On the men’s tour this year, the battle between past and future was no contest: the past won in a rout. Roger Federer and Rafael Nadal split the four majors, combined to win five of the nine Masters 1000 tournaments, and finished the season ranked first (Nadal) and second (Federer). But arguably the most significant tournament of 2017 was the one to which the old guys weren’t invited: the ATP Next Gen Finals, which was held in Milan a few weeks ago. It was a showcase for some of the game’s up-and-coming stars; it was also an experiment in tennis made faster. The tournament used short-format sets (first to four games), no-add scoring, no lets, a truncated warm-up period, and a shot clock. While the event’s petri-dish aspect was briefly overshadowed by the controversy over its tawdry draw ceremony, the novel format seemed to intrigue fans and prompted a lot of discussion and debate.
The impetus behind “Tennis Re-Imagined,” as the ATP billed the Milan event, was concern that pro matches are taking too long and that the sport risks alienating younger fans, who have neither the patience nor the attention spans to sit through marathon battles. As ATP Executive Chairman and President Chris Kermode put it, “I think what most sports do is wait too long and assume that the show, the products they have, will last forever in the same format. For the next five years, we could probably not change anything, but what I’m looking at most importantly is the next generation of fans.”
That’s as it should be. I’m stating the obvious here, but if you can’t get people to turn up for tournaments and to tune in on television, that’s a problem. And you don’t need to be a device-addled, overstimulated twentysomething to find four- and five-hour matches a little trying. Even those of us who are middle-aged and besotted with tennis have our devotion tested by matches that refuse to end. Earlier this year, I wrote a column about the push to speed up matches and said that one change I’d happily embrace would be no-ad scoring. I’m still in favor of that. I can also say that the Laver Cup, which itself became a showcase for innovation, sold me on the idea of using super tiebreakers to settle best-of-three matches. I would love to see one or two Masters 1000 events adapt the 10-point breaker.
But beyond that, I think the ATP (and the WTA, too) should be very careful about implementing any radical changes. There is a natural tendency to assume that if a trend persists long enough, it is permanent—and with attritional, defensive tennis having been the prevailing mode for years now, many people assume it must be here to stay. But that isn’t necessarily so. With the aggressiveness he displayed this year and the results he enjoyed, Federer made a pretty compelling case for attacking tennis. And there are some other, deeper factors that could help push the pendulum back in the direction of more offensive-minded tennis.
All the discussion about shortened attention spans focuses on spectators; no one talks about players. Younger players have grown up using the same technologies that have supposedly re-wired the minds of kids generally. And while emerging stars like Sascha Zverev and Denis Shapovalov clearly have no trouble maintaining the focus needed to succeed at the game’s highest level, it can reasonably be assumed that they don’t have much patience for 30-shot rallies and four-hour matches, either. During his charmed late-summer run, Shapovalov dazzled fans with his shotmaking prowess and his willingness to force the issue on every point. It is a playing style that clearly suits the Canadian, but it is also true that he is the product of a quick-hit, instant-gratification culture, and his game reflects this. You can say the same of Jelena Ostapenko, who ripped one crazy winner after another to take the French Open in June (though it should be noted that she credited her high-risk approach not to a surfeit of screen time but to amusement parks. “I like extreme things and that’s probably why I play aggressive tennis,” she told reporters. “I like to go to attraction parks and ride crazy, crazy roller-coasters, to do sky jumps, things like that.”)
There is also this to consider: on the men’s side, at least, the players are getting bigger and bigger, and the big ones now move with the agility of players much shorter than them. Zverev is the obvious example: he is 6-foot-6 but has excellent foot speed and little trouble getting down for low balls (he attributes his suppleness to the field hockey he played as a kid). With his power, he can easily open up the court from the baseline, and one has to assume that at some point, he is going to start trying to capitalize on his massive wingspan by venturing to the net more frequently (it can also reasonably be assumed that his brother Mischa, one of the few serve-and-volleyers playing these days, is urging him to do just that). Small fry like David Goffin and David Ferrer have no choice but to grind it out from the baseline; with his height, power, and speed, Zverev has a choice, and it would not be surprising to see him and some of these other goliaths stepping in and trying to end points more quickly (and especially if tournaments start speeding up surfaces in order to encourage more attacking tennis).
Chris Kermode stressed that Milan was just an experiment and indicated that the ATP is going to be cautious about making any dramatic changes to how tennis is played and scored. That’s probably wise, because the marathon match problem may yet turn out to be a self-correcting one.