Skip to main content
Original Issue

Suggestion: down with love

James Van Alen, president of the National Lawn Tennis Hall of Fame at Newport and chairman of the time-honored Newport Invitation Tournament, here takes the witness stand and presents his radical ideas on streamlining tennis. Mr. Van Alen's career as a player dates back to his college days at Cambridge, England, where he captained the Oxford-Cambridge team which defeated the combined Yale-Harvard squad of 1924. Even today, at 55, he wields an aggressive and enthusiastic racket

Q. Mr. Van Alen, what quarrels do you have with the game as it is played today?

A. I have no quarrels with the game, but I do have two recommendations to make which would bring it up to date. First, I think the scoring system, which, by the way, is over 400 years old, is obsolete and should be changed. To the casual spectator, love, 15, 30, 40, deuce and 'vantage (D'V) and back to deuce again makes no sense at all. In tournament play the D'V factor is not only unfair to the players, but it also brings untold headaches to the tournament committee and sometimes robs the spectator of his money's worth.

For instance, in the Nationals, where all matches are the best three out of five sets, one player may conceivably play a series of three-hour matches on succeeding days, while another may play one-hour matches. Supposing the players to be of the same caliber, the marathon player will be at a great disadvantage, due to the long matches he has already played.

Q. You said the present system is a headache to the officials. How?

A. It can disrupt the entire timing of the tournament schedule. Suppose that three matches are scheduled in the Stadium court. Say, 1:30, 3:00 and 4:30. The first match starts promptly enough but becomes a D'V marathon. At 3:30 it is still going on, and hope of playing the 4:30 match on the Stadium court is dwindling with the light. The officials are faced with the decision of trying to squeeze in the 4:30 match in the hope that it and the 3:00 match will be short ones or of putting it on an outside court. If they decide to take a chance on squeezing it in, the match will probably be stopped because of darkness and finished the next day. If they decide on an outside court, the gallery which paid to see three matches will only see two. Very often the third match is the most interesting of the three. The players in the third match, as well as the officials, are in a state of uncertainty, wondering when, where and if the match will be put on, and whether there'll be time to finish before the light fails.

Q. What changes in the scoring system do you propose?

A. I recommend eliminating the D'V factor by adopting the table-tennis scoring system, in which only points and games are scored, the games corresponding to sets in tennis. However, where 21 points win the table tennis game, 31 points would win the lawn tennis set. This would mean a maximum of approximately 60 points, or roughly the equivalent of a lawn tennis set of nine games of seven points a game. I think such a set would be a fair test of skill and endurance. Players would alternate serving every five points and change court every 10. If the game should reach 30 points all, the first player to lead by two points would win.

At 30 points all, the players would spin for serve, alternate serving with each point and change court on the odd point, 31-30, 33-32, etc. This would balance the advantage of serve against the natural hazards of wind and sun. Service would be broken with the loss of one point instead of a full D'V game as at present.

Q. Wasn't the table-tennis scoring system tried and discarded in the 1956 pro tournament in Cleveland?

A. Yes, it was, but it never got a fair chance, for, along with the change in scoring, the second serve was eliminated in an effort to harness the power service. I think the players were so worried about the single service that the advantages of the table-tennis scoring system were lost in the shuffle. In fact, by using a 21-point set instead of the 31-point one I recommend, it might even be argued that the pros never troubled to think it out thoroughly.

Q. What other change do you consider necessary?

A. I believe that the serve in tennis should be de-emphasized. When the court dimensions were established back in the '70s, the serve was simply a method of putting the ball in play. It was not intended to become the offensive weapon it is today.

Q. How do you propose to put the serve back where it belongs?

A. One of two ways. By reducing the target area, or by lessening the sharpness of the angle of flight of the service. The length of the server's court could be cut down by moving the service line one foot nearer the net; the width by creating individual center lines a foot apart [see diagram]. Or the sharpness of angle of the service could be flattened out by creating a server's line three feet back of the present base line.

Either proposition can do the trick. Both should be tested out.

The server's line would offer added advantages: the extra distance to the net would discourage the server from the present-day custom of automatically following his serve to the net; the saving in wear on the base lines of grass courts would be tremendous.

Q. Why are you against power serves?

A. Because it has destroyed the original concept of strategy and tactics and has given the serve a greater value than it was intended to have.

Q. Where did the power serve come from and when?

A. When Maurice McLoughlin cometed in from California with it in 1909. In his bag of shots he had the first American twist serve. He used a brand-new action and a revolutionary striking technique which gave a crosscut overspin and a sideways kick to the ball. It gave a severity to the service and an advantage to a net-storming server that the architects of the game had never contemplated. Maurie struck the spark which players like Kramer, Gonzales and others have fanned to a flame. Each point has now become a case of big serve and a scramble for the net position—serve, weak return and volley—three shots and the point is over. Long rallies are today the exception to the rule, and services, because of their pulverizing power, are won with a monotonous regularity which stifles much of the variety and interest in the game for "both the players and the spectators alike.

Q. If the power serve were harnessed, what would be the result?

A. Ground strokes would regain their rightful importance. Loss of service would become more frequent, and the net attack would again become a strategic maneuver as it was in the days of the Dohertys, Bill Larned and Bill Tilden. Even Big Bill's famous cannon ball never had the speed and accuracy of today's big serves. Mostly, he had to work his way into the net in the classic style.

Q. How would you sum up your proposition?

A. The two shortcomings of tennis which I have described can easily be remedied. The D'V factor and the power serve handicap the popularity of the game from both the player and spectator points of view. Other games have modified their rules to fit changing conditions. Why not tennis? Cut out the D'V scoring factor and soften the power serve and you will have streamlined the game and opened up the way to a new and far greater national popularity than it has ever known before.


MAURICE McLOUGHLIN, the California comet, fathered big serve 50 years ago.




VAN ALEN PROPOSES to harness the power service by either of two devices: a) installing a special server's line (solid blue line) three feet behind regular base line or else b) creating a small service court (dotted blue lines within regular service court), thus reducing the width by six inches and the length by one foot.