Eleanor Dwight’s story of the life of Jimmy Van Alen, the man who gave tennis the tie-breaker, presents a much more versatile and accomplished figure than I’d expected to encounter. I’m a hardcore tennis fan, sure, but if the only interesting thing Jimmy Van Alen did in his life was to invent the tie-breaker, I might have told Long Island Tennis Magazine readers they could pass on Dwight’s Tie Breaker: Jimmy Van Alen and Tennis in the 20th Century.
That would have been a mistake, as Dwight demonstrates, because Van Alen, who, at one point, was ranked as the 14th richest person in the United States, had a lot more going on during his life than merely making tennis matches more streamlined.
You can read Dwight’s book from a number of perspectives and get a lot out of it. It is a history of our game, to be sure, but it also works as a portrait of life among the American aristocracy during Van Allen’s lifetime (1902-1991).
While the tie-breaker is the Van Alen brainstorm that has become a permanent part of tennis, his “revolutionary” ideas, didn’t stop there. He invented something call Van Alen Simplified Scoring System (VASS). Van Alen believed that a lead of two points to win a game, and two games to win a set was the equivalent of “requiring two runners in a mile race, if they were tied at the end, to keep running until one had a five-yard lead.”
Instead of traditional scoring, VASS called for points to be played from one to 31, somewhat like in table tennis. Players would serve for five points each and would switch sides at the fifth, 15th and 25th points.
Another Van Alen innovation was to make the server serve from a “serving line” placed three feet behind the baseline.
VASS could be used for either single elimination events, or as Van Alen preferred to do in his Newport, R.I. tournaments, as round-robins. He felt fans were better served by seeing as many players matched up against each other as possible.
Van Alen was president of the Newport Casino in the 1950s and 1960s when he was most active unleashing his reforms on the tennis world. Van Alen’s contribution to the game went beyond his activities cheerleading for scoring changes. The man who Bud Collins called the “Newport Bolshevik” is also the founder of the International Tennis Hall of Fame, also housed in the Newport Casino complex.
Outside of the world of tennis, Van Alen also had a number of accomplishments. As a young man, he worked for Chemical Bank and Trust Company in New York. He was, for a time, the editor of the literary magazine the North American Review. In 1939, at the outbreak of World War II, Van Alen was commissioned as a Lieutenant in the United States Navy Reserve. When he was called to active duty in July 1941, in recognition of his journalistic skills, he was assigned to the Navy’s Office of Public Relations.
It was while he was running this office that Van Alen became a mentor to Roger Straus. After the War, Van Alen invested in Straus’ publishing firm, which became, and remains, one of the most influential publishing houses. The fact that today’s Farrar, Straus and Giroux was briefly called “Van Alen and Straus,” is the kind of fascinating detail to be found in Tie Breaker. The Van Alen life story, as told by Dwight, makes for a compelling read both for his on-court and his off-court activities.