Sporting Life

Sport needs balance between tradition and modernity


When Roger Federer first set eyes on Hawk-Eye, it was disdain at first sight. The Swiss may have hung around with Vogue's Anna Wintour but for this classical artist this line-calling machine was simply far too modern and soul-less. In the 2007 Wimbledon final, irked by a call, he asked the umpire: "Can you switch it off... It's killing me today."

Federer, with his neat game and polished manners, surely has the heart of a tennis conservative. Certainly traditionalists believe he is one of us. We are a somewhat inflexible and often whiny tribe, who don't care for modernists and their fiddling ways. They're the sort of fellows who once considered raising the net in tennis to halt the big servers. Now, in women's tennis, they are suggesting no lets, no ad-scoring and a doubles-style super tie-breaker in the third set in singles matches. In short, these philistines want shorter matches.

Traditionalists will rise up in revolt for we believe someone has to save sport and that's us. If not for our resistance, football would probably be played in four quarters, Nick Kyrgios would be wearing coloured tights at Wimbledon and cricket would be using aluminium bats. Occasionally traditionalists will stray from their path, as Ernie Els did by using a (now-banned) anchored putter, but at least he had a novel explanation: "As long as it's legal, I'll cheat like the rest of them."

Traditionalists ensure that sport is not trivialised in its quest for TV ratings and that history has its place. We like old rivalries, good etiquette, posters of ancient heroes in modern stadium hallways and young players paying homage to Rod Laver. Some of us used to like bowing to royalty but they were the real fuddy-duddies.

Heraclitus once said that "everything changes and nothing stands still" and while traditionalists are not given to arguing with wise old Greeks, we do have difficulty accepting change. We're married to the familiar and romance the predictable. We cringe at TV microphones in players' faces before Grand Slam finals - what can they say beyond a cliche? - and view Twenty20 cricket as mathematical mayhem, not studious art.

But traditionalists can be too safe and are often very wrong. We confuse progress with betrayal. We tend to protest by reflex. From the invention of the football penalty in 1891 - to be taken not from a spot but anywhere along a 12-yard line - to the introduction of tie-breakers, our tribe has been suspicious. Somehow we want new champions but wish sport to stay the same.

But sport, unrecognisable from our parents' time, has mostly turned out OK. Change has come and it has often been beautiful, like the glass box used in squash and the bright lights under which we play. In the end it is amazing what we can get used to. Thirty-two teams in a football World Cup isn't as fatal as we thought (48 might be) and shooters performing before vocal crowds isn't as unseemly as we believed. Sometimes the past and its underhand serve is simply a bore.

Yet since we are creatures of habit, traditionalists will turn queasy at the suggestion of shorter matches in tennis and no proper third set. We like sport as interrogation, skill questioned under pressure and players trying to hit a line on the run when fatigue has them in a tight hug. To abbreviate tennis might be to turn it into a version of Twenty20 - brisk, hollow but popular.

Traditionalists know who must be responsible for even raising this tennis idea: Those TV people who use nauseous words like 'sportainment' and think a 140-character tweet constitutes an epic. TV folk want a packaged circus and we swear they'll ruin sport. Well, apart from the night cricket they wonderfully gave us, not to mention slow-motion cameras, useful stats and a zillion channels.

It's difficult being a traditionalist in a rapidly evolving time because we always feel under siege. We wonder at this new disease called "short attention span" and question how we can deconstruct Novak Djokovic's backhand if the music is so loud. Eventually we get seduced by the new world, but we must never give up on the old. If matches get shortened, we'll shrug and we'll watch. As long as they still shake hands at the end.

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A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Sunday Times on October 16, 2016, with the headline Sport needs balance between tradition and modernity. Subscribe