"It would be a horrific change," Andre Agassi declared last
week, voicing the opinion of most ATP tour players, and so
another idea for making tennis sleeker, faster and more
TV-friendly got the kiss of death. Is anyone surprised? Only the
International Tennis Federation, which sets the rules of the
game. The ITF arrived at Wimbledon proposing to abolish the
let-cord rule on serves and limped out of the tournament's first
week under a rain of catcalls and rotten tomatoes. That such a
minor rule change could bring either higher ratings or horror is
laughable, but there's no denying the message of the fierce
reaction: On even the small things, this sport is divided to the
point of paralysis.
Graf had an eighth Wimbledon title in her sights,
but a case of nerves helped doom her against Zvereva.
The male players say they will not allow the change at any ATP
tour event, and some are threatening to boycott the 1999
Australian Open if the rule is introduced there. (The Grand Slam
tournaments are independent of the ATP tour.) The women, too,
hate the proposal, but WTA officials say they'll play no-let if
the ITF insists. Further complicating matters, each Grand Slam
event is free to ignore the proposal, leaving the possibility
that the no-let rule will be imposed at only some or at none of
the Slams. So you could see no-let serving at the ITF-run Davis
Cup, Federation Cup and Olympic tennis competition but nowhere
else at the game's highest level.
The real horror is this: Come January, you could have two
Australian Open tune-ups played with the let and then, in what
ATP tour chief Larry Scott calls a "train wreck," no-let at the
Open itself. "Everyone's scratching their heads," says Scott.
"Why this rule change now, when there's no tangible benefit?"
The ITF says use of the no-let rule at international junior and
team matches has cut down on disputes, made play more continuous
and shortened matches slightly. Though ITF figures show an
average of only four lets on serve per match, Agassi and other
ATP players argue that the proposed rule would turn a game
already dominated by big serves into a server's paradise.
Those backing the no-let proposalmostly network suits and tour
officialslike the spirit behind it. They note that, aside from
the tiebreak, introduced in the mid-1970s, tennis is structured
just as it was when Teddy Roosevelt played. "It'd be hard to
imagine another sport where there's been only one major rule
change in 75 years," says WTA chief executive Bart McGuire.
As the no-let blowup shows, tennis has too many competing
interests and is in desperate need of a powerful commissioner.
Meanwhile the shortsighted actions of the sport's four power
blocsthe ITF, the WTA, the ATP and the Grand Slam
tournamentsleave tennis looking drawn and quartered:
overextended, bloodied and going in several directions at once.
Last Friday, ITF communications manager Alun James said chances
are now only 50-50 that the no-let proposal will be voted on
next week at the federation's annual meeting. James is sorry the
proposal has lost support, but he knows the issue is about more
than a new rule. "It's about whether people are prepared to
accept any change at all," he says.
Issue date: July 6, 1998