Men's tennis is in a slump. The way people in the sport deal
seriously with this problem is to sit around and debate whether
to do away with the let serve--which, of course, should have
been eliminated around 1908.
In fact, tennis issues run somewhat deeper than the theological
discussions about the let serve. The particular problem that the
men's version has--apart from the fact that the women are simply
much more engaging as 1) tennis players and 2) human beings--is
that the first serve is too dominant, so that holding serve is
The revolutionaries in the sport offer up all sorts of radical
schemes to alleviate the serve problem. Alas, the cures are worse
than the disease, for all these proposals mess with the guts of
the game: Move the server back. Make the service box smaller.
Allow only one serve. Allow only one serve sometimes. Make the
racket the size of a Ping-Pong paddle. Keep the server's feet on
the ground. And so on.
But as those of us who swoon over Mark McGwire and Tiger Woods
and the slam dunk know, power is stylish. Power is sexy. Be
careful not to cut off Samson's hair. That's only fighting a
negative with a bigger negative.
The problem is not the serve. Rather, it's the sameness that the
serve produces. The key to making tennis more popular is to take
the dreary repetition out of it. That's easily done--and without
tinkering with the essence of the sport. Tennis simply needs
more climactic moments. Hello, tennis people! Repeat after me:
Tennis simply needs more climactic moments.
The key change is so elementary that it's like the purloined
letter: sitting there, all this time, right before our eyes.
Here it is: Have a set go to the first player to win four games
or to win a tiebreaker at 3-all. Not six games. Four.
Here is why: Getting to six takes too long. Maybe it didn't in
1899. Maybe it didn't in 1949. But it takes too long now. Get on
with it. Cut to the chase. Finish it off. Bring the drama to a
The additional beauty of the shortened set is that then you can
play more sets. What is now a two-out-of-three match becomes--in
the same amount of time--three out of five. Something like 6-2,
6-7, 6-4 is a damn good match. But 4-2, 3-4, 1-4, 4-3, 4-2 (same
number of games) is better. Something like 6-1, 6-3 is a pretty
awful match, but even 4-1, 4-2, 4-1 is better. The slate gets
wiped clean more quickly, and you reduce the monotony of serve
being held game after game. Fewer games needed to win sets
provides more: more twists, more surprises, more hope, more
entertainment, more exciting moments. More fans.
Next, get rid of ads. In World TeamTennis and other progressive
pockets of the sport, this is a fait accompli. And it's popular.
At 40-all it's a tie: Play one more point. Loser walks. In the
tiebreaker it's a tie at four points apiece. One more point
settles it. Imminent hanging focuses the mind--and the spectator.
Deuce delays. Ads subtract.
The subset to all this is: Play tiebreakers whenever you can.
Fans love tiebreakers and shoot-outs and overtimes. Often,
tiebreakers aren't fair. Who cares? It's just a game. You get a
bad bounce? Tough. You've still got your health. Maybe even a
good health plan. If you're a tennis pro, you've also still got
money in the bank, an agent on the cell phone and a looker up in
the players' box. So when the score is 3-all in a set, fans
really don't have to humor you, so you can stay out there
forever and win by two games. Tiebreaker decides.
Even better: If a match goes to two sets apiece, you don't play
a fifth set. You play a tiebreaker. No #*+*ing let serves. Ever.
Of course, the pros would oppose this plan. I will never forget
hearing Boris Becker doing color on the BBC at Wimbledon last
year. He, the gutsiest of players, raved on about how "fair" it
was that Richard Krajicek and Goran Ivanisevic could "play out"
their semifinal match in the fifth set with no tiebreaker. Game
after game. My serve, your serve. Eternal.
The closest thing in sport to an abomination before God. Becker
and the players thought it was wonderful. If the players were in
charge in basketball, we wouldn't have a 24-second clock; we'd
have a 24-minute clock.
Like Shakespeare, who wrote "let's kill all the lawyers," we
must be stalwart. We must say, Let's gag all the players. We
must start playing shorter sets, with no do-overs, no second
chances. Give us the drama. Give us the moments. Otherwise we
are doomed to a 21st century of redoing let serves at ad-in at
5-1 in the fifth and wondering why no one is watching anymore.