How Professional Tennis Is (kinda) Rigged

While my mind is on the subject of sports being unfair, I thought I'd dive into perhaps my favorite professional sport: tennis.

Tennis is, for the most part, a pretty fair game. There is, of course, some variability related to an individual player's performance on a given day, meaning that the winner of a single match is not necessarily the better player, just the player who happened to win. The scoring system, however, makes it hard for someone to win on luck alone. The large number of points played in a tennis match ensures that the winner is the player who did better one average. Hitting a great shot to win a point is worth exactly the same as hitting a decent shot that your opponent dumps into the net.

There are also not too many rules in tennis, and while disputes with the umpire over rulings do occur (in many cases line-calls, but this problem has been reduced since the introduction of laser shot detection systems), the umpire nonetheless has little power to "fix" the outcome of a match.

There are only really two rules that repeatedly come under fire from players: medical timeouts and time between points. Per the rules, players are allowed medical timeouts for a few different scenarios: acute and non-acute injuries. While the rules on medical timeouts are intended to help players but also keep the game going, there is nonetheless room for possible abuse. Many high-profile players have come under fire for trying to use medical timeouts as a way of stalling or breaking up their opponent's momentum, as detailed in this article.

To a similar end, there are explicit rules in tennis that players are allowed certain amounts of time between points, between changeovers, and between sets. The latter two are usually called by the umpire, but the time between points is usually left to the players. Even if players are taking an egregious amount of time between points, umpires usually turn a blind eye to it, or give warnings very inconsistently. This has provoked many players, including Roger Federer, to advocate for a "shot clock" in tennis. If a player does not get a serve off (or stand ready to return) before the shot clock expires, then he/she loses the point.

There have been some allegations of match-fixing (i.e. players intentionally losing a match for money), but these have so far not affected the top players (who win a vast majority of the major tournaments).

But none of these above examples are reasons why pro tennis is (kinda) rigged. While each has probably influenced many matches, it is pretty uncertain as to whether or not they have actually changed the outcome.

The bigger reason that pro tennis is (kinda) rigged lies not with the rules, or the umpires, or the players. Instead, it lies with the tournament directors.

How can a tournament director "choose" who will win their tournament? By adjusting two variables: the court and the ball.

How can careful manipulation of these two variables give an advantage to certain players? First, let's dissect the different styles of play in tennis...

1. Serve and Volley

A player who employs a "serve and volley" tactic will hit a serve and then immediately rush to the net in order to cut off the return. Players who have booming serves and excellent coordination tend to gravitate towards this tactic (or variants of it). Pete Sampras, John McEnroe, Stefan Edberg, and Boris Becker are all professionals who have used it with great success.

2. Offensive Baseliner

Picture of Dominic Thiem I took at the U.S. Open last year

An offensive baseliner will usually stay within a few feet of the baseline and hit aggressive forehands and backhands, seeking to overwhelm their opponents with power. Players with excellent groundstrokes and good timing usually employ this style. Andre Agassi and Novak Djokovic are good examples.

3. All-Court

An "all-court" player features shades of several different styles, without committing to one in particular. They are comfortable employing either offensive or defensive shots, depending on the situation. They tend to "construct points" quite well. For example, they might hit a well placed serve to get their opponent on one side of the court, and then a strong groundstroke to move them to the other side, then run into the net and hit a volley that forces the opponent to hit a weak high ball, which they put away with an overhead. Roger Federer is a pretty good example of an all-court player.

4. Defensive Baseliner

A defensive baseliner will hang back well behind the baseline and hit high, conservatively placed shots to his/her opponent. They do not seek to win the point by hitting the ball past their opponent, they seek to wear their opponent down physically and mentally, forcing them to either make a mistake or just give up from exhaustion. Players who do this well can be extremely frustrating to play against. One needs to be very physically fit, consistent, and comfortable hitting on the run in order to utilize this style. Bjorn Borg and Rafael Nadal are both prime examples.

Important to note that few players in today's professional game utilize "textbook" versions of any of these styles. Most fall somewhere in the All-Court or Offensive Baseliner category.

While a given player's success is mostly indicative of how well they employ whatever style they choose, the surface of a tennis court has a lot to do with how successful some styles can be.

Tennis courts come in a variety of surfaces, but they all fall somewhere on the spectrum of "fast or slow". On a "fast" tennis court, the ball will not bounce very high, which means that it is easier to hit it past your opponent (they don't have as much time to chase down the ball). On a "slow" tennis court, the ball bounces higher, meaning that it is harder to hit the ball past your opponent. "Fast" courts will favor more offensive styles of play (serve and volley, offensive baseliner, some all-court), while "slow" courts will favor more defensive styles of play (defensive baseliner, some all-court).

The main tennis court surfaces are grass, hard courts, indoor courts, and clay courts.

Grass courts are typically the fastest, as the ball slides on the grass (losing very little speed in the process) and does not bounce very high. Indoor courts are usually fast as well (depending on the surface). Hard courts tend to be fast, but can also be slower (again, depending on the surface). Clay courts are typically the slowest, as the ball "digs in" to the clay, causing it to lose speed and pop up into the air. You can find a more in-depth analysis of court surfaces here.

How Does This Affect Outcomes of Tennis Matches?

Well, if we put it all together, then a tournament director could adjust the court surface and the ball used in order to give certain types of players an advantage. For example, let's say it was determined that the audience of a particular tennis tournament really enjoyed watching serve-and-volley players. In a hard-court tournament, the director could suggest that the surface be very "slick", so that the balls bounce faster and lower, making the court "faster". He could also suggest that the balls be "harder", which allows for faster shots. These combined factors, while not guaranteeing victory for offensive players, would certainly skew the odds in their favor.

Has this ever happened? Well, court conditions can certainly vary from year to year. Just a few weeks ago, tennis commentators remarked at how the Australian Open, played on a normally slower hard court, was playing "much faster this year." Even Roger Federer remarked at how fast it was playing, which undoubtedly aided in his dramatic return to tennis and victory at the tournament over longtime rival Rafael Nadal in the final. Yes, I did stay up all night to watch that match (and probably burned about 1,000 Calories in the process from all the pacing), and I remember during several points saying to myself "if the court was just a little bit slower, Roger would not have won that point."

Now, did the tournament directors purposely make the court faster in order to give offensive players like Federer an advantage? Hard to say for sure.

But there is certainly some evidence for speculation that the opposite has taken place at Wimbledon, the only Grand Slam tournament still played on grass.

Grass, possibly the fastest tennis surface, was historically a haven for serve-and-volley style players. The low bounce of the grass makes powerful serves difficult to return and the slick surface makes movement a challenge, which stymies the effectiveness of defensive styles of play.

During the 1990s, however, something of a "problem" began to emerge for the tournament directors at Wimbledon. Advances in tennis racquet technology saw the rise of lighter and bigger graphite frames, which gave players the potential for more power. This allowed players with powerful serves, like Pete Sampras (7-time Wimbledon Champion in the '90s), to get many aces and service winners. Points were usually short, lasting only a few shots on average. Tournament directors feared that audiences were "bored" with this type of tennis,

Sure enough, in 2001, the Wimbledon grounds keeper decided to change the type of grass used to 100% rye. There was a practical reason for doing this, as the new grass is more resilient, but also firmer. The increased firmness allows balls to bounce higher, making the court "slower". Was this a happy coincidence for tournament directors, in that they got a tougher surface AND a slower, more crowd-friendly surface? Or was it a strategic ploy to make the surface slower, cleverly disguised as an "upgrade"? We may never know.

We do know that since 2001, the presence of serve-and-volley tennis players at the top of the ranks has plummeted. There is another factor that has played into this: advances in string technology.

With lighter graphite (and now carbon fiber) racquet frames came the potential for more power. But power is a double-edged sword. While it can help serves to be faster, it can hurt groundstrokes and volleys, as these strokes can become more wild with extra power. Initially, tennis technological advances seemed to only favor the server. But that all changed in the 2000s with advances in string technology. New polyester strings provided more power and the capability for more spin. In tennis, putting topspin on the ball allows powerful shots to dip down into the court, meaning that you can hit shots with both speed and control.

These advances have allowed players to hit shots that a few decades ago would have been thought impossible. All of the sudden, hitting a ball on the run 10 feet behind the baseline would no longer necessitate just lobbing it up and hoping for the best. Now, a skilled player can not only neutralize a shot like that, they can actually hit an outright winner! This has made coming to the net in tennis something of a dangerous tactic.

This video explains some of these concepts in greater detail (it also talks about the irony that Wimbledon changed to a slower surface just as Tim Henman, a British serve-and-volley player, was beginning to look like he might be the first British player to win Wimbledon since 1936. He never won, but Andy Murray eventually did in 2013 and again in 2016).

Some Ripple Effects

Changes in racquet and string technology, along with changes in certain tennis courts and balls, have undoubtedly had an effect on the game. Gone are the days of serve-and-volley matches and quick points, as the modern game usually features grueling hard-fought rallies that were once just a product of clay courts.

Which brings up another question: why has tennis been dominated by European players for the past decade or so?

America was once a powerhouse for tennis. With older stars like John McEnroe and Jimmy Connors giving way to Andre Aggasi and Pete Sampras, it was once a common sight to see names with American flags by them in semifinals and finals.

America certainly has no shortage of resources or people in order to generate at least one really good tennis player, so what gives?

One explanation could be that tennis courts in America are predominately faster hard courts, with true red clay a rare sight to see. This causes most American professional tennis players to feature playing styles that revolve around "one-two punch" tactics, i.e. a powerful serve followed by a booming forehand.

Unfortunately, since the game has progressed to its current physical nature, this tactic is no longer enough. Since clay courts are more popular in Europe and South America, these players grow accustomed to a more physical style of play, and do not flinch when presented with long rallies.

Basically, if America wants to return to a time when it had top-level tennis players, then we need to start playing on clay more often.

Or just bribe tournament directors to make the surfaces faster. Whatever works.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.