No-Ad Scoring Rules in College Tennis Here to Stay?

by Dominic Tinodi

Will no-ad scoring be the future of collegiate tennis? There is a clear move in that direction, and this week's Friday Scholarship Guide will take a look at what coaches and players think about the scoring format, which had in fact been college tennis standard decades ago. Does no-ad scoring really offer the potential to shorten dual matches and make it more attractive to watch...?

Photo credit: Dominic Tinodi

"I cherish tradition as much as anyone, and I fought the 8-game pro set and doubles first to the end. But I soon learned that this change saved doubles in college and in fact proven to be a great move. Likewise, in spite of tradition, the time to return to no-ad for both men and women has come!"
(Dick Gould, former Stanford head coach)

There is tons of controversy about the change in college tennis rules. No-advantage ("No-ad") scoring in particular creates quite a discussion between traditionalists and those up for changing the rules of the game.

For those of you who are not familiar with the term, no-ad scoring means that the opponents play a clinching point at deuce (40-40). In other words, the player who wins four points wins the game. Advantage scoring instead requires a player to win by two points in order to secure the game; the traditional format. No-ad scoring is also the way doubles matches have been played on the ATP and WTA tour for the last years.

Before the season of 2014-2015, now approaching its final weeks, the ITA announced that new rules in college tennis will apply for NCAA D-1 tennis going forward. While we have covered most of them in last week's blog edition, we wanted to spend a full article on the discussion of no-ad scoring.

Why no-ad tennis "all of a sudden"?

That's an interesting one and for those not too familiar with college sports it may be surprising:

  • College tennis programs have been closing down
    The fact that plenty of programs have been closing down is a critical issue, which many smart people in the ITA, USTA, and NCAA deal with at great length. The suggested rule changes are an approach to do something about this pattern, as the popularity of tennis programs really has dropped and it's been going on for some time now.
  • College tennis takes "too long"
    There are a handful of major college sports generating enormous amounts of money for the universities with a lot of the revenue coming from TV-broadcasting; tennis is not one of them. According to the NCAA, the average dual match takes 3 hours and 40 minutes; longer than football, basketball or hockey matches, which makes college tennis less attractive, or rather "too long" for TV-stations.
  • College tennis wants to attract a larger fan crowd
    Tennis is one of the most popular sports globally. But that doesn't make it the most popular college sport unfortunately. Yes, there are phenomenal matches with a wonderful setting of more than 1,000 spectators. But what about a 1,000+ audience compared to basketball's 10,000+. Sure, matches with a passionate atmosphere like in the video below are an unmatched experience, but they don't take place as often as in other sports.

    According to a study by the USTA, 9 out of 10 USTA members think college matches should last for a maximum of 3 hours. Compared to the above 3 hours and 40 minutes, this is quite a bit shorter and could offer some potential to get more people out on the courts in theory...

Dick Gould contradicts: "(...) I don't think changing the scoring is going to bring more people. I think you're either a tennis fan or you're not or you've got a buddy or a girlfriend on the team and that's why you're going to go out. I just don't think someone who doesn't understand tennis is going to be coming in off the street to watch it."

Did you know that no-ad scoring is in fact nothing new in college tennis? Back in the 70ies and 80ies, that's the way tennis was played in D-1 men's tennis for a period of 15 years. And the success of the players in pro tennis thereafter is also part of the reasoning in favor of no-ad:

"(...) Collegiate tennis was producing a significant number of very successful professional players.(...) Is change difficult? Yes. Is changing with the times necessary? We say yes."
(John McEnroe)

Brad Gilbert, John McEnroe, or Mikael Pernfors are just some of the guys, who are said to have profited from the increased pressure and frequency of crucial big point situations.

"I feel that the no-ad point was truly beneficial for my development as a "big point" player. It made you focus in a different way. I felt that it helped me have less unforced errors on any points. I also feel that it has a tremendous impact on the excitement of college tennis." (Mikael Pernfors)

Reactions

You certainly already have your own opinion on no-ad scoring, but what do college coaches think about it?

"Our goal is to maintain the integrity of the game, and at the same time, make our team matches more exciting, grow the sport and gain new fans."
(Billy Pate, Princeton)

"Many coaches feel that adding more pressure points will enhance the college player's ability to thrive under pressure and add to player development."
(Jenny Mainz, Alabama)

"(...) We also attracted many new fans that are still fans of college tennis today. I think college tennis was exciting with no-ad. Our attendance improved during those years and playing no-ad did not hurt our players once they went into the professional tour. They easily adjusted to regular scoring on the tour and maybe even excelled because of their experience with no-ad in college."
(Manny Diaz, University of Georgia)

"As we continue in our quest to enhance the status and attendance of college tennis, I am excited to try new formats this year. I expect them to be both shorter as well as more exciting for the fans. I'm encouraged by the college tennis community's commitment to increase market share in what is a very competitive sports landscape and am convinced format change is paramount."
(Roland Thornqvist, University of Florida)

Some of the best top U.S. junior players presented a rather different view in this article; one that would drive many of them away from college tennis and rather straight to professional tennis. Jared Donaldson, already ranked #160 in the world, turned down collegiate tennis and expressed what many of the best kids are concerned with:

"(...) Federer isn't playing no-ad scoring, Djokovic isn't playing no-ad scoring, Nadal, if those are my competitors, I'm not really getting the same training. Because at the end of the day, we're all training out here, even when we're playing our matches, we're all looking to get better. That's not what those guys are doing, so why should I be doing that, when that's the level I want to play at."

Is it worth it?

Jeff Sackmann did a wonderful job in calculating what the savings per dual match could be, based on implementing no-ad scoring. He does so by using a data set of 3,600 matches on the challenger tour, and he arrives at a total saving of 12 (!) minutes per dual match. We highly recommend his blog post for more details!

12 minutes is not gonna tip the scales for more tennis fans, right? But it's one of the rules everybody seems to be able to live with a lot better than some of the other suggestions. We spoke about the clinch-clinch format last week, which foresees that the remaining doubles stops once the doubles point is won. In the same way, all singles matches stop once the team has won. That's a hell of a lot of matches, which are never finished and not reflected in the ranking points of individuals. Worst of all, players lose out on competing, fighting, and closing matches.

Isn't the beauty of tennis that matches are not finished before the last point is played, contrary to other sports which end after a fixed amount of time?

Imagine no-ad scoring would be the way tennis is being played professionally. The world would have never seen the epic match between Isner and Mahut in Wimbledon in 2010...What a bummer :). No-ad scoring may have its advantages and disadvantages and there's has been a lot of discussion with interesting and diverging perspectives.
But the fact that the length of doubles and singles matches is downsized is a real threat to the player development. Only a small minority of players goes on to turn pro, but athletes still play tennis for the love of it; and that naturally includes nothing else than actually "winning" matches.

The scoring rules are predominantly a discussion within the NCAA 1. Many other teams in smaller college divisions are not affected, but NCAA 1 as the top collegiate tennis division is generally the trendsetter, and it might just serve as a role model for other leagues going forward... We will definitely keep you informed about the rules and changes to come.

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