James Henry Van Alen, born September 19, 1902, in his beloved Newport, RI, was intimately involved with tennis as player, organizer and--best known--innovator whose pet idea, the tie breaker, radically altered the game, making it more televisable in the U.S. As a U.S. singles champ at court tennis in 1933, 1938 and 1940, he was good enough at that abstruse ancestor of lawn tennis to warrant a Hall of Fame spot as a player. He played tennis well enough to have won his blue at his alma mater, Cambridge, appeared in the Wimbledon, French and U.S. Championships, and played in the Newport Casino Invitational, where he had a win over fellow Hall of Famer George Lott.
He would become director of that tournament, a leader in the preservation of the aging wooden Casino (the cradle of U.S. tennis), and, at the instigation of his wife, Candy, the guiding light in founding the Hall of Fame to which he was elected in 1965.
Feeling the game's scoring should be simplified and deuce done away with, he lobbied tirelessly on behalf of his creation, VASSS: Van Alen Streamlined Scoring System. Among the elements were single point scoring and 21-point or 31-point matches (a la table tennis), no-ad (games scored 1-2-3-4, maximum 7-points, sudden death at 3-3), medal play (a la golf, based on single point totals for specific numbers of rounds), and, the most celebrated--tie breakers.
Unveiled in 1965 at the Casino Pro Championships, which he personally sponsored for $10,000 prize money, the seminal tie breaker needed retooling. That he did with veteran referee Mike Blanchard. Eventually it became sudden death (best-of-9 points).
Amazingly this breaker was accepted by the USTA, and used in U.S. championship events from 1970 through 1974. Thereafter the USTA embraced the current ITF-approved "lingering death," as Van Alen disparagingly called the best-of-12 point version that requires a 2-point margin for victory, thus can extend into double figures. Between 1970 and 1977, at "Newport Bolshevik" Jimmy's suggestion, red flags were raised wherever a tie breaker was played at the U.S. Open. Sadly this custom wasn't continued at Flushing Meadow.
A man of old family wealth, Jimmy hoped to give the game a common touch, and became an avuncular, almost cherubic figure in planter's straw hat and burgundy blazer at the Casino. His love for tennis was endless, as well as his delight in shaking up the establishment with his brainstorms. He served in the U.S. Navy during World War II, and died July 3, 1991, in Newport. Jimmy would have enjoyed the irony: That semifinal day at Wimbledon Michael Stich deposed champion Stefan Edberg by winning three breakers while Edberg never lost his serve. Such a match could not have been played during nearly a century before Van Alen.