Every couple of years Wimbledon lives in the shadow of a major football tournament. In 2018 that shadow seemed longer and darker than ever. It didn’t help that Andy Murray was no-show on the grass and that Johanna Konta couldn’t get beyond the second round, but football still squashes all that gets in its path. It doesn’t have to consider adapting to survive; it’s the right length, simple to understand, cheap to play and truly global. Don’t take on football because you’ll lose.
Tennis has issues beyond football. Apart from Wimbledon, tennis has virtually no profile in Britain. It’s 15 years since Tim Adams wrote his excellent Being John McEnroe and the line, “For the English, tennis is not so much a sport as a fortnight” is as true now as it was in 2003. Wimbledon is tennis rooted in the past and a quick glance to the future should be cause for concern.
The men’s game has been carried for the majority of the 21st century by Roger Federer and Rafa Nadal, with a little help from Murray and Novak Djokovic. Serena Williams is women’s tennis, no one comes near her. All are in their thirties and nearing the end of quite brilliant careers. Imagine a final in 2019 between John Isner and Kevin Anderson. Would you still be in front of your television as the match entered its seventh hour with no sign of a break of serve in the deciding set even with no football to escape to?
Wimbledon is the world’s most prestigious tennis tournament and by working with the ITF it has the chance to reinvent itself and create a new future for the sport.
Firstly, let’s make all tennis tournaments uniform and have tie-breaks in the deciding set. It’s not just the young who have issues when it comes to waning attention spans. All sports that are considered overly time-consuming are struggling — look at golf — and 50-game sets just aren’t funny.
Next up, make all matches best of three sets, certainly up to the semi-finals of grand-slam singles and then play best of five, men and women. Snooker and darts matches get longer in duration the deeper into a tournament you go, so why not tennis? It would also appease those who like to bleat about gender and prize money.
Lastly, take away the second serve and the let. If a serve lands in continue the point, out and the point is over. This would add to the game as it would take guts to unleash an all-or-nothing serve at a critical point in a match. Far too much of tennis takes place without the ball in play and that simply doesn’t make sense.
Maybe this Wimbledon was underwhelming because it was overwhelmed by a fabulous World Cup, but tennis is not immune from the challenges that face all sports. But as goes Wimbledon, so goes tennis. It’s time for the sport to be brave and face the future and Wimbledon should take the lead.