If I guaranteed you that the 2008 Wimbledon men's final would be the best tennis match of the past 20 years, would you watch it?
Amazingly, many sports fans would say no. Maybe they'd flick over to NBC a few times to "monitor the action." Maybe they'd swing by for the fifth set. Maybe they'd watch a few games and get bored, then allow themselves to be sucked in by Under Siege or a Tila Tequila marathon. But I don't have a single friend who'd watch four hours of tennis on a Sunday morning and, I'm guessing, neither do you.
Once a successful mainstream sport, tennis now matters twice a year—during Wimbledon and the U.S. Open—and even then it's not like America shakes with Racket Fever or anything. The mainstream media still cover tennis, and the ratings for majors are still okay. But when was the last time you watched a big match from start to finish? When was the last time you attended one? When did you last have an argument about something tennis-related that didn't boil down to "Who do you think is hotter?"
Unlike golf, another time-sucking sport that appeals to a specific audience, tennis lacks a Tiger to keep it relevant. When tennis develops its own version of Tiger—first Pete Sampras, then Roger Federer—the guys do almost more damage than good. We see the best tennis stars as the Ping-Pong player at a family gathering who destroys all the uncles and cousins, and eventually kills everyone's interest in playing Ping-Pong for the day. Golf is a sport that hinges on luck and timing, streaks and slumps, and the quirks of different courses. So it's almost inconceivable for a golfer to dominate as Tiger has. But for Federer to dominate, it's completely conceivable. And boring.
Beyond that, a transcendent golfer may stick around for 40 years, and we're aware of this, so it's only natural for us to get more attached to him. We've known Tiger since he was crushing kids as a little guy, we knew him when his father passed away, and we'll know him when he's wearing a bad hairpiece and obliterating the Champions Tour in 2033. By contrast, a great tennis career always unfolds the same way: Guy kills himself for a few years getting to the top and staying there; guy gets bored; guy starts sleeping with actresses/models; guy drops in the rankings; guy makes a brief resurgence; guy loses hair and retires; guy disappears forever. This has to have happened 47 times since I was 10. I'd argue that we haven't attached ourselves to Federer because we know another Federer will eventually come off the assembly line. Because one always does.
Another big problem: Tennis got too fast (thanks to high-tech rackets, superior conditioning and 130 mph serves), which turned it into a young person's game. Remember an aging Jimmy Connors willing himself into the 1991 U.S. Open semis at age 39? Those days are long gone. Elite players have a shorter shelf life than porn stars. When you hit your late 20s having already won $25 million and a few majors, there's no incentive to continue to practice eight hours a day so you can keep up with the next generation. I mean, you could be doing more important things … like sitting courtside for a Lakers game, going to the ESPYs or eating Kobe beef filets with Mandy Moore at STK.
That's not the only side effect of the speed thing. Not to sound like Grumpy Old Man, but back when I fell for tennis, they played with wooden rackets—and we liked it! When John McEnroe and Björn Borg had their "Battle of 18-16" at Wimbledon, it wasn't serve-and-volley, serve-and-volley, serve-and-volley; some of the points lasted for 45 or 50 seconds, and they always seemed to end with McEnroe just missing a winner, then sagging in disbelief. Now, I'm not saying tennis should return to wood rackets. You can't go backward. The game has evolved to a faster version of itself, and that's that. But we'll never see anything like Borg-McEnroe again. The equipment prevents it.
As much as tennis needs it, I'm not sure the emergence of another guy like McEnroe is going to happen either. Other sports can have their LeBrons and Kobes, child prodigies or polarizing personalities whom we can obsess over and analyze endlessly. But these days, succeeding at tennis lends itself to being an exceedingly boring person. You need to be calm, focused and diligent, 24 hours a day. Could Allen Iverson have been a world-class tennis player? Athletically, yes. Emotionally, no.
That doesn't mean we can't move tennis into the 21st century. I see three fixes that can help the sport regain a little buzz, beyond more radical moves like no longer allowing female players to wear tennis bras, or if you hit someone with the ball you win the point.
Fix No. 1
Allow cheering, booing, hooting, chanting—anything short of hooliganism—during matches. If you want to keep one "quiet" major, fine, take Wimbledon. For every other tournament, fans should be allowed to act like—hold on, novel concept approaching—fans. If A-Rod can hit a 101 mph fastball at Fenway with fans yelling about his sexual preference, Venus and Roger can handle a second serve amid some background noise.
(Seriously, have you been to a tournament? Tennis and golf are the only sporting events at which you're expected to drink liquor and not make noise. How does that make sense? I don't like being anyplace where I might be shushed. It's just one of my rules in life.)
Fix No. 2
You can't have four "majors" when absolutely nobody cares about one of them. (I believe not even The Schwab could name the last 10 Australian Open winners.) Why not make the Australian a major mixed-doubles event? Wouldn't it be fun to see who pairs with whom? It would be like waiting to see who's taking whom to the prom, right? How would they play together? Would they fall in love, like they do in Dancing With the Stars? You're interested already, I can tell.
Fix No. 3
Change the set format—make women play best of five, men best of seven—but tighten them (to first to four games) and extend tiebreakers (from first to seven points to first to nine). It's the Short Attention Span era, and there's no going back. I watch baseball while answering e-mails and texting my friends. I can't drive for more than five minutes without calling someone. I can watch up to 15 shows/movies/games at the same time. Even at a Celtics playoff game, I find myself habitually checking my BlackBerry during timeouts. And I'm in my mid-30s. I can only imagine what it must be like to be a kid right now. Or a teenager.
Yup, our attention is occupied every second of the day, and that cripples tennis worse than anything else. Back in the late 1970s, we had something like nine TV channels. If Borg went up two sets on Connors, I'd still watch the third because Tila Tequila and Steven Seagal weren't lurking on other channels. Now they are. Even Bud Collins would have to admit tennis matches have too much dead time and not enough meaningful moments. By adding sets, shortening the length of those sets and extending tiebreakers, we'd be redistributing the number of points and increasing their collective importance.
It's a radical move but a logical one. See, tennis didn't change. We changed. Maybe that's the biggest problem of all.