Fast tennis: Swift alternative could reinvigorate game at all levels

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The Independent Online

Some cricket traditionalists hate it, but there can be no denying the success of the splendidly named Big Bash League. Australia’s domestic Twenty20 competition draws huge crowds. Last season’s average attendance was nearly 19,000 and figures are currently up nearly 20 per cent. Television audiences are big, with more than a million viewers watching every night.

Most encouragingly, the success of Big Bash did not have a detrimental effect on Australia’s four-Test series against India, played over much the same period. A total of 470,219 spectators attended the matches, 61,692 more than a series between the same teams three years ago. Television audiences rose from 1,275,000 viewers per day three years ago to 1,329,000.

Tennis should take notice. While cricket realised that it needed more than five-day Test matches to appeal to a wider audience, tennis has been slow to embrace such thinking.

Although standards of play have risen, that has not necessarily been to anyone’s benefit. Players at the highest level are quicker and fitter, while string and racket technology make it easier to hit the ball harder. Courts are slower, making it more difficult to hit winners.

Consequently, fewer players come to the net because they know they can be passed by opponents who stand back. The vast majority of players are now resolute baseliners. Few matches feature major contrasts of styles.

Significantly, most of the records in terms of match length have been set in recent years. John Isner and Nicolas Mahut famously played the longest match of all time (11 hours and five minutes) at Wimbledon in 2011, Novak Djokovic beat Rafael Nadal in the longest Grand Slam final (five hours and 53 minutes) at the Australian Open in 2012 and Lukas Rosol and Tomas Berdych won the Davis Cup’s longest doubles match (seven hours and two minutes) in 2013.

Playing longer matches has led to some epic Grand Slam confrontations, but many matches played at a lower level can be tedious – in an age when time has become the most precious commodity for many.

Just as Twenty20 has opened cricket up to a bigger audience, so a taste of Fast4 could appeal to a broader range of tennis fans. Craig Tiley, the forward-thinking executive in charge of Australian tennis, believes that professional players will soon compete in tournaments using the new format. The problem will be finding a place for a new branch of the sport in an already congested calendar as the governing bodies defend their own patches.

The beauty of Fast4 is that, unlike Twenty20, it does not change the way in which the game is played, other than to make competition more intense. Players win points in exactly the same way as in the traditional game.

Even if the new format is never taken up at the top, it can play a big part in reinvigorating grass-roots tennis. Anyone who captains a club team knows how hard it can be to persuade members to play at the weekend, while parents can be reluctant to let their offspring play tennis when they have little idea what time their matches will finish. Playing Fast4 tennis – or at least adopting parts of its format to make match times more predictable – could change all that.

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