THE FINAL WORD; All tennis needs is love, not power

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The Independent Online
During the week of the Monte Carlo tennis tournament in 1930, a good-humoured Bill Tilden told friends of his greatest ambition at Wimbledon. The celebrated American imagined making his entrance to the Centre Court carrying a rifle along with his rackets, propping the gun against the net post, checking it at every change of ends, and glowering at any linesman who had given him a doubtful call. Nowadays, the velocity of the shots gives the impression that rifles have replaced rackets.

Wimbledon remains the most traditional of tournaments, in spite of the transformation of the sport during the 28 years of the open era. Yet the All England Club increasingly finds the beauty of its grass courts undermined by the beast the men's game has become. This is a consequence of the greater strength and fitness of the modern competitors combined with the power of the synthetic rackets they wield.

Grass is not only as fast a surface as there is, but it is also subject to wear and tear and liable to produce uneven bounces and changes of pace in variable weather conditions. Reduction in the ball pressure has been tried, and the experiment is likely to continue, although Pete Sampras, champion for the past three years, reckons big servers such as Goran Ivanisevic would still produce aces with a basketball.

A solution is more likely to be found in an attic than a laboratory. Remember wooden rackets? Cue customary groan from the manufacturing industry.

The good old woody finally disappeared from the face of Wimbledon in 1988, by which time every player at the championships had been converted to technology. Among the last to forsake the traditional tool was the Slovakian player Miloslav Mecir, who resisted until persuaded that the manufacturer of his choice had fashioned a synthetic frame approximating the feel of a wooden implement.

One of Wimbledon's courts has never seen a wooden racket: the new No 1 Court, which has taken shape and is to be used for the 1997 championships. It might be worth inviting two of the leading players, Andre Agassi and Boris Becker, perhaps, to bed the court in by playing an exhibition match with wooden rackets; a touch of ceremony for old times' sake - or, better still, with new times in mind.

Twenty years have elapsed since Howard Head, a ski designer and tennis enthusiast, introduced for Prince a composition racket with an abnormally large head and more hitting area. Since then, wood has given way to materials such as graphite, magnesium, boron and fibreglass - adding power, it must be said, to the elbows of club hackers, whose desire to revert to wood is probably less than to strip out their UPVC window frames.

The sport ought to have imposed controls in 1976, but concerns expressed at the time were ignored, just as they were earlier when Jimmy Connors began to swing a metal racket, the Wilson T200 (some observers were convinced it played a crucial part in Jimbo's victory against Ken Rosewall in the 1974 Wimbledon final).

A double-strung, or "spaghetti" racket, which appeared in 1977, was banned by the International Tennis Federation, who ruled that every hit constituted a double hit. But it was not until 1981 that the ITF made rules governing the size of rackets, which were already beginning to resemble bazookas.

It was decided that rackets must not exceed 32 inches from the bottom of the handle to the top of the head and 12.5 inches in overall width. The strung surface must not exceed 15.5 inches in overall length and 11.5 inches in overall width.

The specifications may be revised at the ITF's annual meeting in June, ironically because the diminutive Michael Chang has supercharged his serve. Most rackets are 27in or 28in long, but Chang added an inch to his to bring it up to 29in. The authorities now want 29 inches to be the limit, fearing the power that players far taller than Chang might generate with a 32in racket.

There has been no lack of discussion among the various committed parties - the ITF, the ATP Tour, the WTA Tour and the Tennis Industry Association - in an endeavour to improve the game world-wide. But the proposals so far have amounted to little more than tinkering, such as with the pressure of the ball, the length of the racket and an experiment eliminating the "let" serve.

The last thing the sport needs to lose is love, although not according to Dave Haggerty, chairman of the TIA's game improvement committee. "One thing the committee is trying to accomplish would be changing the term `love'," Haggerty said. "The kids don't think it's cool, and most countries already call it zero anyway. Only the English-speaking countries use the term `love' right now, so changing it really makes sense."

Where did Bill leave that rifle?