Article by John Blundell in the Scotsman 23/06/03
What interests me is how a gentle knock-about devised by under-employed courtiers has evolved into a multimillion pound sport. Is it possible tennis offers a cameo version of wider truths?
The game has in some senses changed rapidly. From a pastoral idyll it is now serious money, and some of the rules have been utterly transformed.
Others remain barely amended since Major Walter Wingfield devised “a new and improved portable court for playing the ancient game of tennis” in the summer of 1874. Did you know the original lawn tennis court was hour-glass shaped, the baselines being double the width of the net?
The net itself changed more by engineering than purpose. Originally it was 4ft 9in at the posts and a mere 3ft in the middle. It drooped. Stronger metal posts and then high tension wire improved the possibilities of a horizontal net. Some courts allowed a middle post to keep the flagging net up when it was heavy after rain.
Major Wingfield was only adapting tennis’s ancestral game – real or royal tennis devised by courtiers hitting a ball of leather off awnings in a palace courtyard. The patronage of young French princes gave it a social cachet which seems to me to link to the royal presence at Wimbledon now.
It seems plain to me that the rules ought to evolve again. The fun for the spectators – the countless millions who will tune in to Wimbledon around the world – is a good rally.
The longer the better, the oohs and the aahs rising until some are left cheering, others all but weeping.
Rallies show off the athletic skill and agility of the players. They also incorporate the magic ingredient of luck. What sours the top professional game is the excessive dominance of the serve.
The service area needs to be restricted a little further to rebalance the game. Modern high-powered tennis is all about “breaking serve”. This is tending towards tedium and is not what we tune in for.
Tennis is a bloodless spectacle – gladiators without the gore. Yet the focus of so much of our pleasure is the unspoken morality play of the underdog – the youth or the British player – taking on some mighty American or Australian.
Twenty years ago it was predicted the US and Australia would carry off all the trophies. All such predictions are confounded. From being white and middle class, every colour and origin is now present.
Suddenly the Eastern European nations gave us stunning players. In part they were the products of communist sports gymnasia exhibiting socialist triumphs. Partly they were courageous individuals volleying themselves out of serfdom.
Ilie Nastase became the famous, much-loved Romanian star when his nation was unknown beyond the Ceaucesceaus tyranny. The British excuse for weak performance has been our dim climate, but this always seemed feeble compared with the permafrost on which the East Europeans train.
The first championships were help at Wimbledon in 1877. They were totally amateur. The serve was under-arm. Men and women wore strictly regulated and constricting flannels. Today’s cool sports gear would have seemed wildly improper, salacious even, to the Victorians.
Where in textbook economics or a business text of 100 years ago could it be even envisaged that men and women could earn millions from thwacking a rubber ball around a grass or clay court measuring 78ft by 27ft – measurements based on the croquet lawns to which tennis became the successor?
To suggest such a notion to bankers for a loan or subscribers to a company float would have seemed merely silly. Yet the market in tennis has flourished through slow accretions, the essence of which is crucial. It is fun.
The term fun can seem too light-hearted in the ponderous world of economic analysis. What about those tedious factors of production? What about productivity? Marxist economics has nothing to say about the tennis industry. The labour theory of value is mute on the vast sums that will flow around Wimbledon in the next 14 days.
Outside the courts the ticket touts are seen as rascals to be arrested and reprimanded. Why? All they are doing is trading between those who have tickets they do not want and those who do want them. This is not reprehensible in any way, yet some people love to intervene in capitalist acts between consenting adults.
The whole penumbra of sponsorship and advertising that has accrued to tennis again confounds many economics texts. The current advert that has Tim Henman arrested for shoplifting because his tennis whites couldn’t possibly be that fresh is startling.
Of course sponsors are keying into our mixture of admiration and envy. These athletes in their prime, male and female, exhibit what we would like all to be – lithe, heroic and rich.Tennis is more than individualism. We yearn for team victories too. We cheer for nations as much as singles players.
The Davis Cup is a lovely example of nations playing rather than warring. Rule changes have made the international tournaments better by making the champions play through with all the others. This rule change is as recent as 1972. I can just remember the glorious fraudulence of pretending tennis could conserve its “amateur” status. The fuddy-duddy Wimbledon authorities preserved the fiction longest, but the sheer tide of money washed it away.
What has transformed the sport is not so much the firmer balls, glass fibre rackets or pneumatic shoes but the coming of television. Even the best equipped court could entertain only a few hundred spectators. TV connects the game to millions. Billions even.
So are there some serious economics or business lessons in and around tennis? I think there are.
All plans are confounded by events. It is not only technical innovations but also price signals that test out the future. Expertise allows us to improve beyond all expectation. Also, all of mankind is equally agile and dextrous.
The Williams sisters would have been banned from the top US courts only a generation ago. Free trade and a free market in tickets have given us a phenomena no planner could have devised.
Perhaps we owe as much to Mark McCormick, the sports promoter, as we do to Major Wingfield.
But of course such individuals only highlight the strange, almost mysterious, way we create institutions “by human action not by design” as the seminal economist FA Hayek famously remarked.