In an effort to simultaneously reduce match length and increase drama, the Next Gen ATP Finals introduced both no-ad scoring and a 25-second serve clock, and the results have been eye-opening. On Tuesday the average set length was a brisk 24.2 minutes. Of all the innovations implemented in this cutting-edge and futuristic tournament, these two are the most familiar to the average fan.
We’ve seen the serve clock used at many events on tour, including the US Open. But it's tricky: no one can deny the preferential treatment stars receive when taking their sweet time. As long as the umpire exercises consistent situational awareness the serve clock is a non-issue. Most points are over within a handful of shots, and most players won’t take more than 25 seconds after a quick point.
If the player engage in an epic rally, a grueling multi-deuce game, or inspire a massive crowd eruption, the clock should be exercised with caution. It's there to keep a consistent pace, not force some of the already fittest athletes in the world to play exhausted and rushed tennis.
We’ve also seen no-ad scoring on tour, in doubles, since 2006. The goal was to shorten matches, and it did. ATP stats for 2005 showed men’s doubles matches averaging 87.73 minutes; under the new rules in 2006, that fell to an average of 71.51 minutes.
No-ad scoring for singles, however, is something we haven’t seen before at the professional level. While it certainly speeds up the match, it practically eliminates the importance of elite physical fitness. With no-ad scoring you can play a maximum of 14 points before changing ends. The point physicality would need to be Nadal versus Djokovic level for fatigue to come into play.
No-ad scoring does create more break point opportunities, and therefore more “big points.” Hit a great shot at 30-all and you have two break point chances. But if you think no-ad scoring in singles creates more parity or opportunity for the underdog, think again.
The 25-second serve clock was first implemented at the Next Gen ATP Finals in 2017- Getty Images
If you’ve played enough tennis you’ve probably heard it before. “I should have won that match, I just lost all the (expletive) no-ad points,” said the player who would have definitely lost the match regardless of format.
In 2018, Rafael Nadal paced the ATP Tour in percentage of total points won at 55.4% (4281/7728). The great Nadal lost nearly half of all his points. That’s how thin the margins are. If you implement a system that creates more big point opportunities, the better players will capitalize on these big points more often than their opponents. That's why they are better in the first place.
We should absolutely have conversations about how to increase the watchability and marketability of tennis—but if it’s not broken, don’t fix it. No-ad scoring is fun for doubles, and has its place in back-draws and rain-delayed USTA leagues and junior tournaments, but let’s leave the pros alone, and let them win by two.