The Splashiest Experiment in the Modern History of Pro Tennis – The New Yorker

Like most sports, tennis clings to its rules and traditions, its mores
and peculiarities—proudly, you might say, even stubbornly. And why not?
The game has been embraced worldwide, by men and by women. An estimated
fourteen million people in China play tennis regularly, up from one
million twenty years ago. There is now an annual stop on the women’s
tour in Tashkent, Uzbekistan. But tennis, like baseball, has a creeping
sense of itself as being a bit ossified, too slow for our speeded-up
times. Are the sets too long? Are the matches too long? Is all of the
in-between time—the warming up, the moment or two before a player
serves—too long? And, while we’re at it, is there room in this
essentially Victorian game for a little more show-biz pizzazz? 2017 may
well be remembered as the year pro tennis began to experiment with ways
to make the game . . . what, exactly? More fan-friendly. Or TV-friendly.
Or more engaging for millennials. Or faster, anyway.

In August, during the week of qualifying matches that preceded the
main-draw events at the U.S. Open, a twenty-five-second countdown clock
between points was introduced, and the warmup time for players was
limited to five minutes. In September, in Prague, at the first-ever
Laver Cup—a two-team exhibition tournament, Europeans versus the Rest of
the World, spearheaded by Roger Federer, to honor the
seventy-nine-year-old Australian great Rod Laver—all matches tied after
two sets were decided by a brisk, first-to-ten-points-by-two “super
tiebreak.” And last week, in Milan, at the inaugural Next Gen A.T.P.
Finals, an event designed to showcase young talent on the men’s side, in
an era that continues to be dominated by Federer and Rafael Nadal, the
top male players aged twenty-one or younger became lab subjects for
perhaps the largest sanctioned series of experiments in the Open era
history of pro tennis.

Could it have gotten off to a worse start? Maybe not. At the draw
ceremony, to group the eight players for the three days of round-robin
matches that would begin the tourney, the A.T.P. and the event’s
sponsor, Red Bull, did away with simply drawing chips and went the
Silvio Berlusconi route instead: on a fashion runway with cheesy Europop
cranked to eleven, the young players were instructed to select from a
gaggle of models who had either the letter “A” or “B” somewhere on their
bodies. There ensued dress hiking, booty shaking, de Sade-esque glove
removal, and simulated lap dancing. The players mostly winced and looked
at their shoe tops. A firestorm on Twitter subsequently prompted an
official apology.

Less cringeworthy, but not exactly riveting, was the introduction of
audible chat between players and coaches, who, in between sets,
communicated with each other via headsets, which were hooked up so that
TV viewers could listen in. If you were hoping, as I was, for strategic
or tactical insights, forget it. Coaches stuck to the kind of talk you
get from a club coach: mix it up, pounce on that second serve,
believe. The young Canadian Denis Shapovalov, who won over fans at
this year’s U.S. Open with his on-court passion and charm, had the Next
Gen’s best heart-to-heart with a coach. He couldn’t believe how good the
coffee in Milan was! “Dude, I’m telling you,” he informed his coach,
Martin Laurendeau. “Best coffee I’ve ever had in my life!”

The tournament was held at the Fiera Milano, which is normally given
over to trade fairs, and the lighting was theatrical in the Vegas style
that has lately been perfected by N.B.A. arenas. The place was packed
all week, and, judging purely from what the TV cameras showed, the
attendees were younger than the typical tennis-match crowd. The lone
court, stylishly slate gray in a pool of aqua, had no doubles alleys;
the tournament was singles only. The simplified design, and the contrast
between the spotlit court and the darkened stands, heightened the sense
that the players were onstage, and somehow intensified both one’s
understanding of how far today’s players are drawn wide by sharp-angled,
deep-bouncing, topspin-loaded shots, and how confining a tennis court
can be: so many balls land out by so little.

Those out calls were given over fully to modern technology: there were
no line judges, just Hawk-Eye. The computerized system, with its cameras
and software visually tracking the ball, also ruled serves in and out,
and officiated on foot faults, with a recorded voice instantly
announcing the call. That this should become standard for all tennis
matches at the pro level and beyond seems a no-brainer. Tennis has been
using Hawk-Eye for a generation to overrule line judges on calls, so
why not do away with the judges altogether, and have six or seven fewer
people crowding around the court, attempting to track 100-m.p.h.-plus
hits?

There was still a chair umpire for each match; his biggest role appeared
to be calling balls out that were way out—Hawk-Eye only tracks balls
within two metres of the lines—and setting the twenty-five-second
countdown clock between points. (The umpire paused benevolently before
getting it going after particularly gruelling points.) In the third set
of the first match of the tournament, the veteran chair ump Carlos Bernandes
yelled “Let” as a serve flicked off the tape and landed in the service
box—an ordinary enough occurrence, except that one of the Next Gen
speed-it-up experiments was to play such serves, as college rules have
had players do for years. Bernandes had momentarily forgotten. There
were laughs all around at the botched call, and the point was replayed,
but it became clear during the course of the tournament that the players
did not enjoy chasing these serves. It’s hard enough to break serve in
the men’s game today without having to worry about a ball that glances
off the net.

Another change implemented last year in N.C.A.A. tennis was the
elimination of deuce—a scoring system, gentlemanly in its origins, that
embraces the notion that winning by two points is the fair way to break
a tie. Collegiate games that reach 40–40 now end with one deciding
point. It’s a system that’s also been used for some years in men’s and
women’s doubles on the pro tour, and it did keep the matches moving in
Milan, where no-ad scoring was being tried for the first time in
singles. Interestingly and, to me, counterintuitively, the receivers
dominated these deciders in the half-dozen matches I watched, even
though the server got to choose which side of the court he wanted to
serve to. But, then, the players were young and not capable, at least
not yet, of precisely blasting 125-m.p.h. serves under pressure.

The most radical experiment was in the format of sets: four games to
win, not six, with a tiebreak at three-all. Even though the matches were
best-of-five sets, this got things over in a hurry: three- and
four-setters in under two hours, those going the distance lasting maybe
twenty minutes longer. Did it increase the entertainment value of the
matches? I’m not sure. But it clearly raised the stress level of a
number of the Next Gen phenoms. The twenty-year-old Andrey Rublev, of
Russia, was the tournament’s No. 1 seed, having risen this season to No.
37 in the A.T.P. world rankings on the strength of a resounding forehand
that, with the help of extraordinary footwork, he is able to launch in
any direction from anywhere along the baseline. (The best
twenty-one-and-under men’s player, Sascha Zverev, had such a fine
season, entering the men’s Top Five, that he qualified for the A.T.P.
Finals being played this week in London and chose to skip Milan.) But it
was clear that the quick-to-arrive, three-all tiebreaks, and the
deciding points at 40–40, rattled Rublev. In the final, on Saturday,
during such pressure situations, he could barely put a first serve in,
which led him to toss his racquet and, at one point, squeeze his pale,
peach-fuzzed face to fend off tears.

The tournament was won, instead, by Hyeon Chung, a muscular,
bespectacled South Korean twenty-one-year-old. This result would have
seemed surprising when the tourney began—he was the sixth seed, and he
has battled heel and ankle injuries for much of the year—but no one who
spent the week watching could have been caught off guard. Chung is a
counterpuncher, able to get a quick jump on balls headed his way, change
direction with Djokovic-like balance and fluidity, and keep himself in
points for long stretches of time by fighting the urge to go for too
much too soon. He didn’t lose a match in Milan, coming from behind three
times, and never once donned his headset between sets to consult with
his coach. That’s mental toughness, which is worth having whatever the
format, and whatever the future holds.

The Author

Vadhiya Natha

Vadhiya Natha is an Event blogger and admin of Sports24.in. Mostly like to write sports article. He is enjoying sports articles and all sports event, specially Cricket is his favorite sports.
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