In February TIAUK News reported on how Tennis Australia had implemented a new format called Fast4, aimed at speeding up the game without fundamentally changing playing style. In January Roger Federer and Lleyton Hewitt played in an exhibition match in Sydney, Australia, that was viewed on TV by 2.4 million people and 10 months later Fast4 has now been piloted by the LTA in some of its junior competitions.
Keith Carder, Competition Support Lead at the LTA, explained that they were looking into new formats for competition at the same time that Tennis Australia announced the roll out of Fast4. “We spent a lot of time doing research around junior competition, looking at why people were playing and equally why people had dropped out,” he said. “We also had discussions and catch ups with some of the guys from Tennis Australia. We were quite aware of what they were doing with Fast4 and really two things came together. Fast 4 was a really nice fit for what we wanted to do.”
Fast4 differs from traditional match play in several key areas. Sets are played the first to four games, with a tiebreak at 3-3. There is no ad scoring and lets are played. This autumn the LTA have piloted the programme in the junior Winter County Tour competition. All Grade 4 and 5 competitions from September 2015 were played in the Fast4 format.
“We trained all the referees on it in August and early September,” Carder said. This involved getting referees for 205 venues to understand the format so that it could be implemented in 2610 tournaments.
It is early days in terms of making decisions about where the format may be used in future. But there are a few standout items from the LTA’s research and feedback so far.
“The hardest thing for the players to get used to from the rules is the play lets rule. Other rules like sudden death deuce have been used in competition format before but the play lets rule is new to juniors. It’s really good for recreational players as the one of the biggest benefits is quick matches. Not all the feedback is positive though as some aspiring performance players would prefer to have longer matches.”
However, the fact that tournament entries between September and October 2015 have increased by 1300 compared to the same period last year suggests the format is attractive.
“The format allows our tournament organisers to take more players. Previously they could only take eight kids, because they could only play three matches a day in that format, now they can take up to 16 players – that’s a plus because it gives more kids the opportunity to play,” Carder said. “Previously there may have been kids sitting on the reserve list, who didn't get the chance to play, particularly in London and the South East where there is a large player base, so for us that’s a huge positive for us to get more juniors on court.”
Some clubs have already embraced it themselves for things like club championships and club box leagues. “I was recently at a university where they had used it for their freshers’ trials,” Carder said. “The format is naturally gathering pace.
“Next year the LTA are going to use the scoring format in a number of competitions including adding a Tier 3 to the AEGON British Tour. The logic is that we know there are good players out there who have full-time jobs but would still like to have really good matches. They can’t take time off work to go and play Tier 1 or 2 but they could go and play at their local club for one day.”
The LTA are currently sourcing around 30 venues to host the new level competition after which there will be an official announcement.
Although there are no immediate plans to host a high-profile event like Tennis Australia did in 2015 - and will again in 2016 with the recent announcement that Rafael Nadal will play in Sydney on January 11 in a Fast4 event - Carder says he wouldn't rule out at some point harnessing the power of top level players to raise the profile of what is looking like a popular new format for British tennis.
“It’s early days, but we are keen to continue with the format and that is why we are using it in the Winter County Tour, the new British Tour Tier 3 and certain other competitions in 2016,” he said. “It is definitely seen as a positive scoring format.”