Wednesday, June 23, 2010

Long tennis matches and case-based rulemaking

My interest in sports law always has been about sports-as-law; that is, what can sports tell us about law, legal rules, and legal systems. The latest example is the epic early-round match at Wimbledon between American John Isner (who at 6'9" also has the distinction of being the tallest player around) and Frenchman Nicolas Mahut. After ten hours of play, the two are tied 59-59 in the fifth set (which itself has lasted more than seven hours). Play was suspended because of darkness and will resume tomorrow. [Update: They played for about another hour today, with Isner finally prevailing 70-68, which means that just today's portion of the match was an extended no-tiebreak set]

Wimbledon (like the French and Australian Opens, but unlike the U.S. Open) does not allow for fifth-set tiebreakers, so the set continues until someone wins two straight games (with a break of service). This rule has provided some great historical moments--the 8-6 fifth set between Bjorn Borg and John McEnroe in the 1980 Men's Finals or the 16-14 fifth set between Roger Federer and Andy Roddick in last year's Final. But it also creates ridiculous moments such as this one. Neither player is close to breaking the other's serve (Isner has 98 aces, Mahut 95), so no one is close to winning two straight games. Actually, this match may highlight why many believe grass tennis is obsolete, at least for men--serves are just too overwhelming and breaks are extremely rare. Both players actually are playing well--lots of winners, few unforced errors. But that is because their serves are so dominant that service points tend to be short, with that dominance exaggerated by the speedy grass surface.

So here is my rule-based quesion: How likely is it that Wimbledon will move to a final-set tiebreaker in the wake of this match? And should the change be made? This illustrates the problem of case-based rulemaking, which is the norm in U.S. (and probably most) legal cultures.

Legal rules generally are made within a particular factual setting. This is obvious where courts make rules (common law or constitutional) in the course of resolving an actual case or controversy. But it also is true for legislative bodies making prospective rules of general applicability, because they usually act with a particular event, case, or situation in mind. The problem with case-based decisionmaking (as Fred Schauer and Richard Zeckhauser argue) is that the case which leads to the rule often is an outlier, an extreme, unusual, unrepresentative case; thus the legal rule that results, enacted in response to those unique outlier facts, may not be the optimal rule for the ordinary situation. This is particularly true for legislative rulemaking, because legislators tend to act, often too quickly and often in something of a moral panic, in response to, and to take care of, the latest high-interest, notorious story that captures media and public attention, even if that story is unusual and far from any norm, and even if the new rule has unintended consequences.

So what should the powers that be at Wimbledon do? Obviously, the Isner-Mahut match (or anything even close) is unprecedented. Should they change the rules to prevent something like it from happening again, since the chances of that have to be slim? We arguably don't need the rule change to keep this case from arising again; a match such as this is so unusual that it never will happen again on its own. So should a rulemaker make a change to prevent a highly unlikely repeat of this unrepresentative match, at the (unintended) loss of future memorable matches (a la Borg-McEnroe) that do not devolve into the current absurdity?

Note that this does not necessarily speak to the merits of the switch to a fifth-set tiebreaker; maybe that is the appropriate rule (certainly the U.S. Open folks believe it to be), especially in light of the modern grass game. But case-based rulemaking is not only problematic because it may produce the wrong rule, but also because it may produce the right rule for the wrong reasons. In other words, Wimbledon officials must be conscious of all the policy issues and implications in deciding whether a final-set tiebreaker is the "best" rule as a whole. The arguments for change must be more than preventing a notorious-but-unlikely case such as Isner-Mahut from happening again. If that is all they have--if there are not other good reasons for adopting a new rule--they should not do it.