Five bold predictions about a sport long averse to change. (AP)
Tennis has changed radically since the game went Open in 1968. One moment, Rod Laver is swinging a Dunlop Maxply Fort on the green lawn of an exclusive country club. He’s dressed all in white, wearing a matching bucket hat. Less than five years later, Billie Jean King is a sequined blur, blasting away at Bobby Riggs in the Houston Astrodome on behalf of women everywhere.
It was a seminal cultural moment, the Battle of the Sexes. It may not have happened at all were it not for a groundswell of public interest in tennis, created when pros like King finally were allowed to compete along with amateurs.
The changes came hard and heavy back in those days. World Team Tennis, with its multi-colored courts. Rhinestone-studded, peacock-worthy tennis dresses courtesy of couturier Ted Tinling. A new concept for the men: a Grand Prix tour. Logo madness: WCT (World Championship Tennis), VS (Virginia Slims) and CU (Commercial Union, an early sponsor), all seals of approval, all signs of big money moving in.
Then, a bombshell change in the game itself: the tiebreaker. The ITF provisionally adopted the 13-point tiebreaker (originally, it was played at 8-games all) in 1970. Hey, it works!
And inevitably, it all slowed down.
The changes became institutionalized. With the feeding frenzy over, the sharks turned on each other. Turf wars left everyone bloody. But the game? It improved. Average players became good; good players became great. Amateur players became extinct.
The “swinging ’60s” effect slowed. Maybe tennis dresses with giant, Alice-in-Wonderland collars weren’t so cool. Maybe smoking wasn’t so cool. Virginia Slims saw the handwriting on the charts and pulled out of women’s tennis. WCT folded up; there would be no tennis equivalent of the NFL. Big changes stopped happening.
Left standing: the four Grand Slam tournaments; separate, nearly year-long tours; a stable and fair ranking system; a multi-surface game; and, of course, the predominantly-white clothing rule at Wimbledon.
A person wondering in 1968 what the future held for the new, Open game would likely be impressed. But it raises the question, how different is tennis likely to be 20 years from now? What will be new or different? Here are a few ideas.
1. THE GAME HAS A FIFTH MAJOR: INDIAN WELLS
Ion Tiriac, who created the Madrid combined tournament and found a way to shoehorn it into the heart of the calendar, rhetorically asked: “Where is it written that there can be only four Grand Slams?”
The former player and Romanian billionaire was thinking of his own tournament as a fifth major, but he outfoxed himself. The tournament is simply too close to the French Open on the calendar. A different billionaire, Larry Ellison, has a stronger case to make. In fact, he’s already turned Indian Wells into a de facto mini-major.
The 10-day combined event in the California desert draws as well as a Slam, and both players and fans love it. The tournament begins six weeks after the end of the Australian Open, filling a Grand Slam void that lasts until the French Open. The ITF will come to realize that this is too good an opportunity to pass up and approach Ellison.
Ellison does not need any more money, but might like the idea of earning a place in tennis history as “father of the fifth major.”
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