How Does Wimbledon Work?

Dear Sports Fan,

How does the Wimbledon tournament work?



Hi Mom,

If your household is like mine, then your early morning television has been dominated by people wearing white hitting balls at each other on striped green grass since Monday morning when “The Championships, Wimbledon” started. We will probably do a post later on in the tournament about the pretensions of the tournament (the white clothing, the fans, the ball-boys and ball-girls, the phrasing of its name, so for this post, let’s concentrate just on how each match is scored and how it fits into the structure of the tournament.

Wimbledon is a single-elimination tournament, just like the college basketball tournament (March Madness,) except that instead of starting with 64 teams, it begins with 128 players. This is the same for men and women.[1] Basically everyone plays and the person who can win seven times in a row[2] wins the tournament. The organizers of the tournament do stack the deck a little. They give an advantage to the top 32 players in the tournament based on their past performances by assigning a seed to them. The top 32 players are seeded or ranked from 1 to 32. Then the match-ups are created so that no seeded player will play another seeded player in the first two rounds and that if everyone who is ranked higher always wins, when there are four players left, the top seeded player will play the fourth ranked player and the second will play the third. The goal is to give the top two players the best possible chance to play in the final match. For a sport dominated by Europeans, tennis is pretty darn capitalist.

Now you understand the tournament it’s time to understand a match. Sports competitions are generally divided into those that are decided by single games between two competitors or teams (football, boxing, sometimes soccer,) those that are decided by a single competition between lots of people (golf, any kind of racing,) and those that are decided by a series of games (hockey, baseball, basketball, and most games of rock-paper-scissors.) Tennis is weird. I said Wimbledon was a single elimination tournament which it is — but each competition between two players is also sort of a series of games. Actually it’s a series of series’.

I’ll explain — Tennis has four units of scoring — from largest to smallest it’s the match, the set, the game, and the point. To win a match you have to be the first to win 3 sets if you’re a man and 2 sets if you’re a woman. To win a set you have to be the first person to win 6 games, although you have to win by a margin of two games. At Wimbledon a tie-breaking game to 7 points (although this too must be won by a margin of two) is played in every set but the final one (the third for women and the fifth for men.) These deciding sets can basically go on until infinity. To win a a game you have to be the first person to 5 points although in this too, you must win by two. Just to be confusing instead of counting 0-1-2-3-4-5, games are scored love-15-30-40-game. Once the players have 40 in a game and they are tied, this is called deuce. After this, when one player is a point ahead (and because they must win by two, they only need one to win the game,) it is Advantage [Players Name.]

Got it? I bet you do! What’s interesting to me about this is how it combines the features of a single match (it’s a single day event, it can hinge on small factors like weather, sickness, even just someone having a bad day with the one of the most important features of a series, accuracy (because winning requires winning the majority of times even after the score resets to zero you are more likely to get the “correct” winner.)

Thanks for the question,
Ezra Fischer

Footnotes    (↵ returns to text)

  1. Not viewers, competitors… although now that I think of it, it is true regardless of whether YOU are a man or a woman too.
  2. 128, 64, 32, 16, 8, 4, 2!

Why is Golf Etiquette so Funny?

Dear Sports Fan,
Why do golfers take of their hats to shake hands? Why do they wear pants in the insane heat? In other words, why are there so many rules about golf etiquette, and what are they?

Dear Kat,
The short story, which is what I am going with here, is that golf is old and steeped in tradition. Many of these traditions started long ago in a much different social atmosphere. Taking your hat off or wearing pants no matter the weather today is not outside the bounds of the social mores across all of society tens of decades ago. For example, women wearing bathing suits that were more akin to a scuba wetsuit than the suits of today was not only accepted in the early 1900’s, but was the standard. It didn’t make sense to be draped in such a heavy garment at the beach in sweltering weather, but the pressure of societal influence was heavier than the physical burden of the outfit.
Another aspect to the discussion is the role that tradition plays in sports. History has always been and continues to be a highly important platform for fans. Considering the past success of your team and the great players that came before are compelling ways to honor your allegiance. Knowing the history is a demonstration of commitment. And whether it is right or not, level of commitment is often the measure of one’s seriousness about their team. To put it simply, tradition is important.
So let’s bring this back to golf and the question at hand. What’s with all the etiquette? Etiquette since the beginning has given golf its character. Things that aren’t absolutely necessary to the game, but add to the overall experience. Knowing the etiquette is a part of learning to play, it demonstrates that you know more than to keep your leading elbow straight and to keep your head down. Most rules are useful, like replacing a divot so the course quality is good for everyone or slower playing groups allowing faster playing groups to play through. And some rules are more about tradition, meant to maintain the strong character of the game and respect its history.
For a list of several standard rules of golf etiquette you can check out Wikipedia
Thanks for the question,
John DeFilippis

What is Being Offside?

Dear Sports Fan,

What is being offside and why does it cause so much screaming in the bar next-door?



Dear Max

Offside rules are about time and space. They are about a line, an event and an order. Although they are probably the most misunderstood, most shouted about, most infuriating rules in sports, they are deceptively simple. Offside rules exist in most of the most-watched sports in the world. Offside is the rule in soccer; it has caused more bloodshed than many major border conflicts or minor religions. It is an important part of hockey, can mean the difference between winning and losing in football, and although it is disguised in basketball, it still has major implications. If you understand the role being offside plays in all of these sports, you will understand a lot about the nature of each game.

In every sport, being offside means that a player is in a position he or she shouldn’t be in when a particular event happens. I’ll repeat it: being offside means that a player is in a position he or she shouldn’t be in when a particular event happens. That’s it. That’s the whole thing. You’ve got it! Now all we need to do is fill in the where and the when.

Where: If the player is in the offensive zone; the area between the blue line closest to the goal his team is trying to score on and the boards…
When: The puck is moved from outside this area into this area…

Where: If the player is closer to the goal she is trying to score on than fewer than two players of the opposing team…
When: The ball leaves the foot of a player on her team who intends to pass her the ball…

Where: If a player on defense[1] moves across the line of scrimmage (an imaginary line across the field of play where the ball is placed before a play starts…)
When: Before the ball is snapped to start the play…
HE IS OFFSIDE (If the player touches another player on the other team, this is called “encroachment” which is much more fun to say than offside.)

Where: If a player is on the side of the court that she is trying to defend…
When: When she has the ball for more than eight seconds after her team initially gains possession of it…
SHE IS OFFSIDE (This is called the “eight-second rule.”)

Where: If a player dribbles the ball on the side of the court that he is trying to defend…
When: After his team has had the ball on the side of the court that they are trying to score on…
HE IS OFFSIDE (This is called a “back-court violation.”)

Notice how the way the offside rule is written seems to suggest something about the game? The soccer rule favors the defense in a big way — if a player can’t pass to one of his teammates unless he has at least two defenders between his teammate and the goal, why are we surprised that there isn’t more scoring? The hockey rule also favors the defense, just a little less. Note how the rule makes it so that if a defender can clear the puck from his third of the ice into the middle third, the other team’s offense needs to totally reset by leaving the offensive zone. Basketball, on the other hand, seems to require offense. If a player cannot stay on her side for more than eight seconds, she’s going to be forced to get her team in a position to score, isn’t she?

See how simple the offside rules can be? What other questions do you have?

Ezra Fischer

Footnotes    (↵ returns to text)

  1. Before a play starts, only one offensive player is allowed to move at once. If any of the big guys in a row even flinch, they are called for a “false start” which is more or less an offside rule.