This year marks the 50th anniversary of TENNIS Magazine's founding in 1965. To commemorate the occasion, we'll look back each Thursday at one of the 50 moments that have defined the last half-century in our sport.
“It’s eerie what the tiebreakers do,” Arthur Ashe said at the 1970 U.S. Open. “Those red flags are out and the crowd is absolutely silent.”
Once upon a time, in that briefly freewheeling era of tennis known as the early ‘70s, scarlet banners were periodically furled and unfurled across the lawns at Forest Hills. As Ashe said, whenever one went up, the tension around the court escalated with it. When they saw one, fans knew that a set had reached 6-all, and it was time for Sudden Death.
In case anyone didn’t get the idea, the banners came with the letters S and D emblazoned across them in white. In between, in smaller type, was a logo that consisted of a V crossed with an A. Those letters were harder to make out, but they were every bit as significant. They stood for Van Alen. Jimmy Van Alen, to be precise, the man who had labored for close to two decades to make his dream of Sudden Death—or what we now refer to, in these rhetorically safer times, as the tiebreaker—a reality.
The color of the flags was appropriate, because the tiebreaker represented one of the first and only true revolutions in tennis history. Known as the “Newport Bolshevik,” Van Alen was, as the term suggests, an unlikely rebel. The son of Daisy Astor Van Alen Brughiere, he grew up in a Newport mansion with servants in the kitchen, suits of armor standing guard in the foyer, and a Rolls-Royce parked in the driveway. But it was precisely his high standing within the amateur tennis establishment that gave this “paunchy character in burgundy suede shoes and a matching complexion,” as Bud Collins described him, a chance to change the game so radically from within.
Van Alen spent his youth playing tennis on the grass courts and waltzing on the verandah at the Newport Casino, a Gilded Age country club designed by Stanford White. As an adult he naturally assumed tournament-director duties at the amateur event known as the Men’s Invitational, which was staged there each summer.
In 1954, the two finalists at Newport, Ham Richardson and Straight Clark, made Van Alen rue the day he had invited them to his beloved Casino. On the afternoon of their match, the most highly anticipated event wasn’t the singles; it was the doubles final that was supposed to follow, and which featured two Aussie up-and-comers named Lew Hoad and Ken Rosewall. While the crowd waited impatiently, Richardson and Clark engaged in a war of serving attrition that finally ended with a 6-3, 9-7, 12-14, 6-8, 10-8 Richardson victory. As they were plodding toward their conclusion, Van Alen, whose face had gone from burgundy to purple, was forced to switch Hoad and Rosewall to an outside court, where most of the crowd stood to watch. The Newport Bolshevik had seen enough.
“It struck me,” Van Alen said, “that there had to be a better, more exciting way to control the length of matches without those damnable deuce sets. Matches like that are Chinese water torture for players, court officials, and fans alike.”
With that, Van Alen set out on a quixotic quest to eliminate deuce and introduce sane scheduling to his sport. “With deuce in there,” he said, “matches are theoretically interminable. You ought to be able to schedule tennis matches at specific times like any other sport.”
Van Alen began by inventing what he called VASSS, the Van Alen Simplified Scoring system; contrary to its name, it was a long-running, ever-mutating experiment in how to speed up and energize the game. Even the meaning of Van Alen’s acronym changed over the years, with “Streamlined” replacing “Simplified.”
Tennis players and Van Alen’s old-guard peers didn’t share his enthusiasm. To them, deuce was a symbol of civilization. Endless sets may have been water torture, but they were part of the game, and part of what made it a fair test of skills. Deuce lengthened matches, but it also kept blind luck at bay; with it, if you took care of your serve, you were never out of a match. Even to consider eliminating deuce made Van Alen a traitor to his sport, if not his class. Après deuce, le déluge.
Finally, after 11 years of rejection, Van Alen went where no amateur official had dared go before: To the enemy, the pros. In the summer of 1965, he dangled $10,000, a small fortune in tennis terms at the time, in front of 10 professionals—Rod Laver, Ken Rosewall, Pancho Gonzalez, Cliff Drysdale, Pancho Segura among them—and allowed them back onto the hallowed grass at Newport, all so he could try out his VASSS system on them. A few weeks later and a mile or two down the road, Bob Dylan would shock the 60s youth-culture faithful by going electric at the Newport Folk Festival. Jimmy Van Alen, who trucked floodlights and an electric scoreboard into the Casino for the first time, did the same thing to Newport’s amateur-tennis faithful.
“The Guinea Pig Derby,” was what one player dubbed his event, and there was little that remained familiar to those 10 veteran pros, or the fans who watched them. “Matches” were the first to 31 points, and were meant to last no longer than half an hour. The remote-controlled electric scoreboard, the first ever used in tennis, not only tallied the score, it kept track of how much money each player had accumulated—every point was worth $5. Van Alen had not only eliminated deuce, he had done away with the age-old idea that some points are more important than others in tennis.
“Every point has definite worth,” Van Alen said, “and each is equally important.”
“It was amusingly more crass than even today’s scoreboard messages,” Collins wrote. “It was like playing with five dollar bills wadded up into spheres.”
In the end, the cream rose to the top: Laver walked out of the Casino with the biggest haul, $1,774. But the real winner was Van Alen, who used the tournament to invent and refine the only lasting innovation of his VASSS system, the tiebreaker. At first he called it an “extra game,” and used it when the players reached 30-30—the first player to five won the match. The following year, when one of those extra games reached 4-4, the players looked up into the bleachers and asked, much to the amusement of the spectators, “What do you we do now, Mr. Van Alen?” Van Alen declared that the next point would decide the winner. Sudden Death, in which it was possible for both players to have a match point simultaneously, was born.
Four more years passed before the USLTA agreed to give VASS a chance. What finally brought officials at the U.S. Open around? Television, naturally. The TV set, by inspiring new yellow balls and brighter clothes, had already changed the all-white sport's relation to color. Now it would change its relation to time.
Before television and the prize money that came with it, it hardly mattered when a tennis match began or ended. By the end of the 60s, with millions tuning in around the world, it mattered a great deal. U.S. Open tournament director Bill Talbert, who said he liked the “definite cutoff” that a tiebreaker provided, installed Sudden Death in 1970 over the male players’ strenuous objections. They weren’t going to watch their eternal haven, deuce, go up in smoke without a fight.
“I feel like I’m getting a heart attack playing the tiebreaker,” Gonzalez said.
“Extraordinarily nerve-wracking,” echoed Drysdale.
“Never been in anything like that before,” a bewildered Rosewall said after he losing a match on a 4-all point.
The players petitioned Talbert to drop Sudden Death before it brought them to an early grave. Thankfully, Talbert, who foresaw the tiebreaker’s appeal not just to network executives, but to the new fans that the sport was attracting, had the final say.
“Players don’t buy tickets,” he said.
With that, Jimmy Van Alen, unlikely rebel, had succeeded in bringing about one of the few rules changes in tennis’s long history. Still, even the imprimatur of the Open wasn’t enough to convert everyone to Newport-style Bolshevism.
To Van Alen’s eternal dismay, Rod Laver, who felt that Sudden Death was just a little too sudden, helped devise what was originally known as the Philadelphia Version of the tiebreaker (it was debuted at the Philadelphia Indoor event). First to seven, win by two, was more acceptable to Laver and his fellow players, and that’s the version we use today. “Lingering death,” was Van Alen’s disparaging nickname for it. Deuce, he complained until his death in 1991, had been smuggled back into the game..
Yet all of us who play and watch tennis today owe the man a debt: He took the water torture of endless deuce out, and replaced it with the tightrope-walk known as a tiebreaker. Van Alen, in a term he would appreciate, left the game VASSS-tly improved.