Saving Time With One-Ad and Short-Set Formats

Earlier this week, a USTA advisory group proposed some major changes to the collegiate “dual match” format so that it would better fit three-hour television windows.  Most of those involved in college tennis hated the proposal, especially since it virtually eliminates doubles.

Now, the Intercollegiate Tennis Association has issued a counterproposal, a sort of compromise that attempts to shorten the time required by dual matches while retaining the importance of the doubles point. (As usual, Colette Lewis has the scoop. Click that link for her take.)

The ITA’s suggestions boil down to this:

  • Each game follows the “one-ad” format–after deuce is reached the second time, a single point is played to decide the game.
  • Both singles and doubles sets will be played to 5, with a tiebreak played at 5-all.  Currently, doubles sets are played to 7, while singles are played to the conventional 6.

Does this proposal have a chance of solving the problem it aims to address?  How much time will these changes save?

One-ad scoring

On Tuesday, I shared my findings that “no-ad” scoring–that is, the format used by WTA and ATP doubles, and one often proposed by those hoping to shorten any level of tennis–can be expected to reduce the length of the average match by about 10%.

(Today, I’m sticking with percentages, since college matches may last considerably longer than pro matches.  In an ATP Challenger match, that typical 10% reduction amounts to eight minutes; in college, it might be as much as twice as long.)

Of course, “one-ad” scoring will not have as much of an impact.  In ATP Challenger matches this year, 11% of games have gone to a second deuce.  Those second-deuce games, which short-ad would reduce to nine points, averaged 11.8 points.  Thus, going to ‘short-ad’ would reduce the number of points per game by six or seven points per match.  The effect is roughly half that of no-ad.  On a percentage basis, it might be expected to cut match length by 5%.

Recognizing the limitations of ATP Challenger data, I also researched the same numbers using 2013 women’s ITF tournaments, running the gamut from 10K to 100K tournaments.  The numbers are roughly the same; two-deuce games go to 11.9 points, and the overall effect would be a little more than seven points per match.  In the aggregate, we might be looking at  a time reduction of 6% instead of 5%.

While one-ad is a creative compromise between purists and reformers, it probably isn’t enough to get the job done.  A dual match that would otherwise last three and a half hours would be cut by ten or twelve minutes.

Short sets

At first glance, the proposal to stop sets at five instead of six (or seven, in the case of doubles) seems like a tweak more cosmetic than anything else.  Because the doubles matches are played simultaneously and the singles matches are played simultaneously, dual matches often leave several individual matches abandoned.  The matches that would go to a third-set tiebreak rarely get that far.  The relatively quick 6-4 6-2 contests are more likely to count toward the end result.

Still, let’s ignore the simultaneous format for a moment.  How many matches is this tweak likely to affect?

The only singles sets that will be consistently shorted by this proposal are those that currently reach tiebreaks.  A tiebreak is roughly equivalent to two games, so playing a tiebreak at 5-5 requires about the same amount of time as reaching 7-5.

Now using ITF women’s 10K’s as our sample, we can find that singles matches average roughly one tiebreak per six matches.  Using the shorthand of “one tiebreak equals two games,” that means that the time savings is about one game per three matches.  The average match lasts about twenty games, so that’s one game saved per sixty, or a bit less than 2%.  I suppose it might help shorten dual matches in which several simultaneous singles are all going to tiebreaks, but at the aggregate level, short singles sets are less than half as effective as one-ad scoring.

Estimating the time-saving effect of short doubles sets is more difficult, because I don’t have any raw data on first-to-7 doubles sets.

Certainly, cutting two games from the total would be expected to have more than double the effect of one.   Instead of simply avoiding 7-6 sets in singles, we’re avoiding 8-6 and 8-7 sets in doubles.  Let’s say, for the sake of argument, that the time savings in these close sets is triple that of singles matches, or 6%.

Since doubles sets are cut to first-to-six instead of first-to-seven, lopsided sets will get a little faster, too.  For instance, a 7-3 set will be cut to 6-3 or 6-2.  Without knowing the distribution of various doubles scorelines, this is all guesswork, but if the lopsided sets are reduced in time by 12-15% and closer sets are less common, we might guess that the time saved in doubles is, on average, about 10%.

However, that’s 10% of a shorter length of time.  Given that doubles points are generally shorter, and that doubles is one set as opposed to two or three sets in singles, the weighted average of time savings is probably about 4.5%.

Impact of the ITA proposal

Start with the assumption (however questionable, as I discussed Tuesday) of an average dual match length of three and a half hours.  By cutting each set to first-to-five, we can expect a reduction of 4.5%, or perhaps nine minutes.   That leaves us with 3:21.

Cut off another 5% to 6% for short-ad scoring, and we save another 10 to 12 minutes.  Best case scenario, the overall length comes down to 3:09, for a total savings of just over twenty minutes.

Is that good enough?  With on-court warmups eliminated, as both the USTA Advisory Group and the ITA have proposed, it might cut a half hour from each dual match.  Still, that leaves plenty of dual matches on the wrong side of three hours.  Fine with me, and fine with a whole lot of people in college tennis, but probably not good enough for the USTA and its broadcast partners.

Time-Saving Shenanigans and the Effect of No-Ad

Yesterday, Colette Lewis reported on another set of possible rule changes for college tennis.  The goals, as always, are to shorten matches, increase television coverage, and systematically ignore the well-informed preferences of those most closely involved with the game.

Colette does a better job of explaining the limitations of the proposed format than I would, so I encourage you to go read her post.

So that we’re all on the same page, let’s summarize the most recent dual-match format:

  • Dual matches–meetings between two schools–have six players to a side. There are three doubles and six singles matches.  The combined results of the doubles matches is worth one point, and every singles match is worth one point, for a total of seven.  The first school to four points wins.
  • First, three doubles matches are played simultaneously.  Each is a single set, first to seven, win by two, and a tiebreak is played at 8-8.  If one school wins two of the three doubles matches while the other is still in progress, the third is abandoned.
  • Next, all six singles matches are played simultaneously.  Each singles match is best of three tiebreak sets.  Once one school has accumulated four points (including the doubles point), the remaining matches are abandoned, and the contest is over.

And here’s the new version:

  • Singles first.  The singles format stays the same, with six simultaneous matches.
  • If and only if a team does not accumulate four points in the singles, a compressed version of the doubles is played: the three doubles matches are reduced to 10-point super-tiebreaks. (This time last year, we were debating the merits of those as third sets.)

The proposed alternative would certainly save time.  It would also effectively destroy doubles as an important part of college tennis.

At last year’s NCAA Men’s Team Championships, 44 of the 63 dual matches were decided by a score of 4-0 or 4-1.  While it’s impossible to know how the abandoned singles matches would have turned out, it’s safe to assume that almost all of those meetings–along with many of the 4-2 outcomes and a few of the 4-3’s–would have been decided before any doubles was necessary.

Since length is such an important part of these debates, I ran some numbers to see what else might be done.

No-ad, no-overtime

The most popular device for speeding up tennis is “no-ad” scoring.  You’re probably familiar with it, as both the ATP and WTA tours use it for doubles.  Once a game reaches 40-40, the receiving team decides whether to play a final point in the deuce or ad court, and the outcome of that point decides the game.

So, how much time does it save? To get a rough idea of the answer, I looked at roughly 3600 ATP Challenger singles matches from this year.  (It’s not the most relevant dataset, I realize, but better “available” than “ideal.”)

In those matches, 24.2% of games went to deuce.  Those games averaged 9.7 points each, meaning that a switch to the no-ad format would save 2.7 points per deuce game.  Overall, such a change would save about 0.65 points per game across the board.  The average best-of-three-sets match lasts about 22 games, so switching to no-ad scoring would reduce the number of points in the typical match by 14 or 15.

At the ATP level, each additional point within a game–that is, one that doesn’t add to the number of changeovers or set breaks–adds about 33 seconds to the length of the match.  So the switch to no-ad scoring would shorten the length of an average match by about eight minutes.

Switching doubles to no-ad would have a lesser effect, because the matches are already shorter.  Figuring an average match length of 10 to 12 games, that’s another four minutes saved.

The impact is a bit more ambiguous than I’ve made it out to be, because no-ad scoring makes service breaks more common.  If the server has a 65% chance of winning a point (typical for male tour pros), he or she has only a 65% chance of holding from deuce in the no-ad format.  The server’s chances might be a bit worse, assuming the returner chooses the side which favors him or her.  In an ad game, that same server has a 77.5% chance of holding from deuce.

It would take a much more in-depth simulation (informed by much more college-specific assumptions) to know the impact of that difference.  Some additional breaks would speed up matches, making 6-0 and 6-1 outcomes more likely, while others would push sets to tiebreaks.

But college tennis takes longer

So far, I’ve been forced to use numbers from the pros to evaluate proposals for collegiates.  Somewhere along the line, the numbers don’t add up.

According to the advisory group responsible for the “hide-doubles-in-the-attic” proposal, the average dual match time at last year’s NCAA championships was over three and a half hours.  What’s taking so long?

On the ATP tour, the average best-of-three match is just over 90 minutes.  Doubles generally moves more quickly, so the first-to-seven matches should be less than half as long.  Plus, since dual matches are often decided while the longest singles matches are still going, the average completed match must be shorter than the average match at the college level.

Thus, even accounting for less serve dominance, longer rallies, and assorted factors such as the absence of ballkids and the higher number of lets (remember, these matches are played on adjacent courts), how are we getting so far beyond the magic three-hour time frame?

One explanation is simply poor data collection and analysis.  The numbers the advisory group cites are from last year’s team championships, a particularly small sample.  And by using an average, and not a median, one or two very long matches can skew the numbers–especially with such a small sample.  The five-hour dual matches are surely beyond saving, so why give them so much weight?

An alternative explanation is that college tennis really is that much slower, in which case many of the numbers I cited above don’t tell the whole story.  Are there far more deuce games in college than the 24.2% on the Challenger tour?  Are interminable, 15- to 20-point deuce games much more common?  Do points take considerably longer?

If so, the effect of moving to no-ad scoring would be greater than the twelve-minute conclusion I reached above.  Twelve minutes is a little less than one-tenth of my estimate for equivalent ATP matches, assuming a 90-minute average singles match and 45 minutes for doubles.  So if dual matches are really lasting three hours and 40 minutes, the equivalent time reduction would be almost double–better than 20 minutes.

Purists may hate no-ad scoring, but given a choice between losing 15-point deuce games and losing college doubles, I’d ditch dramatic deuce games in a second.