The Rally: Czar and Czarina for a Day

Wednesday, August 03, 2011 /by

Ji It's Rally time again. With no new serious fodder from the pros—that starts Monday—Kamakshi Tandon and I tackle the most eternal of all eternal tennis topics: the rules, and which of them must change, now.

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TIGNOR: Kamakshi, it's a good season for rule talk in tennis. Shrieking, plodding, doping, coaching, the topics are endless. This is a classic subject in sports—life is never, as we know, fair, and nothing is so good that we can’t imagine a way to improve it. So we chatter on about rules that absolutely, positively must be changed, even as none of them change and we keep watching anyway. Has anyone ever quit being a fan because they didn’t like a rule?

This summer, though, there’s a little more urgency to the subject. Two player issues in particular have gotten a lot  of attention and seem ripe for some kind of legislation: “shrieking”—formerly known as grunting—and taking too much time between points. Let me start the discussion by giving you five rules that I would change, or enforce, starting with the least controversial and finishing with the most:

—Allow fans to go to their seats after the first game of each set, when the players are going through their technically illegal sipping routine on the sideline. A paying customer shouldn't face the possibility of missing half a set.

—Seriously enforce the current time limits between points, but not, for the moment, with a shot clock??. To me, tennis, especially on TV, is easier and more enjoyable to watch when it's played at a timely clip. But a clock seems overly bureaucratic, and could lead to unintended consequences, like a slow ball kid forcing a player to rush a serve to beat the clock.

—Don’t allow medical timeouts for conditioning loss due to heat (this may be the official rule already, but it isn’t enforced well).

—Nix no-ad for doubles. I like the super-tiebreaker in place of a third set, but no-ad makes tennis seem hyper.

—Allow on-court coaching.

I’m sure that last one will go over like a lead balloon, with both you and the readers here, but coaching is the one place where I’m not a traditionalist. In general, though, I don’t think the rules need much changing. Rule chatter can too quickly turn to faddish thoughts, like creating a service line three feet behind the baseline.

Let me know what you would or wouldn’t change if you were czar(ina) for a day.

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TANDON: I'm finding myself disturbingly gleeful at the prospect, so here goes. Interestingly, this turns out to be in order of both importance and difficulty:

1. Bring grunting under control: it's hard to make tennis people understand how annoying this is to ordinary viewers, but ask any media outlet—the piles of angry mail on this topic vastly outnumber those on anything else. Just announce that excessive, repetitive grunting has to stop and set up decibel limits with fines and sanctions if necessary.

2. Put some muscle behind the anti-doping/integrity efforts: Actual policing, the kind that caught Wayne Odesnik—hair samples, biological passports, target testing, spot checks of locker rooms and hotel areas, the works. Do it, and show you're doing it. Things are getting a little too backroomy in this area. And optimistically speaking, it's a lot easier to keep a sport clean than to clean it up later.

3. Let people in after the first game of a set: People have paid for their seats and it's tough to have to stand out there for 10 minutes, especially when there are no TVs. It also creates a delay on the first changeover when everyone floods in. There could be a one-minute break with no commercials from TV.

4. Stop the players from taking their towels to the baseline: The ball kids should not have to be towel fetchers and carriers, and players waste too much time going to the back and towelling off between points. It seems to be a relatively recent practice and there's really no need for it.

5. Remove on-court coaching: For all of the complaints about players using medical timeouts and bathroom breaks to disrupt momentum, here they get to do not only that but receive some extra help as well. The crowds are left to wonder what's going on, and even if there are cameras around to pick up the conversation, it's usually so boring and basic that it makes tennis seem dumb, which it's not.

As for the medical treatments, I'd allow players to take them for whatever they want, but make them forfeit a point when they do it during a game or before their opponent's serve, or take more than one or two. (Yes, I know I snuck in an extra one there, but what's the point of being czar(ina) if you don't get to bend the rules about the rules...)

Now to compare these to yours... I completely forgot about no-ad scoring, which I hate, so that moves right up to the top of my list as well. We only had one in common—seating at changeovers, so clearly we're neither of us quick to get courtside and have spent a lot of time standing around waiting outside stadiums. And we diasgree on two—on-court coaching and the medical timeouts.?Did I convince you on any, and do you want to try to convince me on any?

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TIGNOR: Have you convinced me on any? Let’s say that with three of them I'm ready to be convinced, but I need to ask you a couple of questions first.

Bringing grunting under control: Typically, for me, I’ll begin to watch a grunt-heavy match and be annoyed, but by the middle of the first set I won’t notice it anymore, or at least it won’t bother me. But you’re right, if tennis wants to present the most attractive product that it can to the public at large, it needs to bring down the noise levels. I just wonder, short of going to training academies and getting coaches to discourage it, how you go about this. You would put a decibel meter in a chair umpire’s hand? Or have it recorded and then fine the player later? The latter would probably work.

More anti-doping muscle and transparency: no argument there. And you’re right about the backroom aspect. We now have no idea who gets tested when and where, and have never heard anything specific about how Wayne Odesnik got his sentence reduced. You would go about this by putting more money into the system in general? It was $1.5 million as of last year, a very small amount for a global sport.

About those towels. I agree that they are overused. It’s not that players are sweating more than ever, either; they’re using the towel as a way to control tempo, to slow down after they lose a point. This spring I listened from the stands as the coach of one American player repeatedly told him when to call for the towel; it was inevitably after the player had made an error or was facing a break point. Besides slowing everything down, the sight of ball kids running around like crazy people to do the bidding of a star athlete and getting a sweaty towel in their face for their efforts is, like grunting, probably not the best image for the sport.

But players do sweat. Do you want to limit them to one towel off per game? Or just have them go the old Johnny Mac route and maniacally wipe their faces on their sleeves? From my own experience, even on hot days, toweling off at changeovers is enough. But I’ve never played a five-setter, either.

As far as convincing you, I won’t try with coaching—we’ve been there many times. But I’m surprised not to see a mention of time between points on your list. Does it not bother you? Slow play, to me at least, is more annoying than grunting. But maybe that’s my impatient American self. Agassi, Blake, Roddick, Capriati: We usually play, in the famous words of Mary Carillo, like we’re double-parked. I knew something needed to be done when I saw one of our own, that inveterate ball-examiner Mardy Fish, plodding his way past the time limit this past weekend in L.A.

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TANDON: It's funny, slow play doesn't bother me at all, though I know it bothers a lot of people. But believe me, not as much as the grunting. I'm not talking about complete silence. Basically, I think you just have to bring it under the hindrance rule and let players know they have to stay within limits. There was a time when player behaviour on court got out of control and was successfully reigned in, and the same thing can be done with grunting. I mean, just imagine sprinters or boxers doing it—you'd laugh, and that's what people do with tennis players.

On the doping/match-fixing front—more money, yes, but more than that, a change in mindset (more investigative than administrative). When Richard Ings was running the anti-doping program, I had reasonable confidence that he was working to try to catch people and run the system well. I'm not saying that's no longer the case, but I don't know. And I don't like having to say, I don't know. This goes double for the TIU (Tennis Integrity Unit, set up to police match-fixing), which is more shadowy than MI6. I know things are going on, and either we never hear about them or we get no details when we do. They're building up a lack of trust which could hurt them later.

As I mentioned earlier, I'm not too keen on the tightening up of medical treatment—not so much in principle, but the way it's been done. Sometimes it feels like umpires and trainers are running the show now. Remember poor Yen-Hsun Lu and his back last year? First the umpire told him to wait, and then the trainer decided it wasn't severe enough to do on a particular changeover. "But I'm in so much pain..." Come on. I'd rather players be able to compete better during the match and avoid any injury risks, and see the potential for abuse controlled by having to forfeit a point for treatment in certain scenarios.

I'm not sure what you think of the latest rule-change fad—no warmup before a match. Brad Gilbert and John McEnroe have espoused the idea of the players walking on court and beginning straightaway, instead of hitting up first. I was surprised to see Andy Murray go for it, and glad to see Andy Roddick immediately shoot it down as an "irresponsible" suggestion. Surely players need a few minutes to see what the court is playing like, and get used to the conditions. How would you like to walk out at night on Arthur Ashe stadium for the first time and immediately play the first ball?

In fact, I'm usually not too enthusiatic about the suggestions for new rules—playing lets, no-ad (grr), etc. They either deal with some minutaie or strike at some important feature of the sport that should be kept. Except for mine, of course.?? 

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TIGNOR: “Fad” is the right word. There have been plenty of fad rule-change ideas—wasn’t there a movement during the boom-boom '90s to eliminate the second serve? As I said, there will always be a need for fans of any sport to mull over or squabble over something, and the idea of changing any rule does capture the imagination for a few seconds. Gilbert and McEnroe, each of whom is a card-carrying talk first, think later kind of guy, are generally on these bandwagons. Roddick pretty much killed the idea of chucking the warm-up with his use of the word “irresponsible,” and he’s right; he could be sitting in the locker room for three hours beforehand, waiting for another match to end. The no-warmup innovation is a favorite of TV producers, who hate that they have to fill those 10 minutes after the players walk onto the court.

As far as medical timeouts, the idea of forfeiting points or games sounds good in theory—it’s already the rule with cramps on the ATP tour, I believe—but I feel like it could get confusing, and that not all points or games are created equal. And while I don’t want to see more injuries or defaults, I do think the option of calling the trainer is exploited unnecessarily. I’d be curious to see an experimental pro tournament where there are no trainers or doctors available at any time (which is the way it is for 99 percent of non-pro tournaments everywhere). I’m guessing that there wouldn’t be any more defaults than we currently see.

There’s also a new tempo-controlling, momentum-changing stall tactic: the between-set bathroom break. These have become virtually mandatory, and they’re getting longer—John Isner took nearly 10 minutes to get prepped for the third set against Mardy Fish in the Atlanta final, while the fans had to sweat it out in the stands (admittedly Isner had been woozy for about half an hour by that point, but you still have to play). I have my doubts as to whether many pros actually have to go to the bathroom; it doesn’t generally happen when you’re sweating like a stuck pig. At the same time, though, I wonder if it would be worth reviving an old rule for three-out-of-five-setters, the 10-minute break after the third. Five sets is a long time to play and a long time to watch; long enough for a brief intermission.

So we move on, always believing everything was better in the past, when men were men and tennis players never shrieked or complained or toweled off or got injured or even thought bad thoughts. Fans will keep looking for things to fix, even if the sport they love isn't broken.

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