With the crowd brought down close there is now a different climate at court-side: audience contact has been established. The force and tensions of the contest are received immediately, at close quarters, before they can dissipate in space. Picked up by the first rows, they are transmitted backward in waves; "waves of applause" did not become a cliché without reason.
If you think I overstate this, tune back to the Frazier-Ali fight, only this lime add the ring. It is still not a fight. A fight needs a ringside. Indeed, the ringside is part of the action. With a tight crowd rimming the action, no matter how far back we sit we are still in contact. Take away ringside and we become passive observers. I have played table tennis before dynamic crowds of 500; I have also played to a dead house of 10,000, at London's Empire Pool, for example, where, because the court was placed in the center of an ice rink and the nearest spectators were a hundred feet away, no reciprocal dynamics developed between players and fans.
In a sense the ringside fans become the prompters for the most remote parts of the audience. They are their guides, the chorus of Greek drama. But where were those guides when I watched the Rosewall-Roche final on TV? The sports-casters, Jack Kramer and Bud Collins, told me that the stadium was sold out—14,000, roughly—but to me it seemed that the match was being played in a TV studio, for during the play I never saw the crowd at all, and when the cameras covered crowd reaction they had to move away from the players.
Within the next few years Forest Hills will finally lay to rest its precious grass courts and with them, I hope, some other idiotic traditions that have cumbered the sport for so long. Without their grass to fret over, perhaps the stagers of the Open will put some bleachers at court-side so that the visible reactions to the play of those fans will prompt similar reactions from the TV viewers, just as two men on a street corner, looking up, will soon gather a crowd. And good God, no box seats in the first rows! Get some live ones down there!
After the staging is improved tennis must next pull itself together. I mean that literally. As it is now played there is simply too much slack time in the game.
For example, I recently timed an Ashe-Richey match using a chess clock to get the ratio of "slack time" to "ball in play." The three-set match took one hour, 29 minutes. Ball in play: 22 minutes.
Consider first the standard prematch warmup—a leisurely stroking exhibition in which the players exchange backhands and forehands, then take turns at lobbing, volleying and serving. Moreover, it is all done through mutual cooperation. Obviously the players are friends. Tomorrow they will be sipping drinks over backgammon at another club.
I timed these warmups at Forest Hills. They averaged nine minutes! What are the players trying to do—warm up or develop their games? In table tennis the players are allowed a two-minute warmup (though they may each have had an hour on a practice table) and the umpire stands over them with a stopwatch. To the spectator, this brief impersonal warmup, this exact doling out of time, all this portends a fight, and he moves up in his chair for the very first point.
At Forest Hills I timed points as well as warmups. Among the men they averaged four seconds. The average game took six points. Thus: average game 24 seconds.
So now after their nine-minute warmup the players give us 24 seconds of action followed by what? Exactly. A rest. After their 24-second ordeal the players have to refresh themselves by sitting down for 60 seconds. Then for the rest of the match a two-game cycle of rests goes into effect: 48 seconds of play, 60 seconds of rest. And don't forget this: the 60 seconds of rest is continuous, but the games are broken up into four-second points that are themselves separated by slack time. The ball boys must clear the court, first serves are missed and so on. These breaks are unavoidable, but the deadening rests must be changed. Today's tennis is baseball with a seventh-inning stretch every inning.