Monday, February 28, 2011

A proposal to change tennis scoring

I think that winning sets by being the first player/pair to win six games, by two, or (absent that) seven by two or by tiebreaker is great, perhaps even genius.  But have you ever thought that the typical intra-game scoring is rather absurd?  I mean “15-love”, “15-all”, “30-15”, “30-all”, “40-30”, “deuce”, “ad in” (or “ad out”), “deuce”, etc. until “game” is pretty inane.

We count points during tiebreakers regardless of the format – 12-point, Super, Coman, etc. – so why not use numbers within all games?  Play the first one to four points by two; at 4-all, play until someone wins two consecutive points but keep track of the point score.  In other words, a game that goes to deuce five times before someone wins it would be scored 10-8 (or 8-10).  Kind of gives you a sense of the nature of the competitive nature of the match, doesn’t it?

Imagine a TV audience that consists of more than just tennis fans.  Don’t you think they might get more interested after hearing a game score called “12, 11”, “13-13” or “14, 15” vs. “ad in”, “deuce”, and “ad out”?  I do.  Not only would counting points in each game make compiling match statistics easier, but a casual or non-fan that’s just flipped the channel to a tennis match would know instantly that they’ve tuned in to a hard fought game/match, which might make them more likely to continue to watch it.

I realize that team tennis and some other tournaments in the past have attempted this already (perhaps tennis purists at the time couldn’t handle it).  But look at other popular team and individual sports; some, like baseball, are all about statistics, and the golf tournaments in which they keep track of every stroke through 72 holes are more popular than the match play events.

Tennis instantly turns off "stats junkies" with its ridiculous scoring system.  The commentators could then say (later in the match, for viewers that have just tuned in):  “this is the third game that Roddick has had to win at least 10 points on his serve to win, that's got to be taking its toll and it doesn't look very good for him to be having to go this deep into games in only the second set (even though the set score is even)”.  It gives viewers a better sense of the 'battle' within the match.

Therefore I propose that the USTA et al adopt point count scoring in every game, not just the tie-breaks, because I believe it would make even routine matches more interesting for all sports fans.  What do you think?

Thursday, February 24, 2011

Atlanta Tennis Championships names Bob Bryant tournament director

Bob Bryant has been named tournament director of the Atlanta Tennis Championships, which will be played at the Racquet Club of the South in Norcross, GA July 18-24, 2011.  Bryant, 47, replaces Bill Oakes, who left in January to run the Winston-Salem (NC) Open, a new ATP event formerly held in New Haven, CT, that will immediately precede the U.S. Open.

USTA Southern President Mike McNulty said, "We are excited to have Bob on board. He has the experience, expertise and a proven track record to be a tremendous Director of Marketing and Sales and Tournament Director of the Atlanta Tennis Championships" and John Callen, USTA Southern Executive Director added, "Bryant brings the expertise that will help us move forward promoting tennis in the South through our section’s Marketing and Sales departments."

Bryant said, "I am delighted to promote the game and serve the membership of USTA Southern.  Atlanta is clearly a tennis town and I look forward to building on the foundation of the Atlanta Tennis Championships established by USTA Southern as we move to Racquet Club of the South and welcome the ATP World Tour and the greatest professional tennis players in the world as part of the Olympus US Open Series. I could not be more excited."

Bryant's appointment is subject to ATP approval. A decision is expected at the tour's board meeting next month.

Monday, February 21, 2011

“Cheaters never win and winners never cheat”

It’s a popular cliché for a reason, it’s true.  Whether you believe in a higher power, karma or connectedness (or none of these), I’ve come to believe that there’s something to it.  I can’t tell you how many times I’ve experienced “what goes around comes around” or comeuppance in tennis.

Have you ever played a match against an opponent who calls a close “in” ball “out” at a crucial point in a match only to have something almost serendipitously go against them a short time later?  Or have you felt guilty about a call you made that could have gone either way that later came back to bite you?  On the other hand, have you given your opponent the benefit of the doubt on a call and noticed that you got the same in return later in the match on an important point?  I have experienced these types of occurrences over and over again on the court.

Just yesterday my partner and I witnessed both in our mixed doubles match.  We had a marathon 3-set, 3-hour battle against an equally matched (if not superior) opponent.  Don’t get me wrong, it was a very friendly and well played match throughout, but there were a couple occasions where “they” or “we” may have made the wrong call.  In both cases, the “mistakes” were “magically” corrected right away, either by a let cord or the “offender” missing an easy sitter right after their erroneous call.  A couple of other times, one of “us” played a ball that could have been called “out” only to receive the same graciousness in kind.  I’ve seen this happen again and again in my 10+ years of playing ALTA.  It’s as if there’s a divine plan for balance in the world, even in the most insignificant venues of life.

So, the next time you find yourself in an intense situation, on the court or off, when you’re tempted to take advantage of another or thinking that no one is watching or will know, do the right thing, even if it’s just for your own peace of mind.  Trust me, it’s worth it.  You’ll feel better about yourself and, regardless of the outcome on the court (or of the situation), you’ll be the winner.

Thursday, February 17, 2011

"I love it when a plan comes together!"

Putting together tennis line-ups throughout a season is like assembling a puzzle:  the goal, in the end, is to have completed a ‘masterpiece’ (credit The A-Team’s “Hannibal” Smith for this post’s title quotation).

O.K., maybe not a masterpiece but, in the final accounting, a tennis captain wants to have adequately balanced his competing priorities – to have a fielded competitive line-up each week AND to have played everyone on the roster, if not an equal number of times each, as many weeks as their ability dictates – in any given season.

As I mentioned in an earlier post, I assembled what I thought would be a “bag tag” capable team for this winter’s ALTA mixed doubles season.  And we competed well until the fifth week, that is, we were in contention for a playoff berth even though we’d split the first four “contests”.  One never wants to forfeit a line due to a lack of player availability, but a captain also never wants to have to field a line-up that has no chance of taking at least 3 points on any given weekend.  Unfortunately, for our fourth match, since three of our better players were unavailable, we had little chance of taking more than 2 points, which we did.  Yet we were still “in the running” going into week 5; we then lost two tight 3-set matches to put us “out of it” with 2 weeks to go.

Although my first objective for the team fell short, I feel fortunate that it was for only one week that I didn’t have the most competitive line-up possible given my roster.  It’s clear that I need to find/add at least one (and possibly two) top line pairing(s) to round out the team, especially given that player availability typically suffers during the summer season.  I am also very grateful to have fulfilled my secondary objective:  my teammates’ playing time was equitably distributed based upon their abilities.  In other words, the number of times a given team member played was directly related to their ability and contribution (e.g. wins) to the team.  If a captain fails to achieve ‘his’ first objective, the successful execution of the second can make all the difference to his team members’ satisfaction going forward; retention of the best players can be thought of as a third objective.

We still have one week to go, against the number one team in our division, but I know that I did the best that I could with what I had to work with this season.  The weather was great – there were no rain-outs! – and, with few exceptions, I was able to keep my pairings intact.  We were competitive and I think that everyone had fun, which is perhaps the goal that overrides all others.

Monday, February 14, 2011

A "play well" versus "play-to-win" philosophy

During the first couple of matches this season – one which my partner and I won in 3 sets and another that the same partner and I lost in 2 sets – I learned something about myself that has subsequently paid dividends throughout the rest of the season.  Instead of obsessing or worrying about winning the match for my team, I started concentrating on just playing the very best that I could, one point at a time.  It’s made quite a difference.

If you’ve read my earlier postings, you know that – after five years ‘off’ – I’m an ALTA captain once again.  I’ve always been one to put pressure on myself to win ‘my’ point for the team as a player.  During this winter mixed doubles season as captain of the team I ‘assembled’ as a would-be contender for a bag tag, I found that I was putting even more pressure on myself to keep from letting down my teammates.  And my performance was suffering.  In our first match together, my new partner and I lost the first set to a pairing that we had no business losing to; fortunately, I settled down, and we won the next two sets 1 and 2.  In the next match, we lost the first set 2-6 and were bageled in the second.  Now, don’t get me wrong, the team we played was very good, but they didn’t appear to be better than us and I think, on another day, we could have won in straight sets ourselves.  But neither my partner nor I got it going and it was over before it started.  We were playing at line 4 and I’d seen both my lines 1 & 3 lose in 2 sets, so I knew that we had to win our line.  I have no idea whether my partner was feeling the pressure as well, but she wasn’t playing at her best level either.  It wasn’t until my third match of the season, with a different partner, that I figured out what was going on and changed my approach.

We were playing a familiar team, one that we’d beaten previously, so my confidence was pretty high already.  Plus, just before I was to take the court, the captain of my men’s team told me that I should win easily against this opponent that he knew.  After the warm-up, my assessment was similar and I was perhaps getting a little over-confident.  My partner and I won the first set fairly quickly and easily but the second set became a marathon grind.  This was our first home match of the season and there were lots of people watching our match because we were on the court nearest the benches, food and beer.  I normally feel the pressure from the ‘fans’, and hence play badly, but this time found myself concentrating on watching the ball and moving my feet.  We had some epic rallies as our opponents settled in to a lobbing strategy.  Instead of being impatient and going for overheads from the back of the court, I matched their play with deep topspin lobs of my own, directing them as much as I could from side to side (fortunately, the lob is part of my toolkit too).  We had several games that went to a half dozen deuces and more, making it a physical game as well as a mental one.  My partner and I eventually prevailed through the wind that was picking up and a fading sun to win the second set, and the match.

Upon reflection I realized what had happened, that I had focused on each point, one ball at a time, which added up to games and then the set.  That within each point, I had been able to focus on the ball each time that it crossed the net to us, assessed whether my partner was going to get it, moved in behind her when it looked like it was going to go over her head, concentrated on getting my feet into position to strike the ball, thought about where I was going to go with it, and then tried to execute the shot.  No, I wasn’t perfect; I still made mistakes.  But, by and large, I was able to shut out all the other distractions – the score, the fans, the wind, and the coming darkness – to play that ball and get ready for the next one.  I have taken this approach over the past several weeks and found that my satisfaction level has increased tremendously, whether I’ve won or lost.

In the end, I’ve realized that winning isn’t something that’s within my control because there are too many factors outside of me that affect the outcome of a match:  my opponents’ abilities, my partner and ‘her’ ability & execution, the elements, what have you.  The only thing I can control is myself, how I play each point and react to the goings-on.  This approach has led me to better matches and, ironically, more wins for the team!

Thursday, February 10, 2011

ALTA’s website needs more transparency

One of the things that makes USTA’s league website superior to ALTA’s is the fact that one can look up any of its member player’s tennis history, not just at what level(s) and on which teams they’ve played, but their match history as well.  Of course, the United States Tennis Association surely has a much greater budget than the Atlanta Lawn Tennis Association, but then again the Ultimate Tennis League’s website has just as much player transparency as the USTA’s – and I actually like their formatting of the data better – on what must be a miniscule budget when compared to ALTA’s.  So what gives?

Obviously ALTA is intentionally keeping its data secret from its members, but for what reasons?  Since one can find players’ names, teams (which are, in some cases, the neighborhoods in which they live) and levels, I don’t think the organization can claim that it’s for security reasons that they don’t make the match data available.  Perhaps it’s because they don’t have the technology-capability in their website.  Yet ALTA has made significant investments in their website over the past couple of years to (finally) enable electronic scorecard entry, beginning to bring it on par with the USTA et al, which has had this capability for many years.  So, while it appears that they’re aware of their competition and hence felt compelled to respond by adding this capability, it seems that ALTA also made a conscious decision NOT to allow one to see a player’s match history data beyond being able to see one’s own scorecards during the current season.  As a captain, it sure would be useful to know what lineup our previous captain used against a team that appears on our schedule again this season.  Why shouldn’t I be able to see the scorecards of every match I’ve played under “My Scorecards” instead of just the current season?  I shake my head at this limitation.

Not only is one’s ability to see match history data severely limited, one can’t even peruse an opponent’s roster.  I think part of the reason why players’ match history and roster data is not available – for anyone to see – on ALTA’s website is that it would further reveal the disparity that exists within the league.  There are some very talented players that play below their level in order to earn bag tags and plates, and some of the larger tennis communities and clubs are gaming the system:  continually reorganizing their rosters to ‘stack’ teams in order to maximize their chances to win division and city titles.  Being able to look up a complete player’s match history would enable one to see that “Joe Smith” has won tags/plates at the A, B and C levels in odd sequences like B-3, C-1, and then A-8; ‘his’ history may also validate the growing suspicion that strategically sitting out for a couple of seasons is a regular strategy employed by the larger clubs-communities to win championships.

Whether or not my suspicions are correct, ALTA has chosen to severely restrict the amount of match data and individual players’ history that’s available for its members’ consumption.  I for one feel that its team captains and members would be better served by more (instead of less) transparency.

Monday, February 7, 2011

Egregious foot faults

I don’t know what it is, but foot faulting has become practically an epidemic among men that play ALTA.  This past weekend, nearly every one of our opponents was guilty of this sin, even on their second “power puff” serves.

You may feel that this is not a big deal, that foot faulting is just a bad habit.  But actually it’s no different than any other form of cheating.  During practices you may have heard one of your teammates say about a shot that was close to the line “on Saturday that would have been out” or convey the adage “when in doubt it’s out” as a philosophy for match conduct.  In fact, I heard one of my opponents this past Sunday – in an otherwise very congenial match – tell his partner to call the next close one “out” after she played one of my close-to-the-line shots as “good” and they subsequently lost the point.  This, of course, is cheating.  A ball that’s 99.9% out is in; read the code.

But foot faulting is cheating also, especially when it gains the server an advantage – a bigger, harder-to-return serve or a step or two closer to the net in preparation for the next shot.  Now I’ve played against men whose serve was a “patty cake” and their foot faults gained them no advantage because they didn’t follow their serves to the net.  Doesn’t matter, it’s still cheating.

The rules state that you can warn your opponent about their foot faulting, and subsequently call foot faults, but in my experience that makes for a very unpleasant morning (or afternoon) of competitive tennis because those that foot fault act as if you’re attacking their character when you point it out.  I don’t know what it is, but the most aggressive hotheads I’ve ever encountered on the tennis court are those that foot fault.  In fact, I’ve played entire matches with unpleasant individuals without even noticing their foot faulting only to be told by a teammate afterwards that they were egregious “foot faulters”.

ALTA has tried to address this on at least a couple of occasions recently in their Net News magazine, but it hasn't seemed to have stemmed the problem:  during this winter’s mixed doubles season, I’ve witnessed more men that foot fault than I have in 10 years of playing ALTA; it’s become more widespread than ever and it needs to stop.

Thursday, February 3, 2011

Being a tennis team captain – part III

I was going to name this final installment “Games People Play” because it deals with the gamesmanship that one can experience from another ALTA captain.  Not every tennis captain engages in it, especially if their team is not in contention and I’ve found that mixed doubles captains do less of it, but it definitely exists and it’s hard not to experience it at least once (and, more often, many times) during a season.

In USTA, teams are comprised of players at more or less the same level of ability.  While there are sandbaggers – players who compete at levels other than they should because their rating doesn’t accurately reflect their abilities – these are temporary; the league usually catches up after a season or two and bumps them to (e.g.) a higher level.  In ALTA, however, players are rated the same as the team on which they play.  All too frequently one finds players with A-level abilities on C-level teams; plus, in mixed doubles, the situation can be exacerbated when A-level men, who can affectively take over their side of the court by playing ‘singles’, are paired with C-level women ‘partners’ to make a mid-B level team making mismatches commonplace.  While it’s easy to blame the ALTA captain for these disparities, in smaller neighborhoods where there are barely enough tennis players to form a team and everyone wants to play together (or differing ability spouses, with one another), it’s unavoidable.

On a men’s USTA 3.5 team, one assumes that every doubles line is comprised of two 3.5-rated players (though occasionally there are 3.0 players on the roster as well).  Therefore, there usually isn’t much difference between the line 1 pairing and the line 3 pairing in terms of tennis playing ability; competitive matches result and each team generally has a chance to win every line.  However, on an ALTA B-level team, the higher line (e.g. 1 & 2) players can be significantly better than the lower line (4 & 5) players, in my experience.  But here’s where the gamesmanship comes in:  some captains intentionally ‘sacrifice’ one of the higher lines, putting a non-competitive pairing at line 1 or 2, in order to be more competitive at the lower lines.  Some might call this a good strategy, but it’s obviously frustrating for the players involved.  No one wants to win or lose two bagel sets.  If captains respected their own players, and their opponents (players and captains), mismatches would be minimized; more competitive matches would be the result.

The ALTA organization’s mission is to establish and the maintain rules for its tennis league.  Yes, they also publish a magazine, hold various tournaments and give small prizes to the champions, but their primary purpose is to ensure that its comprehensive rules are fair and followed by the membership.  Unfortunately there are captains who, sometimes out of ignorance, regard the rules as mere guidelines.  For better or worse, I’m a rules-oriented kind of guy.  Every game or activity has rules, and ALTA didn’t spend decades developing and refining theirs in order that they might be disregarded, intentionally or otherwise.  So I can get upset when a captain isn’t there at the beginning of a match to exchange filled-out lineup cards, especially if I’m scheduled to play on one of the first lines.  But what’s even more frustrating is the lack of attention to start times.  Matches are supposed to start at designated times.  Now, no one wants to suggest taking a line as a forfeit because the other team isn’t there (or ready) to play, but not being on-time shows a lack of respect for your opponent.  Plus, some captains mistakenly believe that later lines start 20 minutes after earlier lines finish, but later lines must be ready no later than 20 minutes after ALTA’s established start times, read the rules.  I’m the last person that wants to take a line by default, so don’t try to tell me that I’m the bad guy because I believe in following rules.

I hope that this series hasn’t discouraged you from wanting to be a tennis captain, quite the contrary.  I hope instead that it has adequately conveyed the inherent challenges and prepared you for the responsibility if you choose to assume the role.  Good luck and see you on the courts!