Men's tennis is in a slump. The way people in the sport deal seriously with this problem is to sit around and debate whether to do away with the let serve—which, of course, should have been eliminated around 1908.
In fact, tennis issues run somewhat deeper than the theological discussions about the let serve. The particular problem that the men's version has—apart from the fact that the women are simply much more engaging as 1) tennis players and 2) human beings—is that the first serve is too dominant, so that holding serve is too easy.
The revolutionaries in the sport offer up all sorts of radical schemes to alleviate the serve problem. Alas, the cures are worse than the disease, for all these proposals mess with the guts of the game: Move the server back. Make the service box smaller. Allow only one serve. Allow only one serve sometimes. Make the racket the size of a Ping-Pong paddle. Keep the server's feet on the ground. And so on.
But as those of us who swoon over Mark McGwire and Tiger Woods and the slam dunk know, power is stylish. Power is sexy. Be careful not to cut off Samson's hair. That's only fighting a negative with a bigger negative.
The problem is not the serve. Rather, it's the sameness that the serve produces. The key to making tennis more popular is to take the dreary repetition out of it. That's easily done—and without tinkering with the essence of the sport. Tennis simply needs more climactic moments. Hello, tennis people! Repeat after me: Tennis simply needs more climactic moments.
The key change is so elementary that it's like the purloined letter: sitting there, all this time, right before our eyes. Here it is: Have a set go to the first player to win four games or to win a tiebreaker at 3-all. Not six games. Four.
Here is why: Getting to six takes too long. Maybe it didn't in 1899. Maybe it didn't in 1949. But it takes too long now. Get on with it. Cut to the chase. Finish it off. Bring the drama to a climax.
The additional beauty of the shortened set is that then you can play more sets. What is now a two-out-of-three match becomes—in the same amount of time—three out of five. Something like 6-2, 6-7, 6-4 is a damn good match. But 4-2, 3-4, 1-4, 4-3, 4-2 (same number of games) is better. Something like 6-1, 6-3 is a pretty awful match, but even 4-1, 4-2, 4-1 is better. The slate gets wiped clean more quickly, and you reduce the monotony of serve being held game after game. Fewer games needed to win sets provides more: more twists, more surprises, more hope, more entertainment, more exciting moments. More fans.
Next, get rid of ads. In World TeamTennis and other progressive pockets of the sport, this is a fait accompli. And it's popular. At 40-all it's a tie: Play one more point. Loser walks. In the tiebreaker it's a tie at four points apiece. One more point settles it. Imminent hanging focuses the mind—and the spectator. Deuce delays. Ads subtract.
The subset to all this is: Play tiebreakers whenever you can. Fans love tiebreakers and shoot-outs and overtimes. Often, tiebreakers aren't fair. Who cares? It's just a game. You get a bad bounce? Tough. You've still got your health. Maybe even a good health plan. If you're a tennis pro, you've also still got money in the bank, an agent on the cell phone and a looker up in the players' box. So when the score is 3-all in a set, fans really don't have to humor you, so you can stay out there forever and win by two games. Tiebreaker decides.