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Resolving a Rules Revolution: Four Changes for Tennis

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By Andrew Eccles

If we learned anything from the International Premier Tennis League – apart from that exhibition events should NEVER run for more than a few days – it was that there are certain aspects of tennis that are open for a little tweaking. The IPTL didn’t merely tweak the rules of the sport: it twisted, melted, and remolded the very shape of a set of tennis. From audible shot clocks to five-minute shootouts, the event took risks with the beloved format and built an event around these risks. It was a conversation point; an inventive way to garner more interest in a strange new arrival on the sporting calendar.

It wasn’t perfect, but it was thought provoking, and it begged the question – do we need to see some changes in the rules? What should those be?

Here are a few of my main contenders:

1) Play out service lets

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Let calls have often been the focus of much controversy. As the pace of matches is debated with increasing ferocity, tennis is under pressure to speed the game along. Getting rid of let calls would be a way to do this and would not be entirely unfair – after all, the ball touching the net and bouncing over on any other shot of a point is allowed.

Yes, this would lead to the occasional point won on serve thanks to a lucky net touch, but this isn’t a new experience for tennis players or fans; many matches have been won on returns and other ground strokes that just toppled cruelly over the net.

If introduced, controversies would abound, but this is true of any new rule. It was true of the challenge system. Nothing is perfect, but this rule change could at least be introduced without cries of favouritism for one player or another. It’s a victimless innovation.

2) Shot Clocks

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This would not be victimless innovation. Well, objectively it would be, but fans of slower players would not see it as such. Slower players would not see it as such. Shot clocks would be fun in terms of creating chaos – especially if they continued the jarring noise of the IPTL clock – but ultimately I’ve come to agree with the fact that they would solve very little.

Tennis doesn’t need a shot clock; it needs consistency of rule enforcement from the umpires. Start penalizing players who go over time, every single time. Just do it. If they shout at you…well, that’s fine, as long as they do so in a timely manner and get on with the damn point.

The more players are penalized, the less angry they’ll be when they are, because at least it will become a genuine rule, rather than the half-assed mess it is at present.

(If you’re still on the fence about the need for a shot clock, TTI’s own David Kane makes a convincing argument against it here.)

3) On-court coaching

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Just get rid of it. It’s entertaining occasionally, but mostly it’s just lame. Part of the beauty of tennis is the loneliness out there on the court, the warrior-on-warrior nature of it. Seeing a coach coming out onto court at 2-3 in the first set to offer a weak “You’re doing good – just keep holding serve.” is just annoying, and unnecessary.

The occasional gems just aren’t worth it.

4) How many sets?

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This is the big one, and the one that really needs looking at closely. While the “women don’t deserve equal prize money because they play fewer sets” argument is flawed, there is something to be said for the argument that the women are currently being patronised by the slams with the three-set cap. Adding five-set matches for the women would not only be great from an entertainment standpoint, it would also handily silence the equal prize money nay-sayers…unless they found new reasons to whine, of course.

There are controversies around the idea of adding five set women’s matches to the slams, but I believe it is the most exciting of potential changes to the sport and one that I’m strongly in support of.

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The big criticism of universal five-set matches at Grand Slams is that the events are already overextended, scheduling can be thrown into turmoil at the drop of a little rain, and adding more sets of tennis into the mix would be a disaster for organizers. This is fair, and not-so-easily solved by a simple “make the tournament three weeks instead!” Grand Slams are already somewhat of a marathon for fans, particularly casual fans, without asking them to add four more weeks of tennis per year to their diary. To ensure the growth of the sport, it may not be wise to further extend events.

There are also other tournaments on the schedule, which can’t afford their allotted time to be infringed upon.

Here’s a pitch I’ve been making for a while, and one you’ve likely heard from others before: split the tournament between the two weeks.

Rounds 1 to 3: Come out firing or go home. Three sets across the board for men and women. Survive or die.

“But then Federer/Nadal/Djokovic might lose in Round 1 just because he lost two sets,” yeah, well, Federer/Nadal/Djokovic are sportspeople. They can suck it up. Serena Williams has faced that possibility at every Grand Slam she’s ever played. Also, the potential to lose in early rounds is a reality no matter how many sets you’re playing; the reason the best players often win the five-set struggles with lower-ranked opponents is their mental strength in the key moments.

This is no different in a three-set match.  This is your moment, ATP Masters 1000s.

Round 4 to the final: you’ve survived the chaos, and you had better not be too tired. Now, it becomes five set tennis. You’re no longer a challenger; you’re one of the remaining 16 elite, and you have to prove yourself over five gruelling, emotionally-draining sets. It’s as much endurance now as it was agility in week one. Every remaining man and woman has to prove themselves even further than they did in the previous rounds.

I don’t just think this would make the game more “equal” or simply streamline a tournament; I think this would actually add to the drama and intrigue of the slams. There would be something vaguely Hollywood about the sudden increase in pressure and making it to the five-set section of the tournament.

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Alas, the critics will say this messes with history and tradition, and that what isn’t broken doesn’t need to be fixed. Is this really an attempt to “fix?” or just to…evolve?

Ultimately, that’s the question. Does tennis even need to evolve? Don’t the new generations evolve the sport themselves, without lowly tennis bloggers needing to mess with years of sporting tradition?

I don’t have the definitive answer. For all its wackiness and questionable relevance, at least the IPTL has inspired some interesting conversation.

If you were the king, or queen, of tennis for a day, how would you change the sport? Sound off in the comments!

2 Comments on Resolving a Rules Revolution: Four Changes for Tennis

  1. Why not have the men play 3 sets at the Grand Slams? Adding two sets doesn’t change all that much to the outcome of the match. Doing some quick numbers on it, only about 10 percent of matches played have a different outcome after 5 than they would have after 3. Is that enough to justify the extra playing time?

    Would also negate the (very silly) equal pay/ equal playing time argument.


  2. Bathroom breaks…I would standardize those. Players are only allowed to take a bathroom break after every alternate set. And the duration of the break is 5 mins max.


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