Beat The Clock: ATP’s New Time Rule

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If you’ve been confused or caught unawares of the ATP’s new time violation rule, don’t worry. Many players themselves are also scrambling (literally) in some matches to get up to speed (pun intended) on the new rule. While the debate continues on if the game itself will be helped as a whole by the new rule, its impact during the first few weeks of the new season is undeniable.

Not that the rule itself is new. Previously, servers had 25 seconds after a point ended to get ready and hit their next serve. If they went over that time limit, the umpire was in their rights to issue a warning. The next time a player went over the limit, the umpire was allowed to issue a point penalty.

Since few umpires felt comfortable making such a dramatic call, the rule was rarely enforced. The ATP Board of Directors back in September of last year voted to change the rule so that umpires, on the second time violation, would now be allowed to issue a fault, i.e. take away a player’s first serve. Subsequent violations would incur the same penalty though no points would be deducted for a player. Returners who take up too much time will, as in the previous rule, earn a point penalty.

Why the change? It depends on your favorite theory. Andy Murray, who has come out in support of the new rule, said in Brisbane that the ATP told the players the change was made in large part to last year’s Australian Open men’s final between Novak Djokovic and Rafael Nadal that ended up being the longest Grand Slam final in history. While Murray’s claim has not been officially confirmed, it does suggest that the ATP has been listening to complaints from fans that matches are getting too long to watch either in person or on T.V. The old adage that “less is more” may prove more advantageous to the ATP in the long-term for a professional sport competing in a crowded media and sports marketplace in an increasingly short-attention span world.

During last week’s events in Brisbane, Chennai, and Doha and now this week in Auckland and Sydney, several players have been penalized by the new rule and they were not happy about it. While the ATP did inform the players about the change, some player’s reactions have been quite vocal both in press conferences and through social media. Just the other day in Brisbane, John Isner was so disrupted by being called for a time violation multiple times that he actually told the umpire he couldn’t concentrate on his serve without worrying he was going over the time limit.

Isner, who ended up losing to Ryan Harrison, in some ways was right to complain. Isner is, by nature, a methodical player on the court who often saunters between points. After competing for years in matches at his own pace and with his own rituals before serving, Isner, like many players, is now being forced to alter these innate rhythms in order to meet a deadline that’s he never had to deal with before.

Players are already starting to adapt and hustling up to the line to serve, but will the rule help some and hinder others to the point that we’ll see an abrupt change in the rankings this season? Is the sport, with all of its grinding rallies and physical exertion, soon to go from “survival of the fittest” to “survival of the quickest”? Maybe, and that probably wouldn’t be such a bad thing.

For over a decade now, the professional game has been slowing down. Court surfaces around the world have been modified to make rallies longer and end the dominance that big servers had in the late 1990’s and in the 2000’s era. While this shift has created some dramatic and classic matches between the world’s best, it has also led to more grueling and physical matches that often are not compelling to watch at all, especially if they go over four hours or more. If the new time rule will signal a shift back to shorter matches with shorter rallies is anyone’s guess.

Though Djokovic and Nadal’s near six-hour marathon in Melbourne last year was truly epic, it’s not the sort of match few, except perhaps diehard fans of both players, would want to sit through in its entirety again. Whether or not it’s true the new time rule was created in response to that final, we may never know. But if the rule is administered correctly and with some discretion from umpires especially during a lengthy and important point during a match, then perhaps it will be a benefit to all. One thing is for sure; Djokovic and Nadal’s match will likely remain as the longest men’s Grand Slam final of all time since the new rule will ensure that it remains just that – history.

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