A way to serve up a hair-raising spectacle

Bud Collins looks ahead to the Australian Open but fears for lawn tenni s
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After what may have seemed like an interminable off-season - 20 days - tennis is back with us. But as the young tigers in their striped, splotched, patterned raiment claw at the gates of Flinders Park Melbourne, tomorrow for the first of the four major championships, the Australian Open, one can't help but peer with apprehension towards the jewel in the game's quadrilateral crown; Wimbledon.

Can the Big W - too often brought to its knees by such snoozers as Sampras v Ivanisevic, Becker v Stich, Cash v Lendl - be saved?

Indeed it can, cry I, admittedly an optimist. And simply - by the painting of two lines.

It is well past time to make an elementary life-enhancing alteration that could cancel the seeming death-wish at Wimbledon and Queen's. And the world's four other determined venues that cling to God's own sod on which this fascinating diversion originated, but where it is condemned to death by high-tech boredom.

We're talking men's tennis here. Greensward is the ideal surface for women, who don't need the lifesaving lines that I would order the groundkeepers to chalk - actually it's titanium oxide paste - three feet to the rear of the baseline.

That's it, guys; you serve from one yard behind the customary baseline and that immediately reduces the brutality of serve inflicted on the men's game by larger-than-ever contestants, Star Trek rackets and rabbit balls. Ground strokes and rallies will sprout. Serving-and-volleying takes on new risk.

Obviously armament reduction is desperately needed and, says Dr Ram Ramnath of the renowned Massachusetts Institute of Technology, it can be accomplished. Ramnath, an astrophysical engineer as well as a tennis equipment authority, says that the fastest courts, rackets and balls can be scientifically slowed.

But what would it take to find the proper slow-down formulas, as well as gain the co- operation of manufacturers? Much time, much consultation and negotiation.

And what would it take to change the essence of the game with a one-serve rule or other quirky "solutions" that are being peddled? Agreement that you'll never get.

But what would it take to install - say, on a two-year trial - merely the game's second significant innovation in the past century? Well, how about a gentleman's agreement between Brian Tobin, president of the London-based ITF (International Tennis Federation), and Mark Miles, ATP (Association of Tennis Pros) boss?

Though five of the grass tournaments are on the ATP Tour, and only one in the IFT camp, that one is The One. It is in everybody's interest to restore Wimbledon with rallies that aren't over faster than a Balkan ceasefire.

Try the two stripes for two years. This involves no tampering with the basic rules, and is fair to all. Interestingly enough, the idea comes from that old Cantab Blue bolshevik, Jimmy Van Alen, who conceived the other significant advance - the tie-breaker. It comes from the grave, since Jimmy, an Anglophile Yank, died four years ago.

Just 30 years ago, Jimmy presented a radical, compelling VASSS (Van Alen Streamlined Scoring System) tourney for the outlaw pros on the green at Newport, Rhode Island. The cast included such greats as Pancho Gonzalez, Rod Laver, Ken Rosewall, Lew Hoad a n d Pancho Segura. Good as they were, they were also outcasts from the mainstream, with few remuneratory options. It was 1965. Open tennis with prize money at such bastions of amateurism as Wimbledon, Forest Hills and Roland Garros was a dream. Besides, t h ose places were off-limits to pros.

When Van Alen offered a $10,000 purse, they sprinted for Newport, though he warned: "You'll have to play it my way." That meant tie-breakers and serving from way back.

The pros squawked. "It'll hurt my serve," fumed maybe the best server ever, Gonzalez.

"That's the idea," smiled Van Alen.

At the conclusion, most of them conceded that Jimmy had put fun back into grass. But Van Alen's sound ideas (except for the tie-breaking set-killers) were forgotten as open tennis arrived in 1968.

I realise that was the wooden racket era, but a three-foot handicap would still help considerably today. The All England Clubbies, in the interest of self-preservation, ought to draw the line. The New Van Alen Belt?

Meanwhile, a ton of attention at this eighth Australian Open in the ultramodern Flinders complex will centre on Andre Agassi, who has found love while losing his hair. He's finally found his way to Melbourne after eight years of getting lost on the way to the airport, or ducking for a variety of reasons.

Now, will he, at present lodged at No 2 on the computer, find a way to stop the champ, Pete Sampras, adding a third major title to his satchel, while following up on his sensational revival as US Open monarch?

His head newly shaved, the balding Andre gleams not only cranially, but with love for the actress Brooke Shields, "who I miss very much. She can't get away from her job on Broadway to be with me, so it's a lonely three weeks."

It was not a fear of koalas, wombats, killer bees or overcooked Aussie steaks that kept Andre away for so long, he insists. "I had wrist surgery a year ago. It saved my career," he says. "But now I'm focused as never before, and I'm on Pete's trail."

There is also the matter of a "revived" ex-No 1, the 1991-92 champ Jim Courier. "I've got my head together again and I'm feeling very revived," says Courier, who misses swimming in the nearby Yarra River. Courier's post-championship dips were a mini-tradition, but his game over the past year has seemed as polluted as the Melbourne stream. At least until he led off 1995 with his first title in almost two years, at Adelaide.

A new champ is guaranteed among the Sheilas in the absence of Steffi Graf. Steffi's excuse for not appearing, a pulled calf muscle, does not sound plausible, but she detests moaning and groaning publicly about her back trouble. Her logical successor is the 1994 finalist Arantxa Sanchez Vicario, but there is renewed hope for two other Latinas: Conchita Martinez, diverted by romance since winning Wimbledon, may come out of her happy coma, while Gabriela Sabatini finally busted loose from brainlock to win the Virginia Slims two months ago.