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.

“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.

Mischa Zverev hit with major “performance” fine

MELBOURNE, Australia – The new International Tennis Federation rule for the Grand Slams followed the ATP Tour’s solution for handling first-round injury retirements.

If you were not fit to play, you could withdraw and still take home half your first-round loser’s money.

In the Australian Open’s case, that’s half of a tidy $60,000 (AUD), or nearly $48,000 (US).

But if you chose to play, and the officials at the tournament determined you didn’t “perform to a professional standard”, they would assess you a “first-round performance fine”.

And, they warned in advance, it could be significant.

Well, the first fine has been handed out. And it went to veteran German lefty Mischa Zverev, Alexander’s older brother. 

And it is significant; $45,000 US – nearly all of the first-round loser’s purse he collected when he retired down 2-6, 1-4 to quarterfinalist Hyeon Chung.

Matter of interpretation

Here’s the problem, though: it seems as though Zverev was a borderline case.

On the other side of the ledger, Zverev has a pretty significant number of retirements on his playing record. The one against Chung was the 37th of his career. 

Then again, Zverev has been injured more than most, as well.

But here’s the thing. Zverev wasn’t out of the tournament after that defeat. He was still in the doubles with Paolo Lorenzi of Italy.

Zverev was barely moving during his first-round doubles match at the Australian Open. But that apparently was enough to pass muster with the powers that decide what a “professional performance” is. (Stephanie Myles/Tennis.Life)

We watched a big chunk of that match. Zverev was barely moving.

He would serve and just walk a few steps and hope the first volley was within his reach.

The “performance” fine Zverev was assessed is for “not performing up to a professional standard” in the match. The players, under the microscope here, don’t even have to retire mid-match for this to kick in, from what we can see. But that is one factor.

If feels as though the information mentioned by the German tennis writer who Tweeted above was probably available, since you’d think Zverev would consult the tournament doctor. Or, they could ask him, look into it a little and determine whether he legitimately had no shot at finishing the match before he decided to carry on and play.

Perhaps they did. Perhaps.

Only one first-round retirement

There no doubt were some players who lost in the first round who were either sick (there was a ‘flu bug going around the tournament earlier in the week, we’re told) or taking painkillers. 

No other players retired in the first round of either the women’s or men’s singles draws. The only other singles retirement so far, through the quarterfinals, was Gilles Simon in the second set of his second-round match against Pablo Carreño Busta of Spain.

Zverev didn’t get dinged for walking through his doubles match, for which he and Lorenzi each earned $9,250 AUD ($7,400 US) for losing 6-2, 6-2 to the No. 1 seeds, Lukasz Kubot and Marcelo Melo.

Paire’s underhanded tactics

And what of Benoit Paire, who served half-serves and underhand serves in a 6-4, 6-2 second-round loss to Dominic Inglot and Marcus Daniell, with partner Hugo Nys.

The “professional standard” of the serving, which often didn’t break 60 miles an hour and seemed to be due to an abdominal injury, was debatable.

But Paire finished the match. And the pair collected their prize money, splitting nearly $30,000 AUD for reaching the second round.

Color this fellow unimpressed.

Paire and Nys upset the No. 13 seeds in the first round. We’ll see if Paire’s effort in this one gets reviewed.

(Side point: Paire hates it when people serve underhand to him).

(Second side point: the Frenchmen won SIX games in this match, despite that)

If the Grand Slam Board was trying to make an example out of Zverev, to ensure that the first year of the experiment with the split prize money was seen to be effective, it may well have worked.

But in the case of Zverev, it seems they failed to consider that there’s a grey area between being unable to complete, and being compromised but still able to compete – even in a losing effort.

Significant changes to WTA Tour in ’18

The WTA Tour’s Board of Directors met at the US Open to debate a host of proposed changes for next year.

Tennis.Life has learned that a good number of them were adopted.

Some are a matter of minor housekeeping.

Some are more significant.

Here’s a summary of the changes that will go into effect at the beginning of the 2018 season.

Only a few of the proposals didn’t make it through the approval process. It seems as though most are fairly sensible. And the first one was definitely prompted by the number of high-level players making their way back up the rankings in 2018.

Yes, that means Serena. But she’s not the only one.

The Serena-Sharapova-Azarenka Rule

Until this year, International-level tournaments were allowed to take so-called “top-20” wild cards left unused by the WTA and award them to players not only in the top 20, but who also were former Grand Slam, WTA Tour Finals or Premier Mandatory tournament champions or had been ranked No. 1.

But Premier and Premier 5 events didn’t have the same flexibility. Those wild cards had to go to top-20 players.

As of 2018, all the tournament levels will be able to use those wild cards under the more relaxed criteria. In other words, any tournament except the Premier Mandatories will be able to offer the likes of Serena Williams, Maria Sharapova or Victoria Azarenka one of those top-20 wild cards (subject to the wild-card limits).

Time violations now in line with ATP

The time-violation rule doesn’t seem to be nearly as much of an issue on the WTA Tour, compared to the ATP Tour. But the rules will now be the same.

As of 2018, the serving player will be docked the loss of a first serve for each time-violation after the initial warning. For the returner, it will remain a point penalty.

The time between points, though, will stay at 20 seconds (unlike the ATP Tour, where it is 25).

Maternity leave restrictions eased

The rules for a player taking a maternity leave were significantly more restrictive than those for a player coming back from an injury or illness.

Those players didn’t have a limit as to how long they could be out. But players who left the tour to have a baby had to be “ready to play their first tournament within 12 months of the birth of their child.”

No longer. The rules are the same for both.

Break for young junior Slam finalists

Until this year, a 14-year-old who reached a junior Grand Slam final wasn’t allowed to add an extra pro event – called a “merited increase” – to her schedule for the year. That only applied to juniors aged 15-17.

That will change in 2018, although any 14-year-old who earns one must use it the following year, no later.

Marta Kostyuk (pictured) was 14 when she won the junior Australian Open. Amanda Anisimova was 14 when she reached the junior French Open final. And Cori Gauff was just 13 when she reached the junior US Open final this year. (Stephanie Myles-Tennis.Life)

Keep you mikes on, coaches – or else!

Coaches who “accidentally” fail to turn on their microphones as they head out for an on-court consult with their player, or remove it from where it’s attached to their clothing, or somehow obstruct the sound will find their players heavily penalized in 2018.

(That’s assuming, of course, that the rule is enforced).

If it happens, the coach won’t be allowed to come back out on court for the rest of that tournament – and for the next tournament as well. And the player involved won’t be allowed to designate another coach to come on court for that same two-tournament period.

If the coach works with more than one player, that applies to the others as well.

Muguruza coach Sam Sumyk has been known to tamper with his on-court coaching mike a time or two.

The “week-before-Slam” dance is done

The practice of players entering a tournament the week before a Grand Slam even though they’re entered in the qualifying of the Slam – i.e., entering two events the same week – seems to be a thing of the past as of 2018.

That’s a practice that has led to a ton of last-minute withdrawals, lack of best effort, and all sorts of bad optics. Events like Sydney and Hobart, held the week before the Australian Open and during the week of the qualifying (which begins on the Wednesday), are examples of tournaments that get crushed with late pullouts.

Sydney and Hobart were pretty decimated a year ago, and the WTA Tour wants to avoid a repeat.

As of 2018, if a player enters one of these tuneup events (whether it’s main draw, or alternate, or qualifying, or even doubles) and is also entered in the Slam qualifying as of 4 p.m. the day before the WTA Tour event’s qualifying begins, she’ll automatically be removed from the WTA event list. 

The only exception to that is if a player takes part in the WTA event, gives best effort and loses – and then is offered a wild card into the Slam qualifying.

There are no penalties for those automatic withdrawals. But there is new language added in terms of the significantly higher penalties players might incur if they do play that tuneup event and play the Slam qualifying the same week, or fail to give their best effort. (That shouldn’t happen, though, if the player is automatically withdrawn from the WTA entry list).

As a result, the qualifying draw in Hobart in January may be reduced from 32 players to 24, although that’s to be confirmed.

No doubling up for qualifiers

Finally, the WTA Tour has realized that the rule about a player being allowed to postpone their first-round qualifying match a day to allow her time to get from her previous event is patently unfair to the opponent.

If the opponent wins, she will usually have to play a second match the same day (where her opponent may not have to), through no fault of her own, because she was waiting on site.

Player will no longer be able to play qualifying unless they are out of all events at their previous tournaments no later than the day of the qualifying sign-in deadline, which is typically the day before qualifying begins. 

She can only sign in for qualifying if can feasibly travel quickly enough to get there on time.  If she ends up not making it, she’ll be subject to late withdrawal and no-show fines.

 The re-seed shuffle is simplified

When a seeded player withdraws from a tournament after the draw is made, it’s always a dance. The bigger the tournament and the more seeded players there are, the more complicated it is.

Three moves to two, five moves to three, nine moves to five, 13 moves to nine, 17 moves to 13, and so on. 

The notion behind that was to keep the quality of each section as high as possible, and not leave a big hole. But it throws the whole draw out of whack.

As of 2018, it will be a lot simpler.

It’s broken down into “before and after” – i.e., before the schedule of play has been released, and after.

If it’s before, the high-ranked unseeded player or team moves into the spot that had belonged to the seeded player who pulls out. That’s also true in draws with byes in which all the seeded players have byes (i.e., a 48-player draw).

If only some of the seeds have byes (i.e., a 56-player draw), the No. 9 seed (who wouldn’t have a bye) moves into that vacant spot, and the highest-ranked unseeded player moves into the No. 9 seed’s spot.

If the withdraw comes after the order of play is released – but before play has begun – the same basic rules apply.

If play has begun, the lucky loser or alternate takes the seeded player’s spot, wherever it it, bye or no bye.

In the qualifying, the procedure is even more straightforward. The next in takes the place of the seeded player, whether the order of play is out or play has begun.

Proposals that didn’t make the cut

The above outlines most of the proposals that were adopted.

There were a couple of others that were rejected by the board.

-increasing per diems and adding eligibility

-changing back to advantage scoring in the first two sets of doubles matches

Winds of change blow through majors

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.

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.”

New rules wrinkles ready for US Open

They’re not going to touch the rules in the main-draw singles, doubles or mixed. At least not at this US Open.

But the final Grand Slam of the season will expand the baby steps it took a year ago when the juniors event was played with a a serve clock.

This year, the innovations have been expanded to the qualifying, wheelchair event,  and legends. Basically, everything but the three main events will fall under the new rules.

The biggest change will be on the on-court coaching.

If you want to be cynical, you’d say that the US Open is only legitimizing what is already going on. But the women already have official on-court coaching timeouts during the regular WTA Tour season. This will be a completely new thing for the men.

It could well be a free-for-all. Or it could be great fun for the fans.

All coaching, all the time

Tennis is a sport that that widely considers the inner problem-solving skills on court to be an asset. But the notion of the increased dependance of the players on their coach is a subject for another day.

The coaches now will be allowed to talk to their players between points. When the player is on the same side of the court, the coach, or coaches can actually speak to the player.

(That definition, per the USTA, means “those in the designated player box”).

Not only that, when the player is on the opposite side of the court, the coaches can use signals.

They’ll have to start practicing those now.

Except they can’t practice during the warmup events the next two weeks. Because it’s illegal. Oops.

Signals from the coaching box, long in use even when forbidden, will now become legit. Papa Giorgi would have a field day if daughter Camila was in the qualifying.  (Stephanie Myles/Tennis.Life)

We’re having a vision of a coach, super-coach, physio and assorted parents – maybe even a husband or wife or two – all yelling at a player between points.

But hopefully they’ll contain themselves.

On-court clock expanded

The second biggest innovation is the expansion of the on-court clock.

In addition to the serve clock, it seems as though the players now will be on the clock, all the time.

The clock was debuted at the junior event last summer, with very few issues.

The break with the standard ITF Grand Slam rules is that the time between points will be 25 seconds. That’s how it is on the ATP and WTA Tours the rest of the season. Generally in the majors, it has been a rather unrealistic – and unenforceable – 20 seconds.

The clock begins after the chair umpire announces the score, which gives the umpire some leeway to allow for fan noise or other distractions.

The clock also will be used on the warmup period, which usually is clocked by the umpire. After that five-minute period, the players have 60 seconds to start play.

Hopefully, that will mean all the bag relocating, snacking, drinking and other things that occur after the end of the warmup will be eliminated.

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It won’t eliminate all of the dilly-dallying that happens before the warmup starts.

But baby steps.

Hurry-up-and-change rules

The “change of attire” time limit will be five minutes. At the moment it’s, well, kind of fluid. But the clock will only start when the players enter the changing room, and stop when they come out. That would be unrealistic; not all courts are conveniently close to a place for the players to change or use the washroom.

And, of course, if the reason for taking the bathroom break really is legit – and there are any issues, er, performing – the player could be penalized.

Fans sitting on court waiting will count that down, too.

The Grand Slam board reviewed the changes (obviously the change from 20 to 25 seconds between points is the big one). And the changes were “made in consensus with the two tours” and “approved by the ITF Rules of Tennis Committee. According to a statement from USTA executive Stacey Allaster:

“Both throughout the event and following its completion, we will gather and analyze data and reaction, and determine the next steps for future usage, as well as the potential for further innovation in other areas of the game.”

Juniors trial in 2016 uneventful

If it works the way it did last year for the serving clock, the various uses of the shot clock will certainly give the chair umpires more busy work to do. And that take away from the job they are actually there to do. As well, it will take some getting used to.

Through the week of the junior event, tennis.life was told last year, the chair umpire punched in and announced the score, then started the serve clock. They began with a longer grace period before starting the clock. As the week progressed, they squeezed that grace period a few seconds at a time.

It appeared to be far less of a challenge with the juniors than it may prove to be with the pro players in the qualifying this year.

Rarely, during the many junior matches tennis.life observed last year, did the juniors overstep the limits of the clock. It didn’t beep when it ran down to zero, so at least that wasn’t a distraction. And rarely were the players called for it, even when it did.

First trial with the grownups

It will be fascinating to see how some of the slower players in the big boys and girls’ qualifying react to it. And, more pertinently, how strict the chair umpires are in enforcing it.

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The serve clock was in use last year during the juniors. It seemed most of the fans on hand didn’t even notice; there rarely was any reaction from them when it ticked down to zero. (Stephanie Myles/Tennis.Life)

There are already rules in place for time between points that the umpires should be timing, even if it’s not visible on the scoreboard. And they don’t enforce those the way they should.

Obviously there will now be public pressure from the fans watching, who will know exactly how much time there is.

There will be no change in the whole injury timeout process. And that’s the place where the opponent is most penalized. Some of those timeouts last well over 10 minutes, because the notion of “evaluation period” is loose. As well, the five-minute prescribed period for treatment is flaunted time and time again when the players have to go off-court to get a more sensitive body area taped.

You just hope the fans won’t start counting down the clock every time it gets under 10 seconds – for whatever reason.

Between the fans counting, and the coaches and entourage yelling at the players, it could be quite cacaphonous in the worst-case scenario.

So much for “quiet, please”.