Friday, November 3, 2017

Why the ATP Needs to Slow its Roll

By Kevin Beane

Next week will be the first edition of the Next Generation ATP Finals, which works just like the regular Tour Finals (eight highest-ranked players who choose to participate split into two round robin groups, followed by semifinals and finals), except it'll be for players born in 1996 or later.

Taken just as that, I really like it. The ATP needs to showcase its young stars so that casual fans don't stop watching when Federer and Nadal retire. Plus, this is the first time in quite awhile that an American man (Jared Donaldson) will get to participate in any sort of end-of-year tour finals; the last time was Mardy Fish in 2011.

That's the good news. The bad news is, the ATP is using this tournament as a dumping ground for scads of new and radical rules and changes to try out. Let's go through them one by one, and I'll adjudge each as good, bad, or mixed.

1. Match Will Start Within Five Minutes of Second Player Coming Onto Court

GOOD. The warmups in tennis are breezy formalities that bears little resemblance to, say, a pitcher warming up. If a player wants an intense warmup, there's no reason he can't do so on a practice court or in the locker room, and he can start as early as he wants.

2. Matches Will Have a 25-Second Shot Clock For Serves

GOOD. That should be plenty of time, even for Nadal.

3. One Medical Timeout Per Player Per Match

GOOD. If you need more than one, you're probably doing your health no favors by continuing to play anyway.

4. Players and Coaches Will Be Able to Communicate at Certain Points in the Match

MIXED. The ATP says that when those certain points will be is "to be determined," and I can't find info on whether that has indeed been determined yet. They go an to say this change amounts to "providing additional content and entertainment value for broadcast. Coaches will not be allowed on-court."

Que? What's so entertaining about a coach signaling from a box? If they wanted to make it entertaining, they would allow coaches on the court to celebrate and fume as the circumstances call for, just like in Davis Cup.

That said, while I don't want the tennis equivalent of sign-stealing to become accepted, the complete ban on any sort of in-match coaching is unique to tennis, and I don't see any good reason for it, unless you're big on tradition for tradition's sake.

5. No Line Judges; Hawkeye on All Calls

GOOD. Why wouldn't we want the most accurate calls technology afforded us?

6. Free Movement of Fans During Points, Except Along the Baselines

BAD. The ATP said they came up with these rules by surveying a number of fans. Anyone who says, "Oh god, I need to be able to get up DURING POINTS!" is not even a casual fan of tennis. The ATP is trying to solve a non-existent problem with this, and I'm guessing it will be pretty distracting for the players.

7. No Lets

MIXED. More like "neutral." Whatever.

8. Sets Are First to Four Games Instead of Six. Tiebreak At Three-All. Best of Five Sets

BAD. I could understand this one if it was best-of-three sets. I'd hate it, but I'd at least understand it; you want to speed the match up.

Shortening the sets, but lengthening the match, however, is going to come pretty close to just cancelling out in the end, so I don't get this one at all. Again, it seems like the ATP is tinkering for tinkering's sake.

9. "No-Ad" Scoring. Person Who Wins the First Deuce Point Wins the Game

BAD BAD BAD BAD BAD BAD BAD. Before I go on, I should point out that "no-ad" scoring is not new. They've been using it in World Team Tennis for some time, and other tourneys and exhibitions use, it as well.

I'll also say I'm not advocating for marathon matches. Tiebreakers are a good thing; all majors should use them in the fifth set. As recently as the '70s, any set could have a marathon score like 22-20. That's bad.

But the single greatest thing about tennis, if you ask me, is the elegance of the scoring system. You must break serve to win. A match with no broken serves would never end. And, you must, essentially, win each game by two. Even if it comes down to a tiebreak, you have to win that by two.

Well, no more, at least at the game level, with no-ad scoring. This will mean fewer breaks and less drama. A 10-minute game usually means lots of drama and excitement that is impossible in no-ad scoring. We should be able to abide ten minutes of excitement.

A best-of-three match rarely goes beyond 2½ hours, and if the winner takes it in straight sets, it rarely even makes it to two hours. That is short enough. I had more "goods" than "bads" here, but the last bad is so bad that it makes the who tournament bad. Bad.

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