Before the start of the Next Gen ATP Finals that kicked off in Milan on Tuesday, ATP president and executive chairman Chris Kermode addressed the audience at the draw party on Sunday and made a bold statement.
“Men’s professional tennis is the greatest sports entertainment product in the world,” he proudly said.
That could be debatable but many tennis fans probably agree with him.
The Englishman then began to defend the reasoning behind the newly-introduced 21-and-under tournament, and the set of rules they are testing out in the process.
They are “innovations”, as the ATP are calling them, that have been met with lots of criticism before the event even started.
Those new rules include:
The list is not a short one.
The players who are undergoing this experiment are the top seven in the world rankings, aged 21 and under, plus Italian wildcard Gianluigi Quinzi, who won a tournament to qualify for Milan.
It all came together for the first time on Tuesday at the Rho Fieramilano, where Daniil Medvedev became the first match winner in the history of the Next Gen ATP Finals, by defeating his fellow Russian Karen Khachanov 2-4, 4-3 (6), 4-3 (3), 4-2 in one hour and 50 minutes.
“The reason we are doing this is the traditional tennis viewership is my age and older,” said the 52-year-old Kermode ahead of the action.
“What I want to look at is the next generation of tennis fans who hopefully are the future of watching our sport. And how kids are going to consume sport for the next 10-15 years is very different to how we do now.
“We’re going to test-case a whole new way of playing tennis. This has caused my email inbox to overflow with quite a lot of abuse actually. ‘You’re the guy that’s going to ruin tennis, all the tradition of the game, you’re going to change the sport, it works, why are you messing with the sport?’
“The reason we are trying these things out, is exactly that. We are trying to do things for the future of the sport.”
We got to see how these new rules played out on Tuesday and most of the players sounded keen about seeing some of them, possibly, getting implemented on tour.
Medvedev believes the shot clock and on-court coaching would be good additions.
“I think it was talked a lot about in last years that there is the time violation rule gets stricter on the tour, so I guess the shot clock will be something I think, in my opinion, that will be first added to ATP Tour,” said the 21-year-old Medvedev. “Maybe even soon, I guess. I’m not sure. I’m not the one who makes the rules.”
The world No.65 used the headsets during his match to talk to his coach and he says it would be useful if he could enjoy that privilege year-round.
“It’s actually a little bit strange. I think tennis is maybe only sport to not have coaching, which I see, in my opinion, is not really, not fair, but is not right. I mean, you work with your coach all year long. So why cannot he tell you something during the game?
“So when I put the headphones on me, I didn’t have anything to say about myself. I just wanted to listen to him and what he says. He gave me some advices, and finally I won, so I guess he made a good job.”
It’s unclear if and when any of these rules would make their way to the actual tour but Kermode assures it won’t be imminent.
“So we’re going to try this stuff, if it works, we might implement it on the tour events in three, four, five years down the line. We won’t be making radical changes next year, don’t panic! But I’m really interested in everyone’s feedback,” said the ATP boss.
South Korean Chung Hyeon beat Canadian Denis Shapovalov 1-4, 4-3 (5), 4-3 (4), 4-1 before world No.3 Alexander Zverev – who qualified as the top seed for this event but opted out because he’s playing the ATP World Tour Finals next week – contested an exhibition against Greek alternate Stefanos Tsitsipas.
“This was something I wanted to give back to the fans a little bit and just have some fun,” said the 20-year-old Zverev, who had a breakthrough 2017, winning two Masters 1000 events and qualifying for the year-end top-eight finale in London for the first time.
“But when you try to play seriously and when you will be at a tournament playing semi-finals or finals, most of the rules will be tough to handle. I think the shot clock is a good thing. The Hawk-Eye calling all the lines, I like that, but a lot of the other things I’m not sure are going to happen.”
Zverev jokingly had an on-court coaching chat with his friend, doubles No.1 Marcelo Melo, who was in the stands during the exhibition.
— Reem Abulleil (@ReemAbulleil) November 7, 2017
“It was fun to give him some tips, I don’t know if he got it or not but it was fun to be a coach for one day,” Melo told Sport360.
“I think it’s very nice to see that we’re trying different things to improve tennis. I really like the shot clock, I think we should put this on tour. But other things they need to see about the players how they feel it after finishing the tournament, the crowd, the people, and then if you can apply new things, that’s always good.
“We should do it somehow the coaching. I don’t know if this is the best way, could be or not, we need to see with the players as well, and the coaches, but I think the coach should be allowed in one way. I don’t know which one is the best one but in one way it should be allowed.”
There are no line judges at the Next Gen ATP Finals, with Hawk-Eye Live automatically calling all the shots. When a ball lands particularly close to a line, a “Close Call” replay is shown on the big screen.
A replay was mistakenly played after a Khachanov first serve fault which meant the Russian hit his second serve while the “Close Call” was being replayed.
Such kinks will surely be ironed out throughout the week.
A recorded voice calls the outs during the match, based on Hawk-Eye Live and Khachanov made an interesting observation regarding that.
“I think for now live Hawk-Eye is a good thing. Only thing is I would like to hear a different voice,” he said with a smile. “I think it’s better that all umpires record their voices and each match that he played, it’s an umpire that is on the chair. I think it would be better like this.”
The world No.45 feels playing to four games makes the set too short and doesn’t give a player a chance to break back if he lost serve. He suggests playing to five, with a tiebreak at 4-all would be better.
It’s worth noting that none of the first three matches of the day saw a player come back from a break down in the set to go on and win that set.
With so much experimentation going on this tournament, it might be hard for fans to take it seriously. But Khachanov assures the players themselves are all in. While there are no ranking points on the line, the winner in Milan can collect up to $390,000 – that is more than a third of what Khachanov earned all year in 2017.
“I think everybody plays serious here,” he insisted. “We are not playing for something, like, not big, you know. So, okay, we don’t have points but there is prize money, and still, it’s a very prestigious tournament that all of us, we qualified here, to be here and to play. So everybody plays serious.
“And even that we know each other close, we are friends outside, but in the match everybody plays full. So I think with motivation, there is nothing to say. It’s 100 per cent.”
Round robin action resumes on Wednesday with the final taking place on Saturday November 11.
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