Exclusive: ATP could trial shorter sets, no service lets and shot clock in raft of potential reforms

Charlie Eccleshare
Some tennis fans are put off by the length of matches - John Isner vs Nicolas Mahut went on for 138 fifth set games in 2010 - Reuters

Sets of first to four games, sudden-death deuce points and no service lets could all be trialled later this year as part of a series of reforms to revolutionise tennis.  

The Association of Tennis Professionals (ATP) board will vote in the coming days on the proposed changes, which are set to be road-tested at November’s inaugural Next Gen Finals in Milan.

The ATP confirmed last year that the tournament, which is contested by the world’s top eight singles players aged 21-and-under, would be used as a testing ground for new rules, and it can now be revealed what is up for discussion as the sport looks to follow Twenty20 cricket by introducing a shorter form of the game.

In-game alterations being debated include no service lets being played - in the same way the point currently continues for mid-point net cords - and the introduction of a sudden-death deuce point where the receiver chooses which side the server serves from, a rule already enforced at doubles events outside the grand slams. This would mean a maximum of only one deuce per game and an end to 'advantage' points for either player.

Mooted format reforms include changing matches from best of three sets of first to six games to best of five sets of first to four games. The logic is that doing so would not necessarily reduce the number of games played per match, but it would dramatically increase the proportion of key games in a match, and reduce the lull period that can take place at the start of sets currently.

John McEnroe has previously suggested on-court warm-ups be abolished Credit: Getty images

To further reduce 'dead time', discussion is being given to having a clock visible to supporters and the umpire during the warm-up to ensure the players do not exceed the allocated 10 minutes. John McEnroe is among those who has previously gone as far as to suggest that on-court warm-ups should be abolished altogether.

The clock may also then remain in sight during the match to prevent players from taking more than the allocated 25 seconds (or 20 seconds at grand slams) between points. Rafael Nadal is one of the players who has consistently taken longer than permitted, a habit Roger Federer described as 'not cool' three years ago. There is the school of thought though that says discretion should be applied to the rule, especially in particularly gruelling conditions.

The possible reforms are an attempt to shorten the length of tennis matches and make the sport as attractive as possible to supporters and television companies, without losing the essence of the sport.

Even among those involved in tennis, there is an acceptance that many events can feel too long for the fans. Britain's Davis Cup captain Leon Smith for instance is in favour of reducing Davis Cup singles rubbers from best of five to best of three sets, a reform which is to be voted on at the International Tennis Federation AGM in the summer.

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"That would be better for the supporters," he says. "For kids to come and watch two best of five set singles on a Friday or Sunday can be too much. Even die-hard tennis fans find nine or 10 hours pretty tough. I think it makes a lot of sense."

Were the trialled changes successful in Milan, consideration would be given to rolling them out at ATP tournaments in the next couple of years - though any plans to do so are very much in their infancy.

The need for tennis to evolve and stay relevant has been brought into sharp relief by the English Cricket Board's plans to revise the already revolutionary Twenty20 format and the proposed changes to golf that would bring about the sport's biggest set of rule changes in 100 years.

Attempts are already in place to launch a tennis equivalent of Twenty20, though as yet they have either proven unsuccessful or are only just starting out, such as the International Premier Tennis League (IPTL) and 'Fast4' first to four-game sets used at the Hopman Cup exhibition event in January.

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Tie Break Tens - a first to 10 points tie-break - hopes to become more of a regular fixture on the tennis calendar, with events in 2015 and 2016, and one scheduled for Madrid in May including Stan Wawrinka and Garbine Muguruza.

The ultimate aim of Tie Break Tens is to have a regular stream of competitions that runs alongside the ATP Tour, with one-day tournaments taking place on the eve of the main events at the same or nearby venues.

The organisers hope the events would evolve into a complement to the main tour in the same way that Twenty20 series have become an accepted part of overseas tours in cricket.

Britain's No 2 Dan Evans told The Telegraph that he welcomed a discussion around tennis's future, while Smith said: "The ATP and International Tennis Federation are both looking at ways to encourage different formats. We've seen that already with the IPTL, Tie Break Tens and 'Fast4s'.

"People are thinking about it, which is healthy for the sport."

  • Dan was speaking in conjunction with the LTA’s Tennis for kids programme, which has been launched by Annabel Croft and Greg Rusedski in partnership with Highland Spring. With just 20,000 places available, find your child’s nearest venue at  www.lta.org.uk/ tennisforkids.

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