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Tennis score-keeping, and its multitude of standards

Roger Federer, from Switzerland, volleys against David Ferrer, from Spain, during a final match at the Western & Southern Open tennis tournament, Sunday, Aug. 17, 2014, in Mason, Ohio.

Al Behrman/AP Photo

On the north side of the tracks at the Mets-Willets Point stop of the 7 train and the Long Island Rail Road, there is a standard written language: When a double play at Citi Field is made by the second baseman, shortstop and first baseman, reporters in the press box and fans in the seats will write "4-6-3" on their scorecards. If the next batter strikes out swinging, a "K" tells the story.

But on the south side of the tracks, at the U.S. Open, when Novak Djokovic hits a backhand winner down the line to give himself break point, nearly all the pens put to paper to record the event will write something different.

Henry Chadwick, a baseball writer, created a code for keeping score in baseball in the 1870s, and it has remained the basis ever since. But tennis has no such written system, so each reporter has a language of letters, shapes, dots and slashes all his or her own.

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Steve Flink, a tennis historian, first began recording matches in the 1970s when he worked as a statistician for broadcasters. Bud Collins, a broadcaster and writer, asked him to keep track of first serves, and Ann Jones, a commentator and former Wimbledon champion, gave him the idea to put a check for a made first serve and an X if it was missed.

"I took that and ran with it myself," Flink said.

He now circles the check if it was an ace, and circles the X if it was a double fault. He also puts detailed descriptions of each point after the initial check or X, usually scribbling so much for each point that no more than two to four points will fit on a page.

"I just find this works for me, so I've stuck with it," Flink said. "And nobody can read my writing, but I can. I have a kind of photographic memory to begin with, but this just gives me all the reference I possibly need."

When writing his book The Greatest Tennis Matches of All Time, Flink looked back to notebooks from as many as 40 years ago for reference, and understood them perfectly.

Many other writers also have used one system for years.

Candy Rodo, who writes for Barcelona's La Vanguardia, has covered 20 U.S. Opens, but even before that, she tracked the score of matches she watched on television. Rodo writes the score of each successive point in blue ink, and she circles break points with a yellow highlighter.

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Scottish tennis writer Stuart Fraser also puts circles around break points, but he uses squares around set points and triangles around match points.

Hitoshi Ko of Tennis Magazine Japan uses "K" for holds of serve (keeps) and "B" for breaks.

Veteran tennis writer Peter Bodo recently changed his system from a vertically oriented method to a horizontal one.

"Basically, I just did one thing too long, like guys who get divorced after 20 years," he said. "They say, 'What the hell, I'm going to try something different.'"

Bodo uses dots for points won by the server, and slashes for points won by the receiver, along with a few letters of abbreviation to describe how the point was won.

Using two lines a game, Alessandro Terziani of Il Tennis Italiano puts a dot on the upper line if the point is won by the server, and a dot on the bottom if it is won by the receiver. He then writes the game score and tallies the total number of points won by each player in that game at the end of the line.

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That two-line system is also used by the Japanese writer Aki Uchida of Smash Magazine, but with far more detail. Her system puts a symbol on the line of the point winner that identifies what sort of shot ended the point. Service winners are marked with an "S," forehand winners with an "F" and backhand winners with a "B." An X stands for an error, and she writes smaller letters underneath like "B N," which would indicate that the error was a backhand into the net. There are also simple slashes for points to which she may not have paid close attention, or cannot decide between winner and error.

Uchida's system is complex, but it pales in comparison with that of her colleague Kaoru Takeda of Tennis Magazine Japan, who uses a geometric code that at first glance bears no immediate connection to tennis.

Takeda, who has been using his system since the 1985 French Open, marks each point with a shape. Winners are circles (a double circle indicates an ace), and errors are triangles (a shaded triangle means a double fault). The shape is oriented higher on the line if it was won by the server, and lower if won by the returner. Service holds are indicated by a double line, and service breaks are an askew number sign.

"It's very easy!" Takeda said.

While many enjoy their complex systems, American writer Cindy Shmerler recently switched from a symbol-heavy method of charting matches to simple longhand, and now prides herself on the clarity of her notes.

"You could put one of my notebooks in a bottle, throw it across the ocean, and 30 years later, somebody would know what happened at the U.S. Open," Shmerler said.

Note-taking may be a dying art, though. An IBM system called Open Vision is installed at each desk in the media centre at the U.S. Open and the Australian Open. It automatically records the outcome of each point in a grid, including the speed and direction of the serve, the type of return, the length of the ensuing rally, a description of the final shot and the position in the court in which both players finished the point.

But no matter how good the technology gets, many will still continue to put pen to paper after every point, if only to maintain their focus while watching a match.

"The best thing about keeping score is it keeps your mind occupied," Bodo said. "If I'm not keeping score, my mind is in Pago Pago thinking about bonefishing or something. And then all of the sudden: 'What happened? How did it get to be 5-3?'"

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