Tennis is so wrapped up in its own stupid disputes that nobody ever has time to attend to the game itself. The two major innovations in tennis—open competition and the tie break—were both at least half a century overdue and came about largely because of divine intervention. Had not God put the breath of life, along with an excess of hot air, into James Van Alen and then blessed him with considerable resources so that he could spend most of his time writing bad poetry and hectoring tennis people about endless matches, we would still be suffering through 26-24 marathons. Similarly, had not Lamar Hunt been given a good pitch on a plane ride about investing a few spare dollar bills in an outlandish new round-robin tour, tennis still would be the outdoor drawing-room comedy it was for most of its first 95 years.
It is unlikely that the stars will align so as to grant tennis the blessings of benign intruders like Van Alen and Hunt more than every century or so. And because tennis people seem to be preoccupied with suing each other, boycotting each other and generally comporting themselves like damn fools, it becomes necessary for outsiders, an infidel like myself, to speak up in behalf of the poor game. Forbear, friends. Nothing here will have anything to do with whether Jimmy Connors is right or wrong or whether men or women players are right or wrong. These are just some suggestions to help tennis:
•For example, no other entertainment in the world (with the possible exception of a small-town church raffle) so irritates and antagonizes its supporters with interminable pre-and/ or post-tournament introductions and presentations as tennis. Shut up, already, with the thank yous. Can you see a football game beginning with the general manager coming out and asking everybody to cheer for the ticket sellers? Nobody in tennis who helps run a tournament in any way, shape or form should ever be permitted near a live microphone.
•When a ball is inadvertently hit into the stands, the spectator who catches it should be permitted to retain this prize, as in baseball. The players, poor dears, would just have to get by with one less ball for a few games or have an old one or a new one put in as a replacement. There is nothing more idiotic and grating than asking people to pay $8 a seat to see two millionaires play to split $20,000 in an hour and a half, and then having everybody in tennis throw a fit when one 80¢ (wholesale) ball goes out of play.
April 27, 1975
•In mixed doubles the team with the serve should alternate serves. That is, the man serves the first point, the woman the second, the man the third and so on. The receiving team has the choice: Does it want its man to receive the man's serve and its woman the other woman's or the other way around? This would put more strategy and variety into mixed doubles at all levels and, in the bargain, save a good many marriages.
•The FCC shall make it a terminal offense, punishable by taking a network's license away, if Charlton Heston or James Franciscus are ever again shown watching a professional match. Loss of license for 20 years if Johnny Carson is shown.
•The reason for the tie break is to bring the game to a climax. The most exciting moment in tennis, if not in all sport, is when a match stands tied and the points in the final set are 4-4 (in a nine-point tie break) or 6-6 (in a 13-point tie break). In other sports a result can be determined in the last second, the last play, but only one side—the offense—really controls the outcome. In the double match-point tie break in tennis both sides are offense and defense. It is unique and excruciating.
Because it is so good for the game many people in tennis want it outlawed and all tie breaks settled by two points or more: 8-6, say, instead of 7-6. Many players, and those people who hold their hands, think there is too much riding on just one point.
Many people also think there is a lot riding when it comes to cutting open a sick person. People who think that way never try to become surgeons.
•Put some natural strategy and controversy into the Davis Cup by making the captains decide the order of matches. By tradition the names have been picked out of a hat, which is great if you're holding a lottery. But in a competition? "Seaver, Matlack and Koosman will be my World Series pitchers," says Yogi Berra. "Now let's see which name Nanette Fabray picks out of the hat to start the first game against which of the following three Tammy Grimes selects, Palmer, Cuellar or Grimsley."
The way it should work is this: suppose Australia is meeting the U.S. in Melbourne. First the home-team captain must declare his singles choices. Newcombe and Laver, he says. Now the visiting captain has an edge. Connors (this is all imaginary, remember) is one choice, but does he go with Ashe, who is beating Stockton in practice but is usually a patsy for Laver, in the second spot? The U.S. captain gambles: Ashe.
This has all' taken two days of rising speculation and second-guessing. Attention is way up. The drama is heightened.
Now the Aussie captain has the edge. He gets to pick the first matchup. Does he call for Laver-Ashe and figure to get a sure, quick lead or does he save Laver as a hole card for the last day? Finally he decides he would rather have the Laver-Ashe match (and by process of elimination Newcombe-Connors as well) on the deciding day. He calls for Newcombe-Ashe for the opening match, with Laver-Connors to follow.
After the doubles matches on the second day of play the visiting captain gets his final say, selecting the order of the matches on the final day.
It is nonsense and bad business to let fate play so large a role in any competition as it does in the Davis Cup.
•Celebrity tennis in public, be it staged by Alan King, CBS or the Kennedys, must be outlawed forever.
•No referee should ever chastise an audience for applauding, cheering or gasping during the playing of a point. If professional entertainers cannot perform in public with a little acclaim, well, then, they are not professional and do not deserve to be paid.
•The let should be abolished, in all its misguided forms.
1) The service ball that hits the net, bounds over and lands in court should be in play as are balls that tick the net in rallies. The beautiful thing about the let serve is that it is an aberration in a very symmetrical game. This is good. Games are not supposed to be absolutely perfect. They are supposed to be fun. If a serve hits the net and trickles over, and the receiver can't make a return, that's tough for him. If he does he's got almost a sure point, and that's tough for the server. But either way, a little something extra has been added to the game.
Also, that ridiculous person who sits at tournaments with a finger and an ear on the net would be abolished. Let him go out and listen on the tracks for the Metroliner, if that's his bag.
In doubles either player on the receiving team should be permitted to return a let serve.
2) The other kind of let—the matter of replaying a point that is in dispute. Bush. Hopelessly bush. Here's Mendy Rudolph in the seventh game of the NBA final playoffs after Phil Chenier has scored on a driving layup in the last second to make it 101-100: "Look, guys, we're going to have to play that one over. Jake O'Donnell was closest to the action, but Nate Thurmond obscured his vision a little, and I just can't make up my mind whether it was charging or hacking. So, we'll play a let, O.K.?"
That is no exaggeration; it is a perfect analogy to what happens in tennis. If a linesman's vision is obscured he should appeal to the umpire in the chair (as, in some instances, a baseball umpire will appeal to a colleague). But the responsibility belongs to the particular linesman. If he sees a ball out and both players, the referee and all the fans saw otherwise, the ball is out.
If umpires are going to overrule linesmen, then get rid of linesmen. Better, play each point no matter how tough the call, and get rid of lets.
•At the conclusion of any set it is natural for fans to want to get up, move around, stretch, buy things, talk, shout and go to the bathroom. It is the end of a chapter, a natural time to pause. But according to tennis custom there is no such intermission at the conclusion of a set ending in an even number of total games, such as 6-4 or 7-5. In this case the changeover does not come until the end of the first game of the next set. So all during the game, as normal people follow their normal impulses, the umpire is telling everybody to shut up and sit still, the players are upset, and the play is desultory. It is absolutely the most stupid thing in tennis.
When the set concludes with an even number of games, a break should follow immediately.
Beyond that, since most big-time tennis matches nowadays are played in antiseptic indoor buildings where climate is no factor, it is nonsense to change every other game anyway. A change on every third game would be more logical, with each player permitted to call two time-outs per set between games when a changeover does not take place.
•When tennis players hit an opponent with the ball, unintentionally or otherwise, they could spare us all the phony apologetic weeping and wailing.
•No more best three-of-five-set matches. Too long, waste of time, no good reason for them. If a player can't win in three sets, he shouldn't expect anybody to care if he can win in five or seven or 39.
We've got to act on this one in a hurry, too, because the boys say that the reason the girls don't deserve equal prize money in joint tournaments like Wimbledon and Forest Hills is because the boys play three-of-five and the girls play two-of-three. I say, God bless the girls. But wait, the girls are now saying, O.K., we'll play best-of-five, too.
I once believed that when I died and went to hell, what hell was going to be was having to sit around and watch The Merv Griffin Show all day long. Now I think hell is going to be having to watch Chris Evert hit ground strokes from the baseline for five sets.
If players really believe that the worth of tennis is measured in the length of a match, better we should put taxi meters on the whole lot of them. And all who hold the view that endurance is that important to sport should be forced to sit through one twi-night doubleheader. That would be the last we'd ever hear of best-of-five sets.
The only possible excuse for five-set matches is that they make conditioning a greater factor. O.K., fine. So players pace themselves, throw away sets when they fall behind and stumble through the last set like zombies. Terrific. If endurance turns you on, go watch 'em swim the English Channel. John Newcombe has become nearly legendary as a five-set player, yet the fact of the matter is he is not especially well conditioned. He wins best-of-five sets for the same reason he would win best-of-five points if they played it that way: he adapts himself to prevailing conditions.
The facts speak for themselves: five-set matches are the law of diminishing returns gone wild. I checked out the results of all the men's singles matches at Forest Hills for four different five-year periods: 1921-25, when the modern game began, more or less; 1946-50, when tennis picked up steam again after the war; 1965-69, the last five years of the no-tie-break game; and 1970-74, years of the tie break. If you want to check out the results of other years or the results from Wimbledon or whatever, go ahead. I'm sure they would be much the same.
In the first five-year period, 1921-25, 6.6% of the results were changed because the matches were best-of-five instead of best-of-three. In the postwar period, 1946-50, the figure was 8.6%; in 1965-69 it was 8.5% and in 1970-74 it was 9.1%. The slight increase in changed results from the 1920s may be attributed to the fact that there is more depth now.
As a final example take the Davis Cup Challenge Round (or finals), where by definition there is the closest competition. In the 62 Challenge Rounds played since 1901, you find that 12.4% of the matches would have had a different outcome if played best-of-three instead of best-of-five. This indicates that for all the time and energy expended in playing best-of-five instead of best-of-three, you can never expect, even under the most competitive conditions, to change more than one result in eight. What is the point in all that? If you play 15-inning World Series games or six-period Super Bowls, one out of eight games might indeed end up differently, but so what? Is it worth all the extra time to change so few results and for no good purpose?
But you can be sure that with each and every one of these suggestions tennis will play a let. (And for those of you who want to stop reading and go to the bathroom, now that the article has ended, you must stay in your seat and keep quiet until you've read the first paragraph of the next article.)