On a summer evening in Sydney in January, two former Grand Slam champions, John McEnroe and Patrick Rafter, played an abbreviated version of tennis.
Rafter won the exhibition match by the strange and truncated score of 4-3, 4-1.
“It’s whatever the crowd wants; whatever TV wants,” Rafter said of the new format, called Fast4. “I think the Grand Slams will always stay their way, but for the other events, if this is what the fans want, this is what we should be playing.”
Tennis — be it professional or recreational — is not yet on the brink of abandoning its traditional scoring system. But the market-driven, youth-driven thinking that was behind that January experiment is part of a global trend that continues to accelerate.
In a world where attention spans are under duress and where big-screen and small-screen entertainment options are proliferating by the hour, sports are increasingly focused on not only making their formats more compact but on making the most of literally every second.
Consider the package of initiatives announced last week by Major League Baseball that is designed to pick up the pace of play by trying, among other line items, to keep dallying hitters in the batter’s box (a pitch clock could be next).
Tennis, too, has tried to enforce time limits between points in the last two seasons even while it is faced with the inherent challenge that it is a sport with no set time limit: A men’s singles match at a Grand Slam can last little more than an hour or, in the record case of John Isner versus Nicolas Mahut at Wimbledon in 2010, extend to 11 hours and 5 minutes over three days.
The Fast4 format, begun by Tennis Australia this year, is an attempt to provide a modern alternative: a potential way to stay relevant in a landscape featuring ever more diversions.
“Even when I came up in the 70s, there were starting to be a lot of options,” McEnroe said. “Now it’s 10 or 20 times more.”
A version of this article appears in print on March 1, 2015, on page SP1 of the New York edition with the headline: Every Second Counts in Bid To Keep Fans . Order Reprints| Today’s Paper|Subscribe
Go to Home Page »