The tennis is a game with its own unique scoring system. Many suggestions have been put forward to really explain why it is this way, but nobody really knows for certain what its origin is. Some believe that the point scores represent positions on an imaginary clockface, whilst others say that they indicate how far forward you were allowed to stand when serving in an archaic form of the game.
Whatever the true origin of the system, it has stood the test of time. In the modern game, there have been surprisingly few attempts to modify the point scoring system, with attention focusing on the structure of the sets. Historically, these were of unlimited length, but the general introduction of tie-breaks has made them more manageable. Sets are now sometimes lengthened to allow single-set matches or shortened to prevent matches lasting too long.
A standard set of tennis is played up to 6 games with a tie-break at 6-6. An average tennis match consists of 3 6-game sets. If a single set format is preferred, an 8-game set format is usually adopted. For one-day events, 4-game sets may be chosen to allow multiple matches. The French Open is the only tournament with a no-tiebreak 5th set rule.
Regular Sets To 6
This is the time-honored format. Players take it in turns to play and serve for a game, and the first to win 6 games wins the set, provided that they are at least 2 games ahead. If neither player can establish a two-game lead, a tie-break is normally played at 6 games all.
The tie-break is definitely won by the first player to reach 7 points, provided that they are 2 clear. The set is then scored 7-6 to the winner of the tie-break. The overall match will typically be played over the best of three sets or, in men’s Grand Slam events, the best of five.
A set in this format will typically take between 20 and 60 minutes, although greater extremes are possible.
8 Game Pro Set
An increasing number of league competitions are beginning to use ‘pro sets.’ These are played in an identical way to regular sets to 6, except that a player must win 8 games to win the set. There will normally be a tie-break played at 7 games, all if necessary.
The popularity of pro sets stems primarily from the fact that many amateur league matches take place in the evening, with players coming directly from work. Each match will typically feature two or three rounds, and many players will not want the contest to drag on until late in the evening. If they play each round as a pro set, rather than the best of three sets to 6, then each rubber will tend to last between 40 minutes and an hour, rendering the match more manageable.
Short Set Formats
With the increasing pressure on people’s time these days, there is a trend towards tournaments that only last a single day, both at junior and senior level. This means that matches cannot last too long, as players may be expected to complete three or four in a day. The simplest way to achieve this, whilst retaining the essence of the traditional scoring system, is to use what is known as ‘short sets.’
A short set is won by the first player to reach 4 games, provided that they are two games clear. A tie-break will decide close sets, and different versions of the format implement this at 3-3 or 4-4. In a typical one-day tournament, matches will be nominally decided over the best of three sets, with the first two being short sets and the third being a ‘championship’ tie-break where the winner is the first to 10 points.
Some events use an even shorter format, known as ‘Fast 4’. Here, the matches are also two short sets and a tie-break if necessary, but additional means are used to speed things up. Once again, different versions have been used, but, most importantly, when a game reaches deuce, a single point is played to decide it (‘sudden death deuce’), with the receiver choosing which side the server serves from.
In addition, the original version of Fast 4 used a ‘no let’ rule, whereby, if a serve clipped the net and clearly landed in, the point remained live, in contrast to the usual requirement to restart the point.
Sets With No Tie-Break
Many years ago, there was really no such thing as a tie-break, and a set continued until one player was two games ahead. This could take a very long time. Until recently, this rule was still used in the final set of Grand Slam matches and Davis Cup ties, but now the French Open is the last bastion of such time-consuming traditionalism.
An example of what can happen was seen at Wimbledon in 2010, when John Isner and Nicolas Mahut played a match that took over 11 hours, finally being decided 70-68 in the fifth set. Today, the possibility of such extended matches is generally considered unacceptable, not least because the exhausted winner will inevitably lose in the next round.
How Many Games Does An Average Tennis Match Take?
There are few statistics available on this, but the evidence that has been published suggests that around 10 games per set would be typical, equating to an ‘average’ score of 6-4. Given this, a best-of-three set match would be expected to comprise around 20 games if it is settled in straight sets or 30 if it goes to a third set.
By the same token, a best-of-five set match might last 50 games or more.
There are actually many different formats in use for tennis matches today, and all have their place. If you are running a tournament, make sure you choose the most appropriate one.