NCAA Tennis Announces Rule Changes for 2014 Dual Meet Season

Virginia's student-athletes and coaches are not thrilled.

Last week, the ITA announced a series of rule changes geared toward shortening matches starting this fall for all D-I dual meets.  The announcement will result in sweeping changes to not just the format of the matches, but the rules of the sport of tennis as we know it.  The rules also have a disproportionately negative effect on elite programs, and UVA coaches and players noticed.

Here are the full list of changes, from the ITA's release:

  • "No-Ad" scoring in singles and doubles - If the match is in a 40-40 "deuce," the next point will win.
  • Doubles matches will each be a normal six-game set, rather than the eight-game "pro-set" we saw previously.
  • After the team match (or the doubles point) is "clinched," all other singles matches (or double matches) in progress will end.  This is the format currently used in tournament play.  (However, the ITA notes that both coaches can agree to waive this policy before the start of the dual meet).
  • Players will no longer warm-up with their opponents.
"Our goal is to maintain the integrity of the game, and at the same time, make our team matches more exciting, grow the sport and gain new fans," Princeton head coach Billy Pate told ITATennis.com.  The release goes on to bizarrely justify the implementation of no-ad scoring by listing great tennis players to play D-I tennis between 1973-1988, when this was the policy.  (As if the existence of John McEnroe proves that less match experience won't hurt development to at least some extent).

The result of the ITA Operating Committee's vote was almost unanimous: 21 in favor, 1 opposed. The 1? Virginia's Brian Boland, as reported by the Daily Progress's Whitey Reid.

Boland's disapproval is understandable because the rules do more than simply speed up matches.  They directly harm elite programs like Virginia.

The elimination of the "advantage" rule and the move to six-game doubles matches don't just upset  "tennis tradition" (i.e. "change the standard rules of tennis").  They serve to shorten matches, which in turn increases variance - this leads to an increased probability of upsets.  (This is the same concept applied to the UVA basketball team's "thin margin for error" in low-possession games; but now it's the rules doing so, not strategy).

Stopping meets once they are clinched also takes away valuable experience from players, and has a disproportionate effect on teams that tend to clinch their matches quickly, like Virginia.  The ITA did note that both coaches could agree before a meet to waive this rule, but it's unknown how often, if ever, this will be done in practice.

Whitey Reid reports the coach's, and the team's, displeasure - Boland told Reid that he had voted against the rule changes in past iterations, and believes that coaches are "trying to skip the hard work to keep people engaged."  He went on to note to the Daily Progress, "This is not the answer at all. I am beyond disappointed.[...]  Hard work is going to put fans in the stands, not changing the great traditions of our game".

It is notable that multiple UVA athletes spoke out against the proposed rule changes, and voiced their appreciation at their coach's defense of his players.

Growing the sport of tennis is an admirable goal, but there's no evidence that the rule changes will provide gains toward it. If people get bored after a tennis match has been clinched, they'll just leave.  I've done this before. There's no need to make the players leave too.  "No-ad" scoring seems like it will simply shorten matches by getting rid of the most exciting parts. Casual fans and hard-core tennis fans alike remember matches which swung back-and-forth on each point, like Mitchell Frank's thriller that led to UVA's 2013 National Title.  I'm not saying that the rule changes will end great tennis as we know it; but it's tough to say how they will help.

The ITA also published a more detailed FAQ with answers to more questions about how the scoring system will work.  Unsurprisingly, Brian Boland's thoughts were not included as an answer to "What do collegiate coaches believe will be achieved by adopting this new format?"
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