Good Timing

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The ATP’s new year has gotten off to something of a rocky start in Doha. In his first-round match, David Ferrer, after digging a hole for himself in the first set against 167th-ranked Dustin Brown, dug a literal hole in the court with his right foot during a point. Fortunately for Ferru, if not the few fans in the seats, it took 55 minutes to fix. By then Brown’s momentum was a distant memory.

To the close-listening fan, though, what was more interesting about the Ferrer-Brown match was what happened before it began. As the two players waited for the coin toss, chair umpire Cedric Mourier informed them that he would be enforcing the 25-second-between-point time rule more strictly than in the past, and that if they had any questions about how long they were taking, they should ask him. Mourier’s warning may have sounded innocuous—if there's a rule, why shouldn’t an umpire enforce it?—but the speed-it-up effort behind it was destined to cause trouble this week.
It didn’t take long. First Feliciano Lopez and then Gael Monfils were hit with time-violation penalties, and each suffered a mini-meltdown in response. Lopez, who had a first serve taken away from him when he was down triple set point (it was his second violation of the match), never recovered and lost in straight sets to Lukas Kubot. Monfils, who was warned for taking too much time to towel off, gave away the second set to Philip Kohlschreiber in protest before gathering himself to win the third. (See the clip at the bottom of this post for Monfils' interesting explanation of why he needed to spend so much time with the towel. I think we have an early contestant for Quote of the Year.)
This, obviously, isn’t the last we’re going to hear on the subject. The men aren’t used to staying strictly within the time limits between points; but the tour, after years of plodding play, finally seems determined to make them. Starting this year, after giving one warning, chair umpires can take away a player’s first serve if there’s a second violation. In the past, the umpire had to dock the player a point, something very few were willing to do. The hope is that the lesser penalty will encourage the umpires to be bolder in issuing them. 
Now we’re getting a look at the new system in action. It will likely be ugly for a little while, and there will be more meltdowns to come. But the ATP is making the right move. With common sense and flexibility in mind, the tour should stick to its guns. This may seem like a no-brainer; as I said, why have a rule if you’re not going to enforce it? But it’s not quite as simple as that. Here’s a look at a few of the questions and issues surrounding how much time is too much on a tennis court.
The time limits are different at tour events and the Grand Slams. Shouldn’t they be made uniform, for players’ and fans’ sakes?
Yes. At the Slams, which are run by the ITF rather than either tour, 20 seconds is the (theoretical) limit. Since the men play three-of-five sets, rather than two-of-three, the idea is to try to keep things moving a little more quickly. That’s a nice idea, but its time has passed. 
During the third set of Monfils-Kohlscheiber today, I put the clock on both players for a few games. By that stage, Monfils appeared to have accepted the new reality and was moving at a brisker clip than normal. Kohlschreiber always plays well within the time limits. But after long rallies, when both players (understandably) toweled off and took a few extra moments to gather themselves, even Kohlschreiber was taking 23 to 24 seconds before serving. He wasn’t dawdling, either; he and Monfils needed every one of those seconds to catch their breath and be ready to go again.
If a no-nonsense player like Kohlschreiber can’t get himself set in the time allowed, you’re not allowing enough time. The Slams should follow the ATP’s lead by going to 25 seconds and enforcing that number. This will also allow the players to develop their personal tempos and rituals without having to adjust them four times a year.
The game has evolved; rallies are longer and more exhausting than ever. Shouldn’t the players get more recovery time? What about increasing the limit to 30 seconds, with a “hard cap” there?
This has been suggested by many as a more realistic way of dealing with wars of attrition like last year's Aussie Open final between Novak Djokovic and Rafael Nadal. Each struggled to start a new point within 30 seconds; 20 was never going to happen, and chair umpire Pascal Maria knew it, so he ended up doing little to speed things up. 
If we want to make the game move more quickly—and I think we do—giving players more time is counterproductive. It won’t be long before the hard cap softens, as umpires make allowances for tiring rallies, ball-kid mix-ups, sweaty players in need of a towel, and protracted decisions of whether to challenge a line call or not. If 25 seconds has turned to 30, there’s no reason 30 won’t turn into 35. It seems to me that 25 seconds is enough time for a player to use a towel, clear his head, and serve a ball.
If we want hard caps, why not use a shot clock?
The shot clock is the wrong way to go for tennis. It’s both too rigid, and no less subjective than what we have now. 
It’s not hard to imagine a player bobbling a ball that’s been tossed to him, or bouncing one off of his foot, then glancing at the clock as it runs down and missing his serve because he had to rush to beat it. That’s not how tennis should be played.
On the surface, the shot clock also wouldn’t be able to make allowances for tiring points. Supporters of the idea counter this by saying that the decision of when to start the clock ticking could be left to the chair umpire—he or she could delay it after an exhausting exchange. But that would defeat the purpose of having the clock in the first place. We would be leaving it up to the umpire’s discretion, which is exactly what we do now. Instead of a player arguing after he’s warned for taking too much time, he would protest when he saw the clock begin to run sooner than he thought was appropriate.
Lopez received his penalty at set point. Shouldn’t the umpire stay out of things at crucial moments?
Yes. Players will understandably take a few extra moments before a big point, and they shouldn’t be penalized for that, or distracted at that moment. The key is for the umpire to give warnings early in sets. A tone will be set, and he won’t insert himself unduly in the match. A player who goes over the limit once or twice on big points isn’t the issue; it’s making sure it’s not a trend throughout a match. Monfils got his warning early in the second set, and while it cost him that set, he had time to recover his composure.
Will the tour be able to force this on the big names, like Nadal and Djokovic? They take their time, too, and don’t enjoy being warned as they’re about to serve.
The ATP will have to make sure this is done across the board. Any sense that the stars are getting preferential treatment would be a disaster in the locker room. (Most players already believe this is true in general, but they'll likely be on the lookout for it in this case.) Plus, Nadal and Djokovic are the ones who will be on TV most often, in front of the most people, representing the sport.
The Spanish men, including Ferrer, haven’t reacted well to the new procedure so far this week. But Nadal, at least, did bring a smile to the subject when he was asked if he had been told of the rule changes this fall.
“Perhaps they didn’t want to inform me,” he said.
Could having to play faster force players to be more aggressive and end points faster?
It’s possible, and on the whole I think that would be a good thing. We don’t want the pros taking dumb risks, being forced to change their games drastically, or making themselves more vulnerable to injury because of exhaustion. But if they see a benefit to being aggressive, that would be a benefit to the sport. 
(I should note that, in my opinion at least, a tennis match can be played too quickly. A couple of summers ago in Cincy, Roger Federer and James Blake raced from one point to the next; it all went by in a blur. Watching old clips of Ilie Nastase can be jarring for the same reason. He takes the balls and serves so rapidly, it doesn’t look like he has even bothered to set his feet. A good match should be worth taking a little time to see.)
Who knows, maybe the discipline will help some of the game's less focused or more flamboyant players. Today, once he had his say, Monfils submitted to the time constraints, kept his toweling to a minimum, and messed around less and wasted less energy than he usually does. It may not be a coincidence that he also won.
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