The ATP has proposed rule changes that could threaten the game of tennis as we know it.
The ATP is proposing significant rule changes to tennis. Among the modifications being proposed are a shot clock, in-court coaching, getting rid of ‘let’ in serves, less warm-up, no line judges, reducing seeds from 32 to 16, no advantage in deuce and most shocking of all four-game sets. A few changes seem welcome, but will the more radical proposals destroy the gladiators in the game?
Think about it, when Roger Federer trailed Rafael Nadal 3-1 in the fifth set of the Australian Open at the beginning of the year — under the proposed rules by the ATP governing body — would he have fought as hard as he did if he knew Nadal had been only one game away from winning the title? The entire narrative for the year would have changed. Without Federer’s extra boost of confidence when he was down 3-1 in the last set, he may not have erased the ghost of a losing streak to Nadal, and who knows how tight their captivating race to No. 1 would have been? The renewed rivalry between these two legends, finding new inspiration while calling on the best of their vintage tennis, has been a fascinating sports story all year long.
And how many times have we seen the comeback kid, Rafael Nadal, dig deep from behind, and display the brilliant fight he’s known for? Or the second Gold Medal won by Andy Murray? In the fourth set, Juan Martin del Potro had the momentum and if the set had ended at 4-2, it could have gone to a fifth set, and who knows if the Argentine would have battled past wrist pain to achieve a first Gold? Winning gold there and clinching the Wimbledon title last year motivated Murray to put on a burst of herculean effort to attain the top spot after waiting on the sidelines as No. 2 for seven years.
For the thinkers in the game, the resilient minds who manage to inspire fans with awe-inspiring come-from-behind victories, who demonstrate a willpower and belief when all else seems hopeless, this is the biggest loss to the game with the proposed new changes. And the legends (as well as other Top 10 players) seem to agree.
What the top players think
“The longer sets allow you to stretch a lead, [to feel] more comfortable at times, try different things,” Federer said while at the ATP World Tour Finals in London. “You can work on stuff – whereas, when every point counts so much, there’s no room for anything anymore. There are positives and negatives to it but, for the most part, I don’t like to see anything change that much, to be honest.”
Although the 19-time grand slam champ concedes that limiting the seeds might provide more opportunity.
“You have these stairs that can make you feel safe and I feel like there’s too many to get to the top,” said Federer. “It’s hard to drop out and it’s hard to get into. Having 16 seeds? That might be interesting. The draw could be more volatile, [with] better matches in the first week.”
What’s the motivation for the ATP to make these changes now?
Tennis has been extremely popular thanks to the resurgence of these two sports icons, despite the many notable absences from top players this year, including Novak Djokovic, Andy Murray, Kei Nishikori and Stan Wawrinka. The ATP is probably saying, what happens when that generation goes away? They’re looking to the future, which is why they tried out the new format at the ATP NextGen Finals, where South Korea’s Hyeon Chung beat higher-ranked Andrey Rublev, in just over an hour, 4-0, 4-1, 4-3(1).
In fact, most of the matches lasted about that long. Is that really that compelling?
The ATP is looking for a new way to package the new generation of players for a more TV friendly environment. Their sexist attempt at having the young players — most of whom looked extremely uncomfortable — choose their playing group by picking a model that represented either group A or B certainly backfired.
But others found the in-court coaching refreshing, the DJ’s playing during breaks entertaining and the shot clock maintaining pace the most positive — of all the proposed changes, this one is the most likely to be implemented. But player’s checking their ipads for match stats during changeovers? Really?
Gone will be the drama of the singular player relying on his mental strength and belief in himself to come back to victory, bringing the spectators to their feet.
ATP says retaining ‘status quo’ not an option
Most of the players do like the shot clock choice, which speeds things up between points, and players such as Nadal have been accused of taking too long in the past. Most of the players are for more use of Hawk-eye as well.
”There are a couple of things that I like and a couple of things I don’t like but nothing is perfect,” said Nadal in London. “We are in a sport where we have a big tradition — not many changes have been made in all of its history.”
“The scoring system I don’t really like,” said Dominic Thiem, also in London at the ATP Finals. “I like the shot clock — that’s a very good thing. But everything else I think we should keep the good old rules.”
One NextGen player who decided to skip the entire format in Milan is Alexander Zverev — who is the next great thing if ever there was one — and instead concentrated on preparing for the ATP Finals in London. He’s not a fan of the proposed rules either, although he agrees with most that the shot clock and Hawk-eye changes are a good thing.
“Everything else will never happen (on the main tour) in my opinion,” he said, according to Sporting Life.
But are we sacrificing a lot for short term gain? Sure, the shorter matches and the flashy entertainment with coaches talking with players (to provide some drama) and DJ’s blasting in between points, will inject some energy for some of the matches. But what will we lose as a result? Will we see less legends emerge and lesser known players who fail to connect with a fan base?
When Pete Sampras and Andre Agassi—two tennis icons—were heading towards the end of their reign, there was a question again of who would emerge as the new star tennis player. Sampras retired in 2002, but by the next year tennis had its answer: Roger Federer won his first grand slam, at Wimbledon, in 2003.
Why not look to the Laver Cup as evidence of success?
Perhaps instead of cutting the game off at the knees, the ATP should be looking at the popularity of the Laver Cup, a brand new type of tournament that it choose not to sanction. Tennis fans didn’t agree and images of Federer and Nadal playing doubles for the first time at the event resulted in internet gold.
Even John McEnroe said, “I think the ATP made a mistake not realizing that this was going to be big,’ he said of the Ryder Cup-style event. ‘I tried to tell them. The way it panned out was amazing, I wish I could’ve played.’”
Why isn’t the ATP looking at the success at that event as a way to get fans excited? The entire event was sold out from the start. It seems like the ATP needs to leave the models and loud DJ’s behind and connect with what the fans want to actually see.
A few changes may be folded into the grand slams, but not at Wimbledon
The All England Club is the most dead set against the proposed changes, stating that the on-court coaching will absolutely not happen.
“We are philosophically very against,” said Wimbledon chief executive Richard Lewis to ESPN. “We believe it is a gladiatorial sport, an individual sport; you go on court and the whole premise of tennis is that you are on your own. That is one of the beauties of tennis compared to most, if not every other sport.”
The greatest match in tennis history is generally considered the 2008 Wimbledon final between Roger Federer and Rafael Nadal, a match that lasted almost five hours, with Rafa hoisting up the Wimbledon trophy in the dark with only flashbulbs going off to provide light.
One thing’s for certain: no match that lasted an hour was ever considered the greatest ever.