The Next Rule Change in Tennis?
The rules of tennis have remained remarkably unchanged over the past 100 years, but in a constantly evolving world, change cannot be far away, can it? So what rule changes might there be – both plausible and less plausible?
Imagine a football match where the two teams walk out about seven minutes before kick-off, and proceed to kick the ball to each other. After a couple of minutes, one goalkeeper says to an opposing striker, “Give me a couple of high balls so I can practise catching crosses.”
The idea is absurd, yet that’s what happens in tennis. The players walk out, they hit with each other, one player comes to the net to practise volleys, then asks for a couple of high balls for smashes – all against the opponent they’re going to try to outwit over the next two hours. No player ever dares to walk straight to the net and practise nothing but volleys for the five minutes of the warm-up, even though it would probably unsettle their opponent.
Customs such as the gentle warm-up, apologising for netcords, and standing aside politely for opponents to cross at change of ends have survived into today’s highly competitive tennis world. And many of the rules are the same, too. Despite advances in space-age racquet technology, the court is the same 78ft by 36ft (23.77m x 10.27m) as it was when the ‘hourglass’ court was abandoned in the early 1880s. The net is still three foot in the middle and 3ft 6in at the sides (0.91m, 1.07m), and the scoring system has remained the same, bar the introduction, in the 1970s, of tiebreaks and, this century, of sudden death at deuce, and super-tiebreaks in tour doubles events.
So if the rules are one day going to change, what is likely to happen? Here are some of the possible rule changes that we might see over the next few years.
Abandon the ‘let’ serve… This is already happening in junior and college tournaments, so unless there is a behind-the-scenes lobbying campaign by the makers of the ‘trembler’ devices umpires use for calling ‘Let’, this is most likely to be the next rule change. Tennis is supposed to be continuous, and having to retake the serve three or four times, because the ball brushes against the net on its way over, makes no sense.
Traditionalists say that you risk a tournament being decided on a serve that drops stone-dead over the net, leaving the returner with no chance of reaching it. This is true, but imagine how exciting that would be! Anyway, this does happen in open play, and tournaments have been decided on a lucky groundstroke or a volley catching the net (eg. Lendl versus Becker, Masters final, New York, 1988). Abandoning the ‘let’ serve would speed up tennis matches, add extra drama, and stop players from standing so far back to return a serve. It has so far spawned an imaginative variation in doubles: if the ball hits the net, the non-returner is then allowed to return it, which means the non-returner has to be extremely alert.
This rule change will also prevent cheating. That’s the reason college tennis has adopted it – unprincipled returners, who are aced, have been known to say, “That was a let, wasn’t it?” when the ball went nowhere near the net. In fact, there is so much in favour of this rule change, one wonders why it hasn’t yet happened.
Stop the retaken toss… Another obvious development is to stop a server from catching the ball if their toss is not in the right place. This is another custom that, even if there’s no malice afoot (and there sometimes is), slows down the match. Imagine a pitcher in baseball saying, “Sorry, I’m taking that again as I didn’t throw it right,” or a penalty-taker in football saying, “I’d like that again please because my feet weren’t in the right place when I started my run-up.” Again absurd, yet that’s effectively what a tennis player does when he/she catches the ball, whether with a “Sorry” or not. Once a ball leaves the player’s hand, that’s it – the serve should be in motion, and if the ball doesn’t land in, it’s a fault. The only reservation about this is how easy it would be for an umpire to tell whether the ball had actually left the server’s hand, but that ought to be possible.
There may be objections to this rule change from those who view the ‘yips’ as a form of mental health issue that should attract sympathy, and not punishment. The ‘yips’ is a term originated in golf, about players whose putters shake when they attempt a short putt, and it has been adopted by tennis to denote someone who can’t get the ball toss right. One can indeed have some sympathy, especially as most players will be able to perform a perfect ball toss if they don’t then have to hit the ball, but the solution in a competitive sport cannot be to allow a player to toss the ball as often as he/she likes until it’s in the right place.
Abolish the first serve… Still on the serve, why do we offer players the chance to retake their serve? That’s what the two serves rule amounts to. You can go for a big serve, and if you miss it, you can have a second try, old fellow. The impact will be that we will lose a lot of the big serves, and we may never have another serve speed record broken again, as all serves will effectively be second serves, but will that really make tennis less interesting? Compare it with other racquet sports, such as badminton, squash, or table-tennis – they manage with one serve, so surely tennis can, too. Second chances in life are fine, and there are plenty of second chances in tennis (you can play a horrendous set and still win a match), but there should be no second chances on the serve.
The problem with this rule change is that it would need approval from the International Tennis Federation (ITF). There are permitted variations listed in Appendix V of the Rules of Tennis, but this isn’t one of them. Therefore, a tournament couldn’t just do it, it would have to apply for special permission, or lose any official status it might enjoy.
Taking away the leftie’s advantage… The idea that left-handers have an advantage over right-handers has long been dismissed as nonsense (by left-handers, of course). But one area where the leftie does have an edge is that most of the big points in tennis come in the advantage court, so a big, away-swinging, left-handed serve is more effective than on the deuce side of the court, where the right-hander has the corresponding advantage. That prompted a suggestion to the ITF, many years ago, that left-handers should start their games from the left side of the court, so, for example, at 15-30 they’d be serving from the right side. There’s nothing to stop it from working, except that it has yet to be given official approval, and players would have to stop using terms like ‘deuce court’ and ‘ad court’ as they would mean different sides to lefties.
Underarm serve… This is not so much an area where the rules might change but an area where people need to realise that there is no rule! Underarm serving is legitimate. Indeed, why shouldn’t it be? The ball is tossed, albeit very low, and hit into the court. There are some interpretations of tennis etiquette that say a player should indicate before he/she serves an underarm serve, but that takes away the element of surprise. An underarm serve has been used to save a match point in a Grand Slam final (Martina Hingis at 2-5 in the final set against Steffi Graf, Roland Garros, 1999; Hingis lost the match a few minutes later), so it shouldn’t be left to independent, spirited players like Nick Kyrgios and Alexander Bublik to use underarm serves. Come to think of it, why has no-one used a heavily sliced underarm serve against Rafael Nadal at Roland Garros, given how far back he stands to receive serve? It might unnerve him.
Court dimensions... This is an area where the scope for changing where the lines go is very limited. The beauty of tennis is that the dimensions are the same, whether you are at Wimbledon, or in a park, or concreted multi-sports area in any town or city in the world. But what could change is the introduction of a maximum area for professional tournaments. There is currently a minimum area – a professional tennis court must have a minimum of 400 square metres of space, to include the runback and the area at the sides. But do some players gain an unfair advantage if the space is well over 400 square metres?
The current recommended playing area for Grand Slam show courts is just under 670 square metres (18.29m x 36.57m), and the total playing surface at the Rod Laver Arena and the Court Philippe-Chatrier are thought to be much bigger (getting an exact measurement is difficult because you need to deduct the space taken for the players’ and umpires’ chairs). But is this too big? There are those who believe that part of the reason Rafael Nadal does so well at Roland Garros is because of the large runback and space at the sides, and if it could be empirically proven that certain players do gain an unfair advantage, the case for a maximum playing area – enforced by fences at the sides and back – could be credibly presented.
Racquet materials… The debate on the materials used for making tennis racquets has gone quiet in recent years. The fear in the late 1990s, that the big servers were killing the game, has largely abated, in part because the big servers have spawned a generation of sharp-eyed returners. And let’s face it, the power-to-weight ratio of the modern, composite racquets has revolutionised the life of hobby tennis players, so it would be a backward step to force them to use wood.
It’s also not 100% clear that a return to wood, and the old dimensions of a 27-inch length and a 9-inch width of frame (68.58cm, 22.86cm), would actually guarantee varied tennis with slices, volleys, and drop shots. But if it were proven that limiting racquet materials to wood, resin, and a limited amount of metals (for reinforcement purposes) would make professional tennis more attractive, then the debate about materials will resurface. We have been blessed with a generation of varied players headed by Federer, Nadal, and Djokovic, and the current young generation includes the diversity and volleying skills of Tsitsipas, Shapovalov, Kyrgios, Musetti, Barty, Krejčíková, Fernandez, and others, so variety isn’t currently an issue. But if we end up with a top generation of players who all play the same way – such as Sinner, Alcaraz, Ruud, Ruusuvuori, Rublev, Khachanov, Auger-Aliassime, Zverev; and Osaka, Sabalenka, Sakkari, Raducanu – and the attractiveness of tennis wanes because it’s seen to be boringly one-dimensional, then the question of whether to change the rules in order to limit what materials can be used will resurface.
Cricket had this issue in the 1970s when a prominent Australian, Dennis Lillee, walked out to play with an aluminium bat – he was told to replace it with a wooden one, a rule confirmed by the international cricket authorities, and to this day cricket bats at all levels of the sport can only be made of wood.
There may come a time when strings have to be more closely regulated. Currently, there are absolutely no rules about string materials (stringing patterns, yes; materials, no), so you could use very thin ship’s rope, shoe laces, dried spaghetti, or garden twine if you wanted to. Talking of spaghetti, the ITF’s view of stringing was strongly influenced in the mid-1970s when a new form of knotted stringing, called ‘spaghetti stringing’, was used. It created so much topspin that there were several freakish results on the professional tour. The ITF quickly banned both spaghetti stringing and another invention of the time, double-stringing (two strings next to each other), on the basis that it was too much change at once. You could argue that today’s synthetic strings give as much topspin as the spaghetti and double-strung racquets of the 1970s, but as the evolution has happened gradually, there has been no ITF intervention. Roger Federer told the Courts podcast in 2019 that he sees strings as having the greatest scope for tennis technology to improve over the next few years, so the rule-watchers at the ITF will have to keep their eyes peeled.
Scoring systems… This is the area where tennis has been less conservative in recent years. The seven-point game with no Advantage, the first-to-10-points tiebreak instead of a final set, and the short sets used at the ATP NextGen Finals have all been introduced over the past 20 years, as well as tiebreaks in final sets at the Australian Open and Wimbledon. The permitted variations of scoring are all set out in Appendix V of the Rules of Tennis, so if you wanted to, let’s say, use the squash scoring system of the first-to-11 points (maybe best-of-five games played to 11 points), you’d have to get permission or lose your official status. Interestingly, Appendix V doesn’t explicitly allow for a super tiebreak to be used in the final set, only instead of a final set, so the Australian Open is technically in breach of the Rules of Tennis, but don’t tell anyone, as first-to-10 at 6-6 works quite well.
One suggestion made many years ago was that the server should win five points to win a game whereas the receiver should only have to win four. Known as ‘the 50-40 system’, it would effectively make it a sudden death at 4-3 to the server, or ’50-40’. The idea never caught on.
Change the foot-fault rule back again… The foot-fault rule has twice been changed. It started in its current form where a server’s foot cannot touch the ground inside the court until he/she has hit the ball. Then, it was changed in 1908 to require servers to have part of one foot touching the ground when they hit the ball. In 1961, it was changed back to what it is now. The idea of changing it back again is nowhere near the tennis agenda, but it could quickly become an issue. As players seek every little advantage, it’s possible that a player could stand well behind the baseline at the start of the service motion, shuffle up to the baseline, toss the ball forward and jump into the air, hitting it just before landing. If that were to work, the server could be potentially two metres inside the baseline, which would make the serve that much harder to return (albeit very risky for the server, and they would need to have a good first volley).
Rule 18 of the Rules of Tennis says the server should not change position during the serve “by walking or running, although slight movements of the feet are permitted.” Aha, so what is the boundary of a ‘slight movement’ of the feet? Think of some of the recent servers, who seem to take two or three steps to get into their service motion (remember Karsten Braasch?). Which umpire would be brave enough to call, “Foot-fault – running behind the baseline!”? So, if players tried to jump into the court, and ended up half-way to the service line, then the idea of forcing the server to have one foot on the ground would quickly come back into discussion.
None of these rule changes are expected in the next year or two, and some are unlikely to happen at all. But all it takes is for one ambitious administrator to grasp the nettle, and any of these ideas – mainly the ones at the top – could suddenly become reality.
Story published in Courts no. 2, autumn 2021.