R.I.P., Good Idea

Thursday, April 25, 2013 /by
Wikimedia Commons
Wikimedia Commons

The rain in Spain stays mainly in the plain. So much for another urban legend, as Barcelona was deluged with rain today, forcing the postponement of numerous matches, including a promising tussle between Rafael Nadal and French head case Benoit Paire.

Paire is one of those guys, like Alexandr Dolgopolov, who likes to throw away the book when it comes to shot selection. He’ll go for the crazy-hopeless drop shot any time, from anywhere on the court, and he doesn’t care what you think about it. Watching him reminds me that tennis is a sport choc-a-bloc with received truths that you challenge at your peril, lest you incur the wrath of stakeholders great and small, anonymous as well as famous.

My favorite among these is the idea, handed down from generation to generation, that to serve the ball underhanded is a crime against sportsmanship. Hooey, I say. I continue to predict that one day we’ll see a player—probably one with a humongous serve—who will learn and use the underhand, drop-shot serve with devastating effect. I spent half my adult life thinking about Andy Roddick throwing in an underhand serve while his opponent waits, five meters behind the baseline.

And I think we’re in, what, the fourth decade of the battle to eliminate the let serve? Is there anything as inexplicable as having the let rule apply to one stroke, but not the rest of them; to the first shot of a point, but not the rest? For you Zen rangers: If you served the ball with a forehand, like some have had to do while cramping or injured, and it hit the net but fell in, should it still be called a let?

The last time the idea was floated to eliminate the let serve, the ATP guys raised such a hue and cry that the administrators dropped the idea swiftly and ran from the hills. Institutions of higher learning are above all this—they have happily and successfully eliminated the let serve in NCAA college matches and World TeamTennis, with no ensuing catastrophe. And both the USTA and the ITF allow sanctioned tournaments to play it either way.

The guardians at the gates of tradition are a pretty enthusiastic lot, ready to howl at any talk of change. Thus, a lot of good ideas in tennis have either fallen by the wayside, or were never given a chance from the start. Ion Tiriac’s blue clay experiment in Madrid last year was but the latest example. Long before anyone experienced the material’s playing properties or shortcomings, the outcry against it was resounding—all because the color was blue, not the familiar brick red.

Yet I don’t recall a brouhaha over the hard courts going to blue at the Grand Slams in Melbourne or New York, even though for decades, all outdoor hard courts were pale green with the surrounding “out” area brick red. That color scheme, with its psychological nod to the two main natural surfaces (red clay and green grass) was pleasing and sensible. And the scientifically proven argument that the ball is easier to see on television against a blue background only goes so far: It was as true of the blue clay in Madrid as the hard court in Melbourne, so how come the enormous controversy at one and not the other?

For many fans, blue clay was an idea that started out bad and ended up horrible by the time the last ball was hit. But it wasn’t the first experiment that didn’t work out the way its backers hoped.

The chorus of persistent voices calling for drastic changes in the Davis Cup format (generally, they clamor for the competition to be held in one place over a continuous period, like the Olympic Games) need to be careful what they wish for. One of the things the ITF tried in order to boost the appeal (and pro participation rate) for Fed Cup was exactly what so many Davis Cup reformers see as the magic bullet. Starting in 1992, the Fed Cup was played in one location—Frankfurt, Germany—for three years.

The format was reduced to two singles and one doubles match (instead of the conventional four singles and a doubles) for each mini-tie. The competition brought 32 teams under one roof and the competition was all played out in the span of a week.

The ITF had high hopes, given that Steffi Graf was the toast of tennis at the time, but crowds never materialized and the overloaded schedule (just check out the draw) was brutal on players from nations whose singles players also made up the doubles team. The ITF embraced the familiar, five-rubber Davis Cup’s format in 1995 and has used it in Fed Cup ever since.

The Grand Slam Cup was another idea that once seemed to have legs. It was created by the ITF in 1990 (and promoted by Tiriac) out of fear that the ATP, with its year-end Masters tournament (now called the ATP World Tour Finals), would unacceptably weaken the Grand Slams. The Grand Slam Cup brought together the top performers in the four majors, determined on a points basis, in the fall in Munich, Germany.

The top prize was a whopping $2 million USD—by far the richest purse in tennis to that point (John McEnroe described the payout as “obscene”). The tournament lasted for nine years, capitalizing, like the Fed Cup, on the German tennis boom created by Grand Slam champions Graf, Boris Becker, and Michael Stich. But it became clear as time went on, and German interest (and money) abated, that with a tour championships that already incorporated Grand Slam results, the Cup was a luxury. It lasted for nine years, though.

Other innovations that fell by the wayside include the steel racquet (as personified by Jimmy Connors’ signature Wilson T-2000), the two-tone, orange-and-yellow tennis ball (it was never approved for pro play, despite claims about its greater visibility), spaghetti-stringing (that system of double-stringing was outlawed swiftly), no-ad scoring, and tennis courts made of Astro-turf-like synthetic grass, partially covered with sand.

Don’t laugh—those courts were seriously considered when Tennis Australia decided to move the Australian Open from Kooyong to Melbourne Park, and that made a certain amount of sense, given the great Aussie grass-court tradition. But they were determined to be too slippery and conducive to injury.

Innovation in tennis can be hard to sell, often for excellent reasons, but critics are wrong when they confuse the way tennis tends to cling to certain traditions with a conscious effort by officials to ignore the need to change and adapt to new times. I can think of four major innovations that have changed the face of tennis remarkably in the span of a single generation:

First, the tiebreaker. Can anyone doubt that it has greatly enhanced the game on a week-to-week basis, and perhaps enhanced interest in those “throwback” weeks when it’s not employed in the final set? This was an enormous change—very few other major sports have embraced so fundamental a change in the nature of how the game is played and scored.

Forget what the wood racquet sentimentalists say—the racquet-and-string technologies that have come on line, starting with the changes in racquet head-size, have profoundly affected the game. Would anyone really suggest that the game isn’t as competitive, or as riveting a spectator experience, as it once was?

The electronic line-calling system, better known as Hawk-Eye, has been remarkable. Best of all, relatively foolproof electronic technology has not “de-humanized” the game by making officials (and exchanges of opinion) obsolete. It has enhanced the drama of a match, added an element of tension each time a replay is called for, and eliminated grotesquely bad, irreversible calls.

Lastly, the embrace of the match tie-break in doubles, while heretical and sad in the eyes of doubles aficionados, has helped the tandem game simply by making it less of a drag on the singles game. Because officials now know that a doubles match can’t go on forever, they feel safer scheduling doubles to precede key singles matches. Thus, there’s a reasonable chance that the seats along the court will be occupied for the long-ignored doubles specialist.

Given the scope of these sweeping changes, is it asking too much to eliminate the let serve? Pretty please?

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