Speed thrills, it also kills

It is the game’s great debate. No sooner the game’s premier grass court championship began than the critics and the former players, fans and assorted celebrities, started debating the single most critical issue in the game — is power ruining tennis, especially grass court tennis? While there are as many opinions and suggestions as there are people involved in the debate, the game’s officials are no closer now to arresting the trend than they were a year ago.

Stefan Edberg... combines power and finesse, all too rare these days.   -  Getty Images

Nothing is what it used to be. Well, in an ever-changing world, nothing can be what it used to. If nature’s mighty, irrevocable law is change, then, in the world of sport, the whole process is on fast forward. Before you can so much as get used to yesterday’s revolution, things change all over again today.

Careers are lived out in the span of a few fleeting seasons. Prodigies emerge like spring-fresh leaves and wither away by Fall, in autumnal hurry. Records are made and broken in almost predictable sequence. Indeed, the one great law of sport is nothing will be what it used to be.

 

In the event, most of those who mourn the passing of an era, who are sure in their minds that what is ahead of them can never match, for romance and splendour, what was behind them, are afflicted by a common — yet seemingly incurable — disease. Its name is nostalgia. And it is as widespread in tennis as it is in other sports.

Right now, to an outsider, it would appear that the disease has assumed epidemic proportions in tennis. Everybody is talking about the golden era(s) of the game as opposed to the graphite era or the glass fibre era in which we live now. Everybody is talking about the charm and the artistry of the days when tennis was played with wooden racquets rather than with the weapons made of composite synthetics.

Sitting on the Centre Court at Wimbledon and watching the modern-day gladiators in action, everybody is taking a trip down memory lane, talking lovingly about the magic moments of the Bjorn Borg-John McEnroe finals, of more than 10 years ago.

It is almost as if most people have obliterated the present in their minds while giving up on the future. And we are not talking about merely the older people who are generally susceptible to the disease of nostalgia. Twenty-year-olds who have just come into the game are seized by the issue being debated.

In the event is there more to all this than just nostalgia? Why are all these people — young and old — recalling the glorious past and are cynical about the present? And why does this happen especially at Wimbledon? What is happening to the game that makes what should actually be nostalgia seem more like a reaction to a serious disease than a disease in itself?

Well, what is happening is that the game is being taken over by the power merchants and the take-over and its effects have had a greater influence on Wimbledon, on its fast grass courts, than at any other Grand Slam venue. And this is the reason why the great debate on power tennis reaches a crescendo during the Wimbledon fortnight.

The increase in the overall speed of the game especially on grass courts and on some synthetic surfaces, and the way tennis is being dominated on these surfaces by the big-serving giants while losing its entertainment value are indisputable facts of the <FZ,1,0,19>modern game.

Height is right 

The players are bigger and stronger — on the opening day of this year’s Wimbledon, the shortest man in action on the centre court was the Italian, Stefano Pescosolido, who stands an inch over six feet — and racquet technology has conspired to give the bigger and stronger men an enormous advantage.

An obvious corollary of the increase in the speed of the game is the death — or, at least, grave illness — of artistry and the loss of romance.

What the new racquets and the giants who wield them with as much flair as mad axemen have done is to strip the game of spectacle, of much of its drama and its subtle elements, of almost all that made tennis a lovable spectator sport.

“There are too many big servers in the game today,” says Cliff Drysdale, the former South African player who is now a TV commentator. “About 50 per cent of the points were won on serve or return at Wimbledon last year. People aren’t interested in coming to watch that kind of tennis,” he says.

If the turnstiles at Wimbledon say a different story, then the All England Club must thank its stars, or its tradition. For, people come to Wimbledon merely for the sake of coming to Wimbledon, for being a part of it all. Tennis is just something that happens to be a part of the package.

“Brute strength is becoming more and more the norm in every sport. It’s so boring,” says Brian Johnston, the celebrated broadcaster. At Wimbledon, I much prefer to watch women’s tennis. It’s much more interesting because you have rallies,” he says.

Drysdale and Johnston are not the only ones who feel that the men’s tennis on grass has lost its charm. Even the man who stunned the field with his service power last summer to win the title, Michael Stich, agrees that something has to be done to revive the romance. Says Stich: “The game can become boring when you have two big servers just pounding away at each other.”

If service power is at the centre of the debate at Wimbledon, then power in all its dimensions is the subject of discussion when it comes to the synthetic surfaces. There was an animated and fascinating debate on the subject recently in the International Tennis Federation’s ‘Speed of the Game’ forum at Miami.

Several suggestions, including the change in the ‘let’ service rule as well as a reduction in the service area and a return to the old foot fault rule and the possible use of different balls for different surfaces, were debated. But nothing concrete has been done so far to attack the problem.

Goran Ivanisevic... slams the ball with enormous force.   -  Getty Images

 

But everyone seems certain that something should be done soon. In a recent ATP tournament final at Stuttgart, Goran Ivanisevic, who is 6 ft. 4 in. tall, fired 50 unreturnable serves at Stefan Edberg, 32 of them being aces. “It wasn’t boring so much as frustrating,” said Edberg after the match. For the spectators, however, it must have been both boring and frustrating.

If you think that is just a one-off situation, consider this: it has been established through research that in the 1970s points lasted 3.8 seconds on average in the Wimbledon men’s finals. The figure for the last two years is 2.7. Seldom do points extend beyond the serve, the return and the first volley.

“The men’s competition is in danger of losing its entertainment value,” says Arthur Ashe, a commentator for HBO TV now. “Still I cannot imagine Wimbledon without grass. But just look at the tennis these days.... there are no drop shots anymore,” he says.

Grass  should go

But John Lloyd, the best British player of the 1980s is sure in his mind that “grass should go maybe in the future.” He says he prefers to watch women’s tennis at Wimbledon. “They should have seen it coming when they allowed these new racquets. They should have put a top on it like they did in golf,” says Lloyd.

If the racquets made of high composite materials have done a lot to help players obtain power, then the effects are more stunning when tall, strong men use these racquets to blast serves. Tennis is not basketball, really, but it has moved towards the taller men in the last 20 years.

Twenty years ago, soon after the computer rankings system was introduced, only four players in the top 10 were over six feet tall. In the list of men’s rankings released on the first day of the ongoing Wimbledon championships, there is only one man under six feet. But Michael Chang, the exception, is a remarkable athlete who compensates for lack of inches with tremendous mobility and superb reflexes. And there are not too many of his kind around in today’s game.

The result of the power revolution is that there will be very little scope for an artist like Nastase or McEnroe to make it to the top in the men’s game in the future.

It is not as if the ITF and the ATP are not aware of the direction in which the men’s game is headed. Following the Miami forum, the ITF has called for a management committee meeting next month where several suggestions will be considered to curb the increasing importance of power.

Among the suggestions that are expected to be debated are:

A return to the old (pre-1959) foot-fault rule, which will require players to keep one foot on the ground during the service action. Players like Edberg and Becker, who make contact with both feet off the ground and are actually inside the court at the moment of contact, will be in trouble if the old rule comes back. But this option will only have a partial effect.

A reduction in the service area. Servers will have to worry about accuracy and will be willing to sacrifice some of the power to keep the ball in the box. Players like John McEnroe favour this option.

Service should be made from a point behind the baseline. This will certainly take away a bit of power from the serves.

Introducing slower and heavier balls for the faster surfaces and faster and lighter balls for the slower surfaces.

A return to the old wooden racquets, or at least regulating technological development in the production of racquets.

Raising the height of the net.

Of course, these are just some of the many suggestions that have come up for discussions in the ITF and ATP council rooms and among the players and critics. There are several others such as doing away with the second serve, a suggestion that first came from the former ITF President Philippe Chatrier.

The problem is not only how to curb the influence of power but also how effectively this can be done without affecting the interests of the players who have got used to a certain set of rules and a certain technology. Also the spectators’ interests should be protected. After all, pro tennis is a huge entertainment industry today.

“I would like to see a return to the old foot fault rule — feet on the ground and behind the line until after impact,” says Fred Perry, the last Englishman to win Wimbledon. Such a rule will affect not only the top players of the day but also the millions of youngsters who will find it very difficult to adjust to the change. Predictably, there is opposition from the players. Says Becker: “The game has been played with the same laws for 100 years and if you ask the players they don’t have any problems with big serves. If you start changing the rules, where do you stop? Why should players who serve well lose their advantage?”

If the older players like McEnroe, as well as some of the younger ones who rely on touch or speed, do not agree with Becker entirely, then so be it. But where is the compromise?

The point is, there is more to this great debate than an attitude of you-know-it-was-better-in-the-good-old-days. And men’s tennis on the faster surfaces is nothing to rave about these days.

Looking back, this writer would say that the authorities lacked foresight in the early 1980s. They should not have permitted the change from wooden racquets.

Then again, women’s tennis is so much better, qualitatively, after the introduction of the graphite racquets. So where does that leave us?

Right in the thick of it all. And, welcome to the Great Debate. 

This article was published in The Sportstar on July 4, 1992.