Innovation in professional sport is quite common. Sometimes it’s minor tweaks, like the introduction of new technology; other times more radical, like Twenty20 cricket, that can revolutionise a sport’s landscape.
Tennis is one such sport that has taken proactive steps in recent years to innovate, including the introduction of shot clocks and on-court coaching in the women’s game. Last month, it was announced Wimbledon will introduce fifth set tie-breaks once the score reaches 12-12 in the decider.
Only a minority of traditionalists would argue against such changes, all of which are, essentially, quite trivial and have been implemented to gently move the game along.
Then there’s the Next Gen ATP Finals in Milan, which has introduced so many new rules and quirks it feels like the tournament has only the very basics of tennis in common with other professional events: courts are the same size, the ball can only bounce once, and players still have to hit it over a net. This is where the similarities seemingly end.
Let’s start with the most obvious change – the scoring system. Games are still structured the same – 15, 30, 40, game – but deuce is a one-point affair. Sets are made up of four games instead of six, with tie-breaks played at 3-3, although as it’s best-of-five, 12 games still need to be won to win the match.
Other areas that have been turbo-charged to increase urgency are the warm-ups – matches start exactly four minutes after the second player walk-on – a constant shot clock, used not only between points and serve but also on changeovers, medical timeouts and set breaks; and the involuntary use of Hawk-Eye, which is automatically deployed when a ball lands in a “close call” area.
Additional changes include the removal of tramlines, which makes sense given the Next Gen is a singles-only tournament but nevertheless still looks a little strange. Meanwhile this is the only event on the ATP Tour to allow player coaching, although coaches remain in the stands and talk to the players using bulky, e-Sports style headsets.
There is a “free movement” policy for spectators who can get up and walk around during matches, except behind the baseline, and a no-let rule has been applied, meaning a player’s serve that clips the top of the net and lands in is active, instead of being retaken.
And finally, a personal favourite: the use of towel racks where players leave their towels rather than relying on ball kids. Of all the Next Gen rules, this one in particular should be rolled out across professional tennis – ball kids should be spared the chore of handling players’ sweaty and snotty towels.
These rules can be put in two categories: quirky, fun additions and those designed to streamline matches, and it is the latter that has stoked debate among the tennis community.
Given the success other sports have experienced in shorter, sharper formats – rugby sevens and T20 cricket chief among them – it is understandable why tennis authorities are exploring similar options.
And if there is one platform to test out new ideas, it is the Next Gen Finals. The tournament, featuring the seven top-ranked 21-and-under players and one wild card, is a new addition to the scene. Its entire marketing is based on promoting the future of tennis, so why not use an event catered to the sport’s future to trial formats and rules that could help shape the future of the game?
The ATP should be applauded for thinking outside the box; the radical change in rules and scoring system certainly works for the Next Gen Finals, providing a refreshing and unique experience for viewers at the end of a long season.
However, while it works in this particular context, it still feels quite gimmicky. The shortened sets, while quickening proceedings, lacks the intensity of traditional six-game sets. Likewise the use of one-point deuces eliminates all the drama that unfolds in long deuce games.
Even the use of Hawk-Eye, which has integrated itself seamlessly into professional tennis, doesn't quite work in the guise deployed in Milan.
Player coaching, the no-let rule, and of course towel racks, could and possibly should have a place in the wider tennis world, but expect the scoring format to remain limited to the Next Gen. This is not tennis' answer to T20.