’s “dominating” record over the Swiss—because going by the act that is the central, defining act of the sport, the act of scoring points, the two players were, mathematically speaking, exactly equal.
Now, many will say here that, to risk making a horrible pun, I’ve missed the point: in tennis, it will be noted, not all acts of scoring are equal, and neither are all matches. It’s important that the 2008 match was a final, not an opening round … And so on. All of which certainly could be allowed, and reasonable people can differ about it, and if you don’t understand that then you really haven’t understood tennis, have you? But there’s a consequence to the scoring system—one that makes the New York Times’ inability to understand the origins of a scoring system that produces such peculiar results something more than simply another charming foible of the matriarch of the American press.
That’s because of something else that is unusual about tennis by comparison to other sports: its propensity for gambling scandals. In recent years, this has become something of an open secret within the game: when in 2007 the fourth-ranked player in the world, Nikolay Davydenko of Russia, was investigated for match-fixing, Andy Murray—the Wimbledon champion currently ranked third in the world—“told BBC Radio that although it is difficult to prove who has ‘tanked’ a match, ‘everyone knows it goes on,” according to another New York Times story, this one by reporter Joe Drape.
Around that same time Patrick McEnroe, brother of the famous champion John McEnroe, told the Times that tennis “is a very easy game to manipulate,” and that it is possible to “throw a match and you’d never know.” During that scandal year of 2007, the problem seemed about to break out into public awareness: in the wake of the Davydenko case the Association of Tennis Professionals, one of the sport’s governing bodies, commissioned an investigation conducted by former Scotland Yard detectives into match-fixing and other chicanery—the Environmental Review of Integrity In Professional Tennis, issued in May of 2008. That investigation resulted in four lowly-ranked players being banned from the professional ranks, but not much else.
Perhaps however that papering-over should not be surprising, given the history of the game. As mentioned, today’s game of tennis owes its origins in the game of real tennis, or jeu de paume—a once-hugely popular game very well-known for its connection to gambling. “Gambling was closely associated with tennis,” as Elizabeth Wilson puts it in her Love Game: A History of Tennis, from Victorian Pastime to Global Phenomenon, and jeu de paume had a “special association with court life and the aristocracy.” Henry VIII of England, for example, was an avid player—he had courts built in several of his palaces—and, as historian Alison Weir has put it in her Henry VIII: The King and His Court, “Gambling on the outcome of a game was common.” In Robert E. Gensemer’s 1982 history of tennis, the historian points out that “monetary wagers on tennis matches soon became commonplace” as jeu de paume grew in popularity. Yet eventually, as historians of jeu de paume have repeatedly shown, by “the close of the eighteenth century … game fixing and gambling scandals had tarnished Jeu de Paume’s reputation,” as a history of real tennis produced by an English real tennis club has put it.
Oddly however, despite all this evidence directly in front of all the historians, no one, not even the New York Times, seems to have put together the connection between tennis’ scoring system and the sport’s origins in gambling. It is, apparently, something to be pitied, and then moved past: what a shame it is that these grifters keep interfering with this noble sport! But that is to mistake the cart for the horse. It isn’t that the sport attracts con artists—it’s rather because of gamblers that the sport exists at all. Tennis’ scoring system, in other words, was obviously designed by, and for, gamblers.
Why, in other words, should tennis break up its scoring into smaller, discrete units—so that the total number of points scored is only indirectly related to the outcome of a match? The answer to that question might be confounding to sophisticates like the New York Times, but child’s play to anyone familiar with a back-alley dice game. Perhaps that’s why places like Wimbledon dress themselves up in the “pageantry”—the “strawberries and cream” and so on—that such events have: because if people understood tennis correctly, they’d realize that were this sport played in Harlem or Inglewood or 71st and King Drive in Chicago, everyone involved would be doing time.
That’s because—as Nassim Nicholas Taleb, author of The Black Swan: The Impact of the Highly Improbable, would point out—breaking a game into smaller, discrete chunks, as tennis’ scoring system does, is—exactly, precisely—how casino operators make money. And if that hasn’t already made sense to you—if, say, it makes more sense to explain a simple, key feature of the world by reference to advanced physics rather than merely to mention the bare fact—Taleb is also gracious enough to explain how casinos make money via a metaphor drawn from that ever-so-simple subject, quantum mechanics.
Consider, Taleb asks in that book, that because a coffee “cup is the sum of trillions of very small particles” there is little chance that any cup will “jump two feet” of its own spontaneous accord—despite the fact that, according to the particle physicists, that event is not outside the realm of possibility. “Particles jump around all the time,” as Taleb says, so it is indeed possible that a cup could do that. But in order to to make that jump, it would require that all the particles in the cup made the same leap at precisely the same time—an event so unlikely that the odds of it are longer than the lifetime of the universe. Were any of the particles in the cup to make such a leap, that leap would be canceled out by the leap of some other particle in the cup—coordinating so many particles is effectively impossible.
Yet, observe that by reducing the numbers of particles to less than a coffee cup, it can be very easy to ensure that some number of particles jump: if there is only one particle, the chance that it will jump is effectively 100%. (It would be more surprising if it didn’t jump.) “Casino operators,” as Taleb drily adds, “understand this well, which is why they never (if they do things right) lose money.” All they have to do to make money, on the other hand, is to refuse to “let one gambler make a massive bet,” and instead to ensure “to have plenty of gamblers make a series of bets of limited size.” The secret of a casino is that it multiplies the numbers of gamblers—and hence the numbers of bets.
In this way, casino operators can guarantee that “the variations in the casino’s returns are going to be ridiculously small, no matter the total gambling activity.” By breaking up the betting into thousands, and even—over the course of time—millions or billions of bets, casino operators can ensure that their losses on any single bet are covered by some other bet elsewhere in the casino: there’s a reason that, as the now-folded website Grantland pointed out in 2014, during the previous 23 years “bettors have won twice, while the sportsbooks have won 21 times” in Super Bowl betting. The thing to do in order to make something “gamable”—or “bettable,” which is to say a commodity worth the house’s time—is to break its acts into as many discrete chunks as possible.
The point, I think, can be easily seen: by breaking up a tennis match into smaller sets and games, gamblers can commodify, or make the sport “more bettable”—at least, from the point of view of a sharp operator. “Gamblers may be a total of $20 million, but you needn’t worry about the casino’s health,” Taleb says—because the casino isn’t accepting ten $2 million bets. Instead, “the bets run, say, $20 on average; the casino caps the bets at a maximum.” Rather than making one bet on a match’s outcome, gamblers can make a series of bets on the “games within the game”—bets that, as in the case of the casino, inevitably favor the house even without any match-fixing involved.
In professional tennis there are, as Louisa Thomas pointed out in Grantland a few years ago, every year “tens of thousands of professional matches, hundreds of thousands of games, millions of points, and patterns in the chaos.” (If there is match-fixing—and as mentioned there have been many allegations over the years—well then, you’re in business: an excellent player can even “tank” many, many early opportunities, allowing confederates to cash in, and still come back to put away a weaker opponent.) Anyway, just as Taleb says, casino operators inevitably wish to make bets as numerous as possible because, in the long run, that protects their investment—and tennis, what a co-inky-dink, has more opportunities for betting than virtually any sport you can name.
The august majesty of the New York Times, however, cannot imagine any of that. In their “How Tennis Got Its Scoring System” story, it mentions the speculations of amateur players who say things like: “The eccentricities are part of the fun,” and “I like the old-fashioned touches that tennis has.” It’s all so quaint, in the view of the Times. But since no one can account for tennis’ scoring system otherwise, and everyone admits not only that gambling flourished around lawn tennis’ predecessor game, jeu de paume (or real tennis), but also that the popularity of the sport was eventually brought down precisely because of gambling scandals—and tennis is to this day vulnerable to gamblers—the hypothesis that tennis is scored the way it is for the purposes of gambling makes much more sense than, say, tennis historian Elizabeth Wilson’s solemn pronouncement that tennis’ scoring system is “a powerful exception to the tendencies toward uniformity” that is so dreadfully, dreadfully common in our contemporary vale of tears.
The reality, of course, is that tennis’ scoring system was obviously designed to fleece suckers, not to entertain the twee viewers of Wes Anderson movies. Yet while such dimwittedness can be expected from college students or proper ladies who have never left the Upper East Side of Manhattan or Philadelphia’s Main Line, why is the New York Times so flummoxed by the historical “mystery” of it all? The answer, I suspect anyway, lies in some other, far more significant, sport that is played by with a very similar set of rules as tennis: one that equally breaks up the action into many more different acts than seem strictly necessary. In this game, too, there is an indirect connection between the central, defining act and wins and losses.
The name of that sport? Well, it’s really two versions of the same game.
One is called “the United States Senate”—and the other is called a “presidential election.”