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Why tennis isn't boring, in GIFs

Streeter Lecka
Alex Abad-Santos is a senior correspondent who explains what society obsesses over, from Marvel and movies to fitness and skin care. He came to Vox in 2014. Prior to that, he worked at the Atlantic.

It's Labor Day, which means barbecues and parties, complete with copious hot dog and/or beer consumption. But it also means the second week of the US Open, the final Grand Slam tennis tournament of the year.

Many find tennis a boring sport. But it doesn't have to be. In fact, tennis can be one of the most exciting and intriguing sports to watch. And this year's tournament, with its slew of upsets and upstarts, is proof. So here's a basic guide to the US Open and a few reasons why you should be watching tennis:

The basics: how scoring works

Tennis has a lot of confusing terms. There's no real rhyme or logical reason why zero points is called "love," the first point is called "15," the next one is "30," and the next one is "40," just like there is no specific reason why a touchdown is worth six points instead of 60 or four or eight. But the gist is that the first player to win four points wins the game, and the first one to six games wins the set. And the first player to win two out of three sets or three out of five sets win the match — a player could conceivably end up winning more games than their opponent, but if she/he didn't win the two or three sets, he/she could still end up losing the match.

A thing to remember is that in the event of a tie, you need to beat your opponent by two consecutive points or games. For example, if you are both at 30-all, and you win the next two points, you win the game. Most of the time, the same win-by-two rules apply to a set and to a game (i.e. someone wins 6-4 or 7-5).  But in the event that both players win six games a piece, a tie breaker — a game where the first one to seven points wins — is played and has the same win by two rules.

Tennis has four Grand Slam tournaments (the Australian Open, French Open, and Wimbledon are the others). The US Open is often considered the most exciting because it's the only one that uses a tiebreaker in the final set (the third set for women and the fifth set for men). The other Grand Slams require a player win by two games in the final set if both are tied at six games a piece.

The spin on the ball

Topspin, slice, and flat are the different kinds of spin (or absence of spin) that a player can put on the ball. Each situation calls for a different kind of spin, and some spins, in certain situations, can be more effective than others.

When someone hits a slice, their racket goes from high to low on the ball and creates backspin:


Roger Federer's slice backhand (YouTube)

This backspin usually takes a bit more time to cross the net, and it makes the ball bounce lower on your opponent's side of the court. That makes the slice a good defensive shot. It buys a player time, and it also, if struck well, makes it difficult for the opponent to hit an offensive shot off of it, since players have to hit upward on a good slice to ensure it clears the net.

When you hear a commentator talk about hitting flat or "flattening out" a stroke, it means the player isn't putting any spin on the ball. This makes the ball travel through the air faster. Here, Juan Martin del Potro (at the top of the GIF), the 2009 US Open champion, flattens out his forehand. You'll notice you can barely see the ball because of the pace on it:


Del Potro vs. Federer at the 2009 US Open (via YouTube)

The drawback to hitting flat is that it can make for higher risk. That's why players use topspin. Topspin — when the racket goes from low to high — brings the ball back down onto the court, so it drops faster in the air. That leaves plenty of room for error, but it also allows players to hit the ball harder:


Rafael Nadal hits a topspin forehand (YouTube)

The drawback with topspin is such that if the ball isn't hit with enough force, the ball will be much easier to return.

These different spins can also be used on the serve. A flat serve will be struck hard, while a slice serve will often be used to hit the corners of the service box, the large squares on the opponent's side of the court where a player serves into, since it stays low and skids:

Sampras slice

Pete Sampras hits a slice serve out wide (YouTube)

The trick to all these spins and shots is figuring out when to use them (i.e. how much spin to put on a certain shot). This gives tennis an exciting element of strategy.

What to look for in a rally

It's easy to tell who won a point. Someone either makes an error, or hits a winner — a ball their opponent can't touch. But you can sometimes see the end of the point coming before it arrives. What tennis pros tell students is to watch for the footwork of each player and the court positioning of the players. These can show you how a player either won or lost the point.

When you hear tennis players' sneakers squeaking, that's the sound of them taking small adjustment steps to make sure they're hitting the ball in the right position. The more baby steps a player takes the better, since that means they have time to adjust to the ball. And the more time they have to set up, the better chance there is that they're in control of the point. Maria Sharapova, in this GIF, has plenty of time to set up for her backhand:


Maria Sharapova uses a bunch of small steps to set up her backhand (YouTube)

Usually, the player spending the most time in the center of the court and inside the baseline is dictating play. In this next GIF, she (at the bottom of the screen) doesn't have as much time to set up and hits a weaker shot:


Sharapova hits a forehand slice just to keep the ball in play (YouTube)

Being able to hit good shots when you're not in control of a point separates good players from great players. Being able to hit excellent shots when you're not in control of a point puts you in elite company. Rafael Nadal and Novak Djokovic are both great at hitting amazing shots while on the defensive, and turning the tide of the point:


Nadal-Djokovic from the US Open (Eurosport via YouTube)

Why players grunt

One of the less understood facets of professional tennis, particularly in the women's game, is the rise of grunting. Not just grunting, but straight up screaming:

This originated with Monica Seles and has trickled down into seismic screams by top-ranked female players like Maria Sharapova, Victoria Azarenka, and Serena Williams. Some of that screaming is gamesmanship. It's annoying, and it can irritate opponents.

And a scream could, if loud enough, muffle the sound when the ball is struck. That's important, since the sound of the ball coming off the racket can alert a player not just to what kind of spin is on the ball, but also how hard it is hit.

The grunting is also psychological. It helps with a player's routine, and gets them into a groove. "It's a conditioned association with the shot. The subconscious likes patterns and habits. That's how we learn skills and behavior," Louise Ellis, a sports psychologist, told The Telegraph. "Basically, they perform more with the subconscious than over thinking consciously," she added.

Who to keep an eye on

On the women's side, Serena Williams is still the woman to beat. Sharapova is out, as are Simona Halep and Petra Kvitova, the second and third seeds in the women's draw. Even though Williams has shown that she is human in recent years, none of the women left in the draw have the big-game experience that she does.

An interesting name to keep in mind is Canada's Eugenie Bouchard, the seventh seed in the tournament. Bouchard, should she advance, would meet Williams in the semifinals. And she could, if Williams is having an off-day, present some troubles. Bouchard excels at being mentally tough and consistent.

Bouchard, at the bottom of the GIF, plays Simona Halep at Indian Wells. (YouTube)

"There's nothing in her game that would frighten me — except when you combine all her skills with her mental toughness, her appearance on the court to be in control of her emotions," Pam Shriver, a former US pro, told The New York Times.

On the men's side, Novak Djokovic, Roger Federer, and Andy Murray are still in the tournament. These past Grand Slam winners have to be the major favorites. But the player to keep an eye on is third-seeded Stan Wawrinka. Wawrinka has the capability to make brilliant shots, and he won the Australian Open earlier this year:


Wawrinka hits a winner past Rafael Nadal at this year's Australian Open (Australian Open TV)

Don't feel bad for the losers

On Monday, men's and women's fourth-round (or "round of 16") matches will be played. There will be losers in each of the matches. Those losers will take home $187,300 (US), which is about as much as the average chief executive in the US gets paid per year.

For Monday's schedule, head on over to the US Open site.

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