Three years in the making, Fast4Tennis, a new shortened format of the game, was officially launched by Tennis Australia in January.
With the eyes of the tennis world on Australia, two of the sport’s biggest stars, Roger Federer and Rafael Nadal, helped showcase the new format to a wider audience.
A week before the start of the Australian Open, Federer played an exhibition match against Lleyton Hewitt, and two days later Rafael Nadal had the chance to try out the format in Melbourne, where he played Fast4 matches against Fernando Verdasco and Mark Philippoussis.
The aim of Fast4 is to remain true to the traditional game of tennis but to make matches shorter. It is built on four key changes to the game – each set is won by the first player to win four games (with a best-of-nine-point tiebreak at 3-3), there is no let, and no advantage.
The Australian Open legends’ event was played in the new format, and 140,000 Australian youngsters already play Fast4 as part of the ANZ Hot Shots programme.
Tennis Australia is working with schools to include tennis as part of the curriculum. Clubs are being encouraged to offer Fast4, which is also used across the country in the semi-professional Asia Pacific Tennis League.
The format particularly appeals to people who have big demands on their time. Craig Morris, Tennis Australia’s Director of Participation, says that consumer research shows that junior competition needs to be time-friendly, that families like to spend weekends together, and that even for midweek competitions time is a consideration for both adults and children.
“None of the four rules are world-shattering,” Morris said. “I think when we first rolled it out people were expecting it to be really different and it wasn’t. But it’s deliberate - we didn't want it to be different. It’s just a shortened format.
“We were always conscious of not creating a gimmick that wasn’t sustainable. The ATP already play a sudden-death deuce in doubles, the UCLA in America already play lets and the idea of a four-game set has been around for a long time.
“The feedback has been really positive. We don’t want to replace traditional tennis. We want it to complement traditional tennis.”
Comparisons have been made with the Twenty20 format in cricket, but, Morris points out a key difference.
“Unlike cricket, which has taken criticism around T20 as it changes the way kids learn, Fast4 doesn’t do that,” he said. “You don't have to change the way you strike a ball. The fundamentals are the same”.
Tennis Australia has trademarked the name Fast4Tennis but Morris hopes the concept will catch on globally.
“What’s important for the sport globally is that it would be nice to have some consistency of name and rules,” he said. “We would love globally people to say: ‘This Fast4 tennis is great.’ But let's get some consistency and some global momentum through this format. Who cares where it has come from? It’s good for tennis.”