Breaking Tradition

by: Steve Tignor | July 09, 2014

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There’s only one thing that never changes at Wimbledon: The myth that it never changes. It’s hard to think of another event in any sport that has mastered the art of updating and renewing itself, while continuing to appear as if it takes no notice of the outside world at all. Yes, they still serve the same Robinson’s barley water and strawberries and cream, and yes, officials doubled-down on the all-white rule in 2014; but this year the tournament also showed off a blueprint of the sleek-looking retractable roof it’s planning to build over Court 1. That would give staid old Wimbledon two more roofs than that capitalist trend-setter, the U.S. Open.

After spending the fortnight—is it our fault or Wimbledon’s that we still use that traditional term to describe it?—roaming the grounds, here are five things that could be changed without altering its eternal appeal. Some would be up to the tournament, others would be up to those of us who like to talk about it.


1. Stop complaining about “slow grass”

Novak Djokovic kept his own victory tradition alive this year by taking a bite of the turf; at the same time, he also did a bit of volunteer research on the state of Wimbledon’s grass. “I thought there was a little less grass than it was a few years ago,” he said, comparing the texture to the last time he last time got a taste, in 2011.

Maybe that was a sign that the grass was cut a little thinner this year, though Wimbledon’s officials say they didn’t do anything different to it. Either way, aces were up, and attacking players found success—Raonic, Kyrgios, Kvitova, Bouchard, Dimitrov, Federer, Wawrinka, Lisicki, and Safarova all made the final eight either by bombing big serves or looking to attack from the ground. I don’t think anyone can say the surface was playing like clay or even hard courts, as so many people have claimed over the years.

To me, the grass at Wimbledon, even after it was changed to a hardier all-rye in 2001, has always made for a unique version of tennis, and one that may be the most entertaining of all. It’s just that in the last 10 years, with the rise of Djokovic, Rafael Nadal, and Andy Murray, defense became paramount on all surfaces on the men’s side. That cycle of playing styles could be swinging back the other way; if so, it was given an early preview at this year’s Wimbledon. Hopefully, someday, the railers against rye will notice that change, and applaud it.


2. Get rid of Middle Sunday

Like everyone else who works at Wimbledon, I love its day off. Sometimes I wonder how anyone survives at the other three majors, which have no intermissions. But we do survive, and we would at Wimbledon as well. More important, what’s good for those of us on the grounds is bad for the game and its fans. For two weeks in summer, tennis has the attention of the sporting public around the world, so what do we do right in the middle of that rare span of time? We don’t show any tennis on the biggest sports-watching day of all, a Sunday.

This year the break also came on an even more unfortunate day. After rain backed up play over the first week, the sun trolled us all by shining down on Wimbledon’s empty courts on Middle Sunday. Djokovic, among others, called for a change, but tournament referee Andrew Jarrett countered that the grass needs a day for recovery and watering. If there’s a way to play on that grass for 13 of 14 days, it seems to me that there’s a way to play on it on all 14.  


3. Take former champions' “suggestions” with a grain of salt

The London papers can never get enough of Wimbledon’s colorful former men’s champions. Boris Becker, Pat Cash, John McEnroe, Jimmy Connors: They all have room to spout their opinions in columns, and for the BBC. Which is fine; I enjoy reading them all when I’m there. But do we need to do more with their viewpoints than that? This year, McEnroe said that tennis should “get rid of umpires.” He’s had this (unsurprising) opinion for some time, much like his opinion that we should get rid of doubles players. This year, though, current pros were asked in their press conferences what they thought of Mac’s idea about going ump-less—as if the idea were something that might actually happen. When Ernests Gulbis answered the question, he thought the reporter had said “vampires” instead of “umpires.” Looking back, it was the most appropriate response of all.


4. Mix the men and women together

Typically, Wimbledon features the men and women on separate days as the second week progresses. This year the rain made that impossible, so we were treated to mixed-gender schedules through the quarterfinals. On those days, the biggest strength of the Slams, their dual-gender variety, their mash-up of male and female style and energy, was displayed in a way that should be the norm. The separate-day system is used because the women play their final a day ahead of the men, and officials want to insure that neither finalist has a scheduling advantage over the other. But maybe, if there was play on Middle Sunday...


5. Find a uniformity about when to suspend play

On one court, the match between Ana Ivanovic and Sabine Lisicki was suspended in the vicinity of 9:00 P.M. On another, Madison Keys and Yaroslava Shvedova were still playing after 9:30, and they only stopped when Keys made a mild protest to the chair umpire, who seemed as if she could have been persuaded to go either way. The day before, Tomas Berdych couldn't get anywhere with his umpire about stopping play after 9:15, despite the fact that it was too dark for the replay system to work. This inspired one of the best lines of the fortnight from Berdych: “You’re better than a Hawk-Eye,” he told the umpire, “you can see in the dark.” But it didn’t do much for the players' trust in Wimbledon’s judgment in these situations. 

There's obviously a lot of leeway, and a lot of opportunity for players to sway a chair umpire to do what they want (and get very frustrated when they don’t get what they want). Is there a better system? It’s been suggested that Wimbledon should use light meters, the way cricket does, to provide an objective standard for when it’s too dark to play. More objectivity is a positive, of course, but like a shot clock, would a light meter cause as many problems as it solves? What if the meter goes on at match point? What if it goes on at a moment that’s highly beneficial to one player and disadvantageous for another? Even if you keep the ultimate say-so with the umpire, if play continues when the meter says it shouldn’t, that could lead to even wilder Berdychian rants, and possibly official protests, from the players.

I’d say it’s time to get everyone together, Wimbledon officials, ATP and WTA officials, and players from both tours, to see what can be done to make this a more comprehensible part of the game. Hey, maybe someone will even suggest they put in lights at Wimbledon. Night tennis: Call it a new tradition.

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