Once the debris from a catastrophic crash landing on the catwalk had been cleared away, the NextGen ATP Finals was allowed to proceed along its intended path – namely to offer a fascinating insight into what, exactly, would happen if numerous rule changes that had been talked about for years were put into practice.
After four days of high intensity tennis in a vast industrial space on the outskirts of Milan, it became clear that many proposals – immediately embraced by eight of the world’s best, and not coincidentally brightest, young players – would, indeed, be worth incorporating into the modern game.
Not immediately, as Chis Kermode, the adventurous ATP CEO, was quick to point out; however, as a building block towards the forward movement and modernization that any great sport needs.
“We have been working on this for two years,” said Kermode. “We want to look to the future while the game is in such great shape. We are coming towards the end of one of the greatest generations men’s tennis has ever seen. So, people say don’t mess with it. We’re not messing with it. Many sports wait too long to bring in new ideas. Tennis has been criticized for never changing. Hopefully some ideas will come out of this week that will make that criticism invalid.”
After much more evaluation and input from all the game’s constituencies, Kermode foresees some new rules being used at the 250 tournament level in a couple of years. Obviously, he doesn’t want to make premature promises; but, judging by the players initial reaction, I can see some being adopted sooner than later.
“The players have been very supportive,” said Kermode. Everything they said in press conference backed that up.
The shot clock worked perfectly with hardly any infractions; there was more of a negative reaction to ‘no let’ on the serve, and there were more complaints about the crowd being allowed to chatter and move about during points except behind the server. My reaction to that is you’ll get used to it and if you want practice, sign up for World Team Tennis!
For Karen Khachanov, one of three Russians on view, allowing coaching was “more for show, I think.” Like several others, Kuchanov felt it was good for spectators to hear what the coach was saying.
“But I think it should be more private because there are some things you don’t want to share with all the world,” said Kuchanov.
Nothing could change the way the game is played more than the possible adoption of a best of five set format, with no ad scoring and tie breaks at 4-4. I had seen it tried right at the start of Julien Benetteau’s career when he played in an ITF Futures at St Raphael in the south of France.
“It’s so intense,” I remember Julien telling me. “You can’t afford to lose concentration for a second.
Roll forward and listen to the thoughtful and articulate Daniil Medvedev, “It’s a big difference. You need to be good right from the start of the set. You cannot have one moment where you relax your concentration because…well, I lost the first game of the match (against Khachanov, before winning 2-4, 4-3, 4-3, 4-2) and I lost the set so fast, like in 20 minutes.”
The hyper Canadian Denis Shapovalov echoed Medvedev’s reaction. “I like this format because it’s going down to the wire with a lot more tie breaks, a lot more intense moments just because there are so many less chances to break. Less chances to break back, too.”
The capacity crowds of 4,500 contributed to this feeling of intensity with their riveted reaction, particularly, of course, when their favorite, Gianluigi Quinzi was in action. A world No 1 junior whose career was derailed by injury, Quinzi tried to make the most of a big lefty serve but didn’t have enough top matches under his belt. Shapovalov beat him 4-3 in the fourth.
For those struggling with the scoring system, that 4-3 score line is equivalent to 7-6 – in other words, denoting that a set ended in a tie break. On the first day, the four matches produced eight tiebreaks between them.
Hyeon Chung, a large, serious young man, seeded 6th, had upset Shapovalov, the third seed, 1-4, 4-3, 4-3, 4-1 on the opening day and when top seed Andrey Rublev beat Denis on Thursday, it meant the Canadian could not reach the knock out semi-finals. By that stage the powerful South Korean with his huge all-round game had impressed as much as anyone.
Croatia’s Borna Coric also adapted well to the format and looked very solid in the round robin, starting with a straight set win over the lone American in the field, Jared Donaldson, who failed to make the semi-finals.
Another possible rule change which gained widespread approval – possibly a little more so with officials than players – was the severe cut-back in the time allowed from the moment the players walk on court to first ball struck. With a two-minute warm-up set as the ideal, the reality saw play getting under way in close to five minutes which, even then, was a huge improvement on the 14-15 minutes that we see on the tour today. Kermode was only marginally satisfied. “It can be closer to two minutes,” the CEO insisted.
Kermode liked the look of a clean court without line judges and the players were generally in favor of it, too. It is the one proposed change I cannot countenance. And my objection has nothing to do with technology. Of course, Hawk-Eye’s accuracy would mean fewer mistakes. But what enterprise can afford to divest itself of over 10,000 of its most devoted helpers worldwide?
What sport is so strong that it can afford to tell these dedicated fanatics – AND their families – that they can go off and be soccer touch judges or baseball umpires? No more excitement created by Mom or Dad coming home with stories of having sat on court with Roger or Serena? You think that close-up connection doesn’t inspire the Next Generation of kids to get involved with the game and contribute? This, for me is the most important factor that needs to be thought through.
The cynics on my twitter feed, who are persistent if not numerous, were insisting that, with no ATP points on offer, this was nothing but an exo. They said that about The Laver Cup. Ask the players.
In Milan, Khachanov’s reaction echoed those of his colleagues. “I think everything plays serious here. So, OK, we don’t have points but there is prize money and it’s a very prestigious tournament. Even though we are friends outside, in the match everybody plays full. So, I think, with motivation, there is nothing to say. It is 100%.”
It’s a sentiment which bodes well for the future of tennis which, of course, dovetails in the object of this whole exercise. It really wasn’t about the catwalk.