Are Tennis Matches Too Long?

The Rod Laver Arena at the Australian Open (zimbio.com)

The modern era of baseline tennis has resulted in longer points and longer matches, but does this negatively impact the sport and its growth?

It certainly complicates matters for television networks, who put forth millions of dollars in rights for the big events. While TV partners cannot be the only consideration, they are certainly a significant one. Longer match times can become a scheduling nightmare for networks when it causes the matches to overrun into other programming windows. The tournaments themselves often see matches run longer than expected, causing day sessions to run into night sessions. How many times have we seen thousands of fans waiting outside Arthur Ashe Stadium because the day session went long? It’s an inconvenience for the fans, and does the TV networks no favors when they’ve advertised a high profile match for a certain start time, but may begin hours late. It’s also a bad look for the sport when the end result is a late night match being played in front of a mostly-empty stadium.

Obviously the biggest impact of longer matches is on the ATP side where they play best of 5 matches at the majors (and with no tiebreak in the 5th set at every major except the U.S. Open). Even if a player survives a long 5-setter, we often see them with nothing left in the next round. As epic and dramatic as some 5-setters can be, is it worth it when the result is often less competitive matches in later rounds with tired or even injured players?

In this era of attention deficit viewers, most casual fans are not going to be watching a 3-to-5-hour match. Rather than being a draw, long tennis matches are often a deterrent from being in new fans. Of course there are some epic exceptions to this from recent years. It’s hard to imagine the sport without the many amazing 5-set major finals between Federer and Nadal, or the near-6 hour 2012 Australian Open Final between Nadal and Djokovic.

Both tours are aware of these issues and concerned about future growth if matches are not completed more quickly. There’s talk of making some major changes to the structure of the sport in the future. Last fall, WTA CEO Steve Simon told reporters he preferred matches to ideally be no longer than 60-90 minutes in length. To accomplish this, he would consider no-ad scoring and replacing third sets with super tiebreaks played to 10 points (ideas we’ve seen implemented in Doubles over the past decade).

Such proposed changes were immediately met with criticism from players. While speeding up play is a smart move, the objective to have matches not last longer than 90 minutes is way too extreme. The goal should be to speed up the sport without decreasing the drama that allows matches to be special.

In recent years on the ATP World Tour, we’ve seen umpires instructed become stricter in enforcing time violations for players who go past the allotted time between points. However, the enforcement has been inconsistent (especially depending upon the umpire). There’s also been a lack of transparency without a visible clock showing the time between points.

The Next Gen Finals

Just this week, the ATP announced the following rule changes for the Next Gen Finals at the end of the 2017 season, where the top 7 ranked players under the age of 21 (plus 1 wild card) will play a round robin tournament. Here are the rule changes that will be implemented, along with analysis of each:

Shorter Format: First to Four games sets (Tie-Break at 3-All), Best-of-Five sets. Shorter set format designed to increase number of pivotal moments in a match, while the best-of-five set format does not alter the number of games required to win a match (12) from the traditional scoring format.
Best of 5 sets at the majors (the first to 6 games format) has outstayed its welcome, except perhaps for later rounds or even just the finals only. Playing 5 sets with a first to 4 games format could be a suitable alternative, as it would add more pressure points, and make breaks of serve mean more within a set. But is this too drastic a change to the scoring format of the sport? Either way, a final set tiebreak at all majors is long overdue. Also the men and women should play matches of the same length, removing any appearance that men and women are not considered equals.

No-Ad scoring: No-Ad scoring will be played (receiver’s choice).
No-Ad scoring removes too much drama and too many pressure points from the sport.

Shorter Warm-Up: Matches will begin precisely 5 minutes from the second player walk-on, leading to a reduction in down time before the beginning of matches.
This seems like a practical change to speed up play without any negative impact.

Shot Clock: A shot clock will be used in between points to ensure strict regulation of the 25-second rule, as well as during set breaks, Medical Time-Outs, and the five-minute countdown from the player walk-on to the first point of the match.
A shot clock is good for transparency, but I still have more questions than answers as to how exactly it would work. What happens if the shot clock goes off as a player has begun their service motion? What if the returner holds up the server past the allotted time? What if the fans are still making noise as the clock expires?

No-Let Rule: The No-Let rule will apply to serves, bringing in an additional element of unpredictability at the start of points. This rule will also remove any ambiguity over let calling from umpires, ensuring the rule is consistent with normal ‘let’ occurrences during regular point exchanges.
This leaves too much to luck, especially at critical moments. Instead of removing lets, a bad boll toss should count as a fault. It makes sense as the toss is part of the service motion, and will help to speed up the game.

Medical Time-Outs: A limit of 1 medical time out per player per match.
This is a good step, but there must be very specific rules regarding medical timeouts and bathroom breaks: when they are allowed, how frequently they are allowed, and how long they can last without penalty.

Player Coaching: Players and coaches will be able to communicate at certain points in the match (to be determined), providing additional content and entertainment value for broadcast. Coaches will not be allowed on-court.
Mid-match coaching is a terrible innovation. It takes away one of the best and most unique attributes of tennis: testing a player’s ability to problem solve on their own. And as we’ve seen all too painfully on the WTA tour, mid-match coaching is not a good look for the sport when emotions are running high in the proximity of cameras and microphones.

Change is coming?

Is this a glimpse into the future of the sport? If so, how close is that future? Simon suggested implementing changes to the WTA as soon as 2019 or 2020. There will likely be more resistance from players regarding these changes, especially top players and veterans. The shorter matches become, the more frequently we’ll see top players upset early in tournaments. Top players will have less time to rely on their fitness to grind out a win on a bad day, and their opponents will have less time for the magnitude of the upset to set in. And in considering all of this, should we consider the impact such changes would have on records and legacies? Surely Federer’s tally of 18 majors would have been impacted by such changes, as would future players’ ability to catch such a record.

Changes to the game are inevitable at a time when all major sports are examining how to speed up play and keep eyeballs from drifting. Officials should be applauded for their forward thinking as well as their openness to experimenting with new ideas, but we cannot risk losing the attributes that makes the sport special for the sake of expediency.

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