Down the line: The ATP Next Gen Finals and the future of men’s tennis

Men’s tennis has enjoyed one of its greatest ever decades but as time catches up with its superstars, the future is a present concern. The ATP Next Gen Finals in Milan gave a glimpse of what may be to come, on and off the court.

Down the line: The ATP Next Gen Finals and the future of men’s tennis

The future can come at you quicker than you think.

“I started the event in London, at The O2, and that aged me about ten years in the two years’ preparation,” says Chris Kermode, the executive chairman of tennis’ ATP. “This has been the same.”

It is early November in Milan and Kermode is sitting at a neon-lit dinner table beside a warm-up court installed as part of a temporary venue at the Fiera Milano, a convention centre more accustomed to hosting trade fairs.

This is the first day of the ATP Next Gen Finals, an expo of a kind for the sport of tomorrow – another set of players, and another way of playing. It is now the first of two season-ending competitions on the ATP World Tour, alongside the ATP Finals – the event in London to which Kermode refers, now an annual staple in the British capital.

For the past decade, the world’s best players have met in mid-November at AEG’s ‘event tent’ – once the Millennium Dome, offering its own vision for the future – for a week that has comprehensively updated the experience of watching tennis through a polished combination of high-end audio-visual production and dynamic staging.

And these, of course, have been auspicious times indeed for men’s tennis in general. The ‘Big Four’ of Roger Federer, Rafael Nadal, Novak Djokovic and Andy Murray have formed the core of what Kermode calls the “greatest generation of players ever”. Those stars have burned longer than many expected: Nadal and Federer shared the Grand Slams for the fifth time this year, but the first time in seven years.

That longevity has been an unexpected blessing but, for many fans, it makes the thought of a tennis world beyond them harder to envisage, and the comfort blanket of their celebrity becomes that bit more alluring. As Kermode speaks in Italy, Glasgow’s SSE Arena is preparing for a sell-out exhibition match between Murray and Federer that will end with the former in a novelty wig and the latter in a kilt.

For some time, then, it has been a priority for the tour to create some exposure for the tour’s budding talents, out of the shadows of those deep-rooted giants. The concept of a tournament for the top eight players aged under 21 – established on the circuit, but perhaps not in the minds of casual fans – has been drifting around for a while. Now, with a purse of US$1.275 million on offer, those young prospects are excited by their chance to break into the light.

“I cannot stress how much buy-in they’ve had for this event,” says Kermode. “This is the end of a season where, normally, players are quite tired – they’re on their last legs. And they are so pumped to be here – I mean genuinely excited – and they backed me 100 per cent on all this stuff.”

But in the process of putting the new concept together, the ATP leadership have been contemplating the future of tennis in an entirely different way. 

“A lot of these kids are 18, 19 years old, and my youngest son is 19, and I see how he views entertainment,” says Kermode. “It’s not how I did – the conventional destination TV. My girls are in their 20s: they don’t have a TV in their apartment, they’re watching everything on iPads and phones. That next generation of fans is the one that this is all about, actually.

“We keep talking about the next generation of players but the next generation of fans – all sport is going to have to be ready for this change of generation. A generation that’s never been used to paying for content, on any level. They’ve never paid for a Sky subscription. They’ve never paid for music – everything’s downloaded free. And that’s the culture. So now suddenly, part of the sports business model is TV rights and it’s all changing, how they’re going to consume and watch our products.

I think we should be looking at it now, rather than in five years’ time.

“Also, I just think there is no way that when these kids get into their 30s in ten years’ time, I just don’t believe that they will be watching a six-hour product. I just don’t see that that is going to happen. We’ll be fine if we make no changes at all for the next five years, probably, but change will happen and I want to do it from a position of strength, now, because in all the numbers in terms of people coming to watch tennis, or the TV numbers, or the on-site numbers or commercial revenues, we’re in the best place we’ve ever been. So this is the time we need to test it rather than maybe doing it when it starts to plateau or go down in five or ten years’ time, and then you make very rash decisions or panic about what you should do. I think we should be looking at it now, rather than in five years’ time.”

In considering those two generational shifts together, Kermode reached an epiphany.

“With this event here,” he recalls, “when I was first mentioning it to people – host cities, broadcasters, sponsors – they were sort of thinking it may be a junior tennis tournament. And I said, ‘No, no! These guys are already here – they’re in the top 50 – and we need to start putting the next generation on a stage to promote them.’ And there was still limited buy-in, to be honest.

“Then when I changed the focus on to ‘this is where we will test-case innovation’, that’s where companies like Amazon and Red Bull went: ‘OK, now you’re talking. This is becoming very interesting.’”

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Fans enjoy the activities available at the Fiera Milano

Fans enter from the lobbies of the Fiera Milano down a darkened corridor, with the players’ images towering over one side and full-length mirrors lining the other. From there, they enter a strip-lit tennis miniverse, built inside ten days. The scale and sheen may not match that of The O2 or a Grand Slam, but there is plenty to keep visitors occupied. 

A cavernous hall has been divided into three different sections. One end is dedicated to fans, the far end to media and partners, with a warm-up court in each. The playing court is sited in a modular arena in the centre. Above, hanging from the ceiling, lines of red lighting mark out a giant tennis court to draw the whole area together. It is a concept that has been developed in collaboration with the ATP’s hosting partner, the Italian Tennis Federation (FIT). 

Visitors mingle near one of the warm-up courts in the exhibition area, where they can eat, play table tennis and tennis challenge games in pop-up booths, or shop for equipment from suppliers like Babolat and Head. Lead sponsor Peugeot is showing off one of its latest vehicles; broadcaster Super Tennis has set up its studio here. Spotlights swirl around one installation showcasing VR technology; two others, shaped like giant hollowed-out tennis balls, give users a chance to find out more about leading players in an interactive experience.

The mood is convivial and the crowds are young: the number of families in attendance only throws the ATP’s mortification at a misjudged pre-event draw, involving fashion models and distressed boundaries, into sharper relief. And the most significant innovations are on the court, where the work of creating a version of tennis that might appeal to these new fans has begun.

Sport is very good at hiding in rooms and talking about it, and not doing anything about it.

Matches at the ATP Next Gen Finals are played to five sets but each set is won by the first player to four games, with tiebreaks at 3-3. There is a 25-second shot clock. No advantage is played at 40-40. And no lets are called on serve when the ball lands in. The general impetus of these changes is not solely to cut the playing time – a five-set match still runs to a couple of hours, or roughly the same length as a conventional three-setter. More important is eliminating common lulls in the game, making more points count and keeping the intensity high.

“In terms of the rule changes, I think it’s just that this is the perfect platform to try things,” says Kermode. “I’ve been in the game a long time and people have talked about different scoring formats, no lets, no advantage, all of this stuff for years. And sport is very good at hiding in rooms and talking about it, and not doing anything about it.”

The updates are the main talking point for those attending and the organisers know it. Explainer cards are circulated in the press area while regular videos, some of them featuring the eight players involved, are played on screens by the main court and beyond.

This modified version of tennis will be played in a reconceptualised arena. The court, like the match, has been tapered – with no doubles tournament here, there is no need for tramlines. Spectators sit round three sides of the court with one end – opposite the broadcast production and commentary suites – reserved for a striking hospitality suite modelled on Milan’s La Scala opera house.

Dramatic lighting and staging effects add an element of polish to proceedings and elevate the status of the players

After such a successful spell in London, the ATP has insisted on retaining the services of Wasserman Experience to run the production. Some of the colourways have been adapted but many of the cues and flourishes will be familiar to those who have watched the ATP Finals, from the stings that accompany break point and match point – and, at 40-40 in this tournament, deciding point – to the heartbeat motif that denotes the most intense moments of the day. 

According to George Ciz, the ATP senior vice president of marketing and business development, the organisers “don’t want to do one unbelievable thing, but lots of little things” that build into something truly impressive. 200 video clips have been created for use here, from season highlights to the aforementioned explainers, introductions to the players’ lives and behind-the-scenes footage. Periodically, Roger Federer and his cohorts appear on screen to extol the virtues of the young pretenders on show.

Two ATP cameramen are also on site throughout, along with two editors and a producer, to turn around six additional one-minute video pieces and six two-minute pieces a day from the tournament. Those are aired around the arena, and also fed into the tour’s digital and social media channels.

There are 12 digital surfaces in the arena, along with the tablet computers provided by partner Red Bull for players to access statistics during matches. The energy drinks giant is a relative newcomer to tennis sponsorship but has made its presence felt here. It has provided a DJ, who takes up residence below the hospitality stand and spins tracks during breaks in play. At courtside, Red Bull also has branding on the players’ benches. These come replete with fridges full of the caffeinated product, with a guitar rack to serve as storage for spare rackets.

Red Bull provided a DJ to play tunes during breaks in the action

Elements of the player entrances have been ported over from London but here, too, there are tweaks and updates which are designed, Ciz says, to generate “more build-up” and “more atmosphere”. The walk-ins serve as an invaluable stage for the players, too. While many of them hover around the world’s top 50, only a handful will be familiar to a less than committed follower of the sport.

At the start of the season, the ATP conducted a photoshoot with 122 of its leading players at the first Grand Slam of the year in Melbourne. A follow-up took place at the US Open in New York with those in Next Gen contention, and the result is that giant banners hang from all areas of the Fiera Milano bearing the images of the eight youngsters involved: Andrey Rublev, Karen Khachanov and Daniil Medvedev of Russia, Canada’s Denis Shapovalov, Borna Ćorić of Croatia, American Jared Donaldson, Chung Hyeon of South Korea, and Italian wildcard Gianluigi Quinzi, ranked 200 places below his nearest rival. 

The year’s best under-21, Alexander Zverev of Germany, has qualified for the following week’s ATP Finals, but he does make an appearance for an exhibition game on the opening night in a clear bestowment of imminent star status.

Each player’s entry begins in a backstage gym, where they await their call – countdown clocks follow the tournament’s every set-piece – as the camera tracks them through some late stretches. From there, they walk to a corridor just outside the show court, the lower-ranked player standing on a mark a few strides ahead of his opponent. The lights dim, and the two players are beckoned into the arena with no little fanfare.

The lights draw down on the court as the players complete a shortened warm-up. When they meet at the net for the toss, the sound of the coin hitting the hard surface echoes throughout the arena. That, Ciz explains, is a legacy of ATP advisor and broadcast pioneer David Hill, who suggested the production team beef up their audio output to better capture the impact of heavy shots.

The pageantry all bears a more than passing resemblance to the pre-fight formalities in professional boxing, and there is another aspect at the Next Gen Finals that carries traces of the ring. Between games, players are allowed to talk to their coaches on radio headsets, with the conversations conveyed to the audience at home in the same way as those between boxers and their corner.

As play starts, there is one more striking difference to take in. The players are there, along with the umpire and the ball boys and ball girls, but there are no line judges. Hawk-Eye, which has provided its officiating aids to elite tennis for a decade, is implementing its automated Hawk-Eye Live line-calling programme here. The system has been made possible by advances made through the development of goal-line technology in soccer, and tested at ATP events throughout the year.

Close calls are flashed up on the video screens and courtside LED boards when the ball hits or just misses the line, as if to reassure spectators that the system is paying attention. Yet when a ball goes wide early in the first match between Khachanov and Medvedev, there is an unmistakeably male shout.

“During the testing we tried a considerable amount of different options,” says Hawk-Eye Innovations head of tennis Sam Green. “We tried the likes of a beep or a buzzer, something that’s more electronic, but it just felt right with a human voice. And I think a lot of this is how it feels, rather than the technology which we know is doing its job. The key thing is that it feels right for the players, and for the officials, and for the crowd. So that’s where the human voice came into things.”

Even in the future, there is sometimes call for familiarity.

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With the Hawk-Eye Live system in place, the tournament was played with no line judges

“We’re here in Milan for five years, and I think each year we will tweak elements from asking all the people involved in tennis,” says Kermode. “We’ll tweak various ideas, and maybe we’ll drop some or make some ideas stronger and develop them more. There’ll be a long-term discussion about it and I think what’s great about it is that there will be mixed opinion, and mixed opinion produces dialogue, which is good. It produces noise around tennis, which is good.”

Some of the experiments will prove more fruitful than others. Hawk-Eye is pushing to roll out its live system across more tournaments – and more courts at each tournament – with Green suggesting this will help players “because they’re getting the most accurate calls all the time”. Tennis Australia, meanwhile, confirms in November that it will introduce its own version of the shot-clock for the Australian Open in 2018.

But other innovations may have further to travel. Medvedev is among the players to express some discomfort with the idea of allowing fans to circulate during games, rather than waiting outside the court for breaks in play. And while Kermode is an advocate for four-game sets, believing they cut through the baggy, by the numbers passages that often characterise the opening exchanges, he accepts that it will be some time before they are seriously considered elsewhere.

Still, the format here has generated interest. As Kermode suggests, it has captured the attention not only of Red Bull but also of Amazon Prime Video. The OTT subscription service is making its debut as a tennis broadcaster here, after taking the global rights, excluding China, to show the tournament live. Its influence is also heavily felt here, with players involved in a press conference launch on the Monday evening before play and branding peppering the Fiera Milano. 

That two-year deal, confirmed in September, marks only the start of the tech giant’s commitment to the sport. Confirmation later comes of a five-year deal for the live and on-demand UK rights to the full ATP World Tour from 2019, with coverage of the Queen’s Club Championships and the Eastbourne International to begin next year, while the tour’s own Tennis TV outlet will be carried on the Amazon Channels platform in the US.

Kermode sees room for both Amazon and the traditional broadcast players in the ATP’s future but he makes no attempt to contain his excitement about the company’s involvement. 

“It’s not just about getting the revenue in,” he says, “which is always helpful to keep the business model going. It’s also about whether they are partners who want to really get into the sport, to market the sport and get behind it properly. The first signs are that they’ve been incredible. I mean, they’re really receptive to getting behind us in a big way, and that’s just as important to me as the financials.”

It’s not just about getting the revenue in. It’s also about whether they are partners who want to really get into the sport, to market the sport and get behind it properly.

Just as this tournament has been about the next generation of fans and players, it is also about the next commercial steps for the ATP. Kermode believes that the format changes have altered the profile of the event, bringing a new breed of partner into play for the first time.

“Tennis has historically had sponsors from very traditional categories and this was an opportunity to explore newer companies, startup companies, millennial companies, and they’ve shown huge support,” he says.

The end of the season is a punishing spell for the ATP staff, the core of whom, Ciz reveals, have been working 12-hour days since September. The team in Milan leave for London on Sunday morning, soon after Chung Hyeon beats Rublev to become the first ATP Next Gen Finals champion. In a few weeks, there will be time for reflection on the season, the new innovations, and the scope for marginal gains on and off the court. 

“We’re investing in this,” says Kermode of the ATP’s five-year commitment to its new tournament and the Fiera Milano. “This is not a money-maker by any means. Even if you were in the commercial business of doing an event, it’s probably year three that you start to break even so we’re not trying to claw back money. We’re putting it back into the game in ways that we can engage people to come and watch the sport.”

However subtly, or dramatically, the sport those fans watch tomorrow looks will be different to the one played today.