Checking the Mark

Thursday, April 14, 2011 /by

QE2

by Pete Bodo

I've enjoyed writing Racquet Reaction posts these past few days, taking in the seductive ambience and atmosphere of Monte Carlo. The tournament has made significant infrastructural improvements since I was last there, when the only proper seats were at the Court Central and pterodactyls flew overhead, casting giant, sinister shadows across the rust-colored clay.

One thing I would like to see, though, since the "gem of the Mediterranean" appears to be a permanent fixture on the tennis calendar, is a proper stadium court. It would be only fitting, and I'm sure that if you told some prince or count that he could have his name on it (for a "consideration"—we know that Europeans think it gauche to talk about money) things could be worked out. . .

But seriously. The promoters may want to keep alive this notion (and for a long time it was indeed valid) that hosting the tournament is in some measure an act of noblesse oblige, offering the general public a rare opportunity to wander around and enjoy the exclusive confines of the Monte Carlo Country Club. But don't the tournament and venue now deserve something that seems a bit more. . . permanent?

Granted, the Court Central has bucket seats rather than high-school gym style aluminum bleachers, but on the whole it still looks like it was set up to be taken down—like four Lego panels set in a rough square. How about we jazz it up a little, make it a little prettier, a little more integrated with the landscape as well as the immediate surroundings?

This idea is unlikely to fly with any number of people; there's always a significant set who likes things just the way they are. Tennis, more than any other major spectator sport but golf, really values tradition in all its manifestations. That can lead to situations that may border on the bizarre, like the status of Hawkeye at this Rolex Masters event. To wit, Hawkeye clearly is present—or at least available to Tennis Channel and, I presume, other broadcasters—yet it isn't employed on the court.

Thus, any number of times we've seen a player request that the umpire climb down from his high chair to examine a mark and determine whether a given ball was in or out. After the umpire, doing his finest Clouseau imitation, renders his judgment, the television commentators pipe up, "Let's see what Hawkeye has to say!" We then get to see the contested shot as if we were watching the big screen at the U.S. Open, or the O2 Arena only. . . it doesn't matter. It has no bearing on the umpire's decision. I would call this an accident waiting to happen.

If you wanted to look at the upside, you can say we have it both ways: We get the benefit of cutting-edge, definitive line-calling technology plus that much-touted "human element," which in this case could also be termed "tradition." For what is high-caliber, clay-court tennis without umpires jogging to the baseline to examine, sometimes on hands and knees, the mark left by a ball?

So far, I haven't seen an umpire's call that the follow-up Hawkeye review would have overruled. And I'm glad of that. But I shudder to think of what some Federer or Nadal fan would do during a tense final in which his guy was robbed, at least in Hawkeye's view. It would look pretty stupid for the game if the validity—and reliability—of examining a mark to rule on a ball were somehow discredited (and there have been controversies that simply could not occur in the Hawkeye era), yet the process remained the same. It's fair to ask, what would it take to introduce Hawkeye technology to clay?

This odd impasse at which we've arrived is a fitting emblem of how much tennis as an institution prizes and refuses to let go of tradition. To which you might say, Duh!

But I wouldn't take it quite so lightly. After all, two of the Grand Slam events probably went through the same self-examinations as everyone else at the start of the Open era, and opted to abandon tradition, while two continue to cling to it. The U.S. Open and the Australian Open abandoned grass courts in favor of hard. Morover, the U.S. Open tried clay for a three-year period before making the critical decision to play on cement, albeit the kind covered in melted-down old tires. Let no one accuse the USTA of being anti-progressive, right?

One of the more interesting questions this raises is whether Wimbledon or Roland Garros might not be better off if it had also yielded (or buckled?) to the times and changed surface. The very idea is horrific to many, I know, but who's to say the tournaments and their satellite events would have suffered? The U.S. and Australian championships certainly haven't suffered from abandoning grass, although inquiring minds might be curious to see if there's any correlation between the drastic decline of tennis prowess in those nations and the change of surface. Lest you get all fired up about that possibility, bear in mind that despite the recent success of the clay-loving French and Spanish, the British haven't exactly populated the game with titans by keeping the grass, although scowling Andy Murray is a bright star in that dark night.

What has become clear, though, is that Wimbledon and, to a lesser extent, the French Open, have learned to trade on the "unique" nature of the surface on which they're played. And while that isn't enough of a selling point to sustain a fell-fledged grass-court circuit, it's been enough on the continent to keep the entire Euroclay tour not just viable, competitively and commercially, but flourishing.

As different as they are, grass and clay have a few things in common, beginning with the cost of installation and maintenance (although grass is a much more risky and expensive proposition). In some ways, Wimbledon and Roland Garros are like family-run dairy farms here in my part of the world. Nobody in his or her right mind would (or could) decide to start one up. The economics dictate that only those who are already in the business can stay in business, eking out an increasingly unprofitable living but a generally healthy, charming life. When the last child leaves the farm, though, it's over.

Tennis can count itself lucky that the two most prominent equivalents it has to the family dairy farm can not only stay in business, but generate enough economic activity to enrich what you might call an entire region. How long it can last is an interesting question to which we aren't likely to get an answer any time soon, and that's a good thing.

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