Feeling failure, fighting a frown, feigning a smile, Serena Williams walked to the net to congratulate Karolina Pliskova for defeating her in the 2016 U.S. Open. Saluting the fans with right arm raised and a single finger rotating like a crashed helicopter, Serena exited the arena. Here’s something that was probably not going through her mind: In that deciding set, Williams won more points than her opponent. In fact, I’d wager no one noticed — not the players, commentators or fans.
This happens more often than you’d think. In the past four majors, 87 sets and 31 matches were won by players who did not win more points than their opponents.
Sound familiar? Twice in the past five elections, the president of the United States took office without winning the most votes.
What do the Electoral College and tennis scoring have in common? They’re arcane, they tilt the field to favor the inferior and yet everyone seems to accept them as immovable. We allow them to continue largely because of historical traditions established by ruling classes.
Tennis is a mongrel, conceived in the conflation of two precursors: rackets, played by criminals and commoners against prison and pub walls, and royals, played indoors by princes and priests.
In 1874, modern tennis was patented and promoted throughout the world by Maj. Walter Clopton Wingfield using rackets scoring, in which sets were won by the first to 15 points. There were no games, no win-by-two margins of mercy. Simple, direct democracy. A year later, a governing body for some British sports followed suit, ratifying the commoners’ scoring.
But then Wimbledon got involved. Wimbledon, established for croquet, was formed by journalists (always a bad sign) from the Field, a British sports magazine. Wimbledon did not introduce tennis on its grounds until 1876, and soon after, it rejected rackets scoring, replacing it with the cockamamie counting of royals. Careful not to offend the British governing body, the Field announced the adoption of royals scoring as “provisional” — for the first tournament only.
Royals scoring is complicated (but stupid). Patterned on the 60-degree sexton, the first point is 15, the second is 30 and the third is 40. Finally, instead of 60, there’s game. Deuce — French for “two” — is the score called in lieu of 40-all. Subsequently, the score seesaws between deuce and advantage until someone wins by two points. A set is the first to win six games by at least two. The loser of a game receives no credit for any points won, permitting a player to win a set despite having lost up to 10 points more than their opponent.
When Andre Agassi was a top player, he said: “It was invented to cause frustration for those who chose to play. Because it makes no sense. Obviously, those who invented the scoring system wanted to keep it an exclusive game.”
Likewise, the creators of the Electoral College made the presidential election an exclusive game. They thought the college would rarely provide a clear winner, thus placing the privileged decision back in the hands of Congress. But things did not go as the patriarchs planned. States cast their allotted electoral votes on a winner-take-all basis, a policy James Madison vehemently protested. If most districts in a state vote for Candidate A, all who voted otherwise wind up having their ballots counted for Candidate A. Dissenting votes are reversed by the state.
Geographic location trumps majority rule, making America a game of Monopoly — not a democracy. Typically, about a dozen battleground states determine the outcome, while the majority are reduced to spectators who cheer and jeer from the sidelines. Today, the Electoral College is an elite group of 538 voters. Only their ballots matter.
Where do we go from here? A popular vote is the obvious answer for the nation, just as the tiebreaker is the remedy for tennis.
James Van Alen introduced the tiebreaker to settle sets tied at six games. It is won by the first to seven points by a minimum margin of two. Without the tiebreaker, the loser can win innumerably more points than the winner. If we want every point to matter, tennis matches should be one extended tiebreaker to a designated number of points.
If you’re a fan of losers winning, keep the status quo.
Gabriel Allen is a writer and tennis professional who studied journalism and played varsity tennis at the College of New Jersey. He wrote this article for the Washington Post.