IT ALWAYS takes time to get accustomed to the new and different. So it was out in the Melbourne Park backblocks on Tuesday where the tennis version of Twenty20 cricket made its Australian Open debut.
''I totally forgot about it,'' Matt Barton said of the ''let'' served by opponent Miles Armstrong, which he watched bounce gently by before remembering that this was no ordinary tennis match, and he had just been aced. ''It's confusing, but it makes it a bit of fun as well, I guess,'' Barton said.
The state of temporary befuddlement was contagious. After Barton took a fast-forwarded first set 4-1, the chair umpire announced, ''Game, set, match, Sydney … '', only to realise, upon looking up to find the players in position to start the next set, that she had jumped the gun.
''She had no idea, she thought it was over,'' Barton said of an official whose smile and shrug of the shoulders betrayed that this was indeed hit-and-giggle with racquets. ''She's only probably been told the rules yesterday. She did her best.''
Where cricket has the IPL and Big Bash, tennis has returned serve with the ATL - the Asia-Pacific Tennis League, a title with plenty of scope for a marketing overhaul. The no-lets rule is the main rule tweak, otherwise this is simply tennis in brief - no deuce, tie-breaker in doubles only and then the first to five points, and shortened changeovers.
''I played the NSW conference and I had some much quicker ones - 4-0, 4-0, it was over in like five or 10 minutes,'' Barton said, dismissing his defeat of Armstrong in less than half an hour as something of a marathon.
Men's and women's teams from five Australian conferences are competing for a $94,000 prize pool in this sideshow for ground-pass holders. The Asian team's withdrawal because of injury paved the way for the Kooyong Classics to join the men's field. Victoria was already represented by the fancied Liston Seagulls, spearheaded by Sam Groth, whose world record for the fastest serve (263km/h at a Challenger event last year) gives him a certain Chris Gayle allure.
''My game matches up to this format well,'' Groth said before Tuesday evening's derby against the Classics. ''You can't really afford to go behind.''
Ryan Henry was taking a more sober approach with team Sydney ATP, competing against the Giants (WA), Sharks (Queensland), and Freighters (SA). ''I don't think it favours guys playing loose, high-risk stuff,'' said Henry, who tries to mirror playing a full set in his warm-up. ''I dropped serve one match and the set was over.''
To followers of Australian Opens past, many of the names are familiar. Olivia Lukaszewicz, Jessica Moore, Sally Peers and Greg Jones have all made the main draw in recent years, while Richard Fromberg and Alicia Molik also bobbed up on squad lists. Groth says the team element is attractive to the players.
''People are getting a bit more fired up, it's a bit more vocal maybe than a normal match might be,'' he said of a competition contested by local clubs last November, which on Thursday night will crown an inaugural champion. ''There's a little bit of banter being thrown around, a bit of smack talk between the teams, rivalries building up which we like to have a joke about.''
The evolution of Twenty20 tennis is hard to predict, but Groth - who played the American version, ''Team Tennis'', for the Kansas City Explorers in front of crowds in the thousands - sees room for growth. For now, the only thing missing on Tuesday were the fireworks, dancers and music.