By Nigel Graber
It’s 2006. The tennis gods have just lit the kindling around what would become
known as The Big Four. (Forgive me that one – I’m a Murray fanatic.) I’m on
Centre Court at Wimbledon with my ten-year-old daughter. Ten? Jeez. Sixteen years on, she’s about to make me a grandad.
Down there on the turf, Federer’s making steak haché out of Reeechard Gasquet. I wanted more of a contest. I wanted my kid to be like me – lifted and lost in the
pendulous suspension of the moment.
Instead, her beak is buried in Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix. I can’t say I blame her. Up in row ZZZ, the court looks no bigger than an urban garden, the width of the shot-making is impossible to call, and Federer and Gasquet look like they’ve taken one of Alice’s shrinking potions from the Hall of Doors.
But there’s a bigger issue. The match doesn’t start immediately. Hell no. The players, who’ve been practising all morning, seemingly need a knock-up of another five minutes. This is routinely followed by fannying around in their kit bags, tying headbands, swigging potions and tossing coins.
Every two games, the players sit down for a bit of a break. When they serve, they bounce the ball ad infinitum, yip-like, as if physically unable to effect release. The first serve hits the net cord and falls. For some reason, they get another try at it.
One of the serves is a let, so they’re afforded three goes at starting the point. Hey, if their toss is off, they enjoy another stab at that as well. We wait while the ballkids retrieve the duds and scurry back to their spots. Fed bounces again. And again.
In between points, they tie shoelaces, towel down, mutter imprecations up to their box, adjust this and that. If you’re Rafa, you adjust this, that and the other. And those as well. They summon the medics. They bust rackets. Query calls. Scream to the heavens.
For years, I lambasted footballers for their lack of stamina. Heck, the heavy lifting’s shared by eleven of them and they have to last just the 96 minutes. Tennis players? Whoa. Different story. Five, six-hour marathons? Just the two of them? Gladiators, the lot of them, living and dying in the bloodied dirt of the Colosseum.
The brutal truth is that not much tennis goes on in a tennis match. Back in the 90s, US tennis coach Vic Braden assessed the actual playing time in raw minutes. For a typical two-set match – let’s say 6-3 6-4 – he counted up five minutes of actual action. Five minutes.
In 2013, the Wall Street Journal timed the action in an Andy Murray match that lasted 2 hours 41 minutes. They needed a microscope to find only 26 minutes of play. That’s 16.4% of the match. Footballers, I salute you. You huff and puff for over 50% of the advertised time.
This ugly scenario for tennis fans is made worse by the advent of the lamppost pro. Back in Kenny Rosewall’s day, players were little more than average height. Today, throw an Isner and an Opelka into the mix and what little playing time unfolds will be devoted to the launch of invisible bullets and rallies strangled at birth.
Back on Centre Court, my daughter learns that Harry is plotting madly against Cornelius Fudge. It’s infinitely more fascinating than the stop-start, herky-jerky, endless cycle of bouncing, resting, swearing, tying, untying, towelling and adjusting that infests this beautiful sport.
The doubles that follows is even worse. There’s time for an actual point to be played, didn’t you know, in between the fist bumps, the chest bumps, the hushed tactical discussions from behind the tennis ball, the clipped last-minute commands while waiting to serve, the finger gestures at net. It goes on. And on.
Pre-Murray, I was once asked why I was an Andre Agassi fan. I thought for a beat or two and then said, ‘Because you see so much tennis’.
I’m not privy to the stats, but I’d wager this was true. Andre wasn’t gifted the Exocet serve that regularly reduced a point to a single swing of a bat. Hey, if Vicki Nelson or Jean Hepner had had a beefier delivery, they might never have needed to sweat over that sole point for 29 minutes and 643 shots.
For Double A, winning a tennis point was a beautifully attritional labour of devotion, an exercise in crisp, laser-guided, long-range precision that explored the outer dimensions of the court. It was chess in the fast lane. Tactical warfare in whites. Bookends driving each other ever-closer to the end of the shelf.
You know, I’ve had enough. I want to see more tennis. I wonder if my impressionable young daughter would have been more absorbed, more invested, more immersed (in the parlance of today), had we been able to nudge the playometer up to, say, 50%?
I feel there’s a way. How would it be if we removed the second serve? Permanently. Dump it in the courtside bins alongside the crumpled electrolyte bottles and the grip polythene. Of course, we’d effectively be ditching the first serve. It’d be just a serve.
No more one-shot rallies. Who’s gonna risk firing for an ace without a parachute? Every point begins with a 90mph invitation to engage in extended airborne warfare. You’d have longer rallies, more craft and less brute force, more tennis and less faffing around.
Pete Sampras once said a player is only as good as his second serve. And among the many nerd-feeding stats on the Association of Tennis Professionals (ATP) website lies the bare truth that landing first serves is no guarantee of success.
The Big Four were never close to the top of the first-serve chart. Indeed, Andy Murray’s average of around 60% brings him in at around 40th place. Even Federer finds himself down at 17th. So a big first delivery isn’t exactly sine qua non when it comes to legendary, all-time status.
It’ll never happen, of course. The cry for more action, longer rallies, more tennis is far from a universal one. To my amazement, there are genuinely people out there who enjoy seeing an ace fizz by. For me, if a rally is a beautiful conversation, then an ace is a full stop.
There are also folk who describe baseline trades as ‘mindless ball-bashing’. There are those who love what they call ‘craft and guile’: the kind of smart, chippy, all-court game popularised in the Pleistocene epoch of Hoad and Santana, and perpetuated through latter-day artists such as Martina Hingis and Fabrice Santoro.
Personally, I thought tennis in the pre-Open era was barely watchable. I was 13 in ’76 when Borg burst onto the scene and lit up my black-and-white world. Together with Connors and Mac, and then Lendl and co., they transformed the sport from a genteel summer garden party into a spitting, screaming, full-throttle rave.
But as the 80s and 90s unfolded and more viewing-platform options opened up, my love affair with the BBC-centric Wimbledon became more subdued. Clay and hard courts offered longer rallies, more variety, more tennis. Pre-rye grass Wimbledon was falling prey to the servebots and became a stiffer test of my devotion.
Entire decades of grass-court tennis were lost to ball-deforming human telegraph poles when a one-serve regime would have sidestepped these troubles nicely. Pete Sampras in particular nearly ended my love for the game.
But an obsession is an obsession. There was always stuff to salivate over: the ivy on Centre Court, the way the players looked like suntanned gods in real life, the brand logos on their sleeves, that Fila gear, the leather furniture next to the Patek Philippe watches on their wrists, the first delicious taste of spring in Monte Carlo.
That aside, I don’t feel it’s unreasonable to expect a greater proportion of my tennis viewing to be devoted to actual tennis. And for those who mourn the loss of the art of serving, perhaps there’s a conversation to be had about extending the service box?
My daughter became a good player, ranked 12 in the county as a junior. But she still watches little live tennis. It saddens me more than I can say.