Does Tennis Need to Change? Yes, Let’s Embrace The Chaos

Shorter format, towel rack, player coaching. Michael Dickens takes a closer look at some of the ideas to make tennis more attractive.

International Blog – Michael Dickens

Dickens

Michael Dickens

During a recent episode of “The Tennis Podcast,” co-host David Law and Daily Telegraph tennis writer Charlie Eccleshare debated the merits of shorter sets versus long-form classics along with former British doubles player-turned-broadcaster Colin Fleming, who is a proponent of speeding up play. A central point of their discussion focused on the burning question, “Does tennis need to change?”

As professional tennis looks toward its brief, month-long “off season,” in an effort to appeal to the short-attention spans of its younger “Next Gen” fans – most who embrace social media unlike the average 60-year-old tennis watcher – the ATP recently experimented with a shorter format and revised scoring during the Next Gen ATP Finals in Milan. In trying to speed up play, each match consisted of a best-of-five sets format, first to win four games (tie-break at 3-all) wins the set, with sudden-death deuce points and no lets. Also, in-match coaching (between sets) was allowed using head-set technology that connected players with their coaches sitting in the stands. There was the introduction of an on-court towel rack that forced players to fetch their own towels, and warm-up time was reduced by a minute, too.The takeaways were plainly evident: Every minute counts! Every point counts! Let ball kids be ball kids and fetch balls not towels!

Looking back, one might ask: Did the shorter sets help to reduce the number of “less important” games? Did they make for more engaging matches? Looking forward, one wonders, can some of the changes be rolled out at select ATP 250 events – “smaller events” – on the ATP Tour? Imagine, if what we saw in Milan was implemented in Estoril or Winston-Salem or Basel. Each of these ATP 250 tournaments is played on a different surface and at different times during the tennis calendar.

“Personally, I would like to see it tried out at smaller events,” Eccleshare recently tweeted. “There’s plenty of scope for more differentiation between tournaments.” He explained his point of view on “The Tennis Podcast,” saying, “I think it would make for a more compelling tour if you had a few events that have their own rules or did things differently. At the moment, from event to event, basically you just change surfaces and that’s the only real difference. However, if there were some 250 events that experimented with a different score system or didn’t play deuce points, it would help make it more lively. If they work, yes, maybe you move them up to the 500s or the 1000s.”

After watching much of the Next Gen ATP Finals on Amazon Prime Video, I found that I liked the faster format, which called for tie-breaks to be played when a set score reached 3-all instead of the usual 6-all. It seemed to me, there were fewer “wasted” games, and I sensed an immediacy to each set. And, even in matches that went the five-set distance – and many of them did – most were compressed within two hours.

Of course, there are counter-arguments to the changes the ATP may some day implement, such as: Doesn’t the sudden-death deuce point eliminate “tension?” Perhaps, but it also means that every point – big or small – counts. Also, why were fans allowed to wander around between points? And, what happened to the line judges? Well, there were none. All out calls were determined by Hawk-Eye technology.

With so much going on at the same time, it moved one of the Next Gen ATP Finals participants, Andrey Rublev of Russia, to comment, “everything makes no sense.” Perhaps, but maybe some of it does make sense.

Fleming, who was an Amazon Prime Video commentator for many of the Next Gen ATP Finals matches, believes that short sets could add intrigue to the ATP Tour. After witnessing the Next Gen ATP Finals competition in Milan first-hand, he’s all in.

“Although I don’t think we’ll see it here at the World Tour Finals, I’m not dead set against it,” said Fleming on “The Tennis Podcast,” while attending the Nitto ATP Finals in London. “I feel having just been in Milan – and been so entertained by the two semifinals, which were breathtaking – my adrenaline was pumping. It was so good to watch.

“There were different pressures at different times – few or no dead games. You didn’t want to leave the match. … There’s something in the format. It is fast paced. It was really engaging for the crowd.”

Law acknowledged that while it’s right for the ATP to try out new innovations, he has some reservations. He said, “I know the selling points are the more frequent important moments – set-changing moments come more often – but, my issue with it is you don’t get these ebbs and flows in a set. You don’t get this chance for the tension to build.

“What I love about a set – especially one that goes 3-all, 4-all, 5-all, is just how much it’s going to mean to one of these guys and how crushing it’s going to be for the one who loses it. I think you feel it around the stadium. I like the slow build up. I want to have that narrative build up. However, I realize I’m 45 years-old and may not be the target market.”

In a recent story in the London-based Daily Telegraph, ATP president Chris Kermode told Eccleshare, “We need everyone’s input and maybe we make some tweaks to the sport, may we go radical, or maybe we leave it exactly as it is.

“What is a concern is how do we engage twenty-somethings in the sport, and I just feel like we have to look ahead at what the sport could – and I stress could – look like.”

“Whether you’re a fan or not of the Next Gen ATP Finals innovations,” said Eccleshare, “it forces us to think about how we want tennis to look in the future – and that can only be a good thing.”

Indeed, different fans like different things about tennis – but I believe it’s OK for the tennis powers-that-be to thinking outside of the box about how to engage these different kinds of fans.

Let’s embrace the chaos.