A steady stream of players are abandoning tennis for golf, and Tim Heckler claims to have the tool to again make the tennis courts buzz like a beehive in summertime. His solution: handicap.
"One of the biggest challenges in tennis is to find opponents of the same playing level," says Mr. Heckler, president of the United States Professional Tennis Association, an organization of tennis teaching professionals. "For years, golf has had a great handicapping system to encourage play and spark interest in the sport."
Handicap allows golfers of disparate abilities an equal chance of winning - at least theoretically. It has been an attractive invitation for prospective golfers, where the good player and the bad player can play together and enjoy the competition.
Now, the USPTA says a similar concept called "Tencap" will level the court and provide tennis players with the kind of equalizer once reserved for golfers. The Houston-based tennis organization speaks of Tencap in glowing terms.
An official year-long assessment of Tencap's potential was recently lobbed onto tennis facilities in the Northeast. The initial enthusiasm is encouraging, says Jeff Waters, executive director of the United States Tennis Association/New England, which is monitoring the experiment for recreational interest as well as competition.
Tencap is the outcome of Kirkland Gates's foray into golf. The Kansas City, Mo., tennis player then teamed with Peter Hitch of Minnetonka, Minn., to design and market the computer-based system.
Here's how the system works. It costs $15 a year to sign up. Players are then assigned a computerized number ranging from zero (the top international male player) to 65. Suppose Jill is a better player than Jack. And Jack has a rating of 30, and Jill has a rating of 25. The handicap is the difference between two opponents' ratings, so Jack may take five "free" points at any time during each set. Rankings are updated biweekly based on scores.
The USPTA does not recommend the system in matches between players with a wide difference in ratings. Why? Anyone familiar with tennis will know that it is possible to win a set in 24 points, if a player does not lose a single point in the six games. Thus, if Jill has a 10 rating and Jack 35, he could win the set by taking 24 points up front (6-0). A rating difference exceeding 10 points is generally considered ineffective.
Critics say if the system is good only for players of "almost equal" abilities, why bother to have a handicap.
As a last resort, there's the time-tested locker room wheeling and dealing, with the better player offering a concession such as "I'll give you one point up front in each game."
Others offer to cover more ground on the court or limit their serves. Rules can be changed midway through the game by mutual agreement.
Perhaps the most celebrated handicap match was the "battle of the sexes," when Jimmy Connors, past his prime in 1992, played Martina Navratilova for a guaranteed $500,000 each.
Connors got only one serve and covered about five more feet of court beyond the usual singles sidelines. (He won anyway, 7-5, 6-2). Such concessions attempt to equalize players by limiting their physical abilities. They neutralize the better player's speed and accuracy.
"Tennis is an interactive game - a give and take from both players. No handicap system (like the Connors-Navratilova match) is good for that reason," says Ed Weathers, senior editor at Tennis magazine. "But Tencap (which is based on scoring) could be a useful thing in order to make competition among unequal players more interesting. It is as good a system as can be created."