Body cameras, clocks among ideas in play for tennis' future
NEW YORK: What if they put tiny cameras on players to get more dramatic TV shots? What if serves that dribbled over the net were fair game? What if servers were on a 20-second clock to start points? And how about scrapping the pre-match warmup so matches actually start on time?
These are among the possible tweaks to tennis that the US Open's innovation chief says are being seriously discussed, in some cases actually being experimented with, as the game's leaders brainstorm ways to — someday — make play at the highest pro levels faster and more television-friendly.
And she says a changing of the guard underway at the top of the men's and women's games makes it a good time to do it.
"We want to innovate but we have to do it in such a way that we bring the players along," says Stacey Allaster, chief executive of professional tennis for the US Tennis Association, cautioning that any such changes should undergo deliberate "incubation" at that game's lower tiers rather than debuting on the game's top level.
That's the idea of experimenting with a 20-second serve clock this year at the US Open's junior and college invitational tournaments. While it's not clear yet whether matches have indeed moved along more quickly, it apparently has had an effect: Out of 260 matches so far, 24 serve clock warnings have been issued, and none resulted in a repeat violation that would have resulted in a penalty point.
"I love it," says Danielle Collins, a two-time NCAA singles champion at Virginia who won the Open's collegiate title Saturday. "Because in college tennis people stall really badly. . It's crazy how long people are taking between points."
That's been a point of contention on the pro tours for years because instead of employing a clock, any warnings or penalty points issued over slow play are left entirely to the umpire's discretion. That tension was on full view during Friday's men's semifinals, when both Stan Wawrinka and Kei Nishikori were warned about slow play, as was Gael Monfils in his match against Novak Djokovic, responding to the umpire by essentially saying, if you want me to speed up, penalize me.
Other ideas that have gotten discussion, according to Allaster: eliminating the service let, which would allow serves that hit the net and fall in to be playable; tighter policing of player bathroom and injury breaks; and reducing or eliminating altogether the pre-match warmup hit, which can delay the scheduled start of matches. The NCAA implemented that idea in its championships this year.
"If a fan tunes into ESPN for a 4 o'clock match and it doesn't start until 4:15, we probably would have lost them because they will start to click and they will click onto another sport," Allaster says. "So we have to be quicker in getting to the show."
Allaster, who came to the USTA recently after serving as chief executive of the Women's Tennis Association, said technology is another avenue of change. Allaster noted that shot-spotting technology to determine if balls are in or out, which has been a part of the Open since 2006, had the added benefit of helping fans get more engaged.
The same could happen, she says, if tiny cameras are put on players' bodies or hats. "People could see what it's like to return one of these big serves."
Allaster noted that the Open is open to change, noting it remains the only Grand Slam tournament that decides the final set with a tiebreaker, and that its mixed doubles event now features no-ad scoring, meaning that at 40-40, one more point decides the game rather than one side having to win two in a row.
Also, all the other Grand Slam events with the exception of Wimbledon have gone to a best-of-three format for men's doubles instead of best-of-five.
But going to no-ad scoring in more events or to best-of-three in men's singles at the Grand Slam level are not ideas that have gotten much serious discussion, Allaster says, even with the unusual case of the top-seeded Djokovic getting three walkovers or retirements because of injuries to opponents.
"Could we say it will never happen? I wouldn't say that. Is it on the short-term horizon? I would say that is not something being discussed," Allaster says of the best-of-three idea. "But I would say everything needs to be on the table as it relates to the health and well-being of the athletes."
Rajeev Ram, who lost in the mixed doubles final with partner CoCo Vandeweghe, questions the wear and tear that best-of-five takes on men in singles, and whether such long matches are really what plays best on television.
"I don't know who has six hours to watch a tennis match, I certainly don't," Ram says. "What these guys can do out there is unbelievable. But to watch five sets of some of these guys playing 40-ball rallies, it's just hard to think that that's going to be, from the business side of tennis, a good product."