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The casual observer could be forgiven for thinking that not much changes in tennis – Roger Federer wins virtually every tournament he enters and Maria Sharapova grabs the publicity whether she is winning or not.
But beneath the headlines about Federer and the struggle between Sharapova, Justin Henin-Hardenne and Amélie Mauresmo to dominate the women’s game, tennis is undergoing more radical change than any other leading global sport.
This year the “challenge system” was introduced whereby at some tournaments players can contest a certain number of line calls during a match using the Hawk-Eye instant-replay technology.
The men’s doubles game, outside of the big four grand-slam events, has been revolutionised. The advantage point has been scrapped and the receiving pair determine which side of the court the deciding deuce point is served from. Then if the pairs are level at one set all, a “championship tie-break” (first to 10 points, instead of seven) decides the match.
And there is more to come in the next two years. The Association of Tennis Professionals, which runs the men’s tour, plans to change the early stages of lesser tournaments to a round-robin group system instead of the knock-out format. The big tournaments, meanwhile, will start with a lot more razzmatazz on Sundays, rather than Mondays, the entry will be reduced from 64 to 56 players, and five-set finals will be abolished outside of the grand-slams. Finally, the meandering, complex tennis calendar will be shaken up and rationalised.
A principal instigator of all this is Etienne de Villiers, who became ATP executive chairman and president in January. A youthful 57-year-old, he spent the bulk of his career working for Walt Disney. He describes himself as “a red-blooded South African male raised on sport”, and if that background gives him a respect for tradition, this has been balanced by his Disney experience of giving the public what it wants.
He see tennis’s powerful tradition as double-edged – providing a formidable brand on the one hand, but also capable of being “an anchor that holds you back”.
He is scathing about the state of the sport he found on joining the ATP. “There is this sense that it used to be a great sport, but what happened to it? But we have these unbelievable stars, two of the finest players ever [Federer and Rafael Nadal], certainly with Federer probably the finest the world has ever seen.”
And he adds bluntly: “We have never marketed the sport properly.”
His aim is to market not just two or three stars, but all the top 16 players. So stand by to hear much more of Marat Safin’s moody magnificence, Marcos Baghdatis’s passionate flamboyance and Andy Murray’s grumpy young man persona.
Modern communications technology will play an increasing part. The Women’s Tennis Association, which runs the women’s tour, has led the way thanks to its sponsorship by Sony Ericsson, the mobile telecommunications company. Its Girls on Tour website aims to bring fans closer to players through features such as personal diaries, and data and live tournament scores are accessible via WAP mobile phones.
The ATP is following suit. Streaming of live action from tournaments via the association’s website began in August, and players have begun supplying personal blogs. Dmitry Tursunov, the rising Russian star, has attracted a cult following for his witty offerings.
De Villiers says the aim is to make the sport more attractive to both spectators and television.
He argues that the Hawk-Eye challenges add to the drama, as does the sudden-death element of the new doubles format, while its shorter timespan makes it more attractive to broadcasters. Sunday starts will mean more fans can attend tournaments, and the round-robin system will prevent star players being knocked out early, allowing spectators and TV to see more of them.
The same reasoning applies to reducing entries to 56 and scrapping five-set finals. The crowded calendar has led to a plague of injuries to top players, and a smaller draw would enable them to have first-round byes and more rest, while a shorter final suits TV schedules and means contestants are more likely to be fit for the next event.
Above all, De Villiers wants a calendar that fans can understand, a coherent global tournament structure. His plan is to have seven more elite tournaments in addition to the existing nine Masters Series events, with many of them positioned as preliminary events to the four grand slams. The season-ending Masters Cup will also return from Shanghai to Europe as a climax to the continent’s indoor series, with London and Paris strong contenders to stage it.
“The best thing we have in tennis is the slams,” he says. “So lets make them stronger, and use our tournaments as lead-ins to them.”
Crucially, he says the planned changes have the support of most players, although there is one dissident about the round-robin idea. “Roger [Federer] is not that keen on it, he is a traditionalist, but Nadal likes it,” says De Villiers.
While he is convinced that tennis must adapt to modern demands, he recognises there are limits. For example, he believes the deciding deuce point in doubles has added to the excitement by reducing the server’s advantage, but he adds with a grin: “I’m not sure I have the balls to do this in singles – Roger would kill me.”