At the inaugural Next Gen ATP Finals in Milan, over the course of a week of tough competition for the best 21-and-under players in the world, after being tested time and again but always emerging unscathed, Hyeon Chung of South Korea came away deservedly with the top honor. He did not lose a match all tournament long, not even in the round robin competition. He comported himself honorably. He won the tournament in style with a come- from-behind triumph over Andrey Rublev, taking the title with a four-set victory. Raise a glass to Chung for a job well done. He just might be ready to significantly advance in the year ahead, and thus establish himself as a front-line player in 2018 and beyond.
But the larger story of Milan was not about Chung or any other player. The reason this tournament will be remembered long after it finished was the widespread experimentation with the rules. Traditional scoring was replaced by some sweeping changes, designed largely and fundamentally to enhance the entertainment value of the tennis for the spectators. It was an ideal time to observe young and immensely promising players, competing under entirely different parameters than what they have experienced before.
And so, a number of procedures were put in place that had everyone in the sport debating the merits of those moves. The format was best-of-five sets across the entire tournament, but those sets were reduced in length substantially. The first player to win four games took the set, with tie-breaks taking place at 3-3. No-Ad scoring was implemented. There were no lets on serves. Electronic lines were used, taking the human element of linesmen out of the equation, removing the need for player challenges on calls. A 25- second shot clock was put into operation. The players could consult with their coaches at the end of sets on headphones.
Even the warmup period was reduced. From the time that the second player in a match walked on court, a strict five-minute limit was enforced to complete the warmup and be ready to commence the match promptly. If either the server or receiver was not ready for the first point, they were penalized. Each player was given a limit of one medical timeout per match. And a 'free movement" policy was opened up, allowing spectators to move around at any time during matches.
All of these changes were put forth after extensive research and fan surveys. It was the right battleground to do the testing since the "Next Gen" participants are not as set in their ways as those who have been around the game much longer. As Ross Hutchins—Chief Player Officer, ATP— told me over the phone from Milan the day of the final, "We have had a huge amount of people interested in the Next Gen ATP Finals. People are talking about it. We will review the rule changes thoroughly and consider how different stake holders view it. We want to keep the sport very credible. We have got a rich history in our sport, and we would not want to change some things at all. Ultimately, it will be a matter of what will be valid going forward. I think that this event here in Milan will be seen as a platform for potential change."
I asked Hutchins at the start of our discussion to tell me what he thought about the electronic lines, and how the players felt about that. He said, "We tried to have a human element remain by having a voice recorded, making the call when a ball was out. We had very accurate calls all week long. So, when a serve was long, the voice [would say] 'fault'. When a shot would land out, the voice would say 'out'. And when a ball landed within a certain distance of a line—it could be five or ten centimeters, or whatever distance we chose on site—we automatically put it up on the screen to show the fans the validation that it was actually the right call. We wanted to make sure that fan interaction, which normally happens at tournaments when players make challenges, continued to be there at our tournament in Milan with the electronic line calling. You still heard the fans going, 'Ooooohhh,' on a close call. We kept that fan element in place."
Colin Fleming played doubles with Hutchins on the ATP World Tour. They won three titles together. Fleming reached a career high of No. 17 in the Emirates ATP Doubles Rankings. He was in Milan as a commentator for the World Feed. On balance, he was an admirer of the rule alterations. "The week was a great success," he told me in an interview by telephone soon after the event was over. "The two main objectives for the ATP were achieved in my opinion. The real attention was around the rule innovations and potential rule changes. Huge credit to the ATP for trying this on a big stage because in the past it has been at Futures and Challengers. It has just not been high enough profile to grab people's attention to maybe get them to bring these changes, but here in Milan it was."
Yet Fleming was not entirely in accord with Hutchins concerning the electronic lines. He asserts, "It was interesting for the crowd when they could put the close calls up on the screen for them to see, but as a whole I thought the electronic line calling was too clinical. You talk about crowd engagement and the entertainment factor, but I think human error and challenges— with the suspense that brings—gets the crowd more engaged. I like having those challenges and the added suspense that [it] brings."
Enter Brad Gilbert. I spoke with the Californian late in the week. As usual, the ESPN commentator and former world No. 4 had plenty to say about the Milan experiment. His concerns about the electronic line calling relate largely to uniformity. Gilbert explains, "My first thought when I watched it a bit was that it takes a little getting used to. You take away the human element. It reminds me of when we went to Hawkeye for the challenges. Would you only use it for Center Court and not on the outside courts at the big tournaments? Are we going to have it at the ATP 250s? Where are we going to be on that? And even at the Slams, are we only going to have electronic line calling on two or three courts, but not the rest? I don't like that idea. You would eliminate some linesmen but still have them on other levels. That seems a bit convoluted to me."
What Gilbert was most enthused about in the Milan rule reworking was the No-Let and No-Ad. He weighs in very favorably on both. Gilbert contends on the No-Let situation, "It is one less thing to have controversies about. It is great for juniors. But the net post is very crucial. I would get frustrated as a player when sometimes the net would be looser and sometimes the post was tighter, and then the ball would hit the net and jump past the baseline. So, I think No-Let is a no-brainer, but I would like to see a mandate on the net post, so we won't have balls jumping over the baseline in some cases and dead let-cord aces in other instances."
Fleming observed the nature of the lets in Milan and believes the net post issue played out fairly in the Next Gen ATP Finals. He says, "I thought the players adapted really well to the No-Let rule. A few of the lets that were played created some interesting points. I am thinking of one in my mind where Denis Shapovalov ended up defending the net with three or four volleys. It created a very exciting point. But, at the same time, the majority of the time not having lets benefitted the server because it was either a let-ace or the receiver had to react as he hit his return. There were only a few lets where the ball popped up and the receiver was then able to dictate the point."
As Hutchins reflected on the way No-Let was perceived by the participants, he said, "There are mixed views from the players. Not everyone thinks the same way on that. We wanted to make sure to have a good net on the court, so the ball would not hit the net cord and fly long or dribble over the net. We were able to have that. Our net here in Milan sometimes redirected the ball, and sometimes the ball clipped the net and made for a rally continuing. So, I think player feedback on this is mixed, but ultimately, the players in Milan got used to it and dealt with it very well."
Gilbert, meanwhile, is a strong advocate for No-Ad. As he recollects, "I played No-Ad in college [at Pepperdine University] in 1980 and 1981, when we also played nine point breakers. I am actually a fan of it. I am so dead set against ever making any changes in best-of-five-set matches because I think in the four Slams you rewrite history. But I think that a five or five-and-a-half-hour match can be too long. If you went to best of five with No-Ad scoring, it should make matches a lot shorter with more big points. I am not opposed to No-Ad scoring in best-of-three-set matches in ATP tournaments. I think with No-Ad, it is easier to break big servers because all of a sudden at 30-40 the receiver would have two break points instead of one."
Following up on that thought, Gilbert adds, "I would be totally cool with all Futures and Challengers going to No-Ad in singles. We could grow into this over a three to five-year period. Pop that into the Futures and Challengers over that time period, and then all of a sudden you grow it into the ATP Tour, where a lot of these players are graduating."
Interestingly, Milan went in another direction on No-Ad after closely analyzing what would make sense. Traditionally with No-Ad—most prominently in doubles on the tour— the receiver gets choice of court on the critical "Sudden Death" point at deuce. In Milan, they elected to allow the server to choose whether he wanted to serve to the deuce or the ad court on the decisive point. Fleming is not enamored about No-Ad, but he was intrigued by how it played out in Milan.
"With No-Ad," he asserts, "you have to find a way to win one big point on the decisive point. If we are going to do that, I think we should explore receiver's choice like we do in doubles. It can maybe create that opportunity for a few more breaks of serve. I spoke to Gayle Bradshaw [EVP, Rules & Competition, ATP] and Tom Barnes [ATP Supervisor] at the start of the week and they initially were going to go for receiver's choice, but I think Ross Hutchins and various people at the ATP spoke to a lot of players. They felt that service breaks could be so decisive with the shorter sets, so they wanted to try it with server's choice. I would like it to be receiver's choice, so there would be a little bit more of a chance for a player to break back."
For his part, Hutchins was somewhat conflicted about the pros and cons of No-Ad, although he largely leans toward the benefits. "It creates excitement potentially in every game," he points out. "Relying on that one big point comes down to a lot of pressure on that moment. One point to finish a game is exciting. I also believe having No-Ad reduces our match times significantly. Not only is it more exciting for people— creating more adrenaline— but it also adds to suspense. People's attention spans are shorter nowadays, so they get more exciting moments with more regularity. People consume sports differently these days. But it is a change from what people are used to."
But no change was more sweeping in Milan than the shorter sets, with the winner needing to garner only four games, and the tie-breaks contested at 3-3, which is only a halfway point in a set under conventional scoring. Gilbert is adamantly against it. He asserts, "A four game set is absurd. One break at the start of a set and you are down 3-0 before you know it. You can have too many quick sets, too many 4-1 and 4-2 sets. There is too much potential for that. You make a slow start: boom. Thirteen minute sets? I mean, that's absurd. If they had asked me, I would say play the regulation set, but at 5-5 you go to a breaker. But no four game sets ever! Especially when you are going to No-Ad, it is way too much. As I watched some of Milan, my first thought was: why not play a nine-point breaker? A breaker in the Milan format could be almost longer than the rest of the set."
"Listen," says Hutchins, "when we looked at this, we thought: how can we make the game more exciting, have more exciting moments in a match, and have less downtime so that the players feel more emotion? The idea is to make the product more relevant more regularly. With the four-game sets, when you get to 1-1 and 2-2, you are getting to big moments in a match quicker. Fans, media and sponsors might want to see these exciting moments more often, and now we reach them faster."
Hutchins pauses, then continues, "Coming into the final, 43% of the sets played here in Milan have gone to a tie-break, while normally 19% of sets reach a tie-break. People enjoy tie-breaks because, unquestionably, there are more momentum swings. Having to win only four games to win the set is definitely the most drastic change, because we are a sport which, for so long, has been delivering on six or seven games needed to win the set. However, the thought of it is far more drastic than the reality, because you still have to win four points to win a game, you still have 15-0, 30-0, 40-0, and you don't have double points for hitting a winner, or triple points for a volley, or penalty, or bonus points. All of that nonsense is kept out. In my view, we don't want to go down that path. We want to keep it very clinical. Four game sets are a change, but a credible change."
Fleming says, "Three-out-of-five sets with the first to four games is incredibly intense, as I saw it in Milan. There were a lot of ebbs and flows, and changes of momentum within the matches, which I thought was a nice variation to the original scoring system. I don't think I would want to see these changes coming in at our Grand Slam events, Masters 1000s, or maybe even the 500s. But there is potential to bring these changes in initially at our 250s."
The time has come to address the shot clock. Naturally, Gilbert speaks about that topic with passion and clarity. He says, "I like the shot clock. I just think that the supervisor should tell the umpire—if it is three shots or less, an ace or an un-returnable— immediately click to 25 seconds, and we get rolling. But if it is an incredible 20-ball rally, don't start the clock until the crowd has stopped clapping. You need more leeway after a point like that. I think it helps the players if they know they have to play a little faster, but the umpire has to be smart in judging when to start the clock."
Fleming adds, " I thought they did a good job with the shot clock in Milan. The umpires used common sense. They didn't start the clock as soon as the point ended. They started it as soon as the umpire called the score, which was generally once the crowd noise had died down. This isn't a new rule, but just a different way of imposing an existing rule by using the shot clock. I could see them bringing that one in quickly, maybe as soon as next year."
One player in the Milan field who shares Fleming's enthusiasm about the 25-second clock is Daniil Medvedev, who was beaten by Chung in the semifinals. Medvedev said, "I think the shot clock is pretty good. I got some time violations in my career, but sometimes you walk around, start to bounce the ball, and you get the time violation. I don't have a timer in my head to see it was already 25 seconds. So here [in Milan] it is pretty fair. If you get a time violation, you can see this. It is your fault. That's what I want to see on the ATP Tour [the shot clock]."
Chung concurs, adding, "I like the shot clock. Sometimes I got a warning because I had to clean my glasses in a long match, so I would get the warning all the time in a long match. I like the shot clock [for that reason]."
Fleming found himself delighted by the opportunity of listening to the players conferring with their coaches on the headsets at the end of sets as he sat in the commentary booth. He said, "As a commentator this week, the coaching provided incredible insight for me. It was really interesting to be able to listen to those conversations between the players and their coaches. It was a great insight into the mental side of the game that usually we can't get a read on, but hearing their thoughts was quite interesting."
From my point of view, the No-Ad, No-Let, and the shot clock are all worth pursuing in a serious way. The shot clock could be featured at all of the tournaments, from Futures to Grand Slam championships. No-Ad is worthy of exploration all the way up to the ATP 500 level. I have deep misgivings about the four-game sets. They should go by the wayside. It could turn top-of-the-line tennis into a lottery, and that makes no sense at all.
In any event, Milan was a noble experiment that could lead to some fascinating developments in the sport. Where is it all headed? I will leave the response to that question for Gilbert. Asked how he believes the leading lights of the sport like Federer, Nadal, Djokovic and Murray would feel about sometimes reevaluating the rules and moving in the general direction of the Milan formula, he replies, "They probably would feel a bit of uneasiness, or maybe see it as gimmicky. Probably nobody in the London field would be hip to it, other than Sascha Zverev. I don't think anybody in the history of the world would be okay with four-game sets and tiebreakers at 3-3. That one is goofy. But if you are talking to me, and I am commissioner of tennis, I say shot clock, No-Lets, and coaching. And I would experiment with No-Ad scoring in 2018 at all Challengers and Futures. One more idea: you can't catch a ball toss more than once in a match. One mulligan is all you get."
Having said that, Gilbert has one last comment he would like to make that puts the entire Milan experience into full perspective. He says, "The biggest thing is that it has been thought provoking about the rules more than the tennis. That is not a bad thing, but I am a little torn. As I was watching the matches, first and foremost, I was thinking more about the rules than the two guys playing the actual tennis match."