Headsets, shot-clocks and an opera-inspired set: which trials have succeeded at the ATP Next Gen Finals?

Simon Briggs
Players are allowed to communicate with their coaches once per set via headset - AP

This week, a cavernous conference centre in the suburbs of Milan has been transformed into a tennis playground. Saunter through the interactive fan-zone and you will find a match court surrounded by scarlet arches and balconies – a design inspired by the nearby La Scala opera house.

The patrons of the real La Scala are a notoriously fickle bunch, prone to booing any singer who disappoints them. Yet the 4,000-odd fans at the Fiera Milano have settled comfortably into the ATP’s futuristic tennis experiment: matches played with no line judges, no service lets and a radically revised scoring system. Yesterday they supported their home favourite Gianluigi Quinzi with such passionate enthusiasm, you half-expected bouquets of roses to land on the court.

This is the ATP Next Gen Finals, a tournament designed to test out ideas that have been talked about for years, yet never seriously implemented. Only players aged 21 and under were invited, in keeping with the goal of converting a new generation of fans. In musical terms, we are talking Stormzy here, rather than La Boheme.

“I’ve been amazed at how many people have spent the last 20 years telling me tennis is so conservative,” said ATP president Chris Kermode. “And then the same people have come to me now saying ‘Oh, you’re messing with the game’.”

After three days of action, how are Kermode’s innovations playing out? The shot-clock – which ensures the gap between points is no more than 25 seconds – and the shortened warm-up have gone down without a qualm, for these are ideas whose time has surely come. Indeed, the US Open nipped in ahead of the ATP by trialling similar ideas in its junior matches in September.

Daniil Medvedev is a fan of the shot-clock Credit: Getty images

“I like this rule [the shot-clock] because you don’t have the timer inside you, so when you receive a time violation, you’re a little bit frustrated,” said Daniil Medvedev, one of three Russians in the eight-man field. “Here it’s very fair.”

The players are less convinced by the “no-lets” rule, which means that any serve that bounces off the net tape has to be played. This either creates exciting and unpredictable points, or turns the rally into a lottery, depending on your perspective. The other innovations include, at deuce, the server deciding which side the deciding point will be played. Coaches are also permitted to communicate with their player, once per set via a headset.

The broadest debate has surrounded the scoring format: five shortened sets, played to four games only. The idea is to eliminate the lull at the beginning of a standard set, when fans often file out of the stadium to use the loo.

The opera-inspired set has gone down well Credit: AP

Kermode is a fan, citing the fact players have been cramping surprisingly early in matches all week – an unexpected side-effect of each point carrying a little extra weight – and quotes the initially sceptical tournament director who said: “I saw the difference in intensity. Would you consider the ATP 250 events using this?” The less charitable view is that the shorter format drains matches of their texture, and leave them feeling like one long tie-break. “If you lose serve, it’s tough to recover the set,” grumbled Karen Khachanov, who was due to conclude the group stages last night against Borna Coric.

Presentationally, the opera-inspired set is a triumph. The dark blue court looks clean and distinctive, with no doubles tramlines and no line judges, either. This essential function has been delegated to Hawk-Eye, which means an automated voice calls “out”. It must feel like playing tennis against Siri.

Not everything we see in Milan will be rolled out across the sport. “I personally think there are quite a few things that we’re trying here that really make a difference,” said Kermode. “But I’m not running this as a dictatorship. We’ll gather feedback and make a collective decision on what we can do.”

ATP Next Gen finals | The rules being trialled

Some of the new rules may be eased in slowly, for it’s not as if every tournament has to follow an identical blueprint. This is the downfall of the ATP tour as it stands, with the switch between hard courts, clay and grass being the only factor differentiating one knockout event from the other.

Kermode insists “if we test all these potential innovations and none of them work, that’s also success”. Yet he must be aware of the survey published this summer that found the average age of the ATP TV viewer to be 61. Only golf and horse racing produced an older average.

In such times, new and imaginative events like the Next Gen Finals and the recent Laver Cup are urgently needed. Tennis’s song cannot remain the same forever.

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