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  • Writer's pictureThirty30 Tennis

Will Rule Changes Help or Hurt Tennis?

Updated: Nov 26, 2019

Reference is made to the recent (06 December 2017) article “Will rule changes help or hurt tennis?” by Paul Fein on

The main dangers in this life are the people who want to change everything - or nothing.” - Nancy Astor, the first woman member of Parliament in England (1879–1964)

A flurry of pro tennis rule changes - both approved and tested - made this a November to remember. The International Tennis Federation’s Grand Slam Board announced four significant changes for both men and women for its four major events. Meanwhile, the Association of Tennis Professionals Tour used the slogan “Tennis Re-Imagined” to highlight their experiment with ten rule changes at the inaugural Next Gen ATP Finals for the world’s best 21-and-under men players.

Both reformers and traditionalists should heed former ITF president Francesco Ricci Bitti’s wise credo: “Sport is entertainment, of course. But it must be credible.” That credibility is based on our sport being a fair test of skill and will.

With these criteria in mind, here are the ITF’s new rules and the ATP’s proposed rules reviewed and graded.

The ITF’s new rules

1. Seeding reduction - Starting in 2019, only 16 singles players will be seeded at Grand Slam tournaments. Grade: A+

2. Serve clock - The 2018 Australian Open will use a 25-second serve clock, but not during main draw matches. Grade: A

3. Late withdrawals - A player who is a late withdrawal because of an injury will receive 50 percent of the first-round prize money. Grade: A

4. Poor effort - A player who retires from a first-round match, or a player who “performs below professional standards,” could face a fine as high as the entire prize money due to a loser in that round. Grade: A+

The ATP’s proposed rule changes

Simon Higson, ATP VP Corporate Communications & PR, stressed, “We are currently in the process of gathering feedback from various stakeholders, including players, media, broadcasters, sponsors, and fans. No conclusions will be drawn until we have completed this process and gone through the necessary review process with our members. As such any potential changes would be with 2019 and beyond in mind.

1. Medical time-outs - Medical time-outs are limited to one, three-minute medical time-out per player, per match. Grade: B+

2. Hawk-Eye Live - The use of Hawk-Eye Live to call all the lines, thus not using human line judges. Grade: Incomplete - more testing is required.

3. The no-let rule - This misbegotten proposal has kept popping up for the past 65 years. And fortunately, except for amateur tennis and World TeamTennis, the pro tours always have sensibly refused to adopt it. All the reasons for implementing it are wrongheaded. The most common claim, that it would save significant time, is ridiculous because two-of-three-set matches average only about five service lets, which add about 10 seconds each. Furthermore, when service lets favour the underdog, legalizing them could lengthen - not shorten - matches.

For the many other reasons why abolishing the time-tested service let is an idea whose time should never come, visit the article: Should Tennis Abolish the Service Let?

Grade: F

4. Four-Game sets - Four-game sets with a tie-break at 3-3 - for best-of-five-set matches.

In a podcast, Chris Kermode, ATP Executive Chairman & President, said, “I think the best-of-5, [sets] first-to-win-4 [games] format has produced such a high level of intensity tennis. That’s the one [rule change experiment] I’ve been most shocked about. It’s not just about reducing time because if a product is boring for six hours, it can be boring for six minutes. So it’s part of the issue about what the [total] time should be for tennis. But it’s more about taking away the dead time and making more [big] points matter quicker…. The big changes are the best-of-five, first-four [format]. There is no chance that is going to happen in the next five years. But it could happen in maybe ten years. What could happen very quickly is reducing the warm-up [time], the shot clocks definitely. What affects the fundamental nature of the game, that will take longer.

Five-set matches with four-game sets ending with a 7-point tiebreaker at 3-3 is the most cockamamie Kermode proposal. Why? Most egregiously, that’s because these sets are so short, they violate Ricci Bitti’s credo that sport must be credible and its corollary that tennis must be a fair test of skill and will. Second, Kermode should understand that long matches are rarely boring because they are, by definition, very close. Spectators sometimes leave matches before an hour has elapsed when the score is 6-4, 4-0, but rarely when the score is 5-5 in the fourth set or 4-4 in the fifth set, however long the match has taken. Third, using the traditional scoring system - 6 games to win a set, 7-5 for extended sets, and a tiebreaker at 6-6 - for two-of-three-set matches and a vastly different scoring system for three-of-five-set matches makes no sense whatsoever. This mutilation of the best scoring system ever devised in any sport must stop!

For a more comprehensive analysis of scoring systems, including No-Ad, visit the article: Save Our Scoring System and Singles

Grade: F

5. Legalising coaching - Player coaching that allows coaches to communicate with players via headsets between each set. Grade: E

Fan movement - A free-movement policy that allows fans to move freely in and out during matches except for areas directly behind the baseline. Grade: A

What do the two greatest players of all time think about the rule changes tested at the Next Gen ATP Finals?

We need to think, take seriously all these rule changes if ever you’re going to do it, because once you do it, you don’t want to bounce back and forth with changing something, and then you don’t like it later on,” Federer said. “I don’t see that much wrong with our Tour right now that it needs that much fixing, especially [not] the shorter sets. I know it can be somewhat intriguing, but at the same time the longer sets allow you to stretch a lead, it’s more comfortable at times.… There are positives and negatives to it, but I don’t want to see anything change on the Tour that much, to be honest.

Nadal agreed with Federer and noted the importance of tradition. “There are a couple of things that I like and a couple of things I don’t like, but nothing is perfect,” Nadal said. “We are in a sport where we have a big tradition - not many changes have been made in all of its history. If you ask me, ‘Do you want changes?’ I will say no. I’m happy with how it is, but maybe in the future, you need to do something.

The experiments and debates should continue, but we should analyse the burning issues rigorously and fairly. We should keep good traditions and adopt only good changes. We should also keep in mind that the popularity of tennis is based chiefly on other factors, especially charismatic champions, riveting rivalries, and entertaining playing styles.

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