Winds of change blow through majors

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The US Open kicked the mothballs out of the Grand Slam trunk , with its radical ideas about quick walk-ons and shot clocks during the qualifying and the juniors.

And so, the Australian Open – the Happy Slam – will take it a few leagues further.

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The Grand Slam Board met in London last Wednesday and Thursday.

And they’ve come up some new twists for 2018. As well, the board has floated another planned change. And it’s one that will have fans talking right up until the action begins in Melbourne.

The first move is that the Australian Open was granted a waiver from the ITF’s standard rule of 20 seconds between points (which is more or less unenforceable anyway, especially if it’s extremely hot).

The time between points in Melbourne will now be 25 seconds, as it is on the ATP and WTA Tour. And it will be enforced by a shot clock on court. 

It seemed, at the beginning, that the new rules would apply to both the qualifying and the main draw. The press release was vague; and that would have been a major change.

But Tennis.Life confirmed with Grand Slam Board director Bill Babcock that the rule will, as it did at the US Open, only apply to the qualifying.

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Walk on, warm up, hurry up

But, as in the qualifying rounds in New York and the Next-Gen Finals in Milan, the time leading up to matches will be strictly controlled. 

And that does apply to the main draw as well.

The players will have one minute from the walk-on to the pre-match meeting and coin toss at the net. They’ll have five minutes to warm up. And they’ll have one minute to start the first game once the umpire calls time on the warmup.

Violation of this timing “may subject a player to a fine up to $20,000”.

(Screenshots from TennisTV.com)

Look for many more of the men to opt to receive rather than serve, if they win the toss. The hustle and kerfuffle in that brief period at the end of the warmup up to the start of the match can be enough to throw a player right off, if they have to serve first.

First-round retirements addressed

After you digest the news above, the next bit of news is a welcome bit.

No longer will the Grand Slam tournaments have players who aren’t fit to play show up to collect first-round losers’ prize money.

You can’t blame them. The stakes are substantial (it was $50,000 at the US Open in September). And if you have managed to get your ranking into the top 100, you’re certainly entitled to come and collect it, because you earned that right.

However, for competitive balance and all those other good reasons, it’s not great.

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So in 2018, the Grand Slams will allow a main-draw player who is unfit to play the opportunity to withdrwa and receive 50 per cent of his or her prize money. The deadline will be Thursday noon before the start of the main draw.

Tough dilemma for borderline cases

Lucky losers who replace any such player get the other 50 per cent, plus whatever else they can earn if they advance.

If that’s not incentive enough, there’s a penalty on the back end. The Grand Slam Board stated it this way:

“Any player who competes in the First Round Main Draw singles and retires or performs below professional standards, may now be subject to a fine up to First Round Prize Money in 2018.”

Beyond the excessive capitalization, the key word there may well be “may”. 

A player could well have a new injury occur during that match. Or, in the case of potential extreme conditions in Australia, have heat-related issues. And the decision that a player has “performed below professional standards” is a tough one to make if a playable injury worsens during the match.

But it’s a significant fine: a player could forfeit as much as the entire first-round loser’s check.

The ATP trialed something similar during its just-completed season.

Now, the pièce de résistance…

As if the announcements Tuesday weren’t enough, the Grand Slam board dangled a carrot out there that has basically obscured most of the other changes.

“The 2018 Grand Slam tournaments will continue with 32 seeds in singles and intend to revert to 16 seeds in 2019.”

That means they won’t do it this year. And the word “intend” presupposes they expect to process plenty of opposition to the move. 

No word on whether those attending the meeting in the secret chambers sounded out the two Tours, and their player councils, for input before making the decision. If they failed to, they’ll certainly get that feedback now.

Here’s an analysis from Tennis Abstract of the effects of 32 seeds.

Had the new rule been in place in Australia, it could have caused all sorts of chaos.

Ghost of seedings past

The Grand Slams moved from 16 seeds to the current 32 just before Wimbledon in 2001. The previous year, French Open champion Gustavo Kuerten (who had just defended his title when the change was announced), had complained about a seeding system that put clay-court standouts at a disadvantage and had announced he was going to skip Wimbledon that year because of a sore groin.

As well, Venus Williams – seeded No. 2 at the French Open – had just gone out in the first round to No. 25 Barbara Schett of Austria.

The flashback to the old seeding system had already been floating around during the ATP Tour Finals last week. 

Roger Federer was not averse. Of course, he remembers when there were only 16 seeds.

“You have these stairs that can make you feel safe and I feel like there’s too many to get to the top. It’s hard to drop out and it’s hard to get into. Having 16 seeds? That might be interesting. The draw could be more volatile, better matches in the first week,” he said in the leadup to the ATP Tour Finals.

“The top guys have made a habit of, not cruising, but getting through the first week quite comfortably for a long period of time. Playing against the No. 17, 19 or 20 in the world is not something I really want to do, but it is what it is.”

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