Do you doubt that the illusion of combat is intensified by enclosing the participants? If so, visualize a Frazier-Ali fight held not in a ring but on a basketball floor. An interesting brawl, yes, but the dynamic tensions of a prizefight, never. And the same goes for tennis. The difference between today's tennis and tennis within a barriered court is the difference between a firecracker exploding on open ground and exploding under a tin can.
We've added the combat, now let's add the risk. Don't search the shelf, it's already here: again, the barriers.
Question: What is baseball's most thrilling play? Answer: The outfielder's leap against the wall, which at the last instant turns a home run into an out. Watching a fielder risk broken bones, we are acutely aware that to him nothing matters but the catch. He must make it. And while we admire his artistry, we are awed by his courage. We've all admired the artists at Forest Hills, but when was the last time one awed you?
Tennis has no equivalent of this catch against the wall. Table tennis has. In fact the barriers around the table are the single most important stage prop from which the game gets its special gutsy look. These barriers are usually made of thin panels of wood and constructed in five-foot sections so that if a player should actually run into one only that section topples, not the entire enclosure. Great table-tennis players are artists, too, just as great tennis players are—but, confronting each other in a closed space, they don't look quite as artsy.
Sure, I have occasionally seen table-tennis players finish a match with skinned shins; I have even seen them somersault right over a barrier (sensational) and still return a smash, just as an outfielder might end up in the seats yet still be clutching the ball. But these collisions are rare. The barriers confine the players; they do not cramp them. It is the illusion of risk that's important, illusion created by the proximity of danger. To appreciate the effect of the illusion, consider this parallel: suppose polevaulting substituted for its fragilely balanced but solid-looking crossbar a fine black thread invisible to the crowd. The illusion of risk immediately vanishes. No gasps will be heard as the vaulter narrowly skims over the bar. Air is no hazard. And that's why I insist on opaque rather than see-through barriers, such as netting, for our tennis court. The risk must at least look real.
Finally, there are two other desirable effects of barriers. First, tennis would look bigger, not smaller, as you might guess. Doesn't a painting look larger after being framed? Second, the ball will seem to be moving faster, just as a ball thrown across a room seems more lethal than a ball thrown outdoors.
Now let's consider another aspect of the overall staging. The position of the audience itself. Spectator seating, I say, must begin 2½ feet behind the court barriers and on all four sides. The crowd must sit behind a barrier of its own, slightly higher than the court barriers. The two barriers thus create a narrow aisle between the crowd and players. Actually, in terms of drama I would prefer to put the crowd right up against the court, but we need that aisle, as you shall see. The seating should slope upward and, to create the effect I'm seeking, about 1,500 seats would be needed. For, you see, it would be a ringside.
As for the narrow aisle, my plot is to station the linesmen there. Their function, after all, is mechanical and impersonal. Robots would be better, but until they are invented we need linesmen who should not intrude upon the stage. The combat area belongs to the players. Only the umpire, a supervisor whose decisions are more human, should be allowed within the barriers. He becomes the referee in boxing.
Out with the ball boys, too. The sideline barriers would be broken in the center, just opposite the net posts, by a narrow slit. This permits the ball boys, after clearing netted balls, to return to the neutrality of the aisle. A similar slit is left at the four corners for the baseline ball boys, but it must be very thin lest the illusion of a solid wall disappear. During the play the ball boys would sit on stools in the aisle.
Thus by isolating the players we dramatize them further. We fix the spectator's eyes on stage center, undistracted—just as we not only frame a painting but mat it as well.