Mailbag: Grading the Next-Gen ATP Finals Innovations and Rule Changes

From shot clocks to mid-match coaching and automatic line calls, what did you think of the innovations in Milan? Plus thoughts on David Goffin's season, Victoria Azarenka, Venus Williams and more.
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• What Roger Federer and tennis can teach the world about globalization.

• Last week’s podcast guest was Andre Agassi.

• Next up, recapping the year with Paul Annacone.

• Congrats to the U.S. Fed Cup team.


Have a question or comment for Jon? Email him at or tweet him @jon_wertheim.

I've been watching [the Next-Gen ATP Finals] and enjoying this although I'm somewhat worried that Jeff Bezos wants to take over the sport world as well as everything else. I've not been the target demographic for years now and I know that no one cares about my opinion anymore, but I still persist in my delusion that everyone is entitled to it. 

I know they are using this event as a kind of Change Lab, so I'm here to weigh in on the changes. I expected to hate them all (a la Tevye Tradition!), but I surprised myself. I kind of like the court, although I would think this would have limited application since I think most tournaments include doubles. I like no ad scoring. And I think I like live Hawk-Eye, although the court looks a bit empty.

Definitely do not like sets being best of four. Don't see the point and it penalizes players who don't get off to a fast start. I realize that having five sets somewhat mitigates this problem, this seems more like a stunt rather than something that make watching tennis more enjoyable. Dislike no let serves, double HATE on-court coaching, which seems like a gimmick. Ugly, ugly optics for a sport where you are supposed to be able to think and problem-solve for yourself. I particularly disliked this iteration since apparently, players and coaches were told to talk to each other in English—yuck!

As always, “thanks” for listening and I look forward to your thoughts.

• Last week we talked about the unfortunate draw ceremony in Milan. One of the real pities was that this misstep clouded what was otherwise a laudable effort. In the course of one event, the ATP tried a number of “innovations”++ some more successful than others, but all them of conveying the notion—admirably, I would suggest—that change is being considered and few components are sacred.

Experimenting without data or some empirical basis? That’s straight out of Hawkins Lab. But if you can marry proposed changes to some measure of appeal and efficacy, then we’re on to something. I give you one data point, and one data point only. But here’s where I stand on the tweaks we saw in Milan:

– Shot clock: Yes. Why not? True, it’s subjective when the chair starts the clock, but so what?

– Automatic line calls: Yes. You have the technology Why not use it? Rely on automation and not the reflexes of humans in an ever-evolving sport.

– Mid-match coaching. No. And note that the event’s winner, Hyeon Chung, didn't speak to his coach once during matches. Enough said. 

– Four game sets. Meh. There were more “leverage points” but this could be achieved in a conventional six game set without ad scoring.

– No ad. Surprisingly, maybe. Didn't bother me at all.

– No lets on serve. Sure. And it was unclear whom it benefitted. Big servers had an advantage when serves ticked the net and dinked over. Returners had an advantage when ball ticked the net and became middle-of-the-box sitters.

++ Can we please cease conflating the self-serving “innovation” with “experiment”? If a new drug or a piece of code or self-driving car doesn’t work or doesn’t find favor in the market it is not innovative.

Overall, the ATP is to be commended. They approached this with an open-mind and a sense, rightly, that some of these ideas will work and others will be rejected. There was also a sense that fans’ reaction mattered. Now, next year, just the pick players’ groups out of a damn hat.

Hi Jon, two questions:

1.) The Masters 1000s are all done and dusted for 2017. This year saw seven new players contest their first ever Masters 1000 final. This is the highest number since 2001. Is this number more to do with the absence of Djokovic and Murray and the irregular Masters 1000 appearances of Federer (he played less than half of them this year) or a sign that the rest of the tour might be stepping up? 

2.) Regarding Federer's more irregular appearances in Masters 1000 events this year, I think we can all agree that his careful managed schedule was a big plus for the tour. It protected his health and let him peak for the biggest events. I'm a huge fan of him for his game as well as his integrity. 

However, his withdrawal from Paris hasn't been sitting well with me. It's understandable that he'd want a rest after Basel to recuperate for the World Tour Finals. However, he's now playing in an exhibition with Andy Murray this week. I realize that he made this commitment a while ago and that the exhibition is for a great charitable cause, but I don't like the optics of this. With the No. 1 ranking on the line, Roger withdrew from an elite level tournament that promises the participation of the top players and, a week later, played an exhibition. The fact that Nadal withdrew from Paris just two days after clinching the No. 1 ranking doesn't help me avoid the feeling that the public was shortchanged here. 
Rohit Sudarshan, Apia, Samoa 

• 1) I think your questions are very much connected. In the absence of a tennis infrastructure—you know, like a union; kids, ask your parents about unions—that protects players and meaningfully addresses their concerns about the schedule, the players have taken on the job themselves.

This is the economist’s classic labor/leisure trade-off.

Why don’t we all have second jobs? Because at some point we make a determination that the extra income is not worth the diminished units of free time. Same for star tennis players. Despite penalties and the missed ranking points and the opportunity cost of withdrawing from an event, they reach a point on the indifference curve, where the leisure units are more valuable than the income units at even the biggest events.

Roger Federer—rational, pragmatist that he is—has decided that beyond a certain point, it does him no good to play certain events. Some of this is driven by physical preservation. But he’s made the decision that the ATP won’t make for him.

First, good for him. This is why he’s still playing at age 36. Give me Federer playing a dozen events for 20 years over Federer playing 20 events for a dozen years. But, to your point, yes this has opened up the field. Combined with the absences of Djokovic, Murray and Wawrinka, it stands to reason that more players and different players now have opportunity to go deeper in Masters Series events.

As for Federer missing Paris….give him a pass. He wins Basel, which I suspects he considers preparation enough for the ATP WTF event—also an indoor event—held a few weeks hence. He can’t reach the No. 1 ranking so that incentive is gone. And playing a charity event ought to be a point in his asset column, not his liability column.

How many more years does Venus Williams keep playing? What do you think, Jon?
Steve N., Miami, Fla.

• The boilerplate answer. “As long as she wants.” “As long as she think she can still be competitive.” “As long as she still finds her job fulfilling.”

I preface this by saying—as with Federer—this is completely to Venus’ credit. But I do think we need to consider her “wear and tear” years rather her chronological years. Earlier in her career—I can't stress this enough—she played fewer events than many other players, and certainly fewer than the WTA had hoped. She missed significant chunks of seasons with injuries. She also missed chunks on account of her autoimmune issues. She is the vintage sports car with a modest odometer.

Venus deserves all sorts of credit for her sustained professionalism and commitment. But she’s now gotten some time back in her late 30s. So while it's jarring to see a 37-year-old with a ranking of No. 5, I would submit she ain’t 37 in tennis years.


So glad to see Goffin playing so well now. What's his ceiling look like? Ferrer's career? Stan's? Murray's?
Cainim T.

• The knee-jerk comparison is to Ferrer and while it’s a little crass, I can’t think of a better one. (Miloslav Mecir maybe?) Goffin is a bit like Ferrer with a software update. He can do more off the ground and has a bit more versatility and speed. But same organizing principles. A guy who’s not going to win many matches with more power. But he will win a lot of matches with measured tennis, consistency and professionalism. A player to admire. A player who might worm his way into the top five and stay there. A player who will wring every last bit from his talent and his body. Not, perhaps, a player likely to win majors.

Long as we’re here, one of the underrated stories of 2017: Goffin is playing well at the French Open—the major he’s most likely to win. Midway through a match he stumbles on tarp. A tarp that is a) dangerously close to the back of the court and b) inexplicably camouflaged with the court surface. He stumbles, wrenches his ankle, is forced to retire and miss a chunk of the summer, including Wimbledon. Tort lawyers begin panting everywhere. (Think about Genie Bouchard for a moment.)

Goffin seems to shrug this off and when he returns in July he begins to play some of the best tennis of his career. Even with his injury, he wins more than 50 matches and makes the London field. If Goffin had the career of Murray or Wawrinka it would shock me. It’s hard—at 150 lbs.—lacking in weaponry, to be successful. (Murray—hardly an NFL linebacker—has 35 lbs. on Goffin.)

Still, tip the chapeau. Imagine if every athlete had this level of professionalism and efficiency.

I'm a few weeks late, but I wanted to address the question raised by another reader about whether servers win points more often than receivers even once the point has reached "neutrality.” There was a study a few years ago that suggested that pro golfers miss birdie putts more often than par putts, perhaps because they have a sense that they don't "need" to make them, whereas they're always disappointed to miss a par putt. It strikes me that the same may be true in tennis—the server feels like they need to win the point, whereas the receiver is maybe not putting in the same effort or is playing the point too conservatively.
Nick E.

• This is classic loss aversion. That is, we are motivated by the prospect of loss more than we are motivated by the prospect of gain. (The pain of losing $1 outweighs the joy of winning $1.) Golfers have two exact putts. Same distance. Same slope. Same break. The difference: one is for par; the other is for birdie. Turns out the golfers are significantly more accurate—and more aggressive—when it's the par putt. Why? Because if they miss the birdie putt, it stinks, but it felt like a bonus. If they miss the par putt, their score reveals a +1 and they feel the deeper sting of loss.

I love Kyle’s instincts, applying this to tennis. a) Would loss aversion explain why servers do well even when points have reached “neutrality.” b) I’ve wondered whether loss aversion explains why big servers dink in their second serves when, statistically, they would be better off bringing the heat. The prospect of loss (double faulting) outweighs the prospect of gain (winning the point off the serve.)

With October 12th having passed and still no news how likely is it that Azarenka will still be sitting out at the start of the 2018 season?

• Full candor: I am conflicted as to how to proceed here. You have a two-time Grand Slam champion whose status is uncertain. Heading into the Slam at which she’s had the most success. At a time when the field is wide open and, at full strength, she would be a contender. That is a relevant sports story that falls squarely in the “fair game for coverage” division. On the other hand, you have an intensely personal situation that involves custody issues and the welfare of a young child who, obviously, has no agency here.

With full acknowledgment that those most impacted by this are the principals, this situation also strikes me as an interesting “media ethics fact pattern.” I’m inclined to err on the side of discretion and wait for Azarenka to inform the public as she sees fit and when she sees fit. Here’s her most recent statement.

Helen of Philly asked a question for last week's Mailbag about why they gave a wildcard to an Italian who won a tournament to go to Next-Gen in Milan rather than just giving the eighth slot to the next eligible player (Tiafoe). In China, at the Elite Trophy, they gave a wild card to the highest ranked Chinese woman player. Why did they do a tourney in Italy for the eighth spot? (BTW it was almost impossible to find any scores from that tourney). You responded by talking about the sexist controversy. Did the ATP decide that or was it the Italian Tennis Federation to gin up interest in Milan for the tournament? Or why did you duck the question?

Warren, Montreal

• A few of you noted that, while ranting about the regrettable draw ceremony, we neglected to answer the question. Answer: “The Italian wild card for the Next Gen ATP Finals was determined by the Italian Tennis Federation through a playoff tournament last weekend featuring the top 21-under players in the country. Quinzi won the tournament to qualify for the Next Gen ATP Finals.”

Hey Jon, is it just me or has the level of the ATP been extremely poor this year relative to recent years? Djokovic barely played all year and is still 10th in the race. Tsonga played at a pretty low level through the first half of the year and has still managed to win a career-high four titles in a year.
—Vivek, Houston

• This has been a strange year. The two top dogs to start the year (Djokovic and Murray) are beset by injuries and spiritual fatigue, we’ll call it, and pull up in the breakdown lane missing half the season and finishing outside the top ten. Same for the guy (Wawrinka) who won the last Slam of 2016. And the two new top dogs—really the two old top dogs—Federer and Nadal not only win, but win everything in sight practically. Four majors. More than half the TMS shields. That doesn’t leave a lot for the rest of the field.

No slight to Sascha Zverev, a future star and champion. But not once did he reach the second week of a major. And he is No. 3 in the world right now.

As for the tennis quality itself, this is always subject to debate. Are there more home runs because hitters are great? Or pitchers stink? Are they scoring more points because offenses are—to use a cloying, voguish word—dynamic? Or because defenses are porous? I’ve generally enjoyed the tennis year, both men’s and women’s, neither less than nor more than previous years.

But... "feel" is a verb that explains a state of mind or condition of body -- and it takes an adjective after it (eg. "I feel happy." "Jon feels cold.") Well, in this context, is an adjective (which means "of good health"), which makes the sentence "I don't feel well." perfectly correct. 

• Not sure what to make of it, but grammar was a hot topic this week. Here’s Skip: As long as Sung was allowed to lodge a linguistic complaint, I’d like to award my own tennis Golden Raspberry:

Can we please dispense with the phrase, “take time away,” as in “he took time away from his opponent with that shot”? You can’t take something away from someone if they don’t have it to begin with, and the only time your opponent has is what you give them. There’s nothing wrong or misleading about the older expression of the same idea—“he rushed the other guy”—and it illustrates what happened in a much more accurate way. Rant over.

And here comes Ivan H of Barcelona: Howdy Jon, I have a bone to pick with the bone that Sung from Washington, N.J. wants to pick.....He/she complains about the degradation of adverbs in English, but overlooks the fact that we use MANY adverbs without the "ly" at the end. Some examples: "Get home safe." "I was driving fast." "This pizza is real good." "You work too hard." (This last example is extra interesting because "hardly" has a totally different meaning.) Merriam Webster even has a little video on this topic. Changes like this are not deterioration of a language, merely evolution.

Shots, Miscellany

• Defending singles champion Steve Johnson and six time doubles champions Bob and Mike Bryan will return to River Oaks Country Club for the 2018 Fayez Sarofim & Co. U.S. Men’s Clay Court Championship which will take place April 7-15.

• Who’s in the market for a new tennis book?

• The USTA today announced that the U.S. Cellular Arena in Asheville, N.C., has been selected as the site for the 2018 Fed Cup by BNP Paribas World Group first round between the United States and the Netherlands, Feb. 10-11. Fed Cup is the world’s largest annual international team competition in women’s sport, with approximately 100 nations taking part each year.

• Argentine duo Gabriela Sabatini and David Nalbandian will represent tennis as Athlete Role Models at the third Youth Olympic Games (YOG) to be held in Buenos Aires on Oct. 6-18, 2018.

• In recognition of their lengthy and steadfast support of the International Tennis Hall of Fame, Hope (Happy) van Beuren and Christopher Clouser have been appointed Life Trustees of the organization.

• For the fourth consecutive year, the BNP Paribas Open—held annually at the Indian Wells Tennis Garden—has been voted the ATP World Tour Masters 1000 Tournament of the Year, as determined by player vote. 

•  The Club at Ibis is pleased to announce that Jay Berger—who coached the U.S. Olympic and Davis Cup teams and was ranked as high as No. 7 in the world—has been named to the newly-created job as Director of Tennis Instruction. Berger’s hiring gives The Club at Ibis the distinction of being the only major country club in the U.S. to have a director of golf instruction and a director of tennis instruction.

• Jason of Calgary has this week’s reader rant: Hi Jon,I’ve really been struggling with how I feel about the Next Gen Finals and the “innovations” that it’s espousing as not only cutting edge, but a harbinger of what is to come for tennis. On one hand, innovation is essential. I can’t imagine tennis surviving without James Van Allen and his tiebreak. Further, there appear to be several facets of tennis that if not in dire need of change, most certainly merit reconsideration in thespirit of fairness and to ensure longevity of players (e.g., the schedule, five-set tennis, fifth set no tiebreak, electronic line calling for all courts and all points, a serve clock, etc.). However, what is being done in Milan represents a fundamental reconsideration of what tennis is. Coaching, no-ad scoring, games capped at 5, etc. change what tennis is: a sport requiring speed and endurance, a strong game plan and the ability to abandon that plan for a next-best-thing when it isn't working, the ability to recognize this on your own, and the ability to not get down when you get down a break at 3 all.

The idea that having "more big points" makes for more exciting tennis seems like an idea conjured up in a boardroom. The reason that movies aren't "all action" is because the emotion evoked during the action sequences is greater due to the inclusion of other "plot points." Being broken at 1-2 is now basically the end of the set. It prevents the excitement of a comeback from 1-4, and although I don't have stats in front of me, I can't imagine that this is an uncommon occurrence unless you're playing John Isner. 

The notion that tennis is in need of all of these innovations also seems like it was dreamed up in a boardroom by a marketing division composed of people who believe they have a finger on the pulse of Millennials (don't even get me started on the geniuses who "innovated" the draw ceremony). By shortening the games, sets, and matches, it is assumed that people who have their attention easily drawn to other things will "stay tuned" throughout the match. I don't think people watch tennis—at least I know I don't watch tennis—because the match will be over soon. I watch it because, for whatever reason, I develop a connection to a player (or a dislike for one). This emotional connection, along with a love for a game I wish I played better, is the reason I watch. And unless it's 70-68 in the fifth, I don't care how long it lasts. In fact, one could argue that because the game is shortened, there are actually fewer truly "big" moments. Someone would have to prove to me that less tennis equals more viewers. This seems difficult when attendance records continue to be broken at many tournaments. 

I guess I'm not so much unsure about how I feel about this tournament as I am hopeful that leveler heads will prevail: some of the rule changes and innovations should be considered, but the game should be preserved. If the CEO of Coca-Cola in the mid-80's is still alive, I'm sure he/she would be happy to consult on the virtues of not tinkering with something that does not need tinkering with.