Tennis: French flair, fun and all the old favourites

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The Independent Online
THERE WAS a 10-minute delay before the start of the Honda Challenge here yesterday afternoon. The carpet court had developed an unsightly wrinkle along one of its service lines, and a man with an iron arrived to try to smooth it away. Since an assortment of veteran tennis stars were about to attempt the same trick, it seemed rather appropriate.

Like football and cricket, and no doubt tiddlywinks too, tennis has a permanent but rolling golden age which is always about 15 years ago. In 2013, the fans will be turning up at Olympia with their teary eyes and wistful smiles to watch Sampras and Rusedski trade rifle-shot serves. Their complaint, as always, will be that the new generation just cannot match the old-timers when it comes to putting on a show.

And if the trend toward robotic tennis continues, they will probably still be right. There was certainly no room for argument yesterday, as Yannick Noah and Guy Forget launched the tournament, which forms part of the ATP Senior Tour, with a match that was tennis, but not as we know it. It was fast, skilful and fiercely fought, but not to the point of ruthlessness. Aces were smacked, passes made and baseline rallies whacked and walloped until both players were close to collapse. It was... well, entertaining, and when was the last time you could say that about a tennis match?

It was circus too at times, but as Noah said afterwards, "you need a little bit of everything", and the paying punters loved it. There was a high-five for a line judge after a 50-50 call that went in his favour, a first serve into the upper tier and a knees-a-knocking attempt to return serve from within touching distance of the net. There was even an outing for exhibition-match favourites like the shot from a linesman's chair and a rally in which Noah hurdled the net to return his own shots.

Forget was a willing straight man in the double act, but at neither end of the court were they playing just for laughs. There was not a single break point in the first 20 games, and Noah visited every corner of the court as he saved four match points in the super tie-break (first player to 10), a format devised to take the place of a deciding third set. As soon as he had a match point of his own, meanwhile, it was time to shake hands, taking the tiebreak 13-11 after sharing the first two sets 6-7, 6-4.

"I play the game the way I want it to be played," Noah, who has been a professional player for 20 of his 38 years, said afterwards. "When we were playing on the main tour, it was a time when tennis was cool, hip and trendy, with players like Bjorn, John and Jimmy. Now it's just not the same. I don't watch much tennis these days. I like to see flair and emotion, and you don't see that too often."

Forget, too, has his doubts about tennis in the modern age. "People want to enjoy the game and the atmosphere," he said, "but these days there's less time between points to fool around. There's the 25-second rule, and sometimes they enforce it very strictly. It's just a game, not a war, but now guys play as if their lives are on the line."

The only shame about yesterday's match was that the Grand Hall was barely half full to see it. It was expected to be a different story for the evening session, though, when John McEnroe was the main attraction.

The debate about the merits of the tennis generations may go on forever, but no one can deny that players these days simply don't go nuts like they used to.

Results, Digest, page 29