Wimbledon: Volleying the Issues

IN contrast with last year, when heavy rains marred the first four days' play, the 106th Wimbledon Championships, which conclude this weekend, have been blessed with many long sunny days and almost continuous action. As a result, there's been far more tennis than talk about tennis.

But you can't bring together more than 700 journalists from close to 50 countries without spirited debate on such topics as power tennis, overzealous parents, burnout, and international events like the Davis Cup.

In moments snatched from a hectic schedule calling for coverage on 18 courts for Monitor Radio, I managed a few quick rallies with three experienced journalists (see description of their backgrounds at left):

How are modern rackets changing the sport? Are "touch players" an endangered species?

Rex Bellamy: Up to a point modern rackets are changing the sport, bringing it more speed and more power, and those qualities are the enemies of grace and finesse. On the other hand we can't take technology backwards.

R.A.J. (Bob) Hewitt: Touch players only have a chance on European clay. And they're not helped by the fact that the tennis balls of today are harder and faster. I think the balls should be slowed down.

Alison Muscatine: The size and strength of the players is another factor. But we have to remember that not all the top players are using the new rackets, and they still manage to compete at the levels of power that we've now become accustomed to seeing. But I don't believe touch has gone forever, and there are still players who will manage to overcome some of the power with touch.

Rex Bellamy: Yes, touch players do survive, and, of course, the game changes all the time in little ways, so we may come full circle and see the days once again when another Santana or a Panatta or a Nastase or a Pietrangeli will emerge.

Modern technology is threatening to replace even line judges. Should tennis move in that direction?

Hewitt: At the moment it's not possible. But it would take the human element out of the game. For me "Cyclops," which controls the service line in singles, is more than enough.

Muscatine: I think human fallibility is one of the things that makes the game interesting. It's a game of a certain amount of subjectivity, and a certain amount of precision. But we are human beings, and line calls have always been controversial. I think it's the nature of the game. You get a bad bounce, a bad line call, and to be a great player you have to overcome that. To make it so scientific that it reduces it to a sport of perfection would be a shame.

Bellamy: I think we might have more technology insofar as it's appropriate and effective. But we'll always need a fully trained corps of line judges. You might have a power breakdown! And you know the umpires have always said, on the whole, they make about 2 percent of errors, which they think is pretty good. If the rest of us in our jobs could limit ourselves to 2 percent maybe we wouldn't feel too inadequate.

There are some rather overbearing tennis parents out there. Is there anything the sport should be doing to prevent possible child exploitation?

Muscatine: The danger is in the parents themselves. We should be asking ourselves who are these people who need to live through their children, and why are they so involved and pushy? But I'm not sure what the sport can do, frankly.

Bellamy: The sport's doing it already. The players' associations have done a great deal to warn parents in advance about the emotional and physical hazards for children, and many parents and coaches are spacing out those desperately strenuous competition and practice schedules. The real threat is overambitious parents wanting to acquire fame and fortune through their children.

Is "tennis burnout" still as much of a threat as ever?

Hewitt: It's not the game that's causing the burnout. It's those parents, and the coaches, and the hangers-on, and the managers. They are the ones who put on all the pressure.

Muscatine: I don't think we'll see a lot of players competing into their 30s. They make so much money now, even in a mediocre career, that they don't have as much financial incentive for so long, and they don't have as much of a desire to be great competitors. It's going to be a very rare player who can withstand the pressure, and the scrutiny, and the physical requirements involved now in playing week after week against such strong players.

In an already crowded tennis calendar, do the Davis Cup for men and the Federation Cup for women serve any real purpose?

Bellamy: It's marvelous for the players and the public to have a team event. It's great fun. Any international event is a wonderful outlet for those patriotic emotions within us. And, I would add, a World Team Championship incorporating all five events (singles and doubles and mixed doubles), and I would also like genuine World Championships on a points system. The game is more versatile than the media would have us believe. It has more facets than have been exploited by the media.

Hewitt: The Davis Cup and the Federation Cup are the most important aspects of tennis, especially the Davis Cup. Unlike the women's event, which is held at just one venue, it involves a lot of travel, and ties [matches] are played in many different countries. Dozens of nations get involved, and it creates huge interest in the game, especially among young people. For the players the team aspect is good. Often four people who don't like each other come together to represent their country, and for a week th ey like each other or else!

Muscatine: These competitions force players who are so used to focusing on themselves to sacrifice a week or two in the year playing for their country, and it at least helps to put the brakes on the egocentrism that's in the sport now. But I wish they weren't paid to play Davis Cup, even though it's only a small fee by their standards.

Do you welcome the reinstatement of tennis in the Olympics?

Hewitt: No. I can't even tell you who won last time.

Bellamy: I don't think tennis needs the Olympics, and I'm sure the Olympics don't need tennis. Tennis already has a congested professional schedule, and all the big events it needs. In tennis terms an Olympic competition is comparatively trivial.

Muscatine: I think it's a little odd to have players who compete in Grand Slam tournaments, which are what they and the fans care about, competing for Olympic gold medals. Despite their protestations otherwise, I don't really buy it. I think the Grand Slam events will always have a greater reverence and prestige than the Olympics, and I think they should.

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