Is it time for tennis to bring in shot clock?
By Douglas Robson, Special for USA TODAY Updated 1d 16h ago
INDIAN WELLS, Calif. – Novak Djokovic's five-set Australian Open thriller against Rafael Nadal left fans on their feet and the two players barely able to stand.
Prominent matches are stretching ever longer, a consequence not only of extensive baseline rallies and scarce net play but also because of blatant flouting of tennis' time rule.
As ESPN pointed out in its January broadcast, both players averaged more than 30 seconds between points — well above the 20 seconds allowed in Grand Slam play (regular ATP Tour events allow 25 seconds, another inconsistency).
Even after being warned by the umpire at the end of the second set, they remained well above the allowable limit.
Casual calculations show the match, which ended at 1:37 a.m. local time, would have run roughly an hour shorter had they stayed within the rule. The visible infringement by the sport's top two players has raised a Pandora's box of questions, not to mention attention and frustration among players, fans and media.
Roger Federer was unequivocal at the BNP Paribas Open here Wednesday.
"I think they are being too loose about it," the Swiss No. 3 said when asked if the time rule was being properly enforced by umpires.
Federer even took a swipe at his respected rival, Nadal, a notoriously pokey competitor. "I don't know how you can go through a four-hour match with Rafa and him never getting a time violation," he added.
Nadal, speaking Thursday, disagreed. He said the rule is being enforced properly but must be applied according to match conditions.
"The rules are there, but you cannot expect to play a six-hour match, play rallies of crazy points and rest 20 seconds," the No. 2 Spaniard said.
Federer, who plays with one of the quicker tempos on tour, is hardly alone in his call for better and more consistent enforcement. "It's the job of the referee to referee," Andy Roddick said last month. "So if guys are getting away with too much time, then it's not their fault."
Djokovic's obsessive ball bouncing and Nadal's protracted preening aside, ATP Tour and International Tennis Federation officials don't see between-point stalling as a widespread problem.
"The reason why this has become an issue is because two or three top players are slower than other players," said Enric Molina Mur, head of officiating for the ITF, which oversees the four Grand Slam tournaments and Davis Cup.
Mur, who spoke Wednesday by phone, concedes that there is room for improvement.
"I'd be lying if I said in every match it is being enforced properly," Mur added.
Like grunting, which some in the women's game feel pushes the limits of the hindrance rule, time violations border on cheating and certainly could be seen as gamesmanship.
Taking more than the allotted time negates a tactical advantage by allowing a physically drained opponent time to recover.
Some also say higher-ranked players receive preferential treatment. "If I try to do the same thing I'm going to get warning when the same person is spending 10 seconds longer," veteran American Michael Russell said. Ryan Harrison agrees that enforcement is "biased," but says top players have earned the luxury of extra leeway — though the rising American teenager sounded irritated that he received a time warning following a 42-shot rally in a first-round loss to No. 4 Andy Murray in Australia. While he backed away from calling time abuse cheating, the fiery 19-year-old says it is a problem.
"I'm in favor of consistency, and that's in all respects — foot faults, time violations, profanity in different languages," he said. Roddick, and Russell and Robby Ginepri are among those that would welcome an NBA-style electronic shot clock. "I think that would be a good idea," Ginepri said said las tmonth. "You have the radar gun there. Why not have it right above that?"
A shot clock has positives and negatives but might be too rigid, since many variables can contribute to a delay between points — crowd reaction, slow ball kids, conditions, length of rally and the natural playing tempos of players.
"Sometimes 20 seconds is more than adequate, and sometimes 25 seconds is clearly not long enough," Gayle Bradshaw, ATP executive vice president of rules and competition, wrote in an email. "This is why it is very difficult to critique a match solely by looking at a stopwatch."
Still others believe that the 20-25 second rule is no longer adequate considering the physical demands of the modern game. of the ITF, however, believes that 15 seconds is "reasonable" for a receiver to prepare to return serve.
If officials are increasingly aware of the chorus of concerns, they say there are few concrete changes in the works. Plus, Mur said, officials cannot suddenly ramrod stricter enforcement without educating players. It would be like cracking down on foot faulting, another lightly and patchily enforced rule.
"Like balls and strikes, we are striving for consistency in the enforcement of the rule and within the spirit of the rule," wrote Bradshaw, noting that the topic is sure to be discussed by the recently formed competition advisory group.
Mur is glad the issue is receiving more attention, especially because he considers 20 seconds for ITF events and 25 seconds for ATP events an unnecessary inconsistency.
"It won't be a good implementation without consensus," he says.
Federer, who does not favor a shot clock, hopes the game's various constituencies can come together, if for nothing else than a fear of driving fans away with drawn-out contests.
"It's a little thing," Federer says, "but you don't want to lose fans because of that."