MORE people than will ever admit it are going to go tennis mad for the next fortnight. We are mesmerised by the rhythm of play on the Wimbledon courts. Our two weeks of mania, as the Brits get knocked out one by one, is a festival of summer and leisure as much as the curious pleasure of watching the professionals sweat and grunt their ways to a fortune.
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 tennisâs 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 w