From 7-11 November, the seven highest-ranked players aged 21-and-under—with the addition of Italian wildcard Gianluigi Quinzi—will partake in the inaugural edition of the Next Gen ATP Finals held at the Fiera Milano. Half-exhibition tournament, half-self-esteem booster for the new arrivals on tour struggling to supplant the top dogs in the professional tennis rat race, the Next Gen Finals will receive financial backing from Peugeot, RADO, Lotto, Head and Tecnifibre.
No ranking points are awarded to players for participating, so whichever one wins the event earns himself bragging rights only of the most tenuous kind. Hopefully, the $1,275,000 prize pot will act as a leavening factor in the stead of ranking points, encouraging the players involved to get as much out of the event as they can after putting in the hard work to qualify for it.
Notably, the Next Gen ATP Finals will also act as a pilot scheme for a whole host of new rules and an abbreviated scoring system. The most radical innovations to be featured are best-of-five set matches comprised of first-to-four-game sets (with tiebreaks played at 3-3), “no lets” on first and second serves, and unswerving enforcement of the 25-seconds between points rule that will be governed by a visible shot clock.
In an effort to lessen the waiting time before matches, the first point of the first game will be played no later than five minutes after the second player walks onto court. In addition, there will be “no-ad scoring” when games go to deuce and the receiver will get to pick the side from which he would like to return serve on the “sudden death” point that determines who wins the game. Each player will be allowed to communicate with their coach through a headset at the end of every set, as well as when their opponent receives a medical timeout or takes a bathroom break. There will be no line judges present at any of the matches; all line calls will be made by Hawk-Eye Live. To round out the novel set of rules, spectators will be allowed to leave their seats to walk around at any point during a match.
On the opening day, Alexander Zverev will play Stefanos Tsitsipas as a gesture to “support the tournament and show my appreciation for my fans in Italy that were so supportive during my win in Rome earlier this year,” before making the trip to London for the Nitto ATP Finals, which begin the day after the Next Gen Finals finish. Like the season-ender in London, the Next Gen Finals will be played under a round-robin format. These are the groups:
Alternates: Stefanos Tsitsipas, Frances Tiafoe
An exhibition atmosphere brings out the best in tennis
It’s fair to say that the Laver Cup, a team-based tennis extravaganza which debuted in late September, was a massive shot in the arm for the sport. All five sessions were sold out and the fans in attendance, of which there were 83,273 over three days of play, reacted uproariously to the feast of entertainment served up for them by Nadal, Federer, Kyrgios, and co. The Laver Cup’s final act, a dramatic dogfight played out by Federer and Kyrgios, was no less pulsating than the duel between the pair in Miami even though there was no Masters 1000 final awaiting the winner. Likewise, the Hopman Cup produced its fair share of fireworks back in January; if you’re in doubt, watch the absolute corker of a match that occurred in Perth between Federer and Alexander Zverev, which remains one of the most gripping to be contested all year.
The best-case scenario would be for the Next Gen ATP Finals to tap into the same fan-friendly experience generated by the Hopman and Laver Cups; an experience individuated by the rare sight of top-tier sportsmen going at it when pride, and precious little else, is on the line. I have my reservations about whether the quality and intensity of tennis at the Next Gen Finals will match up to the standards set at those tournaments, however. All told, a tournament is only as good as the players competing in it and in this one, entrants will be ranked anywhere from 37th in the world to 306th. Make of that what you will.
The tennis world gets a much-needed look at some fresh new faces
At bottom, the purpose of the Next Gen ATP Finals is to elevate the profile of seven bright young prospects trying to find their feet in this sport, which is easy to ignore if one gets too caught up in the white noise of contrived rule changes and pre-tournament fanfare. The event allows supporters from across the globe to familiarize themselves with up-and-comers they may never have seen play before and get a good feel for what their games are like.
Shapovalov, Rublev and Coric will be known to a lot of the people who’ll be tuning in to the action because those three have picked up the most conspicuous wins at Grand Slam and Masters 1000 level so far, while Chung, Donaldson, Medvedev, Khachanov and Quinzi especially have toiled in their shadows. Now is as good a time as any to get a handle on which players achieved results that were a flash in the pan, and who are the ones that are primed for substantial, lasting success. This tournament could be a very telling indicator of who belongs to which category.
Holding a supposedly groundbreaking event so close to the Nitto ATP Finals, which purists see the Next Gen Finals as an infantilized version of, is not a good move in my opinion. For one thing, the inaugural edition of the competition will be weaker for not having Alexander Zverev around to play a prominent part in it. Zverev’s mind was already on London as soon as he learnt of his qualification for the Nitto ATP Finals at the beginning of last month; surely, he announced his withdrawal from the Next Gen Finals a little under two weeks ago to make it seem as if he had spent a great deal of time deliberating upon the matter. In any case, it’s generous of him to uphold his commitment to making a cameo appearance in Milan, and a good PR move to boot.
As a remedial measure, I think it would be wise for the ATP to move the Next Gen Finals to early December from next year onward. This would prevent youngsters from potentially being whipsawed by the lure of playing against the world’s elite in London and the obligation to give the Next Gen Finals a fair shot. It’s hardly absurd to think that a situation of such kind could crop up again in future if we see another newcomer have a standout year like Zverev did in 2017. Furthermore, pushing the Next Gen Finals back to December would create a larger gap between it, the Paris Masters, the Nitto ATP Finals and the Davis Cup, meaning that players could come into the event well rested and free from worries about preserving themselves for other competitions.
The unwieldy gimmicks
In attempting to explain what I think of the scoring system and timing rules operative in professional tennis right now, the golden old adage “if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it” should suffice. I’m adamant that this saying rings true in the overwhelming majority of cases, not just a few. Sure, the shot clock is a nice way to hold perennial time wasters accountable for what they’re doing, which is, fundamentally speaking, cheating. And I’m all for the commencement of play within the shortest reasonable time frame after both players step onto court. But these so-called innovations neither significantly enhance a viewer’s enjoyment of the sport—there aren’t that many Nadals around—nor are they likely to last if enough high-profile players sound off on their disapproval of them. At best, they are piecemeal changes that could be overturned with the same swiftness with which they were plucked out of thin air.
Now, to address the changes to the scoring system: I have yet to come across a compelling argument to show that shortening sets and increasing the amount of them makes for a more engrossing tennis match. From what I’ve seen, deferring to a 10-point match tiebreak after both players win a set each is one of the few ways to heighten drama in the closing stages of a tight encounter, with the added bonus that it obviates the boredom of fans who might have to sit through a one-sided deciding set.
To my mind, no-ad scoring works like a charm in doubles, though that is mainly because of its fast-paced nature in comparison to singles. Even then, top doubles players such as Jamie Murray aren’t completely sold on the idea. Never have I seen no-ad scoring implemented without a hitch in singles – even at the collegiate level, players are vehemently opposed to it. It deprives us spectators of those tense, to and fro, never-ending-deuce games that can often be crucial in deciding the outcome of a set or match. Combined with the equally uncalled-for “no let” rule, we might be seeing quite a few deuce points that end before they truly start, with players attempting to chase down serves that barely dribble over the net and, in some instances, failing to do so through no fault of their own. Besides, the issue that the no-let rule was brought in to redress—that of the receiver making a dodgy let call after getting aced on a crucial point—makes it appropriate for Division 1 college tennis, not for the level of competition at which umpires are equipped with the tools to prevent that situation from arising.
If speeding up the game is the objective here, then making the court surface a similar speed to that of the Shanghai Masters and this year’s Australian Open would be the best place to start. Fiddling around with the rules is perverse in its emphasis if the matches are played on an indoor hard court that’s as slow as molasses.
Age is temporary, class is permanent
Excuse me for being so blunt in asking, but why wasn’t the Next Gen ATP Finals introduced in 2010? Or 2002? Or at any point during the nineties? As is transparently obvious, it’s become an item on the ATP’s agenda simply because there’s a chronic lack of players who are cut out to win Grand Slams and Masters 1000s in this new generation and the one that came before it, too.
The ATP can’t excuse itself indefinitely for one lost generation, let alone two. This would be to concede that tennis will be in very bad shape once the Big Four and the group of players who very much held their own against them retire. Up until now, the professional tour was never stratified by age, only by ranking. Age-based tournament categorizations belong in the juniors and the minor leagues – that is where they should stay. If there’s any need for an alternative to the regular tour finals, I wouldn’t be against an ATP equivalent of the WTA Elite Trophy, which could act as a stepping stone to a breakthrough for players on the cusp of cracking the top 10.
The main lesson to be drawn from all this is that a stop-gap solution is no solution at all. I can’t envisage the Next Gen ATP Finals having a place on the tennis calendar 30 years from now. Or even in a decade. It most probably won’t last because the players destined to reach the top of the game will do so without an end-of-year exhibition in place to instill some of the confidence needed to get there.
If they have the innate ability, work ethic and an adequate support system pulling for their success, the champions of tomorrow will scale the same heights as those of yesteryear. The very best of them, one can assume, will go on to eclipse their predecessors. At least, that’s the way things were. Unfortunately, it looks less likely by the year that the ordinary cycle of the old being surpassed by the young will continue as seamlessly as it once did. Thankfully, there’s now a gloriously meaningless tournament to prove it.