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The ESPN3 Chronicles: A 2-on-1 tennis match is sad, unfair, and must-watch

World Team Tennis had one woman to play tennis against two women in an important match, forcing her to glare as balls she wasn't allowed to return rolled slowly past her.

We've watched a World Team Tennis game already as part of The ESPN3 Chronicles. It's a weird variant on a sport, with a lot of the rules of tennis but a lot of rules that are intentionally different than the tennis we're used to. But this takes the cake kake for weirdness: a game of doubles with just three people:


Tonight was the Eastern Conference Championships of World Team Tennis, a sport you and I and everybody else have probably not heard of. It pitted the Washington Kastles -- three-time defending champs, also a team whose name is "The Kastles" -- against the Philadelphia Freedoms -- a team whose name is "Freedoms."

The women's doubles portion of the evening pitted young star Taylor Townsend and Liezel Huber of the Freedoms against Martina Hingis and Anastasia Rodionova of the Kastles. In the middle of one of the games, Townsend dinged Huber in the back of the head with a forehand.

Huber tried to keep playing, but it was pointless. She eventually wound up, tears in her eyes, on the sidelines:


After a few minutes, everybody realized she couldn't resume play.

In a normal tennis match, this would be over. Huber and Townsend would retire, and the winning squad would advance to the next round.

But this isn't normal tennis: the winner of the game is the team that has won the most games after five sets of tennis -- men's and women's singles, men's and women's doubles, and mixed doubles. The set had to be played to completion. Except there was no substitution.

So when it came time to continue, Townsend took the court, all alone, against two players:


If Townsend were merely asked to play 2-on-1, that would've been unfair enough, on account of two people playing against one person. It'd be like a power play in hockey, or a game of soccer after a red card, except, you, know, harder, since 2-on-1 is a much bigger disadvantage than 6-on-5 or 11-on-10.

But the rules were even more stacked, because the quirky rules that make doubles tennis doubles tennis -- for example, the ability to hit into the doubles alleys -- were not waived. Townsend had to cover the whole impossibly large court.

In regular doubles, each player can only return on their side of the court, to prevent teams from always putting the stronger returner deep to play the serve. In 2-on-1 World Team Tennis, this remains true, except one of the people is a ghost.

Half of the serves were one team serving to a player who was literally not allowed to return the serve.

Townsend tried to create a distraction, but to no avail:

At one point, the team with two players faulted, at which point they realized they didn't need to bother with the overhand service gig -- they could just serve underhand as Townsend sadly watched the ball dribble by:

Regular doubles tennis also mandates you switch service games so the stronger server doesn't always get to serve, but there was no partner, so Townsend also had to forfeit every time Huber's turn to serve came up. That's right: not only did she give up half of her opportunities to return the opponent's serve, she also gave up half her serves, making the vast majority of the points in these games blank serves to nobody.

At first, Townsend laughed at the odds against her, helplessly shrugging:


But she fought back, and eventually won a few points despite being very literally outmanned. Even though she was the road team, the Washington fans cheered her gutsy play on:

Townsend would lose every single game she played 2-on-1, and her team would lose the overall match 21-15. That sends the Kastles to the World Team Tennis finals, thanks in part to the huge boost provided by a large chunk of games being played by two people against one person.

I think in all my years watching sports, this is the least fair set of rules I've ever seen. On the one hand, you shouldn't doink your partner in the middle of a game. On the other hand, there should be some way of bypassing these games or replacing a player to prevent this pointless, weird play.

On a third hand, this is World Team Tennis, and, well, a world where World Team Tennis matches make sense is less fun than a world where I watch this weird, weird, weird sport and go "WHY ARE THEY DOING THAT?" as part of a series about how weird ESPN3 is, so, I guess I'm OK with it.