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February 08, 1960
Promoter Jack Kramer and his touring pros, bothered by declining attendance, have started a reform that could bring back some long-forgotten glories of tennis
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February 08, 1960

A Blow At The 'big Game'

Promoter Jack Kramer and his touring pros, bothered by declining attendance, have started a reform that could bring back some long-forgotten glories of tennis

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Jack Kramer's tennis pros opened their 1960 tour in San Francisco last week—and simultaneously initiated a reform which that imaginative promoter hopes will revive sadly needed spectator interest in his show. At the Cow Palace, and at the new Los Angeles Memorial Sports Arena the next night, tennis fans for the first time in years were swiveling their heads to right and to left, back and forth eight and 10 times, as they followed rallies that have not been seen since long pants vanished from the courts.

The new rule—a three-bounce rule—which generated all this motion did not originate with Kramer, although he is the first to give it a real test. It provides that after the serve the ball must bounce once more on each side of the court before either player may take the ball on a volley. A service ace is still allowed, and the point may still be won on either of the next two strokes if neither player can make the return after one bounce. What is ruled out is the standard Big Game sequence—hard service, weak return to the server, who has rushed the net, put-away volley.

Originally Kramer, who had been watching with alarm the decline of interest in the often monotonous Big Game, planned to use the three-bounce rule in all of his matches on the professionals' 1960 64-game world tour. But the unpredictable star of the show, Pancho Gonzales, who in a moment of anxiety about the state of tennis had agreed with Kramer's plans, changed his mind and suggested splitting the bill, with only the preliminary game being played under the experimental rules. The compromise may turn out to be a boon to spectators and players, who can contrast the games and decide for themselves which rules are better. It might also prove the end of the Big Game and the beginning of a new era in tennis in which there are more ground strokes, more of the deep forehands and backhands which were such a delight to watch back in the earlier days of the game.

In the first test of the new rules, conditions were less than ideal. Alex Olmedo, making his U.S. professional debut, had an examination in Business Trends the next morning at 8 o'clock sharp at the University of Southern California in Los Angeles. He was in no mood to play. Tony Trabert, his opponent, was 15 pounds over his best playing weight. The newly painted court was sticky, only 3,960 people turned out in the 14,000-seat Cow Palace, and Trabert complained about the glaring reflections that bounded off the empty seats. (Olmedo won 6-4, 6-2.) Even so, the crowd's reaction to the new rule was favorable. Kramer's statisticians estimated that the ball was in play 30% longer with Olmedo and Trabert than in the main event between Gonzales and Ken Rosewall. Though the rule called for three bounces, the fourth shot was usually a bouncer before one or the other player could rush the net for a volley. Deep play was consistent, and the spectators were genuinely pleased that for once the pros showed off their ground strokes.

Opinion among players themselves is decidedly mixed. "This new style," said Olmedo, "is strange to me." Althea Gibson, in San Francisco with the Harlem Globetrotters, didn't favor the change at all. "Why penalize the better player?" she asked. "Power and speed are factors in modern sports, so why should anybody arbitrate against them? Why not leave tennis modern?"

But Pancho Segura, who is rumored to have beaten Gonzales using the bounce rule in a practice match at the Los Angeles Tennis Club, said the rule "will help Rosewall and me when we tackle those speed demons." He meant Gonzales and Lew Hoad.

Kramer himself was exuberantly optimistic. "Most important to us is the spectators' attitude. I'm convinced they will demand this game more and more. Power tennis is lousy for the spectators," was his comment.

William F. Talbert, former U.S. Davis Cup captain and tennis editor of SPORTS ILLUSTRATED, is another who feels that the heavy emphasis on service and volley is producing only a partial tennis player. "The power hitting of Gonzales and Hoad," Talbert says, "has caused the younger players to neglect their ground strokes, the kind of strokes which helped make giants of men like Bill Tilden, Don Budge and Jack Kramer." The public, of course, will decide. But tennis hasn't had such stimulating news in years.