Roger Federer and Rafael Nadal put FAST4 Tennis through its paces

Roger Federer and Rafael Nadal have been putting new format FAST4 Tennis through its paces Down Under

Just a month after one tennis innovation, the International Premier Tennis League, took to the courts, another compact, fast-moving version of the sport is getting a high-profile airing ahead of the Australian Open. And it does not get more high profile than Roger Federer and Rafael Nadal.

Both innovative forms aim to bring tennis to a wider audience. With rules designed to shorten matches, games, and even points, they hope that more people will find the time to watch—live or recorded—and take part.

The IPTL brought together mixed teams of men’s and women’s stars with former champions, each team attached to a city identified as having potential in the tennis market: Singapore, Manila, Delhi among them. But it focused on tennis as spectator sport, played by top names keen to soak up a team vibe during their off season.

FAST 4, however, is more motivated by getting people playing tennis. According to its website, Tennis Australia has developed the concept “with the time-crunched player in mind, [so] that anyone, anywhere has time for tennis.”

It’s also seen as a great starting point for kids, and there are already some trial tournaments around Australia. But to really give the concept some impetus, it needed a big stage and big PR. So it was something of a coup to draw Federer to Sydney the day after winning Brisbane and before the Australian Open in Melbourne.

But invited by friend and fellow 33-year-old Lleyton Hewitt, that is just what happened: And it turned into media gold.

The match itself was preluded by an alarming speedboat stunt across Sydney Harbour that involved each player attempting to rally between their respective launches. The contest was concluded with a half-hour ‘fireside chat’ as the two men, still dripping in sweat, joked, reminisced and turned up the charm for the packed arena.

The fans loved it, but then any contest that brings these two old rivals together, in short-format or in the full Grand Slam best-of-five version, is a guaranteed winner. And Federer and Hewitt certainly put plenty into it, producing some spectacular rallies in a match that, for what it’s worth, was edged by Federer.

But after racing down to Sydney, playing on boats, hitting in front of the Opera House, sparkling for an hour and a half of no-break tennis, and taking part in two half-hour press sessions, it was perhaps no surprise that the Swiss admitted to feeling sore. He was, he said, now heading back to join his family in Melbourne for a few days off.

But what did he think of the format? “I thought it was very interesting. Definitely a fast pace… I thought it was exciting. I see a future in the junior game at least, and trying to promote the game of course, and hope that more kids pick up a racket and play tennis…

“In terms of the rules, who knows where it is going, but they have been there a very long time. Is there a future for it? We’ve tried the let thing in the Futures—didn’t go down that well with the guys—the no-ad we have in the doubles, and the tie-break, I feel like that is over in a hurry.

“The beauty of our game sometimes is not knowing if you’re going to be on court for 45 minutes or three hours. I know sometimes that’s hard for TV because in soccer and other sports you know exactly how long you are going to be playing…

“That mentally is just good to know… could possibly keep guys in the game a little bit longer, but I still believe in the future we’ll see plenty of best-of-five-set matches. Or a tough best-of-three-sets match, five days in a row—at the end of the day, you’ve just got to be able to back those up time and time again if you want to be at the top.”

So a cautious response from the man who, until last summer, held the influential role of President of the ATP Player Council. His views on changes affecting the fundamental rules of tennis have invariably been just as cautious, and such is his standing in the game that his voice will still be an influential one.

Which makes it all the more interesting to hear Nadal’s views after he has had a chance to play the new format. His stage will be the newly-transformed Margaret Court Arena in Melbourne on Wednesday, when he takes on fellow Spaniard Fernando Verdasco.

Will the pace tax the slower rhythm of Nadal more than the naturally-fast Federer and Hewitt? Or will the shortened format appeal to Nadal’s concerns over the physical demands of the modern game?

His views are sure to be, like Federer’s ‘interesting’.

How does Fast4 work?

Sets are won when one player reaches four games, rather than the usual six or seven. Players are not allowed to sit down between changes of ends, and one game must resume within 60 seconds of the previous one finishing (90 seconds between sets).

Several other innovations are similar to those adopted by the IPTL:

• Lets on serve are played

• At deuce, a PowerPoint replaces Advantage, with the receiving player deciding which side to receive

• At 3-3, there is a tie-breaker, with the first to five winning the set (and a PowerPoint if level at four points each)

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