Tie Break Tens showed that tennis shouldn't be afraid to experiment

by: Steve Tignor | October 24, 2016

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Dominic Thiem was victorious in Vienna. (AP)

“I was nervous,” Dominic Thiem said with a smile in Vienna on Sunday. “I knew I had to get off to a good start.”

This is what happens, it seems, when you begin your race a few feet from the finish line.

Fifteen minutes earlier, Thiem and Jo-Wilfried Tsonga had been tossed onto a court and told to play a 10-point breaker. No chance to get a service hold under their belts. No chance to shank a few shots or lose a few inconsequential points as they found their range. No second chances at all. Things proceeded so rapidly that Thiem and Tsonga had to be reminded to switch sides after six points.

But this was exactly what the afternoon in Vienna was supposed to be about: the shock of the new, the different, the disruptive and, most of all, the fast.

Thiem and Tsonga had joined Andy Murray, Goran Ivanisevic and Wimbledon folk hero Marcus Willis in an event called Tie Break Tens. On the one hand, it was a hit-and-giggle exhibition designed to drum up exposure for this week’s ATP event in Vienna. The players mugged for the crowd and answered questions on court. On the other hand, there was something real at stake: a $250,000 winner-take-all purse. You could understand why Thiem, who hasn’t made a secret of his desire to make money at his job, was a little anxious. But he settled his nerves quickly enough to take home the quarter-million-dollar prize.

There was also, embedded within the event, a philosophy. It was summed up by the slogan on the Tie Break Tens’ marquee: “Every Point Counts.” This might seem obvious, but it really is a change from how tennis is normally scored. Fans of the sport like to say that “some points are bigger than others.” The flip side, of course, is that some points must also be smaller than others. When you look back over the course of a match, you can see that many points—like the ace you hit while you were getting your serve broken—don’t contribute to the final result at all.

This is one of the things that most of us love about tennis: the ebb and flow of long deuce games, which turn into long, back-and-forth sets, which turn into the epic contests we remember—there have already been a couple of them at the WTA Finals in Singapore this week. No one should try to take the sport’s slow-building drama away. But there is a sense right now, as rallies lengthen and four-hour matches become the norm, that the time has come to try to make that drama build a little more quickly.

Tie Break Tens joins a growing list of alternative tennis formats that is trying to cut some of the fat from the sport. The ATP uses 10-point tiebreakers in place of third sets in doubles. Australian officials have introduced the Fast4 system, where games are no-ad and sets go to four. In the U.S., college tennis has eliminated the warm-up, moved to no-ad and reduced doubles matches to pro sets. In 2017, the Laver Cup will challenge the Davis Cup in a once-a-year, single-location format, while the IPTL has brought team tennis to Asia. Perhaps most significantly, new WTA chief Steve Simon has talked about wanting to experiment with shorter formats on his tour.

In the States, the USTA is on a mission to speed things up at the recreational level as well.

“We know people don’t have unlimited hours to play,” Jeff Waters, the USTA’s managing director of adult tennis, told me earlier this year. “Everything happens in a window of time now. We need to shorten up the window for tennis.”

This wish isn’t new. In 1965, James Van Alen introduced his “streamlined scoring system” to the pro game at his tournament in Newport, complete with no-ad scoring, matches that went to 31 points and the tiebreaker. While the players were often confused—and, in Pancho Gonzalez’s case, enraged—the fans at the traditionalist Newport Casino loved the fast pace of play.

“It was exciting,” legendary tennis commentator Bud Collins wrote.

What did Collins like most? The fact that every point counted. And maybe that’s the way it was always meant to be. In its original form, as invented by Walter Wingfield, lawn tennis borrowed its scoring system from badminton, where games went to 15. (It was only when the sport was taken over by the All England Club that the old-court tennis scoring system, with games and sets, was introduced.)

Fifty years later, Van Alen’s tiebreaker remains the only change in that ancient system. Can Tie Break Tens become the basis of a new tennis format? On Sunday, the arena in Vienna was packed, and the crowd was engaged; instead of watching just two players, the fans saw a rotating cast of characters, and the event was wrapped up in one evening. Ivanisevic provided the entertainment, while Murray, a top-level star, provided the legitimacy. I know that many people balk at playing or watching 10-point tiebreakers in place of third sets, but as a spectator I’ve always enjoyed them, especially live. They’re not so short that they feel like blind shootouts, but they’re not so long that they have significant lulls, the way most sets do.

How the Tie Break Tens concept could be used on a regular basis is the next question, and the toughest one. While alternative formats are proliferating, no one has figured out a way to make any of them compete alongside the tried-and-true tournament system. For a time in the ‘70s, it looked like the longest-running alternative format, World TeamTennis, was destined to become the sport’s future. Forty years later, though, the old-guard Grand Slams are stronger than ever, and the one successful innovation during that time, the ATP’s Masters tournaments, is really just a repackaging of the tournament formula.

That formula works, and there’s no reason to change it or challenge it—no player or fan wants to see Wimbledon scrap six-game sets in favor of 10-point tiebreakers. At the same time, that doesn’t mean the game should be scared to experiment; there’s plenty of room for alternatives, both at the recreational and professional levels. And if getting tennis on major TV networks is still the Holy Grail—which it is—an alternative to the four-hour epic will almost certainly be necessary.

While there’s more tennis being streamed and broadcast than ever, the sport doesn’t have a consistent presence on prime-time TV in the States. For now, with its daylong broadcasts from the majors, ESPN has accommodated its coverage to the game. That’s heaven for tennis nuts, but it’s a tough sell in the much shorter window of prime time. Jamie Reynolds, the vice president of production at ESPN, would love to hear ideas for how tennis could squeeze itself in there.

“Do we want to make people sit down and watch two players face off for six hours?” Reynolds asks. “I don’t think that’s ideal … Can we continue to grow the sport in a different format? Absolutely. But nobody’s ready to declare how it should be done.”

Making every point count would be a start.

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