A competitive five-set match, all wrapped up in 90 minutes: Is this just the stuff of a TV scheduler’s dream? Believe it or not, it happened last January, when Roger Federer beat Lleyton Hewitt, 4–3 (5–3), 2–4, 3–4 (3–5), 4–0, 4–2, in Sydney, Australia.

Yes, you read those scores correctly. The number that jumps out is 4, and if the U.S. and Australian tennis federations have their way, we might be seeing more of it. Fast4 is the scoring system Federer and Hewitt helped promote, and it sums up what many officials, instructors, club owners and TV programmers are hoping will happen to tennis. Whether sets are played to four, or deuces and lets are eliminated, or tournaments are finished in a day, the goal is to speed the sport up.

“We know that people don’t have unlimited hours to play,” says Jeff Waters, managing director of adult tennis at the USTA. “Everything happens in a specific window of time now, especially with kids’ schedules and how regimented they’ve become. We need to shorten up the window for tennis.”


After 139 years, games still go to deuce, sets still go to six games and the men still play best-of-five at the majors. Why does tennis stick so stubbornly to its unique, idiosyncratic scoring system? Maybe it’s because, to tennis players, “unique” and “idiosyncratic” are good things.

“People want to feel like they’re playing ‘real tennis,’” says Mike Curran, director of tennis and fitness at the Gulf Harbour Yacht and Country Club in Fort Myers, Fla. “That’s a big barrier to experimenting with new scoring systems.”

Just as crucial, according to Curran, is convincing successful teaching pros to run events with alternative formats. Two years ago, as a member of the USTA’s Adult Competition Committee, Curran was asked to try a few out at his club. He was apprehensive about “rocking the boat.”

“I had my little utopia here, with 27 league teams,” Curran says. “Trying anything new is difficult, especially if the players think it’s a gimmick.”

Curran plunged ahead. He tried tournaments with 10-point tiebreakers and 40-point tiebreakers, but neither caught on. Then, in June 2015, he organized a one-day Fast4 tournament. Curran was stunned when 120 people arrived at his club.

“Is this really something that people are interested in?” an incredulous Curran asked himself. The answer, so far, has been an unequivocal yes.


Full Speed Ahead: How tennis' officials are trying to make a 19th-century game move at a 21st-century pace

Full Speed Ahead: How tennis' officials are trying to make a 19th-century game move at a 21st-century pace

Fast4, which was started by Tennis Australia in 2014, is an attempt to mimic the success that cricket has had with its own shorter-format league, Twenty20. In this format, games are no-ad, sets go to four, tiebreakers go to five (win by one) and let serves are played. Without the ebb and flow that deuce creates, every point moves a match one step closer to the finish line.

“There were some naysayers who thought playing to four wouldn’t be enough,” Curran says. “But when they played five matches in a row in an afternoon, they definitely got enough. And they wanted to come back.”

According to Waters, the USTA wants to “promote creativity” in tennis, especially in how people are introduced to it. Tiebreaker tournaments, timed matches and short-set competitions are all encouraged. With similar goals in mind, the NCAA has recently instituted changes designed to speed up play and reduce the time it takes to watch a dual match. No-ad scoring has been introduced and super-tiebreakers have replaced third sets—even the warm-up has been eliminated.

Timothy Russell, CEO of the Intercollegiate Tennis Association (ITA), says that dual matches, which often lasted four hours or more in the past, are now clocking in closer to the group’s goal of two hours and 30 minutes. He hopes that more rapid-fire play will entice fans to watch college tennis on TV or streaming services.

“The changes have been great,” says Peter Smith, head men’s coach at the University of Southern California. “I love no warm-up. It cuts out a lot of time. No ad has made the matches shorter, but more importantly it makes them more exciting.”

Erica Perkins Jasper, the chief operating officer at the ITA, sees the upside of the condensed game. “With no-ad,” she says, “you figure out pretty quickly which players embrace pressure and which don’t. But the ones who don’t really improve with this format.”

To truly change tennis players’ mindsets, though, Waters knows that college may be too late.

“If we can get kids to play in faster formats,” he says, “they won’t be biased against them when they run into them as juniors and adults.”


Full Speed Ahead: How tennis' officials are trying to make a 19th-century game move at a 21st-century pace

Full Speed Ahead: How tennis' officials are trying to make a 19th-century game move at a 21st-century pace

An alternative world has been growing for the last 15 years in Tucson, Ariz., under the supervision of Jeff Brack, the vice-chair of the USTA’s Local Play & Competition Committee. In 2001, encouraged by a mentor to “let go of traditionalist thinking,” Brack began looking for ways “to get more kids to play more often.”

“The goal was to get them to participate together for 90 minutes, win or lose,” Brack says.

At the same time, he didn’t want to de-emphasize competition. The kids began with timed matches before graduating to four- and six-game sets. Each player was guaranteed three rounds, and draws were non-elimination.

“The atmosphere was totally different from other junior tournaments,” he says. “The kids had more fun, the tennis was friendlier, the sportsmanship improved.”

Brack also says that the shorter matches helped the kids improve by forcing them to focus on every point, right from the beginning. “There’s no time to be a slow starter in this format,” he says. “We have the formula.”

It’s a formula that, both from a playing and a viewing standpoint, has long eluded tennis. This is an era when two players, John Isner and Nicolas Mahut, squared off for 11 hours, and when the four-hour marathon has become standard at the majors.

“Do we want to make people sit down and watch two players face off for 5 hours and 53 minutes?” asks ESPN vice-president of production Jamie Reynolds, referencing the length of the 2012 Australian Open final between Rafael Nadal and Novak Djokovic. “I don’t think that’s ideal.”

For now, with its daylong broadcasts of the majors, ESPN has accommodated its coverage to the sport’s protracted length. That’s heaven for tennis nuts, but it’s a tough sell in the shorter window of prime time.

Maybe in 20 years we’ll see a competitive, entertaining, five-set final all wrapped up in 90 minutes. A TV scheduler can dream.