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Shorter or longer tennis matches: what’s the right balance?

The Fast4 match format was used for this year’s Hopman Cup mixed doubles events. AAP/Tony McDonough

The first week of the 2017 tennis season saw the much-anticipated returns of several of the sport’s biggest names, such as Roger Federer, Rafael Nadal and Serena Williams.

Another debut that received less attention was the introduction of the Fast4 match format at this year’s Hopman Cup, where it was used for the mixed doubles events. This was the format’s first appearance at an International Tennis Federation (ITF)-sanctioned event.

Fast4 is specifically designed to make matches quicker and more exciting. The format gets its name from the four rules that distinguish it most from the way a standard tennis set is played:

  • no lets;

  • no advantage points;

  • the first to four points wins the game; and

  • the first to four games wins the set, with a first-to-five-point tiebreak played if the score reaches three-games-all in a set.

Tennis Australia introduced the format and trialled it at club level throughout Australia in 2014. Could the broader adoption of Fast4 at the professional level prevent the rising trends in match durations?

How could it shorten match length?

Fast4’s official debut comes at a time when tennis’ governing bodies are expressing a growing interest in shorter match formats in the professional game.

In addition to Fast4’s emergence, Women’s Tennis Association CEO Steve Simon has hinted at the possibility of “progressive” change in match formats on the women’s tour in the near future.

For a sport that hasn’t had a significant change in singles format since the ITF adopted the tiebreaker in 1971, tennis’ governing bodies are under growing pressure to innovate matchplay and curb the trends in match lengths that have added an average of 44 hours to the length of singles play at Grand Slam matches in the past decade.

In the recent era, tennis has seen a major shift in the style of play. It has transitioned from the fast-paced serve-and-volley play of the 1980s and 1990s to baseline play, where rallies are longer and fewer points are played at the net. This change, combined with the growing depth of the tour, has led to increased match lengths.

The 11-hour John Isner-Nicolas Mahut marathon at Wimbledon in 2010 was an outlier in any era, but much less so today than 20 years ago.

The final points of the 11-hour Isner-Mahut match from 2010.

Of the 13 mixed doubles matches played at this year’s Hopman Cup, the average match length was 45 minutes. The longest match was still a speedy 74 minutes. But this is too small and select a group of matches to infer how Fast4 would alter the tour if used more broadly in singles and doubles events.

My colleagues and I in Tennis Australia’s Game Insight Group have developed statistical models to understand precisely how alternative match formats, like Fast4, would impact the sport.

Our estimates show the average best-of-three-set Fast4 singles match would last less than 60 minutes. This would make it 30 minutes shorter than the average for a standard best-of-three match and 100 minutes shorter than the average best-of-five match. The best-of-three Fast4 format would also make the chance of a match duration of more than 90 minutes statistically improbable.

Author provided/The Conversation, CC BY-ND

Could it make tennis more unpredictable?

Recent discussions of new formats have focused almost exclusively on how they could change the duration of play. This has overlooked a critical aspect of a format’s impact: how it might change the uncertainty involved in match outcomes.

When players have to do less to win, it becomes easier for the underdog to hit a decisive lucky streak.

The best-of-five format gives more consistent results than the shorter, best-of-three formats. Our analysis shows a stronger opponent is 50% more likely to be upset in a best-of-three match than a best-of-five match.

This is already a massive difference. But it pales in comparison to the upset frequency with Fast4, which would cause a more than two-fold increase in the likelihood that the better player would lose the match.

But would it necessarily be a bad thing if luck became a greater factor in professional tennis?

Wide adoption of shorter, less-predictable matches would make it more difficult for the stars of the game to maintain their consistency and for rivalries at the top to flourish. However, quicker matches would make every point more exciting, help fans engage in more matches and introducing them to more players than traditional formats.

When considering the future of match formats in tennis, governing bodies will have to weigh these pros and cons to determine the balance between change and tradition that will be optimal for the sport.

Next week’s Australian Open, the first Grand Slam of the season, has contributed some of tennis’ longest matches in recent years. If that trend continues, the sport’s stakeholders may find the time they have to grapple with the question of new match formats is running out.

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