US Open to use serve clock in main draw

The US Open was the first to experiment with strict limits on the warmup period and time between points in its qualifying and junior events last year. This year, the last Grand Slam tournament of the season is taking it one step further.

According to a story from the New York Times, warmup limits and 25-second  “shot clock” will be used in the main draw events as well this year.

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“Pace of play is a major issue in sports today. We recognize that and we want to be ahead of it,” USTA spokesman Chris Widmaier told the Times.

Were there any concrete science concluding the time-conservation rules resulted in an actual shortening of matches, no doubt someone (the Australian Open used the same rules in its own qualifying in January) would have produced it.

If matches are going longer these days, it more likely due to the fact that points are being shortened at the net a lot less frequently than in past eras. As a result, long rally after long rally means many matches can average an hour a set.

Qualifying experiment drama-free

Anecdotally, from walking around the courts all day at the qualifying both in New York last summer and Melbourne in January, there were very few instances where the players went over the 25-second limit between points. 

The serve clock did highlight players who were especially quick, though. There were many who typically took 15 seconds or less. But at least at the qualies level, the vast majority of the players just get on with it.

Sometimes, the conversation between the chair umpire and the two players at the net had to be extended. The umpires had to explain the changes. And it seemed that some players actually hadn’t gotten the memo.

Some were worried about being penalized for not being ready to serve at the start of matches. So they shortened their five-minute warmup period.

In the feature pic at the top, Canadian Françoise Abanda is heading back to the baseline to serve – with time left in the regular warmup period. The one-minute period between the end of the warmup and when the first serve must be struck hadn’t even begun.

Rafael Nadal will be pleased – not

At the main draw level – especially in its upper reaches – the proportion of time-wasters seems bigger. 

With all his rituals, Rafael Nadal is the most-mentioned offender. But he’s not alone. In recent months, Novak Djokovic has returned to his endless ball-bouncing ways. And Marin Cilic, out of nowhere, also has added a ball-bouncing ritual that takes up a lot of time.

(And yes, the perpetrators most often are on the men’s side – especially now that the human rain delay, Russia’s Maria Kirilenko, is retired).

(Note that the commentators – especially the former players, are absolutely no help in enforcing the rules).

Djokovic and Nadal probably set off all this focus on time with their five hour, 53-minute marathon at the Australian Open in 2012.

By the next year, the umpires were given directives to strictly enforce the existing rule. It was on the books, but they’d been notoriously lax with it. Many also are loath to be the bad guys and gals with players, by coming down on them about it.

Hot weather, longer breaks

According to a USA Today story, there were 36 time violations in the first five days of the Qatar Open, during the first week of that 2013 season. Guillermo Garcia-Lopez and Gaël Monfils in Doha, Marcos Baghdatis and Andy Murray in Brisbane, and Tomas Berdych in Chennai were among the perps.

By 2015, it came to a head in Rio de Janeiro between Nadal and longtime chair umpire Carlos Bernardes.

It doesn’t appear that Nadal has received significantly more time violation warning and sanctions than before. He also doesn’t seem to have speeded up very much.

But with the evidence right there on the serve clock for everyone in the stadium and at home to see, it’s going to create a very interesting dynamic for the time-wasters on the circuit.

The umpires themselves, and when they actually start the 25-second serve clock after points, will be under the microscope. They are allowed leeway after long points, on hot days and if there are crowd disturbances.

(Note Tommy Haas getting into trouble – at what is now his own tournament at Indian Wells).

No more lollygagging at the chair

But it’s more than just the 25 seconds.

Nadal also is one of the bigger lollygaggers after he arrives on court for a match.

How many times do you see the opponent, the umpire and whoever is out there to perform a coin toss standing at the net making awkward conversation for what seems an eternity? Meanwhile, Nadal arranges his bags, his drinks, sits down, has a little snack and only then finally gets to the net.

Now, the Mallorcan will have exactly one minute. The times we’ve put the clock on him, he’s typically taken three times that. He’ll have to snack in the locker room.

In one sense, it’s unfair to spring this on players in the middle of the season. They will not have had to deal with restrictions like this for a full eight months only to suddenly find themselves at a Grand Slam with additional elements to focus on.

The tennis authorities should really do it at the big tournaments in Canada and Cincinnati that lead up to the US Open. That would give the players a chance to practice it, get used to it, and not be distracted by it in New York.

Of course, that would require cooperation between the ATP, WTA and ITF. And we know how rarely that happens in tennis.

At any rate, it’s done. 

We await Nadal’s reaction next week, when he arrives in Monte Carlo.

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