Perhaps the most telling sign of the wariness with which broadcasters are approaching Fast4 Tennis is the way in which its first official foray into Australia was marketed.
‘One night with Roger Federer and Lleyton Hewitt’.
Needless to say, even to those unfamiliar with tennis folklore, these two names do more than enough to arouse interest and warrant ticket purchases. However, underneath the appeal of the title lies a hesitancy, the absence of the term ‘Fast4’ a subtle acknowledgement that this format most certainly transforms the way in which tennis is played and, more importantly, consumed.
I say more importantly because, as Federer himself stresses, the health of the game is something that outweighs even the greatest of tennis champions. Indeed, it’s the game that will last long after numerous tennis greats have retired, and so its welfare and improvement is of paramount importance.
Thus, experimentation is necessary, and with any criticism there must be an acknowledgement that any attempt to make the game more accessible is one worthwhile, even if it never makes it past the experimentation stage.
Even those most opposed to the Fast4 format would acknowledge its benefits. Viewers with short attention spans (ever-present in today’s fast-paced society) will find themselves more easily transfixed, with every point having enough importance riding on it to warrant viewer attention.
Furthermore, the atmosphere of the game itself is improved, as the high stakes, particularly when considering the ‘Power Point’ (a point played at deuce to decide the winner of that game), allow for crowds to raise the roof on points that may otherwise be a run of the mill, multiple deuce game before someone finally comes out on top.
But, when all is said and done, isn’t that taking away what makes tennis as enthralling as it is now? To reduce sets to first to four, and to implement power points, is to deprive audiences of the slow burn that builds tension with every game, every point, every challenge, and then explodes in the climactic moments. What makes the greatest matches so memorable are the struggles that both players undergo during the battle (2012 Australian Open Final anyone?).
Opt for the Fast4 format, and the pre-requisite for grand slam success – the ability and willingness to push your body to the very limit – becomes irrelevant, and the awe of watching athletes push each other to constantly tinker with and improve their game is stripped from the sport.
There can be no doubt that the Fast4 format is a credit to tennis organisations around the world, as they refuse to rest on their laurels despite tennis’ sharp rise in popularity during this golden age – headed by the Big 4 – we’re privileged enough to witness. However, when it comes down to watching some of the greatest in history go at each other into the early hours of the morning, the mentally and physically challenging format of regular tennis is the clear choice by a country mile.
Continued experimentation with different formats to try and make the game more accessible? No worries at all. However, when considering taking the Fast4 format into the next stage – implementing it into ATP tournaments – I’m not all 4 it.