November 11, 2018
Stefanos Tsitsipas took the Next Gen title in Milan to confirm his status as the hottest young superstar in tennis.
But you sense that his fellow finalist Alex de Minaur could become just as popular for his spectacular stroke-play and sheer determination.
In a pulsating final, Tsitsipas came through 2-4, 4-1, 4-3 (3), 4-3 (3). The world number 15 is going places. But then so is the gutsy Aussie.
Confused already? No problem, so was the winner. The swashbuckling Greek, who looks like some movie-star musketeer, wasn’t sure whether he liked those special Next Gen rules or not.
But he was sure that Hawk-Eye Live was a hit. And it is hard to disagree. Instant line calls, no human beings scattered and bowed uncomfortably around the court as line judges. The end of back-ache and error.
It just seemed to work. And there are always video reviews available if there is a proper old-fashioned dispute.
Some say Hawk-Eye Live takes away the drama of challenges. But don’t forget that challenges are themselves a relatively recent innovation. And many players – Andy Murray included – have used them rather cynically.
Do we really like the challenge designed purely to break the opponent’s rhythm and steal a breather to regroup? Next Gen has a point there.
Speaking of points, what about the scoreline? First to four games. Sets with a tie-break at 3-3. Tsitsipas claimed this was stressful. But it was also exciting.
The future of tennis? Quite possibly. People have less time to do anything these days. They like their entertainment bite-size.
“No,” cry the traditionalists! Allow a set to grow to maturity! Who wants it gone in the blink of an eye? Enough of this superficial stuff already!
But how many of us have sometimes wished we could skip to the business end of a set, even in a big match? Haven’t we all done it?
Well, under the Next Gen rules, every point is the business end of a match. And that is the shocking, thrilling beauty of it.
Any game that reaches deuce faces a “deciding point.” There is no advantage, no back-track to deuce.
This could be the end of the seemingly interminable, marathon game.
Some will say that robs tennis of some of its drama. But the dramatic intensity is relentless in Next Gen all the same. Just not so cumulative.
And the no-let rule introduces a new dimension. So what if your serve scrapes the net cord and dribbles over? Play on! Tough luck on your opponent if he suffers a “dead-net.”
Your serve had enough power to reach the other side of the net, didn’t it? Isn’t that what the game is all about?
There is an undeniable logic to this. Again, is there a single one of us who haven’t found it tedious at times when play is interrupted repeatedly, simply because a serve has had miniscule contact with the net?
Often the ball isn’t even diverted in any significant way, yet we have to stop just the same. Not with Next Gen. You have to react to any deflection, like a goalkeeper in soccer.
The underlying philosophy is simple. Let’s just get on with it and get to the exciting part!
Some will simply dismiss all this as nothing but tennis for the impatient. True. It is.
But modern life is impatient. People just don’t seem to have the attention span any more. Maybe that’s a shame. It’s also a reality.
Look at all the people drifting in and out of Centre Court whenever there is a changeover. Sure, bladders can be an issue.
But sometimes people just like to dip in and out of matches, sample the wider magic of Wimbledon, come back towards the end of a set. Who can blame them?
With the Next Gen rules, with everything bite-size, people would do that more between matches. Certainly not so much mid-set.
And how many different matches could you see on a show court in a single day? Twice as many? More great stars to enjoy!
There are obvious drawbacks to this. In the early Wimbledon rounds, someone like Roger Federer has sometimes come and gone in what seems like the blink of an eye. Three swift sets, job done.
So you want to savour every game, watch the magician at work. You love every precious moment. “I’m here. Close to the greatest sportsman who ever lived. There is no place on earth I’d rather be. I don’t want this to end.”
Many of us have thought that, haven’t we? For those of us who have, Next Gen can wait. We like things just as they are at Wimbledon for now.
But life changes. Rules change. Wimbledon changes with the times, sooner or later. Maybe some things need changing sooner rather than later.
What about the towel rule? Next Gen now has towel rails (or boxes) strategically placed in the corners of the courts. The players must help themselves. And quickly, too.
Remember, there is a 25-second countdown between points. No time to waste. Wipe yourself down, get back to the baseline, don’t bounce the ball too much. Just serve!
Some players didn’t like it in Milan. And you sense that Rafael Nadal will be intensely relieved to hear that there are no plans to introduce this help-yourself towel rule at Wimbledon any time soon.
Those who sweat profusely need every second they can get to sort themselves out between points. They are hugely grateful to the ball kids for providing the service. Or at least they should be.
But isn’t there something intensely distasteful about a child handling and catching an adult’s sweaty towel? Particularly one who often seems to take that child for granted? It has to end sometime.
Some say the coaching ban during matches has to end too. Next Gen has embraced this.
Headsets for the players and coaches at changeovers. Tactics and performance discussed so that the viewer can hear everything.
On Friday Tsitsipas smashed his headset. He isn’t a fan. But it’s easy to see why some connoisseurs welcome the innovation.
All the technical points discussed. Problems aired.
Public counselling for the pampered sportsman.
Sorry. Can’t go with this one. Tennis is gladiatorial. One against one. The court is a lonely, brutal, thrilling place for gutsy gladiators.
Yet even the gutsiest of the new kids on the block, Alex de Minaur, signed off from a headset session during the final by saying “we” can do this or something similar.
We? The coach can’t do it for you, Alex. Maybe that’s why Stef took the biggest points to take the title.
Let’s not dilute the tennis drama by making coaches feel more important than they already do. Please!
Yet even this change is probably coming into Grand Slam tennis, sooner or later. It might be only a matter of time.
For now, let’s enjoy all that is wonderful about tennis, just as it is.
But the verdict on Next Gen and its innovative rules? Overall, truly fascinating, ground-breaking, thought – provoking.
It’s in the name. Next Gen really is the future.
By Mark Ryan for WDH