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Introduced not quite a century ago under a name born for oblivion, the game itself promises to last forever
June 1971 | Volume 22, Issue 4
The other appurtenances of the game —nets, balls, and rackets—evolved slowly during the early years of tennis, with relatively little change in the net, a bit more in the ball (which grew steadily more uniform and more lively), and the most of all in the racket. In this connection it probably is news to many players today that the rules of the game have nothing whatever to say about the racket. It can be of any size, shape, or material, and the “standard” model is purely a convention. Nothing would prevent a player from entering a tennis tournament armed with a Ping-Pong racket or a baseball bat, if that suited his whim, although he might not do too well in the competition. In actuality, of course, the search has been for a well-balanced, more resilient racket that would impart more speed to the ball with less effort, and this has led to tighter and tighter stringing and—recently—to metal frames. Catgut (made, paradoxically, from sheepgut) is still preferred by most good players to the more durable nylon, which first made its appearance in tennis rackets shortly after World War II .
Everything considered, tennis changed far more in the first twenty-six years of its existence in America than it has in the seventy-one years since 1900. As the new century began, the game was being played much the way it is today, and it is altogether likely that the male champions of 1900 would give a good account of themselves were they to appear in a modern tournament. It was in that year, by the way, that regular international competition was launched in the name of what is now called the Davis Cup. Dwight F. Davis, of St. Louis, a well-fixed Harvard senior in 1900 and (with his classmate Holcombe Ward) a United States doubles champion, donated the now-famous silver bowl to the U.S.L.T.A. It was officially known as the International Lawn Tennis Challenge Trophy, and it was to go to whichever nation successfully challenged the current holder in a series of matches. Davis, Ward, and Malcolm D. Whitman, also a Harvard man, were the first American Davis Cup defenders, and they easily beat Great Britain, which made the mistake of sending over something less than its top-ranking players. (The British won the cup in 1903, however, and it was ten years before America won it back. Australasia had become a tennis power in the meantime, holding the cup from 1907 through 1911.) Dwight Davis later was prominent in government circles, serving as Secretary of War under Calvin Coolidge and as governor general of the Philippines from 1929 to 1932. He went right on playing tennis.
One thing that did change after 1900 was ladies’ tennis, but this was more a part of the women’s liberation movement, early phase, than it was a development of the game itself. In 1904 there appeared from California a fourteen-year-old girl named May Sutton, who proceeded to win every women’s tournament in sight. Her tactics were not very ladylike, but they were highly effective: she ran hard for every ball that was out of easy reach; she served overhand; she volleyed whenever she got the chance; and she put every one of her approximately hundred and ten pounds behind every drive. May went on in 1905 to win the ladies’ singles at Wimbledon the first American of either sex to take the British championship. It was the beginning of the end of patball, underhand-serve tennis for women. Henceforth the aim would be to play as nearly like a man as possible—although another generation would go by before women shed enough layers of clothing to put them on an equalopportunity basis with their male counterparts. The fact that in 1971 any man rated among the top ten in the country could probably beat the first-ranked woman player, however, is something for women’s lib to explain if it can.
Notwithstanding what evidently is a built-in difference of ability between the sexes, it is doubtful that tennis has any close rival as a first-rate spectator sport that is also superbly suited to the strictly amateur weekend player. The game is a bouncy reproach to the millions of sedentary sports fans who get a little fatter even week as they watch professional athletes perform on the baseball diamond or the gridiron. It has been estimated that four out of five spectators at the national championship matches at Korest Hills are tennis players themselves. It only takes two or four to play, and nowadays there arc courts everywhere. The game is strenuous increasingly so as one’s skill improves - but if you keep at it, you can play safely, with great benefit to your health, from eight to eighty. Golf palls beside it, as far as exercise goes, and swimming ordinarily lacks the competitive element. Skiing is more difficult, more dangerous, and more expensive.
Tennis is also an exceedingly satisfying game psychologically and emotionally. By tradition it is polite a courtly game. You do not haze your opponent or try to hit him with the ball, and you give him the benefit of the doubt on close calls. At the same time you may work off a great deal of aggression by swatting the ball as viciously as you can and in one match of just ordinary duration, a tennis player hits the ball more times than a professional baseball player is likely to from May to September. Dramatic reversals are common, and there is no such thing as being hopelessly behind in tennis. Many a player has saved himself at match point by a cool or desperate maneuver and then gone on to win game, set, and ultimately match.