They Said What? Consider the Returner

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“I think something needs to change there (in the enforcement of the ATP’s time violation rule) because normally when you look up to the umpire when you’re serving, he’s always staring at you. He’s looking at his clock and he’s looking at you. I think that’s the one gray area, as well as there not being a clock on the court, which I think there should be.”Andy Murray, in his press conference after he was docked a first serve for a time violation in his match with Edouard Roger-Vasselin

While it’s comforting to see that even the top players—those who can make things uncomfortable for the powers-that-be—have been supportive and tolerant of the new emphasis on the longstanding but rarely enforced time violation rule, it’s also clear that the initiative is a work in progress.

When Murray lost that first serve as a result of the violation, he complained to ATP supervisor Tom Barnes on the next changeover, saying: “I’m looking at him (Roger-Vasselin), and he’s looking at and fixing his strings.”

Murray’s meaning was clear: He was ready to serve; it was Roger-Vasselin holding things up.

While Murray managed the distraction well (it turned out to have no impact on the outcome), it seems only a matter of time before the time violation rule blows up in somebody’s face. And in his remarks after the match, Murray put his finger on the biggest problem—an umpire is hard pressed to watch three different things at once: the clock, the receiver, and the server.

The astonishing thing is that we may have been looking at the wrong culprit. For a long time now—even before the era of world-class receiving slowpoke Rafael Nadal—players have grown accustomed to allowing receivers even greater time latitude than they allow servers. It’s true in the WTA as well, as Serena Williams has demonstrated numerous times when she holds up her hand to keep her opponent from serving, or as Maria Sharapova has shown in her frequent strolls to the back screen to commune with her muse before taking up the return position.

The most frequently flouted and out-of-date rule may be the one that specifies that the game will proceed at the server’s pace. This creates an enforcement problem that over-burdened officials have not dealt with at all. As Murray said:

“In the four months that it’s been there (the tweaked time violation rule), I haven’t once seen the receiver get the warning for taking too long—which can’t be right. The receiver tends to be the one doing more of the running most of the time when you’re playing the points ‘cause, you know, the guys are serving well these days. . .

“You know, sometimes the guy serving is ready, but the guy that’s receiving might be playing with his strings. Are you meant to just serve and see what happens? I don’t really know. Always seems to be the server that gets punished.”

This is a fair assessment of the situation and, frankly, it’s remarkable that it’s only becoming obvious now. I think the first step in the right direction would be a visible 25-second shot clock. I mean, if the time violation rule is going to be employed, why not make it a transparent—if not always easy to enforce—process?

On another front, on the heels of my last They Said What? post, calling for the use of electronic line-calling at clay-court events, I feel obliged to note that in today’s match between Novak Djokovic and Juan Monaco, two highly questionable line calls by the umpire occurred within minutes of each other, and each of them went against Monaco.

In the first, the chair umpire overruled a first-serve fault call against Djokovic after examining the mark, but Tennis Channel’s Hawk-Eye-type replay showed the ball clearly out. Moments later, on a similar call, the chair umpire insisted that a mark Monaco examined was the wrong one, and therefore no change would be made. I feel vindicated.

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