Out with the Old?
The service let call may have seen its last Wimbledon. Steffi Graf may have, too
"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.
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 proposal—mostly network suits and tour officials—like 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 blocs—the ITF, the WTA, the ATP and the Grand Slam tournaments—leave 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.
Thanks for Nothing, Coach
Last year Greg Rusedski was the darling of Great Britain, a Wimbledon quarterfinalist with a massive serve who made it to the U.S. Open final. This year he seemed a good bet to become the first Union Jack in 62 years to raise the trophy on Centre Court. Instead, Rusedski's '98 Wimbledon was an embarrassment.