For: “Tennis should not only think about its past”
The big bad Djokovic dared to speak of a revolution for the format of Grand Slam matches for men. We fall on him. I find that unfair in substance and form. Novak Djokovic just gave his opinion by answering a question. The first question at his press conference focused on the tennis of tomorrow, a subject he often talks about. Why Djokovic? Because it is relevant to the subject. He opens doors that others dare not open.
The world No. 1 has never cried out for change out loud. He only repeated an opinion that he has been defending for a while. He had already said these words in 2018. He thinks of the future, instead of constantly looking in his mirrors. It starts from a simple principle and asks several questions: what sport will we offer in the future? Are the players robots capable of supporting an entire season with different formats without paying the price? Who is the audience going to watch tennis tomorrow when some players are gone?
Djokovic and Nadal exhausted after the final of the 2012 Australian Open, five hours and fifty-three minutes long.
Credit: Getty Images
Patrick Mouratoglou asked himself the same questions a few months ago. And on an original basic idea, he created a new tournament format. His UTS was a bit of a video game in some ways, was sometimes difficult to read for the viewer, but we saw some good tennis in a given amount of time. The players enjoyed it, young and old. Changing the rules does not necessarily change the substance.
The Serbian used two important words: “product” and “adaptation”. Professional tennis is a product. But it is not savored as before, because our attention span is reduced. We are, for the most part, connected. Our degree of attention to a sporting encounter is no longer the same and, whatever the sport, we like to vary the pleasures on the side. Djokovic just targeted that his habits had changed, and those of the new generations too, especially in 2020 where digital technology has taken on a more central place than ever.
It is his observation: the public – and especially the world – have evolved, and tennis must adapt under penalty of disinterest. His idea is not to erase history, nor to deny it, it is to adapt a sport to modern times. The best method is also the test. ATP has turned it into a battery by setting up the NextGen Masters in 2017 to prepare for tomorrow. Three years later, the world experienced a pandemic. Some novelties are timely (robot call, towels to pick up yourself). Testing is planning. To plan is to anticipate. To anticipate is to show intelligence. Djokovic knows it and understands it.
The other big issue in what the Serbian said about the format of the Major matches concerns the careers of the players and their bodies, which are their working tools. How long will players’ careers be when combining different match lengths? No one can say if the next generation is going to be as strong physically as the three benchmark players of the 21st century, plus a few others.
Their rivals have in any case surrendered at 35-36 years old, worn and destroyed. Juan Martin del Potro, Andy Murray and others paid dearly for longevity and repetition of high intensity efforts even before reaching this age. It is also the time to make this observation: tennis is a violent sport. Playing the best of five sets also means making fractional efforts, whether between two Grand Slam matches, then between two tournaments. For several years. We call it gnawing at your body. Tennis should not get bogged down and only think about its past. He must look straight ahead and think about the next.
Juan Martin del Potro
Credit: Getty Images
Against: “A crime against tennis”
Let us first set aside an argument which has nothing to do there and which Alexander implies from the start (the big bad Djokovic). We would fall on Novak Djokovic not for what he thinks but for what he is: Novak Djokovic. The idea of ”Djokovic said this and you are against it because he is the one saying it”. This is already a way of distorting this debate.
On the contrary, we must recognize the world number one, on this subject as on others, to display his opinions and stick to them. Especially since he probably knows that on this point, he will be far from unanimous. Djokovic has every right to believe that the winning three-set format is not the future of tennis (although he has been a big beneficiary of it) and, if his voice carries louder and further than ‘other by his status, he is not the only one to think so.
That being said, I think that in the unbearable Lépine contest for the new rule or the new false good idea that has been shaking up tennis for a few years to save a sport supposedly in danger of death, we are reaching a red line here. Scarlet, even.
Basically, why put the abolition of the three winning sets format back on the table today? Because the experiment of sets in four games, another alternative, made a fiasco during the Masters Next Gen. The vast majority of players who have tasted it were not thrilled. But the obsession with shortening at all costs remains. Consequently, the new culprit, the new devil to fight, is the five-set format. Even in a Grand Slam, it should be eradicated. It would be, and I weigh the word, a crime against tennis.
The distance of the five sets is that which separates the average players from the good players, the good from the very good, the very good from the great and the great from the immense champions. Remove it, and you devalue a Grand Slam victory. No more no less. Not everyone will go on to win a Major overnight (not everyone will win a Masters 1000), but a handful of potential winners, you will dangerously widen the spectrum of contenders. Yes, a Grand Slam title must remain reserved for the elite, with the cream of the crop. Yes, it is a terribly demanding format, physically and mentally. But tennis is, must remain so and it is precisely in these conditions that true, great champions are revealed and that others reach their limits.
Beating Djokovic, Nadal or Federer in two winning sets, if not within everyone’s reach, is a possible challenge for many players. In three, it’s something else. This extra set of effort, focus, struggle, changes everything. Beating Nadal on clay in two winning sets is very complicated. To defeat him in three is almost impossible. This difference is not neutral, and it must be preserved, in order to sanctify the nature of tennis performance and exploit. Going against that is to change the nature of the sport.
The arguments put forward are no more convincing. Young people would no longer be able to concentrate for three or four hours in front of the same show. They would not know how to wait any longer, would have lost the taste for boredom, yet so precious to appreciate the rest. In an excellent paper from our colleague Rémi Bourrières, Gilles Simon said this a year ago: “Soon, we will be asked to play in 40 minutes, like a TV series, on the grounds that ‘young people can no longer stay 3 hours in front of the TV.’ But the spectator, either you give in to his whim, or you educate him. We, it’s been a while since we decided to give in to his whim. And it becomes the circus, at all levels. “He said it all. The culture of” everything, now “is one of the tragedies of our societies and tennis has the temptation to give in to it.
There remains the other argument, that of preserving the health of the players. But a lot has already been done. The matches in three winning sets disappeared with the Davis Cup, and had already been eradicated from the Masters 1000 finals, and even that of the Masters, even if it meant weakening the evocative force and the prestige of the latter (was it really impossible to play two more sets in the final game of the year?). Only the Grand Slam keeps this format. Pity, let’s not touch it. By considering abolishing the five-set format, we are playing with oil above a blaze. Because tennis has no guarantee of winning new aficionados. On the other hand, he has the guarantee of losing the immense part of those who love him. In any case, it will be without me.