I like to watch tennis, but I had to learn what to pay attention to. Here are some of those things. This is all pretty basic stuff, and I’m not at all an expert, etc, etc. I’ll assume you know the basic rules.
While the ball is in motion, tennis audiences are silent. They will erupt in uncontained screams and cheers, but only at the appropriate times: when a point has been won. This means you actually need to watch. If you’re on your phone and you’re waiting for some audience cues to tell you when something exciting is happening and you should pay attention, you’re going to miss everything.
What do you see?
It’s two people hitting a ball back and forth, adversarially?
It’s also very high drama. Two players enter the tennis court alone, carrying their own gear, and enter into a battle of wills, endurance, resolve, and skill, and push each other to their limits, while thousands of people cheer and boo. At the end, one slinks off, carrying their own bag into the locker room, defeated.
The other survived.
The tennis season is super long, it’s basically the whole year, and there are events pretty much all the time. As a tennis fan, what should you actually watch?
Watch the Grand Slams. They’re the four biggest tournaments each year. There’s the most prize money, so everybody shows up. And because they’re in this special class of their own, people pay attention to how many Grand Slams a player has won, and that’s the measure of who are the very best players.
The grand slams are:
- The Australian Open. It happens in January. Players are well-rested after their holiday break. It’s summer there, which is fun. They call it “the happy slam”. It’s played on hard courts.
- The French Open (aka Roland-Garros). It happens in May. It’s played on clay. On the men’s side, Rafael Nadal always wins, because he is “the king of clay”.
- Wimbledon. It happens in July, in London. It’s played on grass. Everyone dresses in all white. It’s a bit retro.
- The US Open. It happens in August in Queens, New York. It’s played on hard courts. I’ve gone to this one a few times.
If you aren’t sure where to start, just wait until the next one of these and dive in.
Where do I watch?
I mostly watch on Tennis Channel Everywhere a streaming site that I pay for. During Grand Slams, some of the matches are only streaming on ESPN, so I might temporarily subscribe to cable for a month to get those matches, too.
How do I enjoy a tournament?
At the start of a tennis tournament, there may be something like 128 players in the draw. You’re not gonna know who most of them are, but if you stick around you’ll start learning some names. In the early rounds, just pick some matches at random and watch them. Because of the way brackets get seeded, all of the top players will be paired up against bottom players and are fairly likely to advance, and it’s not that fun to watch somebody get clobbered. It’s probably going to be more fun to watch some of the middle players who got paired up against each other, who are more evenly matched. Pick someone and root for them. If they’re both boring, just switch to another match. The men’s and women’s events run at the same time, which means that there’s really quite a lot of matches on at the beginning of an event. Try to find someone you like rooting for and stick with them for the whole match.
Each round, half of the players are knocked out. It’s vicious, thrilling, efficient.
Storylines start to emerge. Someone seems unstoppable. Someone no one has heard of has made it to round three. Someone sustained an injury and we wonder how it’ll affect them in their next match. Last year’s finalists are on a collision course for a rematch in round four!
Pick the story that resonates with you. Root for someone to go all the way. Believe that they will. See what happens for you emotionally, if anything.
Sometimes tennis matches are really long. Like it’s not that weird for a match to be five or six hours long. You can sometimes take a break from a match, watch a movie, and come back to catch the end.
Women’s matches are basically always three sets, while men’s matches are sometimes three and other times five, depending on the particular tournament.
A typical set takes anywhere from 30-90 minutes depending on factors like how many games there are (a 7-6 set takes a lot longer than a 6-0 one, of course), how long the players are taking between serves, how long the rallies are, how many deuces there are (you have to win by two, so individual games can technically go on forever), and whether there are any medical timeouts.
Some tournaments use a tie breaker in the final set, while others let the final set go on indefinitely, until someone wins by two games.
There are perennial debates about whether they should downsize all five set match events to three sets, which are less grueling for the player and audience. No one can agree. Part of the sport is stamina, and some are loath to decrease that element.
You’ll know you’re a lost cause when you start wishing matches were longer.
Enjoy the crescendos
The most exciting moments in a tennis match are at the end of sets, especially sets which could decide the match. I’m reminded of that Seinfeld bit about muffin tops. Why don’t they make the whole match out of the exciting ending?
Well, in tennis, they kind of do. In a normal sport, there’s only one exciting ending. In tennis there’s as many as five, if it’s a five set match.
True, after each set they reset and start over, and that can be a little bit boring. But it can be fun to pay attention at the start of the new set. The person who just lost the last set, do they seem defeated or do they seem pissed off and full of resolve? The person who just won, can they keep up the momentum, or are they acting like they’re just happy they were able to win one and they can go home now?
Are we on serve?
One thing I didn’t realize when I first started watching tennis is that for each game, one of the players is “supposed” to win, and that’s the player who’s serving. In each game, only one player is serving, and they alternate. If the serving player wins each game, you will hear the commentator say “they are on serve”. When the set is on serve, the score will move like this:
- And then they’ll play a special tiebreaker game to determine who wins the set
If that’s what’s happening, it means that the players are well-matched, and you’re building to that dizzying crescendo of the set tiebreaker.
If the serving player loses a game, that’s called “getting broken”, and it puts them on a course toward losing the set. We can imagine a sequence like this:
- 2-0 (a break of service!)
In that sequence, there is only one break, but the first player will take the set 6-3. In a set like this, it’s pretty clear after the second game which player is on course to win the set. That can still be very exciting, though, because it puts a lot of pressure on the losing player to right the ship. Every single game they serve, they must win and they need to “break back” to “get back on serve”. And even if they do that, which is not easy, then they still need to break again to get ahead, or try their luck in a tiebreaker.
If a player goes up by two breaks, there’s not a ton of suspense. It’s so hard to come back from being down two breaks. So… when someone does come back from two breaks, you would not believe how exciting it is. When you, as the spectator, have given up on the player, but the player has not given up, it teaches you something.
Who’s your favorite chair umpire?
The chair umpire sits in a big chair and directs the flow of the match. You’ll hear their voice throughout the match, doing things like:
- impassively declaring the score of the current game
- stating that a serve hit the net, and the serving player will need to serve again
- acknowledging when a player has challenged a call (e.g. the ball was called out but they really think it was in)
- issuing warnings for taking too long to serve or cursing
- acknowledging that a player is taking a medical time out
The tours have a stable of chair umpires who they re-use all the time. The die-hard fans know their names and have favorites. Some of them have legendary voices. There’s one guy who says “deuce” with such abundant gravitas that you almost wonder if he’s joking.
I don’t know any of their names, but I think I’ll get there.
Watch out for the fist pumps
The universal tennis celebration is the fist pump. If someone wins a long rally they might let out a furtive little fist pump If someone wins a set, you know that fist is pumping above their head. Absolutely nobody pumps their fist better than Rafael Nadal. There are YouTube compilations. It’s a thrill. I encourage you to adopt this habit in your day-to-day life.
Another common celebration is to scream something like:
- “Come on!”
- “Let’s go!”
These are all also great, the more guttural the better.
“New balls, please”
During a match, there’s a finite set of balls that they’re playing with. You’ll notice that there are a number of “ball kids” on court. After each point, a ball kid will scurry after the ball and grab it, then get back into position. At the next opportunity, when the next point ends, they’ll roll that ball down the court in the direction of the player who’s serving. At that end, there are two dedicated ball kids who are accumulating all of the balls, so that they’re ready to feed them to the serving player.
The players really wallop these balls, and they pretty quickly lose their bounciness. After every X games, the chair umpire will say “new balls, please”, at which point they replace the dead ones with some fresh ones. The commentators will often act like this has a big impact on the vibe of the gameplay but I honestly have never noticed this.
It really matters where on the court the player is standing. Some players will stand way behind the baseline. This can be great: if their opponent hits the ball all the way to the left or all the way to the right, they have more time to get to it. This can be bad: their opponent can hit a “drop shot”; if they pop the ball just over the net, there’s no way to make it in time.
Some players like to work their way toward the net. This can be great: from the net, you can smash the ball into the ground, sending it flying out of your opponent’s reach. This can be bad: your opponent can make a “passing shot” where they send the ball flying past you, and because you’re so close to them, you need to have lightning reflexes to actually return it; or, they can make a “lob” where they hit the ball in a high arc over your head, forcing you to try and chase it down, staggering backwards, eyes peering into the sun.
Nothing makes me happier than watching a beautiful lob float over someone’s head and drop right on the edge of the baseline.
It can be instructive to pay attention to which player is running more. You’ll often see one player standing stock still in the middle of the court around the baseline, hitting the ball left, then right, then left, then right, forcing their opponent to run back and forth. Which one would you rather be?
If you’re just looking to get a quick sense of which player is “in control”, pay attention to who is moving more.
There are very specific rules for what makes a valid serve. If your serve isn’t valid, you get to try again. If your second serve isn’t valid, you just lose the point, which is called “double faulting”.
That’s all clear enough, but what I didn’t realize until I started watching tennis is that this system incentivizes players to serve in a particular way. Basically: on your first serve, players take more risk and on second serves they take less risk. A riskier serve is one where you’re hitting it harder, or aiming for the edges of the service box, making it more likely that you wham the ball right into the net, or out of bounds. Those riskier serves are going to be harder to return, so you’re more likely to win that point if you get that sweet serve in. And if you don’t, who cares, you just get to try again. The second serve has higher stakes, because you can actually lose the point if you mess up twice. So a typical “second serve” is much slower, and it’s aiming for right square in the middle of the service box. These are going to be much easier to return, but at least you didn’t double fault.
Some players make the calculated choice to always go all out and do “two first serves”. With this strategy, they will double fault sometimes, but they’ll never give their opponent something easy to work with. If they’re consistent enough, that can be a smart calculation. Players with very consistent, aggressive serves are sometimes called “servebots”.
If one player is making more of their first serves in than the other player, that’s a big advantage, and something worth paying attention to.
One of the best parts of following tennis is tennis twitter. I have a list with ~75 people on it that I will check in on during tournaments to know if there’s an exciting match I should be watching or a storyline brewing I should be aware of.
Some of the active/informative/fun ones I follow, if you want to bootstrap your own tennis twitter:
If you want more tennis media to stay up-to-date, I recommend these:
- Hold Onto Your Racquet (podcast)
- No Challenges Remaining (podcast)
- Racquet Magazine
- Giri Nathan’s tennis columns at Defector
- Tumaini Carayol’s tennis column at The Guardian
In conclusion, tennis is great. It’s also fun to play it. But that’s maybe another post.