For the final part of his series, “1968: The Year That Changed Tennis”, Martin Keady, our resident tennis historian, does not look back at the last fifty years but instead looks forward to the next fifty, to consider how tennis might change again in the half-century ahead.
Tennis has truly been transformed in the fifty years since the game went “Open” in 1968 and became fully professional, with professional players like Rod Laver finally allowed to compete in (or, as in Laver’s case, return to) the sport’s biggest events, the Majors. But what does the future look like for tennis? How might the game be transformed again in the next fifty years?
Here are ten possible (stress “possible”) developments.
- A SINGLE UNIFIED WORLD GOVERNING BODY FOR THE WHOLE SPORT
With the possible exception of its sister-sport, golf, tennis is the only major sport that does not have a single, unified world governing body. Instead, there is a veritable “acro-bliz” (a blizzard of acronyms), as the ITF (the International Tennis Federation), the ATP (Association of Tennis Professionals), the WTA (Women’s Tennis Association) and the four Majors themselves control different parts of the sport.
Remarkably, this is sometimes described as a strength, on the basis that the current non-existence of a single governing body makes it impossible for such a body to be institutionally corrupted in the way that FIFA, the supposed “governing body” of football, has been. However, that is a specious argument.
Tennis desperately needs a single unified world governing body to impose order and consistency on what is often an inconsistent if not chaotic landscape. The current debates over issues such as on-court coaching would be much more easily resolved if there was one single, powerful body in charge of the sport, capable of imposing such vital mechanisms as regularised and rigorous drug-testing, and meaningful (i.e. truly stringent) penalties, or even bans, for players of either gender who use their fame or supposedly unchallengeable status to bully umpires, other officials and even fellow players.
- A UNIFIED AND SENSIBLE TENNIS CALENDAR (COMPLETE WITH ACTUAL OFF-SEASON)
Both men’s and women’s tennis have been remarkably lucky with their current roster of superstars, particularly Roger Federer and Serena Williams, who have been astonishingly resilient and resistant to serious, long-term injury. (It is only increasing age in Federer’s case, and post-pregnancy recovery in Serena’s, that have finally begun to slow them down.) Otherwise, the inherent insanity of tennis’s supposed calendar, and in particular the absence of an actual, meaningful off-season, might have damaged or broken even these great players, as it has done so many of their less resilient contemporaries.
Rather like the sport’s governing bodies, the tennis calendar has evolved in essentially haphazard fashion, with new territories or markets (particularly Asia) being crammed in wherever it is possible to cram them. The result, as I and many other tennis fans, writers and even players have argued, is an enormously over-long and geographically incoherent calendar that sends players scurrying back and forth around the world, at enormous cost to themselves and (not coincidentally) the environment.
As I wrote last year, the entire calendar needs to be revised to prioritise and build towards the Slams, with the Australian Open being moved to the spring and the autumn “Asian swing” being placed before it, as a series of warm-up events, rather than being almost an afterthought, as it currently is. One can only hope that in the next half-century, some progress is made towards this ideal state of affairs.
- A TRUE TENNIS WORLD CUP – FOR BOTH GENDERS
Obviously, plans have already been made for the dramatically revised Davis Cup to begin next year, with one tournament for all the biggest and best tennis nations to be held in Madrid at the end of next season. In the process, however, as many female tennis players and coaches, including Great Britain captain Anne Keothavong, have pointed out, the women’s equivalent – the Federation Cup – has been almost completely forgotten.
Obviously we must wait to see how the revamped Davis Cup does next year and, in particular, whether it will succeed in its stated aim of attracting the very best male players to perform in it. If the new format does reanimate men’s team tennis, then it could act as a blueprint for similar reorganisation of women’s team tennis.
However, the suspicion remains that tennis may be missing a trick in not having a genuine “World Cup of Tennis”, i.e. one that took place every four years over a month or so, when players could forget all about their own individual careers and instead fully focus on being a team player representing their nation. That model might yet evolve in the decades ahead, and if it does it must be used for both men’s and women’s tennis.
- THE ARRIVAL OF AFRICAN TENNIS ON THE WORLD STAGE
As I outlined in an earlier post on the possible expansion of the Laver Cup to make it a uniquely inter-continental competition, African tennis is “the elephant in the room,” or rather the elephant that is not in the room. Because of obvious problems (above all the expense of playing tennis at any level, but also the need for proper courts and the space to build them on), Africa – apart from South Africa – is yet to produce a truly great tennis player of either gender.
However, as Africa belatedly experiences the kind of social transformation that other continents have already been through, notably the expansion of a viable and sustainable middle class, the continent will surely finally begin to produce, first, tennis players en masse and then, over time, the few individuals who can really compete at the top of the game.
The obvious role model for African tennis is Asian tennis. Even twenty years ago, there was little Asian presence in tennis at any level, whereas now it is probably the fastest-growing and most rapidly developing part of the tennis world, both on and off the court. There are already great Asian players such as Naomi Osaka, who recently became the second Asian woman to win a Major (after Li Na), and it is to be hoped that in the next half-century Africa will follow suit. For tennis to be the truly global game it can be, one that would only be exceeded in genuine global reach by only soccer and perhaps basketball, it needs to put Africa on the world tennis map.
- A REDUCTION TO THREE-SET MATCHES AT THE MAJORS
If this happens, it would be the most regrettable future development in tennis. Both senior administrators, such as Chris Kermode (the managing director of the ATP), and former players, most notably Billie-Jean King, have begun arguing in favour of, if not actively lobbying for, a reduction from five-set matches to three-set matches at the Majors.
As I argued earlier this year, when this move was first being widely and publicly mooted, it would be a step backwards. Five-set matches truly are the essence of tennis, or at least great tennis, and that is what tennis at the Majors should be – the greatest and highest form of the game. Given that matches at almost every other level of the game (even the Masters level, which is the next step down from the Majors) are now only three-setters, it is actually more important than ever to preserve the unique status of the Slams by ensuring that they remain the sole preserve of five-set matches.
Apart from anything else, a reduction to three-set matches at the Majors would represent a kind of historical schism, whereby it would no longer be possible to genuinely compare champions from different eras, such that Tilden can be compared with Federer, or Budge with Borg. The great, unbroken line of successive champions would finally be broken, and something magical and even mythical about tennis and its history would be lost forever.
- FEDERER’S AND COURT’S ALL-TIME MAJOR RECORDS TO BE BROKEN
Of course, this could be the first of these ten possible developments to happen, and in the very near future. Serena Williams is only one Major away from tying Margaret Court’s record of 24 Major Singles wins, and now that Novak Djokovic has finally rediscovered his mojo there is every chance that he will close in on and finally overtake Roger Federer’s current total of 20 Major singles wins.
Of course, as in life itself, nothing is certain in tennis. The problems that Serena has already experienced on returning to tennis after giving birth demonstrate that even she, the fiercest of competitors, may eventually have to bow down to the ultimate mother – Mother Nature herself – and accept that she will be unable to pass Court’s record.
As for Novak, it is possible that his recent return to Major-winning form has come just a little too late for him to catch and pass Federer. If he had continued his irrepressible form of 2015-16, when he achieved a non-calendar Slam of holding all four Major titles simultaneously, he might actually have beaten Federer to the 20 mark. But of course, for whatever reason, he didn’t, and surely the “Next Gen,” particularly Dominic Thiem, will finally begin to win Majors themselves, which might just put a stop to Djokovic’s assault on Federer’s record.
- THE DEATH OF DOUBLES
It could easily be argued that doubles play is already dead, given its dramatic decline from its mid-20th century peak when the greatest male and female tennis players prided themselves on playing both singles and doubles tennis. (Rod Laver, for example, won nine Grand Slam doubles titles to go alongside his 11 Grand Slam singles titles.) And of course the future development of the Davis Cup could eventually lead to a reduction in the one area of the sport outside the Majors where the two-player format is still valued.
If doubles does end up completely dying out as a significant, visible part of top-flight tennis, it would be a huge shame and arguably something even worse than that – the irrecoverable loss of an element of tennis that should still be a fundamental part of playing the game in any format, namely volleying. The now decades-long decline in volleying has gone hand in hand with the similarly historical decline in doubles play, but if doubles and the ability to volley were completely lost then surely tennis would lose a little part of its soul, or at least its appeal. If the sport consisted solely of baseline ball-bashing, it would be an infinitely poorer one.
- MOTORISED WHEELCHAIR TENNIS
Wheelchair tennis is, thankfully, an increasingly important and visible part of tennis. The sheer maneuvrability involved in playing wheelchair tennis, whereby players are continually encircling their own side of the net in an attempt to be ready for their opponent’s return, makes it for me one of the most purely watchable of all disability or Paralympic sports. That is because the addition of the wheelchair and its associated encircling make wheelchair tennis an entirely different form of tennis, rather than (as can be the case with some disability or Paralympic sports) a reduced or even watered-down version of the original sport.
However, the future for wheelchair tennis could be completely transformed by the continuing development of new technology. It is already possible to use motorized wheelchairs to play tennis, but in the not-too-distant future the development of hand or even thought-control technology (which is only in its absolute infancy at the moment but nonetheless already exists) would enable wheelchair tennis players to concentrate solely on playing tennis and far less on actually moving their way around the court.
- GENUINELY SINGLE-HANDED TENNIS PLAYERS
It is one of Wimbledon’s wonderful, traditional quirks that the men’s singles champion each year is still presented with a trophy that bears the inscription, “All-England Lawn Tennis Club Single Handed Championship of the World.” In the future, however, that might not just be a quaint old phrase but an actual fact, as it is increasingly possible to envisage a world in which actual single-handed players (i.e. those either born with just one hand, or who have lost a hand through injury or disease) are able to compete against their two-handed counterparts.
The obvious sporting torch-bearer in this regard is the truly remarkable Shaquem Griffin, who this year became the first one-handed wide receiver in American football (or gridiron), when he signed for the Seattle Seahawks. If Griffin in 2018 can genuinely compete in the ultra-physical, ultra-competitive sport of American football, then it is certainly not inconceivable that by 2028 (or even earlier) a one-handed player of either gender might be able to take their part in the far gentler world of professional tennis. At least when they reach for a ball, they will not have a dozen other players trying to stomp them into the grass as they do so.
- MEN AND WOMEN COMPETING AGAINST EACH OTHER
Even though the 21st century is only in its infancy (we are still less than a fifth of the way through it), it is already evident that one of the most important ideas of the entire century will be its increasing fluidity. Obviously that applies in all parts of life, even such complex areas as gender and sexuality, so it definitely applies in sport, too. And just as it is increasingly possible to envisage able and disabled athletes competing against each other, so it is increasingly possible to envisage men and women competing against each other, in tennis as in any other sport.
It is not a case of there being a rerun of the Bobby Riggs versus Billie-Jean King “Battle of the Sexes.” Instead, as technology advances and human potential (both physical and mental) is increasingly unlocked, it is absolutely not impossible that a woman might one day (even soon) match up to a man so well physically (in areas such as speed, stamina and above all strength) that she will be able to compete against him in a game or sport. It may well be that that never becomes the norm, but it is certainly not inconceivable, in tennis as in any sport, that a few uniquely gifted females, or even one uniquely gifted female, will be able to compete on a level playing field against her male counterparts. If that does happen, then being the tennis fanatic that I am I can only hope that I’m still alive to see it.