This has been year of significant changes in men’s tennis.
We witnessed the resurgence of Novak Djokovic, the launch of a new path to the pros, the adoption of the shot clock, a heat policy for men at the US Open, and the eradication of Davis Cup as we know it.
The general feeling of restlessness, of a game on the move, was enhanced by — among other things — increasingly player disenchantment with Grand Slam prize money distribution, Wimbledon’s move to adopt a fifth-set tiebreaker, and the ATP’s decision to double down on last year’s #Nextgen Finals experiment.
Ross Hutchins, chief player officer and tournament director of the Nextgen Finals, told ESPN.com: “We want to see what we need to change and what is acceptable on a major platform. We’re not comfortable testing things on the platform of regular tour events. The Nextgen Finals week (the qualifiers must be 21 and under) is ideal in that regard. There are no regular tournaments and we’re showcasing our best young players.”
This year, the player’s organization tried even more innovations intended to speed up the game for a younger, less patient, media-savvy audience at those Nextgen Finals in Milan. But if you’re hoping that the Milan tournament is a harbinger of dramatic changes (a different, more concise scoring system, all-electronic line-calling, a reduced tournament calendar), don’t hold your breath. Here are some of the changes or experiments that were recently tested and how they were received:
If it ain’t broke — or even if it is — don’t fix it
A number of high-profile exhibition events employed alternate scoring systems. The most viable among them is the one used at the Nextgen Finals. It’s is a best-of-five set format, with no-ad scoring, each set going to a tiebreaker at 4-games all. The abbreviated format keeps matches to well under two hours. The young players were all enthusiastic about it, and evidently so were the fans. Taylor Fritz told reporters in Milan: “Everyone I’ve talked to said they find this more exciting. They want to be watching the whole match, and I like that.”
Alex de Minaur, 19, the youngest in the field in Milan, told ESPN.com, “It’s OK once you get adjusted to it. You have to be alert, all the time, The games go by pretty quickly. So it is kind of exciting.”
Trouble is, there’s very little support among players for using the format at regular tour events. Even de Minaur said: “I get that [it’s exciting]. [But] I don’t think the scoring should be used in regular tournaments. I think regular scoring is a better test of how good you really are. It just feels that way to me.”
Hutchins, who is tasked with evaluating the options to scoring system, admitted: “The sport is conservative. These youngsters have played best of three since age five, watched he icons playing ad games and long sets with tiebreakers. It’s 15 years of training. I would be equally cautious. We’re just trying to prepare people in case adjustment is needed.”
I’m your ball boy, not your valet
One of the most hotly debated features of the Nextgen Finals was the use of towel racks, an innovation meant to spare ball kids the indignity of the job as well as to speed play (Fernando Verdasco was recently called out on social media for castigating a ball boy who was late with his towel). Unfortunately, the placement of the racks was awkward. Players, already under some pressure from the recently adopted 25-second shot clock, found themselves scrambling.
Andrey Rublev kept forgetting to fetch his towel from the rack for changeovers. Frances Tiafoe felt rushed, explaining: “We’re going pretty quick, and then, you know, I walk pretty slow. So I knew I couldn’t quite get there (to the towel). I had some time violations. . . I kind of need the ball boys to get the towel for me.”
More work required on this one.
Actually, this isn’t a good time to talk
About a decade ago at Indian Wells, Roger Federer said of on-court coaching: “It’s not going to add anything. It’s like in school, you work hard to be ready for the test and then in the test you can’t call your mom up and say, ‘What’s 2 plus 2?’ It just doesn’t work this way.”
It’s a biting comment, and it expresses the most common (and entrenched, among the men) objection to on-court coaching. But there are other reasons most men don’t want to see it adopted. Stefanos Tsitsipas, second only to Alexander Zverev among #Nextgen talents, told the media in Milan, “Maybe after the match we can discuss what I did wrong or right, but not during the match. I think that’s a bit more stress or pressure.”
Andrey Rublev has a compelling argument against the trend. One of the big selling points of on-court coaching is the public and TV audience listens in. Rublev explained in Milan that his coach would never impart truly valuable advice in an open mic because it means he would be sharing tactical wisdom and secrets about his opponent — or about Rublev himself.
Hawkeye has a big problem
The complete elimination of linesmen in Milan was a huge success. De Minaur was speaking for his peers, and probably the entire tour, when he told ESPN.com: “I like the electronic line-calling. I didn’t miss the human element at all, because the electronic system doesn’t make mistakes.”
There are obvious advantages but a number of drawbacks to eliminating linespeople, the chief of them a whopping irony: The present challenge system, which depends on human error (no questionable call, no challenge), has proved wildly popular. It’s been a terrific, dramatic add-on that most would hate to see abandoned.
Team events may be the wave of the future
Team play has long been the unexplored frontier of tennis. The spectacular success of Laver Cup, along with the promise of the retooled Davis Cup, Hopman Cup, and the newly revived ATP World Team Cup (to start in 2020) suggest we may be moving toward a new, expanded vision of the game — provided that the thorny issues raised by a calendar overloaded with tournaments can be resolved.
It’s the little things
The best thing a reformer can hope for at the moment is small changes that add up to a game that is presented in a more up-tempo manner, with more color and action. As Hutchins said, “I think a scoring format change would be exciting, but I also grew up in this sport. I have an interest in its history and don’t want to see that destroyed, either. So I wouldn’t change that right now.
“The [doable] issues are time between matches, the length of the warm-up, the shot clock, towel rack, eliminating deuce points, doing something about medical timeouts. Mainly we need to cut down on dead time, get to the live experience quickly, and keep it moving.”