ohn Shepley is in summer mood and offers an account of the recent remarkable events at the All-England Lawn Tennis Club
Only a few seasons ago it would have been difficult to imagine anything which could shake the sedate, middle-class world of English tennis, but now it is possible to reveal the whole story of the radical and irreversible changes which have taken England out of the international tennis scene and caused an almighty rift among lovers of the game.
The first change took place back in the early 1960s when at a series of stormy AGMs, two well-known players from the Joint Universities Tennis Association argued for a lowering of the net. They were for a faster, racier, less inhibited game and saw the height of the net as an unnecessary obstacle. To lower it six inches – preferably a foot – would speed things up and make it easier to introduce young players to the sport. The J.U.T.A. were understandably worried that tennis was little played or understood in the average comprehensive school.
As more than one member of the Standing Committee predicted, within five years the Club had removed the net altogether. Looking back it now seems to have been inevitable. Though the break with the game’s great tradition was one which many members regretted, they saw that the arguments (which they themselves had supported) in favour of lowering the net, led logically to its complete abandonment. The ‘Open Court Group’ on the Club Council had been campaigning for some time on television and in the sports pages of the quality dailies: when the AGM met, the voting was a foregone conclusion. A sizable number arrived with the now familiar orange IT’S A WIDE OPEN GAME stickers on their Volvos and Toyotas; and by a majority of six or seven votes, the net was removed.
The next few years were years of ferment in British Tennis. Some local clubs understandably resisted the change. As one official of the All-England Club told the Guardian tennis correspondent: ‘Some of these people have really lost the vision of just what tennis is all about. It is an open, friendly game. We in British tennis want to welcome all comers. And if that means making some minor adjustments, so much the better.’
Much-needed alterations were proposed to the terminology of the game. These proceeded with the minimum of fuss. True, a few bigots regarded the changes as both foolish and unnecessary. But reasonable people are always reluctant to give offence. And when the reasons for the changes were explained to them, and it was pointed out that most of the basic language of tennis was offensive, they readily agreed that it be altered.
‘Fault,’ with its judgemental overtones, was the first to go. And then ‘service,’ which could easily be shown to be too closely related to ‘servile’, ‘servant’ and other unacceptable notions. Last to go was the inflated method of scoring. To award points in blocks of fifteen, it was suggested, was to emphasize out of all proportion the destructive, competitive aspects of the game. In the end all that remained was the solitary term ‘love.’
The next major controversy was about the racket. For some time, influential members of the Club had been drawing attention to the changes in design and construction which the racket had already undergone in the course of the history of tennis. Clearly, they pointed out, there was nothing fixed or immutable about rackets. Every change which had been made in their materials and construction had affected the style of the game. Change, they had come to see, was at the very heart of tennis as a living game. And now, surely, the time had come for the most major change of all: the racket should be abandoned in favour of the greater immediacy which would be gained by actually handling the ball.
The Committee was doubtful. They were not sure the Club had really settled down after the removal of the net – and in any case, there was no clear evidence that the earlier change had had the desired result. Whilst viewing figures for televised tennis matches had remained gratifyingly high, the number of those actively engaged in playing it at tennis clubs up and down the country had continued to decline.
It was an in-for-a-penny-in-for-a-pound mood which prevailed at the fateful AGM which now saw the final abandonment of the racket. Orange stickers were again in evidence; the new slogan LET’S GET OUR HANDS ON TENNIS! was partly an allusion to the removal of the racket and partly an expression of new confidence. It proved to be well-placed. In the heated debate which followed, the ‘Racketeers’ were ill-prepared and easily outmanoeuvred. When the AGM broke up into small ‘Buzz Groups’ (‘Mixed Doubles’ as they were called), what remained of the opposition was effectively stifled. What emerged was described by the newly-elected President as ‘a courageous series of important changes, infusing new life into tennis and saving the game for our age and generation.’
After a period of ‘provisionality and experiment’ during which various versions of the new rules were tried out on courts up and down the country, the Club settled down.
Said George (69), a groundsman at Wimbledon for forty years, ‘I like the new game. It’s faster, suits the players better and I like the physical contact. Who says you can’t teach an old dog new tricks?’
Said the manager of the All Black’s Touring XV (a woman who had devoted the whole of her active life to promoting good rugby), ‘Well, David, it’s just fine to see a bunch of healthy young girls and boys like you really enjoying yourselves. But why, in Heaven’s name, go on calling it tennis?’