Crunch the numbers: The TJ tennis team makes the grade

Numbers don’t lie, especially in the case of the Thomas Jefferson High School boys tennis team.

The Raiders have won five of the last six South Puget Sound League South Division championships and 27 of their last 28 matches in the 10-team league.

But the number-crunching goes even deeper.

Six players on the eight-man varsity lineup at TJ are also some of the best “mathletes” in the United States. Zach Bunting, Kenny Fritschy, Jewel Sharpe, Tim Zitzer, Sam Yi and Chris Yoon make up a good portion of the TJ Math Team, which won the Washington State Mu Alpha Theta State Math Competition last year and finished up fourth in the nation.

What are the odds?

Better than average, I guess. But I don’t claim to be a mathlete.

Tennis and math aren’t two things that seem to go together, on the surface. Peanut butter and jelly, peaches and cream and the Captain and Tenille are perfect matches. But, taking a closer look, tennis and math have plenty in common.

“I definitely think being good at math helps with their tennis games,” Jefferson head tennis coach Andrew Buchan said. “The individual nature of both of them and the concentration both take are keys to being successful. It’s pretty amazing how many of my kids are also on the math team.”

The TJ mathletes compete in several “meets” during the school year in various fields of mathematics, including geometry, algebra, trigonometry and calculus. The competitions usually include two or three individual tests and whoever gets the most right, wins.

Kind of like a tennis match.

“I don’t know how much math helps with tennis,” said Bunting, one of the top mathletes at TJ and has a 27-0 tennis record during the last two regular seasons. “But a lot of us like to do both.”

Why? I asked.

“I don’t know,” Bunting said.

So now, that investigative reporting class I took in college kicks in. Here’s my hypothesis (math term) and remember I’m just a sports reporter.

The game of tennis is filled with numbers that nobody really understands — 15-love, 40-15 — and the most basic application of math in the sport of tennis is the addition of cumulative points until you get enough to win the game and the addition of cumulative games (first player to win six) until you win the set.

There’s more — geometric angles.

An important math concept within a tennis match is the tactic of splitting the angle of possible returns. Draw an imaginary angle on the court where the apex is your opponent and the lines stretching into your court represent the widest shots your opponent can hit and still keep the ball in play (deep breath here). If you position yourself in the middle of this angle you are in the best position to return any shot he hits. The closer you are to the net the less room he has to pass you.

Bunting and the rest of his teammates have been acing this test. The Raiders are well-known around the SPSL as solid net players.

But there’s more — physics.

The most complex ways math is involved in tennis are related to physics. They deal with the spin — top, back and side — of the ball that can modify its trajectory and keep it in the court. Another way physics is involved is the string tension in the racket. Looser strings make the ball come off the racket with more power than tighter strings. Finally, the surface material of the court affects the bounce and spin of the ball. Grass makes the ball skid rather than leaping up in the air. Clay causes the ball to bounce higher and slower. Hard courts are in between.

Is my hypothesis proven yet? Are math and tennis tied at the hip? Can I, too, be a mathlete?

“I really don’t think the two go together,” Bunting said after about a second-and-a-half of thought.

TJ math coach Tom Norris agrees. “I don’t think so. But you never know.”

Well, I gave it my best shot.

Sports editor Casey Olson: 925-5565,

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