Tennis: Fast, fan friendly - but full of faults

John Roberts gives his verdict on the experimental new deuce rule that will be introduced at some tournaments to try to speed up tennis for television

John Roberts
Saturday 22 October 2011 22:44

SINCE THE last ball was struck at Wimbledon, a period of comparative tranquillity has been interrupted by some blarney from Killarney. The International Tennis Federation, at its annual meeting in Ireland, indicated that it was prepared to tinker with the game in order to satisfy the demands of television.

While that hardly distinguishes the ITF from other custodians of sports, there are occasions when aspects fundamental to the nature of a contest need to be protected. In this instance, preservation orders ought to be slapped on the "advantage" point and the service let.

The service let (where a serve is retaken if the ball touches the net before landing good) is not in imminent danger. An ITF proposal for its abolition was withdrawn "pending further research, analysis and consultation over the next 12 months". So, for the moment, we shall not see the ball trip over the net-cord and be declared an ace.

What we shall see, at least at a number of the smaller events during the next two years, is an experimental "no-ad" system, allowing games to be won on the first point after deuce. One benefit, according to the ITF, would be to "make matches shorter and therefore more `fan friendly' and easier to schedule for television".

Ah, yes, television. As with football's "golden goal", the "no-ad" expedient appears to be another example of the McDonald's syndrome (for fast food read fast sport, easily packaged, readily consumed).

Tennis matches, being of indeterminate length, present particular problems for the media. The ITF, in common with the Grand Slam championships and the men's and women's professional tours, are acutely aware that they are in competition with other sports for television time. Care must be taken, however, not to erode the fabric.

An additional benefit of the "no-ad" system, the ITF contends, would be to "inject" another element of excitement into the game by having the potential for providing a climax in any game during the match, in a comparable way to that of the tie-break.

Sacrificed in the process would be an integral part of the psychological and physical duelling which makes tennis so fascinating. When the score reaches deuce, mental doors tend to open or close. One of the players, for example, might have fought back from 0-40. Will there be a sudden shift in confidence?

"If you get into a long deuce game you have a situation where you can wear your opponent down," observes John Newcombe, the Australian former Wimbledon champion and world No 1. "The no-ad rule was tried in college tennis in the States, and it made the tennis very mundane."

Although Andre Agassi in his younger days once described an ITF president as a "bozo", the American seems inclined to side with the establishment on some of the current issues. An excellent returner of serve, who memorably defeated Goran Ivanisevic in five sets in the 1992 Wimbledon final, Agassi would like to see service lets called as faults. He is also in favour of the introduction of a "no-ad" system.

"If a guy is serving at 40-30 you have to win the next point and then win two in a row," says Agassi. "Now, if you had to win one of the next two points, there is a heck of a chance you are going to break the guy. If you are playing against Sampras and he is serving at 15-40, there is still a 60 per cent chance he is going to hold serve. A no-ad scoring system and that drops considerably, to maybe a 23 per cent chance he is going to hold serve."

While understanding Agassi's preoccupation with breaking Pete Sampras' serve, your correspondent still regards the "no-ad" system as a potential passion killer.

For example, we would have been denied the 20-minute game between Steffi Graf and Arantxa Sanchez Vicario which transformed the 1995 Wimbledon women's singles final into one of the classics.

The marathon game, in which Sanchez Vicario was serving at one set all and 5-5, comprised 32 points, including 13 deuces, six break points and eight game points. Under the "no-ad" system, Sanchex Vicario would have held serve within five minutes with a forehand pass down the line after the first deuce. Instead, 25 points later, she was broken, unable to control her backhand in attempting to parry a trademark Graf forehand.

One-day tournaments at club level, where time is tight, sometimes adopt a "one-ad" system. If the score goes back to deuce after the first advantage, the next point wins. This compromise, while preferable to "no-ad", still dilutes the sport as a comprehensive test of skill, nerve and endurance.

At the professional level, corporate-speak (e.g. "growing the game") tends to proliferate along with the burgeoning financial structure. Such is the obsession with numbers that it may not be long before someone considers simplifying the scoring of games by using 1, 2, 3, 4.

For the uninitiated, the traditional system of scoring, admittedly quaint, derives from real, or royal tennis, and is based on the habit of using the clock face to record points. "Love", the term for nil, probably is a corruption of the French l'oeuf (the egg) and is related to a "duck" in cricket. Deuce (40-all, or three points each), is from the French deux, meaning two more to win.

A set is "deuced" when the score becomes five games all, after which a player must be two games ahead (a rule which still applies in the final sets of Wimbledon matches) unless the score becomes 6-6, at which stage the tie-break comes into play.

The tie-break, originated by an American, Jimmy van Alen, was a response to television's need for shorter matches after interest in the sport soared following the advent of open tennis 30 years ago. A successful ITF experiment in 1970 validated the innovation (Wimbledon adopted the tie-break at eight games all in 1971 and at six games all in 1979).

Net-cords in open play are accepted as part of the luck of the game. Boris Becker comes to mind as a particular beneficiary, his backhand drive thudding against the top of the net and "dying" in Ivan Lendl's court on the concluding point of a fifth set tie-break in the final of the the 1988 Masters (now the ATP Tour World Championship).

The difference between that type of incident and a serve clipping the net and dropping over for an ace, traditionalists argue, is that the opponent would not have an opportunity to participate in the point. Pure aces, of course, represent one of the skills of the sport.

Methods of making tennis more interesting are constantly under review. A few years ago, at the height of a debate concerning the power and speed of the men's game, the ATP Tour produced some interesting statistics comparing the 1990s with the 1970s. Research showed that the amount of time the ball was in play per hour on grass was down to 3min 55sec compared with 7min 18sec in the 1970s. The length of points on grass had reduced from 3.8sec to 2.7sec.

A player such as Ivanisevic is capable of reducing points to a single shot. As Sampras, the five-times Wimbledon champion and winner of 11 Grand Slam singles titles, observes: "Give Goran a basketball, and he'll still hit an ace."

Billie Jean King, winner of a record 20 Wimbledon titles (six singles, 10 doubles, four mixed doubles), and triumphant against the middle-aged Bobby Riggs in the 1973 "Battle of the Sexes" match at the Houston Astrodome, continues to press for equality.

"I wish the men would play only two out of three sets instead of three out of five," she says. "It's boring, five sets. This is the 1990s."

In the modern game, players are taking more time between points to mop their brow, check their racket strings, knock the court surface off the soles of their shoes (even if the surface is artificial), tug at their garments and exercise their limbs. And that is before they get to sit down and rest during changeovers (chairs were first provided on court at Wimbledon in 1975).

The spectacle of players sitting down and taking a break after the opening game of a match is a source of hilarity or irritation, depending on the point of view. Of course, changeovers do provide an ideal opportunity for television companies to run commercials, the most profitable ad points.


THE 20-MINUTE game between Steffi Graf and Arantxa Sanchez Vicario in the 1995 women's singles final, which Graf won 4-6, 6-1, 7-5, has passed into Wimbledon lore. It is remembered alongside the 20-minute tie- break between John McEnroe and Bjorn Borg in the fourth set of the 1980 men's final, which the American won 18-16, only to lose in the fifth set, and the 112-game match between Pancho Gonzales and Charlie Pasarell in 1969.

This is how the points were decided in that famous game between Graf and Sanchez Vicario:

0-15 Sanchez forehand long

15-15 Graf wide on forehand returning second serve

30-15 Netted forehand by Graf

30-30 Sanchez forehand over baseline

40-30 Sanchez forehand drop shot

Deuce Graf forehand winner

Advantage Sanchez Forehand pass down line

(Under the ITF's experimental scoring system the game would have ended there, with Sanchez holding serve for 6-5)

Deuce Sanchez wide with cross-court backhand

Ad Sanchez Ace

Deuce Graf passes with cross-court backhand service return

Ad Graf Sanchez nets backhand

Deuce Graf hits forehand service return over baseline

Ad Sanchez Low backhand cross-court pass Deuce Winning smash by Graf

Ad Graf Forehand cross-court pass

Deuce Sanchez low angled backhand drop shot

Ad Graf Sanchez nets forehand approach

Deuce Graf hits forehand long from deep Sanchez backhand

Ad Sanchez Forehand cross-court pass

Deuce Graf backhand pass from Sanchez stop-volley

Ad Sanchez Graf backhand wide from Sanchez backhand to corner

Deuce Sanchez wide with backhand down the line

Ad Sanchez Graf long with backhand service return

Deuce Graf forehand drive

Ad Sanchez forehand pass

Deuce Sanchez wide with cross-court backhand

Ad Graf Sanchez wide with forehand

Deuce Sanchez forehand cross-court pass

Ad Graf Sanchez misses with backhand down the line

Deuce Sanchez backhand drop shot down the line

Ad Graf Graf intercepts Sanchez cross-court forehand with forehand volley

Game Graf Sanchez unable to control her backhand from Graf's winning cross-court forehand drive

Duration - 20 minutes

Points - 32

Deuces - 13

Break points - six

Game points - eight


The ITF'S experimental "no-ad" scoring system would not, of course, preclude oddities such as the 29-minute point contested by Vicky Nelson and Jean Hepner in a Tour event in Richmond, Virginia, in 1984. The ball crossed the net 643 times during a rally in a tie-break. Nelson clinched the shoot-out 13-11 in an hour and 47 minutes, to win the match in straight sets 6-4, 7-6 after six hours and 31 minutes.

The longest Grand Slam singles match ever recorded was on the clay courts at the French Open on 31 May this year. Alex Corretja, (left) of Spain, beat Hernan Gumy, of Argentina, in the third round of the men's singles, 6-1, 5-7, 6-7, 7-5, 9-7, after five hours and 31 minutes.

Longest Wimbledon finals

Men's singles: four hours and 16 minutes (1982), Jimmy Connors beat John McEnroe, 3-6, 6-3, 6-7 (2-7), 7-6 (7-5), 6-4.

Women's singles: two hours 28 mins (1970), Margaret Court beat Billie Jean King 14-12, 11-9.

Men's doubles: five hours and one minute (1992), John McEnroe and Michael Stich beat Jim Grabb and Richey Reneberg 5-7, 7-6 (7-5), 3-6, 7-6 (7-5), 19-17.

Women's doubles: two hours and 49 minutes (1988), Steffi Graf and Gabriela Sabatini beat Larisa Savchenko and Natasha Zvereva 6-3, 1-6, 12-10.

Shortest Wimbledon finals

Men's singles: 37 minutes (1881), William Renshaw beat Rev John Hartley 6-0, 6-1, 6-1.

Women's singles: 23 minutes (1922), Suzanne Lenglen beat Molla Mallory, 6-2, 6-0.


1970s 1990s

ON GRASS (the fastest surface)

Length of point 3.8sec 2.7sec

Ball in play per hour 7min 18sec 3min 55sec

Rest between points 17.6sec 27.4sec

Changeover times 55.2sec 86.9sec

ON CLAY (the slowest surface)

Length of point 9.2sec 8.2sec

Ball in play per hour 13min 41sec 13min 01sec

Rest between points 20.6sec 21.0sec

Changeover times 63.2sec 69.3sec

Research by ATP Tour in 1992

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