Tennis - set for change?


Around 500 movers and shakers of the international tennis scene representing 100 federations have converged on Killarney this week to discuss the health of the game, post Wimbledon. The doctors say it's still vigorous with a few lifestyle adjustments to be made, while its detractors say it's just not what it used to be. In the men's grass game, the argument goes, it's still thump, thump, wallop - that is, not fully fit, but not terminally ill.

Better equipped than anyone to debate the issue of the profile and interest of the sport (in this the year the national broadcaster, RTE, decided that no one was interested in Wimbledon or the French Open any longer), Brian Tobin, the Australian president of the International Tennis Federation, talks of an evolving game ably facing up to the obvious challenges of modern taste.

"We are looking at all forms of technology in racquets and balls. We've people looking at the way balls are hit and the type of equipment players are now using. We're still learning but have to be aware and yes, we are following the debate in golf over equipment. You need to know what might be coming along next week and we have people in America looking at their testing. There is also live discussion about the rules of the game, including the `let' and the `no-ad system,"' says Tobin.

Currently the serve is not under threat, but rule changes are being considered to make the game more attractive. Citing changes to the back pass and tackle in football as well as changes in both badminton and cricket as examples of games that have moved successfully, tennis, so far, has been conservative. There have been no rule changes in the game since the tie-break was introduced in the mid-1970s.

The "no-ad system", which is being considered for experimental changes by national associations during the period between 1999 and2000, basically suggests the abolition of the advantage rule and would ultimately serve to shorten matches. Whenever a game reaches deuce the receiver could decide on which side the ball is received. Whoever wins that point then takes the game, without having to win the traditional two points in succession. The logic is that the shorter matches would suit both players and broadcasters and inject an additional element of excitement.

Another issue under debate is the "let" call, which has been under scrutiny for some years.

"We've already carried out experiments over the past two years without the `let' call," says Tobin. "Matches have been played in the lower divisions of the Davis Cup and in official ITF junior events. You could even see at Wimbledon over the last two weeks that let calls were causing some problems for the professional players and that is with the aid of an electronic device. "We also had a match some time ago in the Davis Cup which lasted nine hours. In a game involving the `no-ad system,' this probably wouldn't happen, even over five sets."

A survey conducted by the ITF among players indicated that 22 per cent were positive about the abolition of the "let" rule, 24 per cent were negative and 50 per cent had no opinion. Over 715 matches provided an average of 4.1 "lets" per match of which 65 per cent were neutral or playable. Of the non-neutral "let" calls, 25 per cent were in favour of the server and 10 per cent in favour of the receiver. Tobin also points out that most matches played world wide are actually played without umpires.

While being noncommittal about whether or not these changes will be introduced as they first have to be debated and put on trial, Tobin is pragmatic about how the game is developing. And while racquet technology has not been seen as a wholly positive influence on professional tennis since John McEnroe's rubbery wrists flicked balls around centre court, there has been tangible success in the women's game, where power play has not completely dominated.

At this year's Wimbledon, Venus and Serena Williams, Martina Hingis, Monica Seles, Anna Kournikova (who did not compete) and Jennifer Capriati represented the most talented line-up seen in London for many years. That Jana Novotna, perhaps the last natural grass player, stole the show added further spectacle to the tournament.

"It would be the perception within the ITF that the women's game is now more attractive than the men's game. They have more attractive personalities at the moment and they are playing attractive tennis. I don't think people would deny this point," says Tobin.

"But you have to remember that most tournaments played around the world are not played on grass, but on slower surfaces, both indoors and out doors. Grass represents maybe six weeks of the year."

While players are historically slow to change (there was significant resistance to the introduction of the tie-break), it is they who will decide. The ITF is responsible for the application and is also an enforcer of those rules. With shorter visual bites becoming more acceptable to television, the main cash cow, tennis it seems is at least recognising that change need not necessarily be a reaction to a sick game but one intent on improving its long-term health.