Next Gen ATP Finals: No Warm-Up Rule Has Everybody Talking

Dominic Stricker at the Next Gen ATP Finals (photo: Peter Staples/ATP Tour)

JEDDAH/WASHINGTON, November 29, 2023 (by Michael Dickens)

As the sixth edition of the Next Gen ATP Finals presented by NEOM got underway in Jeddah, Saudi Arabia on Tuesday, there were a number of innovations and rules being implemented. Among those that were immediately noticeable to fans attending matches in person at King Abdullah Sports City as well as those who were tuned into TV broadcasts around the world were these two rules:

No on-court warm-up: Matches will start immediately after the coin toss, with a separate practice court available for warm-ups.

Shot-Clock reductions: A new maximum of eight seconds will be introduced between first and second serves. This also applies after a let on first or second serve. As in previous editions, time between points will be reduced from 25 to 15 seconds if the previous point includes fewer than three shots.

The subject of no on-court warm-up was addressed by several players during on-court and post-match interviews.

“It’s a mental adjustment, but it’s also a physical one,” No. 1 seed Arthur Fils of France told the ATP Tour website, when he was asked how his warm-up routine had changed as a result of the new rule. Fils defeated Italy’s No. 7 seed Luca Nardi, 2-4, 4-3 (6), 4-2, 1-4, 4-2, in the opening match Tuesday. “Normally I never play before a match. Today I had to play right before with my coaches.

“We played 10 minutes, probably, just to feel the ball and to come on the court warm. Not as warm as when you start a normal match, but it was OK. I don’t know if it’s going to happen in the future [on the ATP Tour], but if it happens, we are going to have to adjust to come on the court and just play.”

Nardi, for one, didn’t want to change anything from his usual routine. “It wasn’t easy to get into the match because I hadn’t touched the ball on court. I think it was a positive match in the end, even if I lost,” he said, quoted by the ATP Tour website.

“It’s not easy for me to open the tournament with these new rules, no warm-up, the crowd was screaming all the time. It wasn’t that easy to be focused on every point, but I think I kept a good level for all the match. In the end he played better, but I’m confident for the next matches.”

Later, No. 5 seed Flavio Cobolli of Italy beat Dominic Stricker of Switzerland, 4-2, 3-4 (7), 4-1, 4-2, in an hour and 39 minutes. It was the shortest match of the day despite lasting four sets. (The average length of Tuesday’s four matches was two hours and two minutes.)

“I think the match didn’t feel quicker, but with these new rules, anything can happen,” Cobolli said in his on-court interview. “This was the first match, so let’s see how it goes tomorrow.”

According to Stricker, who was a semifinalist in last year’s Next Gen ATP Finals, getting used to the no warm-up rule is the toughest for him. He said he believes that some of the players will opt to return first because of the rule.

“I think it’s the toughest rule actually because the other ones you get used to pretty quick,” the third-seeded Stricker told the ATP Tour website. “If you can’t warm up and then you have to serve, you really have to be ready from the shoulder and also from the back. We warmed up at 1 p.m. and then did some short hitting before the match and some physical warm-up.

“It is not easy after walking on court and standing there for four or five minutes and then you have to serve. It wasn’t easy for me today, but I did it quite well.”

Meanwhile, the shot clock was on Jordanian wild card Abdullah Shelbayh‘s mind following his four-set loss to No. 2 seed Luca Van Assche of France Tuesday evening. He told the ATP Tour website: “The shot clock in terms of timing between serves and the shorter points was interesting, although it didn’t really affect me because I don’t take too much time between points. The free fan movement and noise during points is a little different, but we know the rules are unique to this tournament and we all play by them.”

Finally, Serbia’s Hamad Medjedovic, who was a late arrival in Jeddah after representing his county in the Davis Cup Finals in Málaga, Spain over the weekend, put things in simple perspective after upsetting No. 4 seed Alex Michelsen of the United States in a five-setter that was the longest match of the day, two hours and 29 minutes, and didn’t finish until 12:49 a.m. local time.

“I was lucky that I played last match [today],” Medjedovic said. “I watched these guys and saw how they were doing, and I was okay with the rules.”