A Modest Proposal

The previous post discussed a way in which the game of tennis is broken. The advantage accruing to the server has become so great that it is no longer sensible to play and score tennis in the traditional way.

The response of the tennis establishment has been the invention of a new type of game, the tiebreak, in which the advantages of serving are shared more equally because in a tiebreak both players get a chance to serve. And this solution is probably, now, a permanent part of tennis – it’s hard to imagine going back to the days before the tiebreaker.

There is still a need, however, to address the underlying problem lest the imbalance between serve and return grow so large that all games except the tiebreaks become meaningless. And this should probably be done in a way that requires the smallest possible alteration of the existing rules of tennis.

I have a modest proposal.

In tennis, the custom from time immemorial is that the line is “in”, that is, that a shot landing on the line is counted as a good shot. But there are plenty of sports that treat their lines differently.

In American football or basketball, for example, the line is out – step on the line and you’re out of bounds. In cricket, lines are treated a little differently – it’s OK to step on the line, but some part of your foot has to be on the fair side of the line. In soccer, a goal counts only if the entire ball crosses the goal line, and is still in play unless the entire ball crosses a side or end line. In ice hockey, a player is not offside unless his entire body is across the blue line before the puck crosses.

Here’s the proposal for fixing tennis: On the serve only, balls landing on any part of the line defining the service area should be considered out rather than in.

Simple, no? What’s happening is that the service box is being shrunk by the width of the line in all directions. And, as the bouncing ball has a footprint of a couple of inches, the legal target for the serve is reduced a bit more. But this is accomplished without having to change the court at all – it’s not the court that’s changing, just the way the court is interpreted.

This change would have a more dramatic effect on some surfaces than on others. On clay courts, the line is represented by a tape that causes balls to bounce very differently that they do when they hit only clay. The effect is, usually, to make the server harder to return. The serves ruled out according to the new rule are, on balance, serves that give the server an additional advantage of making the returner play a bad bounce. And while the effect is most dramatic on clay, the line bounces a little differently than the rest of the court on nearly all surfaces.

It remains to be seen whether this “line out rule” would diminish the server’s advantage sufficiently to restore balance to tennis. But it couldn’t hurt. And other ways to address the problem seem to involve much more drastic alterations to the rules of the game.


3 thoughts on “A Modest Proposal”

  1. Upon seeing a few games of the US Open, including a Player’s Challenge involving the ad-deuce line, I think that this could only be partially done:

    Outside of Doubles, the “Outer line” for a Service Box would be sometimes “in” and sometimes “out”. From what (little) I understand, Hawkeye only determines position; not state-of-the-point. Thus, it would could make determinations based solely on where the ball hits, thus being unable to have distinct definitions of “In/Out” for the same point (on the court).

    I could, however, see the mid-line separating the fore-court from the back-court as being part of the latter, i.e. not part of either the ad-box nor the deuce-box. I could also technically see the line dividing the ad- and deuce-boxes as being its own entity, and, thus, part of neither.

    Then again, if the system as presently done still requires the Umpire to call “Fair/Foul”, then the above limitation doesn’t apply. (i.e. Hawkeye etc. would merely be the Appellate Triers of Fact on this Court, whereas the Umpire would always be the Trier of Law.)


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