The Next Gen ATP Finals tournament in Milan this week has delivered on its promise to be different from tennis as usual. Whether that’s for better or worse is still up for debate.
The event, created this year to showcase young talent in men’s tennis, featured seven players born in 1996 or later who earned the most ranking points during the season and one Italian wild card from the same age range. It is a lucrative exhibition. There are no ranking points awarded, but players receive $50,000 for participating. An undefeated champion would earn $390,000.
Eligible players quickly bought into the concept when it was announced, with many contenders closely tracking the standings week to week. But the best young player was lured away by his own success. Third-ranked Alexander Zverev, 20, twice a champion at the Masters level this year, withdrew from the event to focus on the ATP Finals, which begin Sunday in London.
His withdrawal left 37th-ranked Andrey Rublev of Russia as the highest-ranked player in the field. Rublev will play No. 54 Hyeon Chung of South Korea, who is undefeated so far, in the final on Saturday.
The lack of star power did not mar the event as much as its draw ceremony did.
Instead of drawing chips from a bowl, organizers instructed the young players to select a model who would then reveal a letter, A or B, on her body to determine each player’s group.
The first model selected hiked up her dress and pulled her garter to reveal the letter A. Another instructed a player to remove her glove with his teeth.
The tennis world quickly expressed its disapproval at the crass sexualization of the event. The Hall of Famer Amélie Mauresmo called it a “disgrace,” while the French player Alizé Cornet mocked the regressive start to a showcase of innovations.
“Good job ATPWorldTour,” Cornet wrote on Twitter. “Supposed to be a futurist event right? #backtozero.”
The draw ceremony was co-produced by the ATP and a sponsor, Red Bull. They issued a joint apology on Monday.
“The intention was to integrate Milan’s rich heritage as one of the fashion capitals in the world,” the statement said. “However, our execution of the proceedings was in poor taste and unacceptable. We deeply regret this and will ensure that there is no repeat of anything like it in the future.”
The Tour had expected strong reactions to the event’s rules changes, not the opening ceremony.
The young players tested many innovations that have been discussed in tennis. While most of the ideas had been tried before, not since the creation of World TeamTennis in the 1970s have so many new concepts been used all at once.
The most popular has been automated line calling. Instead of relying on human line judges whose calls can be challenged and reviewed with Hawk-Eye technology, the event puts the calls in Hawk-Eye’s hands directly. As soon as a ball lands out, there is an immediate audio recording of “Out!” played, and the word also flashes on screens around the court. There has been little arguing and second-guessing of calls.
Besides no line judges, there are also fewer lines: Because it is a singles-only tournament, the court was painted without doubles alleys, which are a standard feature on most courts in the world.
The scoring system is perhaps the sharpest deviation. Instead of playing best-of-three sets, in which it takes six games to win a set and in which sets must be won by two games, the matches in Milan have been best-of-five sets, but the sets have been shorter. Sets are played to only four games, with a tiebreaker played at 3-3. Each game has no-ad scoring, meaning that at 40-40 the next point decides the game.
The points themselves are also different: There is no let call on serves, which several players said was hard to get used to.
Though the changes were designed to create more momentum swings in a match, many sets have been uncompetitive. In the round-robin stages, 18 of the 49 sets (36.7 percent) were won with scores of 4-0 or 4-1. Because tiebreakers remain normal length, they can feel laborious compared with the quick pace of the abbreviated set.
Several other changes have been instituted to expedite play: Between points, there is a 25-second clock; players are limited to one medical timeout per match; and warm-ups are shorter, with play beginning five minutes after players walk onto the court.
“It’s not just reducing time — because if a product is boring for six hours then it can be boring for six minutes,” Chris Kermode, executive chairman and president of the ATP, told reporters in Milan. “It’s about taking away the dead time, making more points matter.”
The pauses that remain in the match have been layered with entertainment. Between sets, players can talk to their coaches on headsets (but only in English, and the conversations are broadcast). On-court coaching has been a feature of WTA matches since 2009, but the headset version seems to have advantages: The audio is clearer, especially on the player’s side, and keeping the coach in the stands maintains tennis’s appearance as a one-on-one sport.
On Thursday, the headset provided Denis Shapovalov of Canada an opportunity to gush to his coach, Martin Laurendeau, about how much he enjoys the coffee in Milan.
“Dude, I’m telling you: best coffee I’ve ever had in my life,” he said.
Some of these innovations may come to official events soon. No-ad scoring is often used in doubles and mixed doubles already. The United States Open experimented with a 25-second clock between points and with coaching from the stands in some events this year.
“The big changes — best-of-five, first-to-four, is that going to happen in the next five years?” Kermode said. “No chance, in my opinion. Can it happen in 10 years? Yeah, I think it could.”