Saturday, August 8, 2009

Messing with Rules and Equipment

Posted By on Sat, Aug 8, 2009 at 7:08 PM

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In sports as in medicine, first do no harm. Equipment manufacturers and rules makers mess with sports at peril of fundamentally changing the games we play.

Swimming is the latest but not the only recent example.

A new kind of swim suit resulted in several world records being broken at a meet last month. The organizations that govern swimming at the world level are taking another look at what the suit hath wrought.

Tennis and racquetball got a power surge in the 1990s due to bigger and lighter racquets. Tennis has also messed with the rules at the amateur level. In many local tournaments, instead of a third set being played, if the first two sets are split you play a tiebreaker for the match. In college, let serves are played. (someone correct me if I am wrong about this please.)

In my favorite sport, squash, a big change is gaining acceptance. It's called PAR scoring, or point a rally scoring, as opposed to the "side in, side out" scoring system in which you can only score on your serve. It was done in the name of speeding up matches and easing scheduling headaches, but it has fundamentally changed the game.

Endurance is the essence of squash. Because the court is small and there is a strip of tin across the front wall, below which the ball is out, pros can get to nearly every ball. One of the legends of squash is a point between two pros that lasted more than 200 shots and ended in a "let" or do-over. Former Memphian Andy Roberts, who was the number-one racquetball player in the world 17 years ago, was also a good squash player. But he didn't really like the game because the points took so long. He complained once that "I went and got a sandwich and when I came back they were playing the same point." Probably true, but on the other hand, you could turn away to take a bite of a sandwich and miss a point in racquetball because the typical point consists of a serve and a kill shot.

The greatest winning streak in the history of sports belongs to Jahangir Khan of Pakistan, the number-one player in the world in squash for most of the 1980s. He was unbeaten for (no typo here) five years and 555 consecutive matches. After he lost, he did not lose again for nine more months. His greatest strength was his stamina.

A good squash match should last an hour or so and, if fairly played, is pretty much a continuous point except for 90-second breaks between games. Of course there are short breaks when a point ends, but the etiquette is to pick up the ball, get ready, and serve the next point. No wiping off your grip, badgering the referee, bouncing the ball ten times, walking around the court, or other stalling tactics. And no timeouts during the game.

Under the old scoring system, a game was to nine points. It seemed like an eternity sometimes when you could only score on your own serve. Now the game is to 11 points, but somebody scores a point on every rally. Endurance is not as much of a premium as it used to be. A best-of-five match can be over in 20 minutes or less.

The new scoring system has taken root in college and tournament squash, so local players have, sometimes grudgingly, adopted it. It's probably only a matter of a short time until it is as universally accepted as the tennis tiebreaker. But after trying it for seven months, I don't like it although it probably benefits older players. Stamina is what squash is all about, hitting your shots when you're tired. The game has lost something important because of scoring change.

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