Reading the Readers: March 29

Friday, March 29, 2013 /by

Just in time for Easter: Our weekly resurrection of Reading the Readers. If you have a question or a comment for a future edition of this column, please email me at stignor@tennismagazine.com.

*****

Steve,

Don’t you think Brad Gilbert has a point when he says that we need a shot clock in tennis? As he kept saying when Andy Murray was playing, how is the player going to know when 25 seconds is up? What is your opinion?—Callie

There are some topics that never go away in tennis. Actually, to be more accurate, all topics in tennis never go away. Over the last year, we’ve added another to the chattering-class rotation: the shot clock. 

As you say, Brad Gilbert was beating on this particular not-quite-dead-yet horse on Thursday during Murray’s match against Marin Cilic. Murray, who isn’t known as an especially slow player, received a time warning, pretty much out of the blue, and never seemed to forget it. He might have thanked the chair umpire at the end, because it definitely lit a fire under him.

It should be noted that Gilbert is, like Billie Jean King and John McEnroe, a man who instinctively likes change, or the idea of change, in tennis—the shot clock is just one of many he'd like to see. But when he asks, “How are the players supposed to know when 25 seconds is up?” he obviously has a point.

So let’s imagine that a shot clock is on the court. I did the same thing in another article on the subject a few weeks ago; here are the questions and reservations that came to my mind:

—On the plus side, it would let players know how long they’re taking. 

—On the minus side, a clock could be a distraction. If the players saw that they were running low on time, would they move too quickly and get out of rhythm? 

—Would it ring when it hits 25 seconds, or would a light go on, or would nothing happen? 

—Would fans start counting down out loud as it gets close to 25? 

—If it does hit 25, is the umpire then required to give a warning? If he can use his discretion, what will fans or opponents say when they see that a player took too much time before a certain point and wasn’t called for it? 

—When does the clock start? If that’s also at the umpire’s discretion, which it should be, won’t that create as many arguments as it solves? Aren’t we trying to take the umpire’s discretion out of it?

—One of the issues that the players, most prominently Rafael Nadal, have now is that they don't think they can be ready in 25 seconds after a long point. The shot clock, which can't take exertion into consideration, isn't going to do anything to solve that problem. It would only exacerbate it.

I’ve been informed by a number of readers that a shot clock was used at a tournament—perhaps in Australia—in the 1980s and that it worked well. Even John McEnroe didn’t have a problem with it. Maybe it’s time to experiment with one at a special event; maybe there wouldn’t be any issues at all. But for now I still think that good, flexible umpiring—the kind that Andy Murray did not receive on Thursday—is a simpler and better solution.

One additional note on the subject: This, like another recurring topic in tennis, the slow-court debate, is typically only mentioned in relation to the men. The ATP is the one cracking down on slow play. What about the women? It doesn’t seem to be a problem, or at least not one that has forced a change in procedure. In Australia, I timed the woman who I thought took the most time between points, the reliably ritualistic Maria Sharapova. I was surprised to see that she took either 19 or 20 seconds every single time. (The limit at the Grand Slams is 20 seconds.) She may extend that closer to 25 at tour events, or she may go over, I don't know. But she was like clockwork, and always within the rules, in Melbourne.

Maybe that’s an answer for the men: Forget the shot clock, just do exactly what Maria does before every first serve, and you'll be right on time.

*****

Steve,

What do you think of the Tommy Haas run over the last year, and in Miami? Are you a fan? Don’t you think he plays more exciting tennis than most guys these days?—Farah

I’ve suffered from Haasmania like the rest of the tennis world this week, though it came to an end today against David Ferrer. I’ve been impressed with his entire comeback (his latest of many), but I didn’t think he would ever beat a No. 1 again. Haas does play an exciting brand of tennis when he has everything clicking—I know Djokovic said he played poorly in their match, but I really thought Haas won that one as much as Novak lost it. I also had a good time watching Haas play Nicolas Almagro on a small court at Indian Wells. He’s a crowd favorite everywhere these days, though part of me thinks that his name helps. From what I can tell, whether they're in the stands or in their living rooms, people like to call out, “Come on, Tommy!” or “What are you doing, Tommy?” more than they do your average adult-sounding name. Who knows, it might be different if his name were Brian Haas.

I also like Tommy because of the video above, of his infamous sideline self-laceration at the Australian Open in 2007. As absurd as his words sound, I’ll bet most tennis players have had similar doubts and moments of comical self-loathing pass through their heads at some point on court. (Minus, of course, the part about “paying people for ABSOLUTELY nothing.”)

Somehow, though, and this is the heroic part, Haas manages to get through the entire cycle of tennis-inspired self-hatred in one 90-second changeover. By the time he gets off his seat, he's ready to “Fight!” and to go through the whole cycle again. He ends up winning the match over Davydenko, 7-5 in the fifth.

As tennis players, we’re all Tommy Haas at one time or another. Good for him for battling his opponents, and himself, for all these years.

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