Join Date: Nov 2003
Location: TV Box on Banhofstrasse (Zurich)
P.Cash: Nadal and Djokovic are threatening the future of the sport by driving away...
... a generation of new fans
From The Sunday Times
January 4, 2009
Game must call time on ball-bouncing wasters
All the signs suggest the very peak of elite male tennis is going to be astounding in 2009. When was the last time a new year dawned with such a sense of expectancy surrounding the four main contend-ers? If things go to plan, more and more people will watch tennis. But with added exposure comes a need to get everything in order and the four big names must do their bit. I just hope that two of them realise their responsibilities, make a few simple modifications and therefore avoid shooting the game in the foot at a time when more floating spectators are being drawn to tennis.
Who am I pointing my finger at? Rafael Nadal and Novak Djokovic. What am I accusing them of doing? Basic stalling that is beginning to get on the nerves of everybody who watches and plays the game. They habitually hold up the action by bouncing the ball far too many times before serving. Not only does this practice show contempt for the guy waiting to receive at the other end of the court, but quite frankly, it bores the pants off the fans. It’s wrong and it’s about time serious action was taken to stop it.
Let’s study Nadal first. He makes a mockery of the rule in Grand Slam and Davis Cup tennis that states there should be no more than 20 seconds between the end of one point and the ball being served for the next. He calls for his towel, then fiddles with his underpants in that less-than-becoming manner, which has become his trademark. Finally, he steadies himself, gathers his focus and then sets out to bounce the ball about 15 times before getting it into play.
Djokovic can be even worse. Admittedly, he does not feel the need to rearrange his underwear for every point, but then his ball bouncing can become almost interminable. Those who have either the patience or the willpower have counted up to 25. Then, bizarrely, when the moment comes to serve, his action is very quick, which means that the opponent is almost taken by surprise.
Can we call this cheating? Certainly it contravenes the rules of the game. The fact that somebody as impeccably mannered as, say, Roger Federer regularly gets a little bit peeved underlines the need for this issue to be addressed. Are Nadal and Djokovic playing on the fact that umpires are not going to take hard-line action and therefore using the knowledge to give themselves an unfair advantage? The answer is irrefu-tably yes.
Stalling, of course, is nothing new. I can remember my early days on the tour and an American college player called Mark Dickson who came on the circuit and nearly sent us all to sleep by bouncing the ball 40-odd times before unleashing a ripper serve. There was another called Lloyd Bourne who was a college mate of the king of stalling, John McEnroe. Mac did not resort to ball bouncing. He simply used to stall the game by arguing with the umpire and even calling for the referee or supervisor.
I cast my mind back to the last time we played each other in a big match in the second round at Wimbledon in 1992, which he would eventually win after five sets. During the third set tie-breaker we were sometimes going three minutes between points as he was forever changing his racket.
Then there was the infamous Jimmy Connors shoelace routine, while Argentinian Guillermo Vilas worked out several tricks that didn’t just give himself a breather after a long point, but also played on his opponent’s concentration.
And I was no angel. I stalled with the best of them. The guy whose psyche I knew was best disturbed by a little gamesmanship, such as suddenly halting play because somebody was supposedly moving in the stands, was Ivan Lendl.
Why do people stall on serve? The answer is simple. The receiver is left wondering: “What’s going on? Will he hit the serve after five bounces, nine, or 15?” This means that the receiver’s concentration is constantly wavering and a player who doubts is often a player who loses. Trying to figure out when a multiple-bouncing server will finally begin his motion and hit the ball is like sprinters on the starting line attempting to anticipate the starter’s pistol.
So what can be done? For a start, the alphabet soup of tennis administration should unify the rule. As I’ve said, it’s 20 seconds in Grand Slams, Davis Cup and on the women’s tour, but on the ATP tour it is 25 seconds, so immediately players have a loophole. Often both Nadal and Djokovic are hit with warnings for slow play but nothing ever gets taken any further.
There is an automatic timer and the computers that all umpires have in the chair tells them when the server is taking too long but I’d like to see a clock in the corner of the court and a buzzer going off when the 20 or 25 seconds has elapsed.
I played in a Turbo Tennis exhibition event alongside Nadal in Zaragoza a couple of years ago and he was buzzed almost immediately. Rafa was, of course, the main attraction and who knows what would have happened if he had been disqualified. However, he knew that any more stalling could get him disqualified, so he quickened up. Surely this proves such things can work.
There are plenty of other rules that need examining. The let rule on serve for one, players abusing on-court treatment another. But two of the sport’s biggest names are doing the game no favours. Just a little bit of firmer offi-cialdom is the simple answer.