Ruling Class

Thursday, June 09, 2011 /by

Fs We’ve left the French Open behind, but it hasn’t left us. Grand Slams have reverberations, and we can feel them already. Rafael Nadal never had to play Novak Djokovic, he’s lost four straight finals to him, he will almost certainly lose his No. 1 spot to him, yet his French Open win, coupled with Djokovic’s single defeat of the season, is enough to put him back on top of the totem pole, whatever the rankings may soon say.

At a significantly lower but still audible hum, Roland Garros also left us with a few reverberations concerning something more basic: the rules. There were three incidents that called into question the game’s regulations as they’re currently devised.

The funniest, most infamous, and perhaps the most unfair, was Fabio Fognini and what may have been the first case of fake non-cramps in sports history. Fognini couldn’t move his leg, said it felt like a cramp but he wasn’t sure, and was allowed by chair umpire Louise Engzell to sit down and get treated when he was on the verge of losing to Albert Montanes. As we know, he came back to win and proceeded to default to Djokovic, thus possibly altering tennis history.

Cramping as an issue has vexed tennis for years. It was traditionally treated like any other lack of conditioning, until the world saw Shuzo Matsuoko writhe in pain at the U.S. Open in 1995, unable to get help. The rule was changed to make it a medical condition and allow treatment, which didn’t sit well with a lot of players, particularly ex-players. Then it was changed back, but not in exactly the way I had thought. The ATP rule, which I only learned after the Fognini incident, requires a player to forfeit a game to receive treatment for cramps. This would have meant that, because he was serving at 5-6 in the fifth set when they hit him, Fognini would have lost the match. But—and this is classic tennis confusion—the rule didn’t apply, because the French Open is an ITF, rather than an ATP, event.

First, it would be nice to have the rule the same everywhere. Second, is the forfeiting-a-game provision necessary? As the Fognini match potentially showed, a game is not a game is not a game—some are more significant than others. Cramps are a conditioning issue, and, while no one wants to see anyone screaming in pain, or even worse, defaulting a match, they should be treated like one—i.e., no treatment beyond the changeover. Let’s hope Fognini’s groundbreaking obfuscation doesn’t become a trend.

The second controversy, and the second involving Engzell, came near the end of the women’s final. Down 5-6 in the second set to Francesca Schiavone, Li Na hit an inside-out backhand that, to my eyes, landed wide. But not to the eyes of the linesperson, who called it good. Schiavone protested and pointed to a mark she was sure proved that the ball had been wide. Engzell either found a different mark or believed that the one Schiavone pointed to actually showed that the ball had been in. They argued; Engzell finally walked away making the flat-palm “safe” signal and ending the dispute. Not so fast—Hawk-Eye, via French television, agreed with Schiavone. It showed the ball landing wide; it wasn’t even close to the line, really, and most likely beyond the 3 mm margin for error that we’ve been told to allow for Hawk-Eye.

I’ve generally believed that Hawk-Eye wasn’t necessary on clay. You can’t get any more accurate than the mark, and while a player can unfairly influence a chair umpire’s interpretation of that mark, the umpires seemed to get it right the vast majority of the time. But not this time—Schiavone should have been at set point.

You might say that Engzell is just a bad apple and should never have been in that position, and that may be true. But for the human eye, picking out the right mark, on a court that hasn’t been swept in 11 games, and deciding what that mark proves, is not as easy it might seem. At this point, Hawk-Eye, despite its margin for error, is trusted by almost all players and fans to be the final authority—when I saw the machine show where the ball had landed, I didn’t think, “Oh, Hawk-Eye disagrees with the umpire.” I thought, “The ball was out!”

Is it time to make the shift from mark to machine? On the surface, so to speak, it’s hard to argue against it. But thinking about the ramifications, one caveat does arise: Think about the number of arguments that will come up if the machine doesn’t match the mark. What happens when they show a clear disagreement, which will inevitably happen? Could Hawk-Eye’s authority be undermined for all surfaces? Still, it’s worth the risk. Why were spectators like me allowed to see that Li’s ball had been wide, while Schiavone was left to argue futilely?

The next day, in the men’s final, a third thorny rules issue was highlighted, one that applies to all surfaces and all matches. Rafael Nadal served to start the fourth set. He’d just lost the third, and, as he always does when the momentum is against him, he slowed the pace of play. In the first three points, he took 30, 35, and 29 seconds to serve; the rule at the Grand Slams mandates no more than 20 (it’s 25 at ATP events). Nadal lost all of those points, then came back to win the game. I’m not saying the time he took changed the outcome, but I am saying that he will take longer when he starts to lose—it’s a smart play—and that it’s the umpire’s job to make sure he doesn’t break the rules when he does. Nadal was given a time warning in his match against John Isner, and he sped up.

The umpires will tell you that it’s hard for them to penalize slow players like Nadal and Djokovic because they’re often set at the baseline and bouncing the ball (or, in Nadal’s case, flicking his hair back) when they go over the limit—its tough to say whether they’re actually beginning their service motion at that point or not. It’s also difficult because they tend to take more time before important points, which isn’t the right time to spring a warning on them.

Do we want the players to continue to serve every 20 seconds, or do we want to revise the rules to allow for the current pace of play? Virtually everyone takes more time these days, to towel off, to inspect all the balls and find the least fuzzed, to set up at the baseline. The players want to have everything set before they fire away. From a fan’s perspective, though, it makes the sport harder to sit down and watch for a long period of time. As brilliant as the four-hour, three-set Nadal-Djokovic semifinal in Madrid was two years ago, I struggled to watch every point—you knew, after each rally ended, that you had a wait on your hands before the next one started.

The faster, the better, in my opinion. Some have suggested a shot clock be instituted, but this would likely cause more problems than it would solve. What happens when Nadal bounces the ball off his foot, goes to recover it, and the clock dings? What if the ball kids don’t get the balls to the other side of the court fast enough? I’m guessing a clock would be a million arguments waiting to happen. And would we want a player, on an important point, to have to rush his or her serve because the buzzer was about to sound? Not a great way to lose the Wimbledon final.

The most effective way to speed up play is for the umpires to begin to warn slow players from the first game on. Set the tone early; make the possibility of lost points a real one. Watching a replay of the 1984 French Open final between John McEnroe and Ivan Lendl, I was amazed to see McEnroe begin a rant, then stop almost immediately and walk silently back to the baseline to play. The chair umpire had found a very obvious solution that might have changed Mac’s behavior if it had been employed more often. The umpire, just as McEnroe opened his mouth, looked at him and pointed to his watch.

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