Next-Gen finals to have Next-Gen rules

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It’s too soon to know whether tennis fans will embrace the next generation of players.

But the inaugural Next-Gen finals in Milan, Italy in November will be a great opportunity to test out some of the new rules wrinkles aiming to cater to what’s perceived as a lack of attention span in the younger generation.

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The ATP says the rules choices are “aimed at creating a high-tempo, cutting-edge, and TV-friendly product.” 

The first thing people will notice is that the tournament will be played on a “singles-only” court. It’s definitely jarring to the tennis fan, as it’s missing the doubles alleys.

Anyone who plays at a club that has a singles court knows how weird it feels to play on it – never mind watch it. It looks smaller, although that’s only an optical illusion.

The singles court was tried before at the now-defunct “second-tier” WTA tour final in Bali, Indonesia, back in the last decade. It was weird then, too.

Fast Four scoring format

The tournament, which does not offer ATP Tour ranking points, will use the “Fast Four” scoring format premiered in Australia more than three years ago. The format still requires players to win 12 games to win a match (four games per set, for three sets), just as they would in a standard two-set victory. 

It’s best-of-five “sets” with each set first to four games, and a tiebreak at 3-3. The tiebreak is nine points, with the format similar to the Coman tiebreak format of switching after every four points (The difference is there is no initial switch after the first point). If the tiebreak reaches 4-4, the player who served second gets to serve the decisive point. The receiver chooses which side to return from.

There is no-ad scoring, of course. This is “designed to increase the number of pivotal moments in a match”.

Matches will begin a maximum of five minutes from the moment the second player walks onto the court. That means Rafael Nadal could never play it. He takes more time than that just arranging his bags and having a snack before he even gets to the net for the coin toss.

Hopefully it means they will have an  alternate court nearby for the players to hit on just before the match. To start up full-force when you’re stone cold is to ask for injuries to happen.

SHOT CLOCK COUNTDOWNS!!!

The tournament will use a shot clock to enforce the 25-second-between-points rule. The shot clock was tested out during the juniors at the US Open last year. There was very little drama. But the juniors tend to play pretty quickly. For this tournament, they will step this up; the tournament also will use the shot clock for everything else.

That means changeovers (90 seconds), set breaks (two minutes) and medical timeouts (three minutes, and only one per player per match). They also will use it during that five-minute race to start the match. 

It sounds like the fans will spend more time watching the shot clock than they will the tennis. Maybe even more time than they will spend on their smart phones checking social media. But we’ll see.

In a move taken from World Team Tennis, the tournament will use the no-let service rule. That means that if a player serves, and it hits the top of the net and trickles over and the returner can’t get to it, it’s an ace. No word on whether they will have separate categories for “real aces” and “let-cord aces”.

The vast majority of players have rarely, or ever, played no-let. History has shown they tend to adjust fairly quickly. But again, the unexpected, sudden starts to a ball they’ve trained their entire lives to let go also is a potential injury waiting to happen.

And, as you can see with Andrea Petkovic at the Hopman Cup above, you can have a brain cramp at the most crucial moment.

Coaching – but not on court

The tournament will experiment with player coaching. That’s something that has been on the WTA Tour since 2009 but so far, has not been tested on the ATP Tour.

But … coaches will not be allowed on court. It sounds as though they haven’t quite worked out the details on that one.

The ATP says “players and coaches will be able to communicate at certain points in the match (to be determined), providing additional content and entertainment value for broadcast.”

We’ll find out if that means the coaches will be yelling from the player’s box, usually in a language other than English, as their player is about to try to save a break point.

Wouldn’t it be fun if the coach had a microphone, and the player had an earpiece, and the two communicated the entire match? That would be something.

They should just go all-in on this concept: let the coaches sit on the court as they do in Davis Cup. Except – mike the coaches up for television. And have translators at the ready; they’ll need them.

 

Fans: feel free to move around

On the plus side, the fans will have much more freedom of movement during matches. This is a good thing.

Players who are used to the field courts at tournaments have fans going up and down the sides of the court all match long.

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Free fan movement might work – until some refreshed fans work up a few lengthy Italian soccer chants during play.

They rarely complain about it, or even notice it. They just get on with it. That rule won’t apply behind the baselines, where moving humans are directly in a player’s line of sight rather than in their peripheral vision.

The ATP says it carried out “extensive market research and fan surveys across more than 13 different markets through SMG Insight, covering off traditional and emerging tennis markets, as well as light and heavy tennis consumers, prior to determining which rule changes to trial at the inaugural tournament.”

Tour president Chris Kermode says the event isn’t just about the next generation of players, but also the next generation of fans. 

It’s a great forum to test all these things, actually. Let’s see how it goes. 

You never know, the fans (not the diehards and traditionalists) might lap it all up.

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