Articles & stories

Federer and Hewitt Test the Tennis Revolution

Is the sport of tennis about to undergo the biggest revolution to date? No stone has been left unturned in an effort to make matches shorter, livelier, and more appealing to spectators in the stands and at home. A wide range of new rules and formats are being tested at the moment. 

The Tennis Australia association is introducing a groundbreaking format at the start of the 2015 season, a system called Fast4. Though it has already been used in club tournaments, it will be put to the true test in a world premiere on January 12 in Sydney, during a match between tennis legends Roger Federer and Lleyton Hewitt. During "One night with Roger Federer and Lleyton Hewitt," which will be held in downtown Sydney at the Qantas Credit Union Arena, the two men will demonstrate the "match of the future," as Spanish sports journal "Marca" has already gleefully announced (Credit Suisse is a main sponsor of the event).

No Net Repeats

Fast4 has four main rule changes. First: Sets comprise only four games. Second: Shorter tie-break at 3-3 (first to five points). Third: No lets (serves that clip the net but land in the correct field are judged to be in and are not repeated).Fourth: First to four points wins game. At 40-40 (or 3-3) the next ball change is decisive, whereby the receiving player chooses to receive serve in the right or left service court. This rule has been known as no-advantage or no-ad-scoring for some time. Thus the Australian concept allows for results never before seen in tennis, such as 4-2, 1-4, 4-3 (5-4).

Tennis in Line with New Lifestyles

"The new format has the potential to revolutionize tennis, especially at the club and hobby level," said Craig Tiley, CEO of Tennis Australia. "Time is valuable these days, and this fast format is ideal for all players who want to integrate their tennis matches into a busy lifestyle." The time saved is massive; the match time is cut roughly in half, according to Tennis Australia. This is an appealing option particularly for hobbyists, who often have just an hour on court. However, Tiley also indicated that he does not intend to use the new system for major championships such as the Australian Open – at least not in the near future. In any case it would not be possible without the consent of the International Tennis Federation ITF, which is generally very skeptical about changes that might upset the traditional foundation of its sport.

Today, Matches Can Last More Than 11 Hours

However, few would disagree on the need for action, in order to make tennis matches more predictable in terms of time and sometimes more entertaining. A semifinal as in Madrid 2009, when Rafael Nadal and Novak Djokovic fought 4:03 hours for three sets, tries the patience of even the most devoted tennis fans – not to mention the lengthy "Best of 5" matches such as the record-breaker between John Isner and Nicolas Mahut at Wimbledon 2010. The strong servers did battle for 11:05 hours over three days, before the American won 6-4, 3-6, 6-7 (7-9), 7-6 (7-3), 70-68.

However, in spite of the highly conservative influences in the world of tennis, the rules are anything but sacred. The biggest change was the introduction of the tie break, invented in 1965 by James Van Alen. It was first used at Wimbledon in 1971– but only in the first four sets and with a score of 8-8 (every other set before that was played out until one player was two games ahead). Not until eight years later was it used for a score of 6-6, as it remains today. The Davis Cup, which the ITF oversees, did not adopt this rule until ten years later. In that competition, as in Roland Garros, Wimbledon, and the Australian Open, the fifth set is played out without a tie break, unlike the US Open Championships.

Already Reduced for Doubles

On the ATP Tour, the match times have been reduced at least for doubles, as no-ad-scoring is used along with a match tie break on 10 points for tied sets. The same format is now used for Grand Slam Tournaments in mixed doubles too. The Fast4 system, which Federer and Hewitt will test in a "Best of 5" match in Sydney, goes even further. When the players change sides (which cannot take more than 60 seconds), they cannot sit down; this is only allowed at the end of a set.

Unconventional rules have been used for years in America's World Team Tennis city league, where matches have only one no-ad set for which five game wins are required (at 4-4 there is a 9-point tie breaker). International Professional Tennis League (IPTL) competitions, showcase events in Asia with four city teams to date and which were held for the first time at the end of 2014, take the new rules to the next level. These matches are designed to be played in three hours and comprise five sets for men's singles, women's singles, legends singles, mixed doubles and men's doubles, and the team with the most points at the end of the five sets wins the match. A no-ad set comprises five games, with a five-minute shoot-out at 5-5 and a clock on the court that checks the time ("shot clock"). There is also an endless array of special rules, such as "power points" which count double.

Players Open to Change

Most players are watching these changes with interest and are willing to try them out, especially for well-paid exhibitions. "It was a lot of fun," said Djokovic of the IPTL version. "It's unusual for us to play on a team and to be cheered on by our teammates." He also said it helped him get to know other players better while still training well. Federer, who joined the IPTL only for two days in India for the "Indian Aces" team and won the premiere, called it a major innovation. "It's early days yet, but the concept is really interesting and seems to work."

Federer, No. 2 worldwide, will play at the exhibition in Sydney between the ATP Tournament in Brisbane (January 4–11) and the Australian Open (January 19 – February 1). He calls it a "very special match against an old friend and rival," and is looking forward to it. Hewitt calls the new rules a "fantastic invention" for tennis: "I hope they really catch on. It will be a new, fun challenge to play against Roger like this." In any case, the two 33-year-olds, both of whom have been No. 1 worldwide, are ready to give the revolution a chance.