Will rule changes help or hurt tennis?

The ITF’s Grand Slam Board announced four significant changes for both men and women for its four major events, while the ATP Tour used the slogan “Tennis Re-Imagined” to highlight their experiment with 10 rule changes at the inaugural Next Gen ATP Finals. Here are the rule changes, reviewed and graded.

Seeding reduction... starting in 2019, only 16 singles players will be seeded at Grand Slam tournaments. This is expected to create more intrigue, close matches, and upsets. Imagine Roger Federer taking on Nick Kyrgios in the first round of the Australian Open!   -  Getty Images

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, let’s review and grade the ITF’s new rules and the ATP’s proposed rules.

The ITF’s new rules

Seeding reduction — Starting in 2019, only 16 singles players will be seeded at Grand Slam tournaments.

The four majors doubled the number of seeded players to 32 in June 2001, partly to appease clay-court specialists who wanted more draw protection at Wimbledon, the only grass-court major. The ITF also wanted to increase the odds that the elite 16 would survive at least until the third round when they could face a No. 17-32 seed.

The ITF accomplished the latter goal which prevented No. 9 Rafael Nadal from potentially playing No. 17 Roger Federer in the first round at the 2017 Australian Open, instead of in their scintillating, five-set final. Of course, the AO and all the majors should use their informed discretion to revise seedings when necessary, whatever the number of seeds, to take into account stars whose rankings fall due to an injury hiatus and to reward outstanding past results on a particular court surface.

The overly protective 32-seed format, however, made the first four days predictable and boring. Now the majors will start with a bang, as they should, because the huge seeding reduction will create more intrigue, close matches, and upsets. How about having popcorn matches like Federer versus Nick Kyrgios or Garbiñe Muguruza versus Madison Keys in the first round at the Aussie Open?

The other three Slams should follow the example of the French Open and start on Sunday to make them even more exciting on Day 1.

Grade: A+

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

All four majors ought to adopt this new 25-second rule for the main draw, starting in 2018. In any event, this reform will certainly be fully implemented by 2020 because it is eminently sensible and long overdue. The players at the Next Gen event adapted to it quite easily.

Aiming to get every line call right... the use of Hawk-Eye Live and the removal of all the line judges will revolutionise tennis officiating.   -  Getty Images

For years, one of pro tennis’ headscratchers is how the ITF allowed players only 20 seconds between points for best three-of-five-set matches at Grand Slam events, while the ATP and WTA Tours allowed 25 seconds for much-shorter, two-of-three-set matches. With a uniform 25 seconds everywhere, chair umpires can crack down on stallers and dawdlers. At the same time, umps, by starting the clock a bit later, can judiciously give players a few extra seconds to recover after long, grueling points late in the match or on brutally hot days.

Grade: A

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

Several players, most notably Rafael Nadal, rightly criticized Andy Murray, who had a hip injury, for pulling out of the US Open after the singles draw was made. “Normally you want to keep practising, keep trying until the last moment,” said Nadal. “[But] you don’t withdraw Saturday morning [after the draw comes out]. You can do it before the draw.”

Murray defended his late withdrawal by saying, “It’s too sore for me to win the tournament, and ultimately that’s what I was here to try and do.” By that logic, many players, with various injuries, would play a lot fewer tournaments.

The veteran Brit’s selfish decision prevented Federer from moving up to second seed. That would have put Federer in the other (and very weak) half of the draw and greatly increased the chance that the US Open would have had a terrific Nadal-Federer final instead of the lackluster Nadal victory over outclassed Kevin Anderson.

The rule change won’t bother wealthy players like Murray, but it sends the right message.

Grade: A

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.

Like the new late withdrawal rule change, this two-prong reform is a big winner for sports fans, tournaments, and the integrity of tennis. Rather than simply skipping Grand Slam events, injured players this decade have decided to play a set or so in their first-round match and “take the money and run.” The 2017 Wimbledon was besmirched by seven first-round men’s singles retirements, some of them suspicious.

Federer questioned the retirements after just 45 minutes of play by Alexandr Dolgopolov to him and by Martin Klizan to Novak Djokovic. “A player should not go on court if he knows he should not finish,” Federer stressed. “The question is, did they truly believe they were going to finish?”

Tanking is the most egregious on-court offense a tennis player can commit. Hitherto, the ATP’s maximum fine for “lack of best efforts” was $10,000, which the volcanic Nick Kyrgios received at the 2016 Shanghai Masters. The new, much-tougher rule would potentially impose six-figure fines for tanking and will likely prove an effective deterrent for both infractions. 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.”

Medical time-outs Medical time-outs are limited to one, three-minute medical time-out per player, per match.

Cases abound of dubious, suspiciously timed medical time-outs. Federer took an eight-minute medical time-out for a purported groin injury before the fifth set of the Australian Open final after Rafael Nadal won the fourth set. “They really have to fess up to what the injury is. You don’t just stop a marathon if you’re tired,” 1987 Wimbledon champion Pat Cash told BBC Five Live. “Is it something that really requires medical attention, or is it tiredness? If it’s tiredness, then it’s a loss of condition. I cannot stress how bad this has been supervised or looked at by the medical team here in the whole tour. It’s wrong, wrong and wrong. It’s cheating and it’s being allowed. It’s legal cheating, but it’s still not right.”

The proposed ATP rule should have included toilet breaks, too. When Alexander Zverev took a toilet break against Nick Kyrgios at the Miami Open, ESPN analyst Darren Cahill rightly disapproved: “No one is talking about tightening up those rules for bathroom breaks and injury time-outs. We have the loosest rules of any sport.”

Mary Carillo, a Tennis Channel analyst, pointed out, “The medical time-out rule is hard to limit to a hard and fast ruling. Plenty of players don’t abuse it, but some turn medical time-outs into farce. So I think it has to be left to the trainer and doctor to decide what’s real and what’s gamesmanship.”

This proposed rule reform has great potential if enforced strictly, and fairly, with the players’ health uppermost in mind.

Grade: B+

Hawk-Eye Live — The use of Hawk-Eye Live to call all the lines, thus not using human line judges.

By far the most imaginative rule change proposal, the removal of all the line judges would revolutionise tennis officiating. When a ball landed out at the Next Gen ATP Finals, an immediate audio recording played “Out!” and screens around the court flashed “Out!” The automated line-calling was quickly accepted by the players.

“Hawk-Eye is a tremendous improvement to line calling,” notes Carillo, “though I've never liked the Player Challenge system. I would like to believe that electronic line calling does not entirely replace lines people. But as the price comes down in technology and the cost of traveling, housing, and feeding lines judges goes up, sooner or later there will be no need for the redundancy of people and Hawk-Eye in pro tennis. I’m still not convinced that is a good thing.”

The whole object of officiating is to get every line call right. The stunning irony of the current system is that while Hawk-Eye line-calling technology is terrific, its application by means of Player Challenges is terrible. That’s because players predictably proved quite fallible when trying to call lines themselves and then making challenges.

This innovation would ensure correct line calls every time. But would it dehumanize tennis?

For a complete analysis of Hawk-Eye and Player Challenges, visit http://tennisconfidential.com/player_challenges.htm

Grade: Incomplete — more testing is required.

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 favor 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 http://tennisconfidential.com/should-tennis-abolish-the-service-let.html

Grade: F

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.

The Fast4 scoring format, which has only four games per set, has been strongly promoted by Tennis Australia. Whatever its time-reducing merits may be for recreational tennis, Fast4 has no place in professional tennis. As Tennis Channel and former world-class player Justin Gimelstob pointed out, “The mixed doubles used to be a huge part of the identity of the Hopman Cup. They’ve completely minimized mixed doubles with the Fast4 scoring. It’s a bad idea. It’s ridiculous. It’s like flipping a coin.”

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 http://tennisconfidential.com/Save_Our_Scoring_System_and_Singles.php

Grade: F

Legalising coaching — Player coaching that allows coaches to communicate with players via headsets between each set.

Any form of coaching during matches is bad—whether it’s on-court coaching visits which the WTA Tour allows or communication with players via headsets which the ATP Tour is testing.

Roger Federer... “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.”   -  Getty Images

The most important and compelling reason is that self-reliance makes the individual sport of tennis singles a highly respected and entertaining battle between two finely tuned and mentally resilient athletes. On-court coaching clearly diminishes these virtues. As former world No. 4 Jimmy Arias said, “A better coach shouldn’t determine who wins the match. This is an individual sport—mano a mano.”

Furthermore, matches can come down to two-versus-one in the case of players who cannot afford a traveling coach, don’t want a coach, or whose coach is unable to attend the tournament. Fairness is the paramount goal in sports, yet two against one is undeniably unfair.

Tennis’ enduring appeal comes from its one-on-one challenge where competitors pit their athleticism, skill, fitness, courage, poise, and strategy against each other. The no-coaching rule on the ATP Tour ensures this time-tested tradition flourishes. This rule should be strictly enforced, not abolished.

For additional reasons why on-court coaching is bad for tennis, visit https://sportstar.thehindu.com/columns/vantagepoint-paul-fein/why-on-court-coaching-is-bad-for-tennis/article18153942.ece

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.

Player complaints about fan movement are a relic from the incunabula of tennis when if someone talked, even softly, during a point, a nearby spectator would murmur “Shush.”

My first-hand experience nearly a century later is germane here. In the early 1970s, I played teenage star Vitas Gerulaitis in the Jungle Invitational Men’s Tournament in Harlem, New York City. Hundreds of kids on school vacation were yelling and running around the state armory throughout the match. Some were watching matches; most weren’t. I got used to the non-stop, loud noise fairly quickly. The tumult also stimulated me, and I started going for bolder shots. So I’m sure world-class pros can deal with a handful of spectators quietly walking to their seats 100 yards away.

Rafael Nadal... “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.”   -  Getty Images

 

This no-brainer rule change is long overdue.

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.