Players welcome new format for men's tour

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The Independent Online

Tennis players can be resistant to change. The introduction earlier this year of video replay technology to rule on line calls was initially greeted with scepticism by some, while the French Open's Sunday start was far from popular.

However, players here at the US Open have generally welcomed a raft of changes to the men's tour from next year. The Association of Tennis Professionals will adopt a round-robin format for an increasing number of its tournaments, cut the number of events with five-set finals and introduce more Sunday starts. Prize-money will also be increased and more will be spent on marketing the game.

The changes have been made after consultation with leading players. In particular, Etienne de Villiers, the president of the ATP, has discussed the plans at length with Roger Federer, Rafael Nadal, Andre Agassi and Marat Safin.

"I have said at our meetings with Etienne that I think this is a great idea," Nadal said. "Finally we really move forward and we do something really good for our sport. This will be good for our tournaments, for us the players and especially for fans and television since they will be able to have and see their favourite players more than once."

The introduction of a round-robin format for the early stages of tournaments - the structure will be optional in 2007 but will be used increasingly in subsequent years - will be the most noticeable change. The system is already used at the season-ending Masters Cup and will be popular with television executives and box offices as it guarantees that the big-name players cannot be knocked out early in the week.

The phasing out of five-set finals - the long-term aim is for five-set matches to be played only at Grand Slam tournaments and the Davis Cup - comes in response to concerns from players at the physical demands made of them. For example, most believe it is all but impossible to perform to the best of their ability in Masters series tournaments, which are the most important after the Grand Slam events, when they are played back-to-back with five-set finals.

"The players strongly support the move away from best-of-five-set finals," said James Blake, the world No 7. "This is one step towards ensuring that the last two players standing at any given tournament aren't sidelined the next week or even longer."

Thirteen events this year feature five-set finals and the format has produced some memorable matches. In May, for example, Nadal and Federer slugged out a five-hour contest in Rome before the Spaniard emerged victorious after five gripping sets.

De Villiers said: "We have all enjoyed watching ATP tournaments that have featured some fabulous five-set matches, but at what cost? Subsequent tournaments suffer due to late withdrawals of marquee players, and players need time to recover."

Sunday starts, featuring pro-am and charity events, will be introduced at some tournaments next year and will be mandatory by 2009. "You don't open a movie on a Monday morning and we shouldn't start our tournaments then either," said Phil Anderton, the ATP's chief marketing officer.