FauxPolitik

Friday, July 09, 2004

Tennis Rewind: I was away for the Wimbledon finals, the results of which delighted me, so I didn't say much. But while catching up on the commentary I missed, I came across this article in Slate by TCS editor Nick Schulz (who has elsewhere argued in favor of performance enhancing drugs -- so he's not a straight-up, Enobarbus-style tennis reactionary), in which he argues that technology is hurting tennis.
Tennis players are better conditioned and far stronger than they were 20 or 30 years ago. But the athletes have changed far less than the racket technology. Compared to today's composite frames and Kevlar strings, rackets made of wood or the metal T2000 (popularized by Jimmy Connors) look like they should hang in a natural history museum. Modern rackets are significantly bigger and stronger than old models, yet weigh half as much. No wonder a former technical director of the International Tennis Federation has said that "we are approaching the limit on reaction time for the return of serve."
As I've argued before, we stand at a frontier in the sport. Crossing the border, allowing technology to continue apace, will make the game (at least the men's game, for now) more like archery -- players effectively watching each other launch missiles, with scores being determined by double faults and mis-serves, not the actual playing of tennis.

To his credit, Schulz actually does the research and suggests four possible solutions: bigger balls, higher net, longer court, and less racquet power. Only the last, he says, will forestall another arms race. He's not as obsessive as I am -- I've argued for wooden racquets -- but he does see the need clearly.

Still, fixing the rackets seems like the only sensible solution. While the sport's governing bodies obsessively regulate court, net, and ball specifications, they've only just started paying attention to racket technology. In the early 1980s, the ITF started imposing size restrictions on racket heads, but 20 years later they've yet to limit what rackets can be made from.
He also analogizes to the USGA, which would kick a player off the course for some of the hardware a weekend golfer uses without a second thought. Why not make tennis that way? An oversized racquet might be perfect for a kid just learning the game -- more power to make those shots that require adult height and strength otherwise. Professionals should play at a higher level.

Schulz argues that taming technology would improve tennis and even boost its popularity. A secondary benefit, implied above, is that the increased reliance on strategy and athletic artistry will, in general, keep the professional game an adult game. Cranking up the speed had already made it a bangers game in 1991, when a 39-year-old Jimmy Connors was a dinosaur (albeit one who still roared) at the U.S. Open. Today, at 34, Agassi is the old man on the courts -- and he has arguably stayed a year or two too long. Ivanisevic, at 32, was the grand old man of Wimbledon this year. Rod Laver, by contrast, won the Grand Slam at 31. Ken Rosewall won the U.S. Open at 36 and the Aussie at 37. Don Budge left the game at 27 to fight in World War 2, believing he had plenty of years left in him. (A war injury actually ended his career.) Pancho Gonzales was 40 before the Open Era had even begun, but he joined the professional tour anyway and won his share of trophies. Today, every 26-year-old is watching his back for the teenager who can serve like a neutron bomb. I'll grant you the Darwinian argument that the old man can't compete anymore. But what if the kid's a 6'8" monster who serves over 150 mph but doesn't know the ad court from the deuce court? That day is coming, and at that point, it's not tennis anymore.

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