Next Gen ATP Finals top seed Andrey Rublev believes some of the new rules being tested out at the 21-and-under tournament in Milan are making the game “unfair”, the Russian said on Thursday after booking himself a spot in the semi-finals.
The inaugural event in Milan is experimenting with some changes this week, where the sets end at four games, not six, with no ad-scoring, no lets on serve, best-of-five format, a shot clock on the court to countdown 25 seconds between points, on-court coaching via headsets, stats available to the players via tablets between sets, Hawk-Eye Live replacing all line judges, and free movement for fans on the sidelines during play.
Rublev, who beat Canadian Denis Shapovalov 4-1, 3-4(8), 4-3(2), 0-4, 4-3(3) in a two-hour battle on Thursday, has his reservations regarding some of the new rules.
“When they put some rules that doesn’t change game of tennis, it’s okay. But I don’t like when they try to change the game, because with these rules still four games, with no ad-scoring, they changing the game,” said the 20-year-old Rublev, who is currently ranked No.37 in the world.
“With these rules, everyone can beat everyone, and in my opinion is a little bit not fair, because in my opinion the winner have to be the guy who is working harder than everybody.
“Suddenly with these rules, the guy who is not doing right things, maybe he is not professional and he have easy chances to win, to compete with all the players and to win the tournaments, and I think this is not fair.”
Asked to elaborate on which rules in particular he deems unfair, he said: “The game rule, the sets, still four games, all that inside the game. You understand what I mean? Outside this, I don’t know, net — I mean, this Hawk-Eye system or clock time doesn’t changing the game.
“But all the rest with the rules exactly for the games, points, this is what is changing the game.”
Not all players share Rublev’s views. American Jared Donaldson says the determining factor for making any permanent rules changes to the game should be the tennis fans who are consuming the product.
“I don’t really think it matters my opinion. I think it depends what the fans want,” said Donaldson, who lost all three of his group matches to exit the tournament.
“So if the fans want to see tennis played with these rules, then I think that tennis should be played under these rules, if they don’t, then I don’t think they should change the rules.
“I think every rule has a purpose, and depending on what that’s trying to accomplish is either a good thing, is a good thing; if there’s a problem in the sport then there’s got to be a rule that could fix it.
“If there’s any problems that the ATP thinks arises or the fans think they need to be addresses I think there are rules that will fix that.”
— Colette Lewis (@zootennis) November 9, 2017
In the semi-finals, Rublev will face Croatian Borna Coric, who is undefeated so far this week, while Chung Hyeon – who is also unbeaten – squares off against Russian Daniil Medvedev.
While no ranking points are up for grabs at this event, a large sum of money is on offer with the champion potentially walking away with $390,000.
“I think of course for the players it’s also important, because here is the big money, especially for our age and of course everybody is motivated, because not many players could win this money just in one event,” admits Rublev.
“And of course everybody is also fighting for this, and it’s normal.”
Chung has been on a roll in Milan having taken down Rublev, Shapovalov and Italian wildcard Gianluigi Quinzi, who had defeated the South Korean in the Wimbledon junior final in 2013.
“I don’t know why I’m playing good in here. Just I’m trying to enjoy on the court and trying to play my 100 per cent all the time,” said Chung. “I think I’m just playing better and better every day.”
Of all the rules, the bespectacled Chung singles out the shot clock as one he’d like to see on tour, and he has a specific reason for that.
“I like shot clock, because sometimes I got warning because I have to clean my glasses, so I got the warning all the time in long match. So I like the shot clock.”
The world No.54, whose English has improved dramatically over the past two years, allowing him to confidently communicate with his peers and the press, says he’s got plenty to be proud of this season.
“I have a really good many thing in this year so far. I have first reach in third round in Grand Slam. I play Kei (Nishikori) in the Grand Slam (lost in five in Roland Garros third round). And first semis in ATP Tour 250 (in Munich) and I got the new highest ranking in here. I have good memories on this year,” said the 21-year-old.
Jared Donaldson did not get the season finale he had hoped for as he leaves the Next Gen ATP Finals in Milan following a third defeat in as many group-stage matches – the latest being a 3-4(3), 4-2, 4-3(1), 4-0 defeat to Russia’s Daniil Medvedev on Thursday.
The American No.5 seed did not sugar-coat how he felt about his win-less week in Milan and was visibly disappointed about how things went.
“About as bad as it could be, for me, playing-wise,” said the 21-year-old from Rhode Island. “I don’t know, I guess these guys are obviously just better than I am right now.”
Donaldson, ranked No.55 in the world, fell in straight sets to Karen Khachanov on Wednesday, and to Borna Coric on Tuesday, but the short format of the sets sometimes means matches are a lot closer than they seem.
With many new rules being experimented this tournament, did Donaldson feel he didn’t adjust to them as well as his opponents did?
“No, I don’t want to blame it on the format. Same rules, it’s tennis, I just lost,” he admitted.
“I think I need to work on everything because obviously nothing is that good right now.”
Donaldson tried to play aggressively this tournament, and made frequent trips to the net, but he concedes that perhaps that is not the right way for him to play.
“I don’t know, I guess it will depend on how I play going forward. It didn’t work this week so I’m not sure how it’s going to incorporate into my future game plans,” he added.
The top Next Gen American is coached by ex-world No.14 Jan-Michael Gambill, who is with him in Milan, and former top-10 player Mardy Fish, who Donaldson assured will continue to be part of his team moving forward.
— Jan-Michael Gambill (@JanmikeGambill) November 8, 2017
Gambill says Fish will join them in the offseason for training but that the extent of the ex-world No.7’s involvement next season is still unclear.
“It’ll be great to have him out on the court at the end of the year now,” Gambill told Sport360.
“One of things that Mardy does is that he’s casual with the things he says but they’re very pointed. Like he says things that make sense, he’ll drive a point through, he keeps things pretty light in practices, which I like, and it’s a really good combo so when he’s around I’m pretty happy.”
While Donaldson sounded hard on himself for his results this week, Gambill is proud of their season and believes making it to Milan in itself was a great achievement.
Other Americans in Donaldson’s age bracket have maybe been talked about more but it is the Rhode Islander who ended up qualifying for the Next Gen Finals.
“Getting here, the only American to make it, and he deserved it. I think that’s a really cool thing here. None of these people were given this opportunity, it was all earned, even the Italian wildcard was a tough tournament,” said the 40-year-old Gambill.
“Jared’s been able to put on good results throughout the year, not amazing results – I guess Cincinnati is a pretty dang good result for a young guy, making quarter-finals of a Masters 1000, but besides that, just solid, solid, lot of round of 16s, winning a lot of matches, getting through.
“I make him play the qualifying rather than take a wildcard. I’d rather him earn that chance to be there, so that in the back of his head he knows he made it.
“It’s sort of like this event. We had to be all in for this event. It didn’t go the way we wanted but he earned it so you’ve got to be for it.
“I believe in putting the hard work, off the court and on the court. Especially in the offseason it’s going to be tough. But he does have the grit, he steps out on the court he wants to win, he wants to be a good tennis player, he wants to be a professional.
“He knows that his best game is probably ahead of him, I think we all know that, as he gets more physical and matures a little bit and gets even faster I think he’s going to be even a better player.”
Donaldson does not have the power shots that maybe most of his fellow Americans have but Gambill sees lists lots of positives in his pupil.
“He’s very coachable,” he says. “He’s willing to make changes in his game, at 20-years-old we changed his serve and gave him the ability to have a big serve. I’ve streamlined I think his groundstrokes quite a bit, and his fundamentals.
“We worked really hard on his footwork and it’s something we’re going do even more in the offseason, I think it can get better. The more you can streamline your fundamentals and have your tools in your bag be the same every single day the more confidence you’ll have when you set foot on the court.
“You can bluff your way through some matches and bravado and hype can get you through a little bit. But I still would prefer that he continues to stay a little bit under the radar.”
One of the things Gambill insisted on in 2017 was to get Donaldson to go for ATP events instead of leaning back on the Challenger Tour. The youngster played 43 tour-level matches this year, and just eight on the Challenger Tour.
“He knows what he wants and he also is quite intelligent and he’s smart enough to know that the hype is sometimes just hype,” explained Gambill.
“And one of the things that we also made a decision on early, it was one of the things working with me, I was like ‘I firmly believe that once you have the ranking to play the ATP events, you go out and play the ATP events’. You don’t go back and get a Challenger just to get a few points to up your ranking a little bit in hopes to get more main draws in ATP events because what that can do it give you that false floor there.
“You can go out and beat the Challenger guys and get some points, you see those guys who do that over time and their ranking just goes up and down, up and down, up and down.
“But if you go out and qualify and you take a loss here and you get that inspired win there, all of a sudden you feel like you belong, you’re one of the guys and that’s your tour, you own it.
“The Donaldsons were behind me in that decision. We played sometimes where it was kind of scary, going to play qualies in a bunch of events, especially the clay-court season, he managed to get in and he even got one lucky loser that he made good use of in Madrid. Those kind of things can happen but you’ve got to be there to do it, and then you get that confidence.”
When the word Dubai is mentioned in front of Jared Donaldson, the young American tennis player ranked No.55 in the world gets immediately animated.
“I love Dubai,” he told Sport360 in Milan, where he is the fifth seed in an eight-player field at the Next Gen ATP Finals this week.
He has every reason to. The first and last time Donaldson was in the Emirates was because he received an invitation from Roger Federer to train with him for three weeks ahead of the 2014 season.
Donaldson had just turned 17 at the time and was ranked No730 in the world. He was not necessarily a standout junior (his highest ITF junior ranking was 115) but he had reached the final of the 2013 USTA Boys 18s National Championship a few months earlier, and was coached by former world No21 Taylor Dent.
“At the beginning I was very nervous, because I’ve watched Federer growing up, my entire tennis career basically. And he was always on TV because he was always winning right? And he was my favourite player, I always rooted for him. So I was really nervous because I wanted to give him a good practice and stuff,” recalls Donaldson of that preseason back in December 2013.
“But I remember the first day he came, and he was super relaxed and super jovial, it was actually something that I never really forget.
“The way Federer was relaxed, I wasn’t as nervous at practice with him. So I’ve always remembered that, that he was really friendly, super warm, it really allowed me to get into a comfortable rhythm in practice.
“I felt I practiced better because he was so nice. And I don’t think he was fake, that’s just who he is, he’s a really great person and obviously that’s why he’s an amazing champion and a legend.”
Like his fellow ‘Big Four’ members, Federer makes it a habit to select a young up-and-coming player each season to have a solid training block with, and his list of previous practice partners includes the likes of Nick Kyrgios, who is currently considered one of the top talents in the world of tennis.
But while Kyrgios was a much talked-about teen who beat Rafael Nadal at Wimbledon shortly after his stint with Federer in Zurich, Donaldson’s steady but low-key progress meant that he never really was at the forefront of the up-and-coming generation of tennis stars – not until he had his breakthrough at the US Open last year, where he upset the then world No.14 David Goffin en route to the third round, as a qualifier.
That run saw him break into the top-100 for the first time and slowly the tennis world started to take notice of him. Still, he wasn’t making the waves made by other Next Gen players like Alexander Zverev or Borna Coric, who were taking down huge scalps, nor was he being singled out amongst his fellow Americans like Taylor Fritz or Frances Tiafoe.
Yet here we are at the end of the 2017 season and Donaldson is the youngest American in the top-70, is ranked higher than both Fritz and Tiafoe, and is the sixth-best 21-and-under player in the world.
Slow and steady has certainly done well for him.
He cracked the top-50 last month and can now expect to play a full ATP schedule next season.
Does he feel like he belongs when he shows up to the big tournaments and faces top players?
“For me, in my entire career, first you play them and then you lose, then you play at a higher level and you take a set off of them maybe but you still maybe lose. Then after that you maybe win a close one, then you start winning easier and easier as you progress through the certain levels,” he explains.
“Definitely I think there was a big transition for me, starting first from the Futures, and then the Challengers and then the ATP.
“I hovered between 100 and 150 for two years and then obviously I had a breakthrough at the US Open.
“So I think it was a lot of me learning about my game and what I did really well on the court and what I did not so well on the court and needed to improve on.
“But I think one of the great things that I’ve been able to do, is I was always – and I credit the people around me for keeping my mindset on the positive, which was always make sure you’re improving regardless of what the result is on the court and I think that’s what I credit my relative success to – which is always focusing on the goal of improvement rather than getting caught up so much in the result. Which I think the lines sometimes get blurred.”
It’s impressive to hear a 21-year-old lay out his thoughts so clearly and explain such a mature and level-headed approach to a viciously competitive sport. His thought process is very Johanna Konta-esque in its simplicity and effectiveness.
But that mindset should not be mistaken for lack of passion from Donaldson.
“I got into tennis not because I wanted to make a lot of money or because I wanted to be famous – I wanted to achieve something great, when I was a kid I always wanted to be a professional athlete,” he says.
“I loved basketball, that was the first sport I really loved, I played every sport, my parents got me involved in everything.
“But I think sometimes you don’t choose your path, your path kind of chooses you and I would say that’s the same for me because I loved sports, I gravitated towards sports.
“I would go and shoot hoops, we had a basketball hoop at our house and I would go and shoot hoops and my sister would draw chalk down the sidewalk, so that would be our thing, we spent time together that way.”
He played baseball but didn’t enjoy the practices too much because “there was a lot of waiting around” and he eventually shifted his focus to tennis.
“Tennis I thought was great because it was a one-on-one sport and I really liked the sense of the individuality, in not being so reliant on a team, I wanted to be the person where if I lost it was my fault and it if I won it was because of what I did on the court,” he added.
Unlike most American players who grow up playing through the USTA system, Donaldson went to Argentina when he was 14 to train there for two years.
If you’re wondering why his game is not about huge serves and bullet forehands like many of his fellow Americans, it’s because Donaldson, his father, along with his former coach Mario Llano realised that more variety in his shots would benefit him more in today’s game.
“I’m from the North-East, so originally I’m from Rhode Island so I was playing a lot indoor. So two glaring weaknesses were my movement, and the shape of my shot,” he explained.
“I played flatter because indoor it’s more advantageous to play flatter. So with those two things in mind we realised the best medicine for that to improve was to play on clay because those are the type of things that don’t work on clay. And what I need to incorporate in my game, better movement and more spin on my shots, gets exaggerated on clay because that’s what’s really beneficial on clay.”
So off he went to Argentina to train with Pablo Bianchi. Donaldson credits his time in South America for where he is today, and while he says it was an amazing experience, he wishes he would’ve soaked up the culture a bit more.
“I think in a way it prepared me for life on tour because I was away from friends and family and traveling, sent to travel,” he says. “But I guess culturally I could have taken advantage of it a little bit more. I’m not saying I didn’t do anything. I wish I learned the language, where I could speak Spanish fluently because I think that really could have helped me in life.
“But I didn’t really realise it at the time, I was young, I was a little obviously immature, I was only 14. But that’s one thing I regret, that I didn’t – I was thinking ‘I’m here for tennis and I need to work as hard as I can on tennis to be great’ and I didn’t think about other things.
“Which maybe, you know we sit here today and say ‘oh I could have done this and that’ and maybe I didn’t take advantage of certain things but for my tennis it was a great experience. So maybe if I wasn’t focused enough on tennis I might not be in my position now.”
Donaldson is one of the seven highest-ranked 21-and-under players competing in Milan this week, with the eighth player in the field being Gianluigi Quinzi, and Italian wildcard who won a tournament to qualify for the Next Gen ATP Finals.
The event is testing out many new rules the ATP is exploring, in efforts to make the sport more appealing to millennials.
Asked to weigh in on whether these new rules would attract the young people of his generation to tennis, Donaldson quickly points out that he is not your typical millennial.
“I still have cable TV. I miss the old Sports Center when you turn it on and you just saw the highlights. I loved that,” he says enthusiastically.
“Maybe I’m not the right person to ask. But for me I definitely think innovation is a great thing, I think maybe for certain sports it’s a little scary. And certainly as a player I can definitely relate to that feeling as well. However I think this is a great opportunity and I really credit the ATP and Chris (Kermode, ATP president) and the ATP in general because you’re broadcasting different results and different ideas and different ways to go about the same game.
“Because if you’re going to watch the tennis this tournament because there’s great players here, it’s still the same game, it’s just the rules and variations are slightly different.
“So it will affect the play slightly but I think it’s a good moment to kind of look to see how it will play out. And maybe it’ll work, maybe it won’t, but I think it’s always a good idea to keep thinking and reinventing.
“Because obviously nothing’s perfect but you want to keep trying to get to a level where it’s really satisfying. From a millennial, for me I still watch all the sporting events, I’m not a cord cutter, I have cable TV, I’m not your typical millennial. I still take information the old way so to speak.
“I guess it’s kind of this enigma that still hasn’t been solved yet. It will. But yeah it’s a tough debate but I think events like this really help move forward that discovery.”