About 90 minutes for 5 sets! On the 12th of January in Sydney, Roger Federer and Lleyton Hewitt tested the "Fast4" a new formula with sets in 4 winning games, no-ad, and permission to sit down only between sets. Simple experimentation or real revolution? Knowing that in tennis, testing new things is always popular, but nothing never really changes, there is a good chance that marathon matches still have a bright future ahead.
A real slaughter. To those who haven’t heard of the "Fast4" yet, put tennis into a grinder, take apart its time-outs and peel everything that seems unnecessary. The express formula obtained is then ideal for media and consumers, always in a rush. On the 12th January 2015 in Sydney, it's on a shorten score that Roger Federer dominated Lleyton Hewitt 4-3 2-4 3-4 4-0 4-3 in a test exhibition. This system would benefit surprises and would probably break the hierarchy, but raises many questions: if it becomes impossible to get bored while watching a Robredo/Granollers, can one say that tennis will emerge greater? Could Ivo Karlovic win Wimbledon at 40? Will it lower the prize money? And should we then reduce Grand Slam tournaments to one week? And especially when should we start?
One point was worth 30 dollars
Relax, this is for the time being - let's not forget it - just a test. Which must also please television, demanding accomplice of modern sport. Yes, we have more and more channels, but less and less time. Did you know: TV has already caused the single surgical operation undergone by tennis, to the unusual era of the two games gap. In the late sixties, the breaks were becoming scarce and the scores started to tend towards infinity. In 1969, a year after losing a doubles match in the US which almost broke the scoreboard (26-24 17-19 30-28), the American Charlie Pasarell replayed (and subsequently re-lost) an impossible match, this time on Wimbledon's Central and against the star of the moment, Pancho Gonzales, on the score of 22-24 1-6 16-14 6-3 11-9. 112 games for 5 hours and 12 minutes! If the first round made the front page of every newspaper, he neither played into the hand of the organizers nor those of the BBC.
The first man to re-think tennis in order to make it fit the needs of the small screen is Lamar Hunt, the creator of the questioned WCT parallel circuit, where the public was allowed to scream during the rallies. Wanting noise and rage at every level, the wealthy promoter first tested several times in 1968 matches in straight sets, winners by 31 points. Example in Miami where Butch Buchholz defeated Tony Roche 31-22 31-26. Then came matches in one set of 10 games. And more disconcerting, those with duration set in advance: the winner was simply the one who had won the most points when the buzzer sounded. Curiously, it was already in Sydney, 47 years before Hewitt and Federer, that Tony Roche had beaten Roger Taylor on a basketball score of 96-63, with a prize money based on the number of points won. A winner was then worth between 10 and 30 dollars. It doesn't get more iconoclastic than this!
«I’m close from having a heart attack»
These antics quickly set aside, it was ultimately the old idea of a former American player, James Van Halen, that Lamar Hunt considered: to play, at 6 games all, a great decisive game in 7 winning points during which the opponents alternate services. On the 2nd of February 1970, less than a year after the Pasarell-Gonzales match at Wimbledon, Hunt introduced the concept in Philadelphia against the advices of the International Federation, which sent him a telegram ordering him to comply with the regulation. Overall, the guinea pigs, Laver, Rosewall Newcombe, Ashe, Okker or Santana were hardly convinced "The nervous tension caused by this sudden change in value of the points was too much. I'm close from having a heart attack," laughed Pancho Gonzalez when leaving a match settled on the tiebreak. Its implementation remained wild for a decade, some tournaments deciding to use a tiebreak at 6 games all, other at 8 games all, others choosing the 9 points format, so the first to arrive to 5 points, with a match point for both players in case of tie at 4 all (that is what Federer and Hewitt did in Australia). The situation was standardized in 1978, two years before the tiebreak at 34 points played by John McEnroe and Bjorn Borg at Wimbledon. With this masterpiece, the tiebreak was rightly recognized for what it is: an exceptional thriller. Televised tennis finally seemed to have found its suitable format. It's good, don't touch anything... or at least that's what they thought!
The relative popularity crisis that tennis then crossed in the Pete Sampras era revived the same fad: the matches were still too long! In July 2000, the Futures tournament of Aix-les-Bains served as a laboratory: sets in 4 games, no-ad and even the super tiebreak (deciding game in 10 winning points to replace the decisive sets). Obviously, the experience didn't work very well. So why is this issue that we thought "closed without further action" reappearing now? Probably because the time saved by the tiebreak has since been largely lost because of the natural evolution of the game (higher level thus longer recovery time, untimely use of the towel, etc...) It is not a coincidence after all if 11 of the 20 longest matches in history have been played in the 2000s. Nice paradox: in the wooden rackets' era, "where the ball wasn't moving" may argue the wicked, a match in five sets couldn’t exceed two hours! There would therefore be other solutions, a little less brutal that this "fast4". Re-accelerate certain surfaces for example, or generalize the buzzer in place at the International Tennis Premier League last December, in order to shorten the time-outs between two rallies?