Is Tennis Too Slow?

Although I wasn’t a big sports fan growing up, the sound of a baseball or football game on television always evokes a warm, fuzzy feeling in me. Even if I’m not watching the game, the voices of the announcers, interspersed with the occasional crack of a bat or crunch of helmets, conjure up memories of langorous weekend afternoons in my childhood home.

It seems like people had more time back then for sprawling on the sofa to watch the local team. Nowadays, we’re all too busy and our attention spans are too short. We still want to watch, but who has three hours to devote on a Sunday afternoon? (Well, aside from people who write sports blogs, that is.)

Football and baseball have come under increasing pressure to pick up the pace of their games. Tennis, perhaps, is the greatest offender of all televised sports, with a daily schedule for a Grand Slam tournament running more than six hours–or all day, if you get the Tennis Channel.

Tennis already struggles to compete for viewer attention, so it was inevitable that change would come. At last year’s Next Gen tournament in Milan, the ATP began experimenting with ways to speed up the pace of play and create a “high-tempo, cutting-edge, and TV-friendly product…geared towards attracting new and younger fans into the sport,” according to the organization’s press release from that year.

Well, who can argue with high-tempo and cutting edge? Who doesn’t want new and younger fans? At this month’s Next Gen tournament, the ATP continued test-driving its time-saving ideas. Here are some of the changes that could eventually find their way onto the regular pro tours.

  • No-ad scoring–Already a number of tournaments employ no-ad scoring for doubles competitions, but the Next Gen Finals was the first place to try it out in singles. My take: I hate playing no-ad scoring, but I don’t mind it too much at the professional level. If I have to vote, I guess I’d say keep playing out the ads. There’s a psychological beatdown when you lose a multiple-ad game, and that adds an interesting element to a match.
  • Shortened sets–The shorter sets are first to four games by one. A tiebreak is held at 3-all. The final scoreline could look like 4-2, 4-3. My take: I hate this. What’s next, five-inning baseball? Let tennis be tennis.
  • Five-minute warm-up–Typically players warm up for 10 minutes prior to play, although in reality, the process of warming up begins long before the players take the court. A ten-minute warm-up probably isn’t necessary for professionals. (A shortened warm-up was used in this year’s U.S. Open.) My take: Sure, go ahead and change it. Who watches that part anyway?
  • The shot clock–The traditional rules of tennis allow for 25 seconds between points, but some pros [coughNadalcough] take longer. The rule was inconsistently enforced, and players had no way of knowing how much time had elapsed. The shot clock already debuted at this year’s U.S. Open and in several of the tournaments leading up to it. My take: If a player is going to be penalized for exceeding 25 seconds, there must be a timer on court for him to pace himself by. (The jury’s still out on whether the shot clock actually shortens average match duration, though.)
  • Towel service–Instead of expecting ball kids to scurry about fetching towels as well as balls, players at Next Gen had to retrieve their own towels. The rule change was designed to eliminate an icky hygiene issue, protect ball kids from surly and impatient players, and cut down on excessive toweling. (Looking at you, Nadal.) My take: Totally in favor of this. In the McEnroe movie in Monday’s post, the towels never left the players’ chairs. McEnroe and Lendl managed just fine.
  • No service lets–Under this rule, a serve that clips the net and lands in is in play. This rule currently exists during World Team Tennis and adds a level of unpredictability to what is already a lively, almost rowdy format. My take: I enjoy this twist on the game in World Team Tennis, but I don’t want to see it extended to the regular tours. However, I would like to see the ATP put an end to players re-starting their entire first-serve routine after a let (choosing among various balls, picking shorts out of their butts, etc.) (Rafa, I love you, but you can really be infuriating.)
  • All-Hawkeye line calling–For Next Gen matches, Hawkeye was used in place of line judges. Players couldn’t challenge any call, except for foot faults. My take: I dislike this change for three reasons. One, challenges don’t really take that much time. Two, the challenge system adds drama to a match, especially if a player runs out of challenges. And three, I’m not in favor of a world where machines displace people. That’s why I still make deposits with a teller and avoid the self-serve check-out lane at the grocery store. People need jobs. Even linespeople.
  • Medical time-outs–Under the new rule, players are allowed only one medical time-out per match. My take: Sounds reasonable to me. The needs of an injured player must be balanced with the needs of the opponent forced to cool his heels.
  • Coaching–Although the women’s tour uses on-court coaching in non-Grand Slam events, coaching is still forbidden on the men’s tour. The Next Gen tournament permitted player-coach interaction, but only through a headset. Although allowing coaching doesn’t quicken the pace of play, the hope is that the dialogue between coach and player will spark viewer interest. My take: I’m a bit of a purist and prefer a player to problem-solve on his own. Plus, the majority of tour players aren’t American. I’m not going to understand a player-coach interaction in Chinese.

Now, it’s your turn. Which of the changes do you want to see implemented on the pro tours–and which do you want to see in your own matches? Choose as many as you like–and go ahead and argue with me in the comments section!

(And here’s an interesting tidbit to factor into your thinking. Most of these changes were tested at last year’s Next Gen tournament. According to the ATP, as reported by CNN, the average length of these “high-tempo, cutting edge” matches was a mere three minutes less than the average regular tour match.)



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