OUT WITH THE OLD?
The service let call may have seen its last Wimbledon. Steffi
Graf may have, too
This is an article from the July 6, 1998 issue
"It would be a horrific change," Andre Agassi declared last
week, voicing the opinion of most ATP tour players, and so
another idea for making tennis sleeker, faster and more
TV-friendly got the kiss of death. Is anyone surprised? Only the
International Tennis Federation, which sets the rules of the
game. The ITF arrived at Wimbledon proposing to abolish the
let-cord rule on serves and limped out of the tournament's first
week under a rain of catcalls and rotten tomatoes. That such a
minor rule change could bring either higher ratings or horror is
laughable, but there's no denying the message of the fierce
reaction: On even the small things, this sport is divided to the
point of paralysis.
The male players say they will not allow the change at any ATP
tour event, and some are threatening to boycott the 1999
Australian Open if the rule is introduced there. (The Grand Slam
tournaments are independent of the ATP tour.) The women, too,
hate the proposal, but WTA officials say they'll play no-let if
the ITF insists. Further complicating matters, each Grand Slam
event is free to ignore the proposal, leaving the possibility
that the no-let rule will be imposed at only some or at none of
the Slams. So you could see no-let serving at the ITF-run Davis
Cup, Federation Cup and Olympic tennis competition but nowhere
else at the game's highest level.
The real horror is this: Come January, you could have two
Australian Open tune-ups played with the let and then, in what
ATP tour chief Larry Scott calls a train wreck, no-let at the
Open itself. "Everyone's scratching their heads," says Scott.
"Why this rule change now, when there's no tangible benefit?"
The ITF says use of the no-let rule at international junior and
team matches has cut down on disputes, made play more continuous
and shortened matches slightly. Though ITF figures show an
average of only four lets on serve per match, Agassi and other
ATP players argue that the proposed rule would turn a game
already dominated by big serves into a server's paradise.
Those backing the no-let proposal--mostly network suits and tour
officials--like the spirit behind it. They note that aside from
the tiebreak, introduced in the mid-1970s, tennis is structured
just as it was when Teddy Roosevelt played. "It'd be hard to
imagine another sport where there's been only one major rule
change in 75 years," says WTA chief executive Bart McGuire.
As the no-let blowup shows, tennis has too many competing
interests and is in desperate need of a powerful commissioner.
Meanwhile the shortsighted actions of the sport's four power
blocs--the ITF, the WTA, the ATP and the Grand Slam
tournaments--leave tennis looking drawn and quartered:
overextended, bloodied and going in several directions at once.
Last Friday, ITF communications manager Alun James said chances
are now only 50-50 that the no-let proposal will be voted on
next week at the federation's annual meeting. James is sorry the
proposal has lost support, but he knows the issue is about more
than a new rule. "It's about whether people are prepared to
accept any change at all," he says.
THANKS FOR NOTHING, COACH
Last year Greg Rusedski was the darling of Great Britain, a
Wimbledon quarterfinalist with a massive serve who made it to
the U.S. Open final. This year he seemed a good bet to become
the first Union Jack in 62 years to raise the trophy on Centre
Court. Instead, Rusedski's '98 Wimbledon was an embarrassment.
First, after he strained a ligament in his left ankle on June 12
and kept everyone, including his coach, Tony Pickard, guessing
whether he would play Wimbledon, Rusedski hobbled onto the court
for his first-round match against Australian qualifier Mark
Draper and played like a man on stilts, finally forfeiting while
trailing 4-6, 6-2, 5-4. Afterward, with a grin on his face,
Rusedski revealed that Pickard, the esteemed mentor of Stefan
Edberg, no longer wanted to work with him. "The timing of it is
a little suspect," Rusedski said. "But I guess that just shows a
person's true colors."
Pickard, credited with Rusedski's rise this year from No. 10 to
No. 4, retorted that Rusedski ignored his advice to get
treatment from a tour trainer and to skip Wimbledon. Instead,
the player placed his leg and game in the hands of his
physiotherapist, Reza Daneshmand, and didn't speak to Pickard in
the two days before the tournament began. "There was a total
breakdown in communication," Pickard said last Thursday. "Unless
there's complete trust, it stops working."
It has stopped before with Rusedski. Just before playing the
U.S. Open final, he fired his then coach, Brian Teacher, and
hired Pickard. In the following months Rusedski talked about how
much his new coach had taught him. But not last week. "The
player always makes it," Rusedski said. "The coach can help, but
it's the player at the end of the day."
True colors, indeed.
YES, THE END IS NEAR
Steffi Graf, 29 years old and playing in her first Grand Slam
event in more than a year, lacked the steely will that pushed
her to seven All-England titles and innumerable comebacks. Last
Friday, after looking uncharacteristically nervous in a
third-round loss to Natasha Zvereva, a player she'd beaten 17
straight times, Graf said she intended to finish out the year
but could not guarantee that she would be back at Wimbledon next
"I'm just going with the flow a little," she said, reflecting on
the back and knee injuries that had largely sidelined her since
June 1997. "I tried harder to get in shape again, and it was
very difficult. What happens next? I honestly don't know. I'll
try to play, and we'll see."
Physically, Graf feels fine. But at this Wimbledon she
complained often to chair umpires, cried at the press conference
after her first match and seemed not to care when she lost--all
un-Graf-like behavior. She will not just muddle through. One
more injury will mean the end of her career. "That's going to be
it," she said. "I've had enough."
The most telling sign that she's on her way out? The constant
sniping by Martina Hingis that Graf is old and past her time
barely elicited a raised eyebrow from the world's former No. 1
player. "Sometimes I do think those remarks are disrespectful,"
Graf said, "but they don't matter to me."