What will the future look like?
We will get a glimpse of the future in Milan in November when the ATP inaugurate their NextGen championships. The event is destined precisely to take a peek into the game's crystal ball and find out what crazy ideas actually work when put into practice. There will be no ad scoring; no lets on the serve; time clocks; coaches allowed to talk to players (as they are on the WTA tour); spectators allowed to move around at will and no warm-up.
As ATP CEO Chris Kermode says, “Some of these ideas will work and some won’t. But nothing will happen if we don't experiment. I can see a time 20 years from now when people will be amazed to think that it took 15 minutes to begin play after the players had walked on court. But who knows? We just have to try.”
I foresee a concerted effort to match the speed of the court and the hardness of the ball to certain periods of the year – such as fast indoor courts to encourage serve and volleying after the US Open. And the speed clocks will definitely make matches go faster. I would also like to see the patchwork coloured courts used in World Team Tennis used in a variety of colours and experiments to try and make the ball easier to see on clay courts for television. Purple and yellow balls might be the answer.
Fan interaction must be increased. Young fans (or even older ones) should be able to apply to have a hit with a pro in between matches with a prize for getting the ball over the net a certain number of times.
I can see more entrepreneurs challenge the status quo and the ruling bodies by staging more competitions like the Laver Cup. WTT under its new ownership will increase the number of teams in America, which is almost certain to happen in the next few years and then explode worldwide. The IPTL was just the beginning.
Eventually technology will create new ways of playing the game to the point where players do not even have to face each other physically across a net. Interactive in cyber space - hit a forehand in Vienna and have it returned to you from a player in Toronto. Impossible?
Don't bet against it.
One of the things that worries me about tennis is the disappearing variety. There’s no reason you can’t play top-level tennis by volleying, or by playing short-angled slices, or by hitting your backhand with one hand.
The top players do it, but the coaches don’t teach it, so we’re getting a generation of players who all play the same way – big hitters from the back of the court with all backhands hit two-fisted, and the result is that tennis becoming a battle of wills rather than a festival of finesse.
It’s possible tennis will hit the buffers with this in 5-10 years, which will force it to look at the players it’s generating, and perhaps then change some rules. I don’t see a return to wooden rackets, but if it were proven that the traditional size of racket would encourage more of the variety, then the tennis authorities might legislate for it, and the game could change for the better.
I feel we’ve killed off the players’ personalities a bit too much. It’s fine saying we are a family sport and inappropriate language paraded in front of young children and adults with particular sensitivities should be banned, but we’ve created a slightly sterile culture for top-level tennis. When there’s an edge in a match, we need to be aware of it, so the spectacle we create is more intense.
If we want to look at the future of tennis, it’s worth looking at the evolution of other sports. At the start of the eighties, cycling was a well defined sport. Anything other than the classic, light-framed bicycle was seen only as a form of transport. Now however, a bicycle for sport could be anything from a mountain to BMX bike.
Tennis is one of the only sports that can be played in many different ways, up to an old age. There are those that are over 60 years old who play competitive doubles games, players that enter leagues and compete fiercely against opponents and people who play tennis as two hour long exercise sessions hitting balls and running as many miles as possible. You also have those who love to learn new shots, who simply enjoy swinging a racquet and hitting balls as a form of meditation and those who use it to socialise.
Whilst there’s all of this variety, only one type of tennis, with pro-players, is ever promoted in the media. All the focus is on hitting winners, dominating opponents and winning points through physical effort, mental toughness and body language. Everything else gets overlooked, but could be developed into new versions of the sport.
Mid-court or Serve-Court Tennis is where small, tricky shots in order to construct points could be taught. It is fascinating how fast a beginner can compete against more experienced players here, as it’s less about hitting and more about securing points. Why not have small tournaments based around this, with top players competing?
Drill Tennis could become a cardio based, tennis equivalent to spin classes where the focus is on speed and stamina, like an up-hill running workout Vs. a light and relaxed jog.
Creative Tennis is a wild idea where some types of shot could count as double points and others triple, encouraging less ‘grinder’ style tennis and more creativity. Or, scoring could remain the same whilst a post-match jury or audience of spectators rate which player was most entertaining and deserves the prize money. It could be that the ‘grinder’ player progresses to the tournament’s next round but the more interesting performer gets rewarded too.