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From Quidditch to the Davis Cup

Good tournaments need good rules.

Nothing spoils a sporting contest more than an unfair outcome caused by flawed rules. 

I’m not just talking about individual incidents in a sport, such as technology failing to correct a referee who has clearly made a wrong decision. 

Sometimes the whole structure of the contest is wrong.

One of the worst offenders is Quidditch.  The aim of the game is to score more points than your opponent.  There are two ways to get points.  You get 10 points for a goal, and 150 points for catching the snitch, at which point the game finishes.  But the value of catching the snitch is so high that in almost every Quidditch game, goals are irrelevant.   I wonder how often JK Rowling regretted in later books that she’d come up with such a disproportionate scoring system before her books and sport got off the ground.

Back in muggledom, there are other contests that are badly structured, so that the ‘wrong’ teams get much further than ought to be possible.   And one of the worst offenders is the Davis Cup, the international team tournament in tennis. 

I’ve not paid that much attention to the Davis Cup in the past, mainly because Britain has always languished in the lower tiers.   But this weekend there have been huge celebrations because Team GB won the cup for the first time since 1936.  What’s more, Team GB are now ranked Number 1 in the world. 

It was a great contest, but despite this success I don’t think many people really believe that GB has the world’s best tennis team.  What we have is Andy Murray, one of the best tennis players in the world. 

The problem comes from the way that Davis Cup contests are run.  A country picks a squad of four players to play five matches - four singles and one doubles.  Win three of the five matches and you win the contest. 

But the huge anomaly is that your best player is allowed to play in three matches – two singles and a doubles match.  This means that if you have a player who is brilliant in both formats (like Andy Murray), then that player can play two singles (which he’ll win) and the doubles (which he will win if he has a decent doubles partner).  So a single player can win the necessary three points without the third and fourth team members ever being needed.  In other words, Team GB could have won the Davis Cup with a team comprising Andy Murray, Jamie Murray, me and my mother in law.  And with due respect to my mother in law, I don't think that would be regarded as a particularly strong team on the world stage.

I’m all for tradition in sport, but the traditional Davis Cup format has just been shown up for all its flaws.  Well done Andy Murray and your supporting GB team for winning the Davis Cup, but if tennis wants this tournament to be taken seriously as a measure of team strength, in future no player should be allowed to play more than two matches.