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Time violation in tennis: An uncomfortable problem

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A celeb gets asked an uncomfortable question at a press conference, and he shies away, refusing to commit a straightforward or honest reply. The media takes that as a sign that the celeb is unwilling to risk a little controversy for speaking his mind, and he’s labelled colourless for all eternity; no one takes him seriously anymore. Another celeb gets asked an uncomfortable question, and he climbs all over the press, going to town with his indignant, eloquently-worded views, with perhaps a good measure of opponent-bashing thrown in too. The media frowns upon the celeb for being a drama queen; no one takes this guy seriously anymore either. What’s the right way to deal with uncomfortable questions from the media? Is there a right way at all?

Roger Federer has tried a number of different approaches over his career, but his most tried and trusted method is to let his tongue run amok and pronounce exactly what’s on his mind. Sure, this approach has almost never worked well for him, but he sticks with it anyway. Federer, who is currently at the Indian Wells tournament, was asked by reporters on Wednesday to give his take on the time taken between points by players during matches. The obvious reference here was to Rafael Nadal and Novak Djokovic, who have been known to take longer than the legal limit of 25 seconds (the limit is 20 at the Slams) before serving. In classic Federer style, the Swiss let loose with a barrage of trying-to-be-polite-but-failing-spectacularly comments that clearly showed that he was not, in fact, alright with his opponents taking inordinately long breaks between points. And it was all smartly masked under the pretext of wanting what’s best for the fans. Here’s the transcript, if you don’t believe me:

“I do believe the officials could be a bit more tough on timing. I’m not complaining a lot, but I don’t know how you can go through a four-hour match with Rafa (Nadal) and he never gets a time violation. It’s natural that even I would go over time, but they never remind us. There are times when they could be a bit more firm. Because at the end of the day, I don’t know if fans are getting frustrated to watch five points that are going to take us five minutes.”

Yes, that does make Federer sound like a petulant drama queen. But the reason that’s frustrating is not because it shows Federer in bad light, but because it may take the focus away from what is an extremely important issue. Nadal and Djokovic have been flouting the time violation rule for years now, and they’ve been getting away with it rather comfortably. They’ve both been warned at various times for not adhering to the rule, but that’s been the extent of the punishment handed out to them. Neither Nadal nor Djokovic has ever been given a point penalty for time violation, despite continuing to go over the limit even after being given warnings by the referee. And this, despite the rule book being unambiguously clear on this issue – you go over the limit after being warned, you get docked a point.

Both Nadal and Djokovic have so far refused to give any indication that they’re even trying to avoid blatantly take their own sweet time between points. That’s a tiny bit alarming; it’s almost as if they know that no umpire will ever have the courage to actually implement the rule. And that is a horrible reflection on the tennis authorities whichever way you look at it. Ever wondered how much time their terrific, nearly 6-hour long Australian Open final would have taken if they had both stuck to the time limit? According to Kamakshi Tandon over at the ESPN site,  the match would have lasted 4 hours 43 minutes instead of the unreal 5 hours 53 minutes it actually took. The match suddenly lost a lot of its aura, didn’t it?

All of this would’ve been making a big fuss out of nothing if there was no reason to believe that Nadal and Djokovic’s transgressions help them in any way during their matches. But there’s reason to believe that alright. Nadal is widely known to be a control freak armed with his fixed set of routine habits, and you can see that in almost everything he does on the court: the way he carefully arranges his bottles at the side of his chair, the way he sprints to the net for the coin toss, the way he tugs at his shorts before every serve. And by taking his own time between points, he controls another thing: the tempo of the match. They say Nadal plays every point exactly the same way, irrespective of the score, and that’s what makes him such a great competitor. But to do that, he has to be able to play every point at the same pace, which he manages to accomplish by controlling the pace of the point.

Djokovic’s time violations are a little more circumstantial. They most often occur at the really important points in a match: 30-all points, break points, set points, match points. Ball-bouncing is what takes up most of Djokovic’s time, of  course; the bigger the point, the higher the number of bounces. And if you’ve ever played tennis at any level, you’d know that being made to wait longer than normal on a crucial point can easily make you nervous and start rushing into your strokes. Maybe this is far too elementary a matter to bother most top-quality players on the pro circuit, but if there’s even a single player who is in any way affected by this, it would amount to cheating.

That’s not all, of course. I haven’t even begun on the effect that slow play can have on the audience experience of watching a tennis match. Federer may not have been entirely truthful when he said he was concerned about this issue just because it may turn off some viewers, but there’s no denying that it’s far more enjoyable to watch a match played at a fast clip than to watch a match where you need to switch channels after every point. Long-drawn, gladiatorial battles on the tennis court sound good on paper, but they make for exhausting viewing. I’d go so far as to say that a video clip of the marathon John Isner-Nicolas Mahut match from Wimbledon 2010 can possibly be used as an effective tool for torture. If grunting/shrieking has snowballed into a major issue on the WTA because of its adverse effects on viewership, then logically, time violation should get some attention too.

Nadal has come out with a response to Federer’s uncharitable comments, but that response only serves as evidence that tennis players, even those as measured and thoughtful as Nadal, make major goof-ups sometimes. Nadal actually went on record saying that the time violation rule should be discretionary, and that it should be up to the umpire’s interpretation whether to enforce the rule or not. So if the umpire thinks that a match has been too taxing on the players, he should allow them to rest for longer than 25 seconds between points. Really, Rafa? There are so many things wrong with that line of thinking that I don’t even know where to begin. If a player makes a foot fault when down match point, should the umpire use his discretion and not call it? If a player slips, falls and loses the point, should the umpire use his discretion and have the point be replayed? Rules are there for a reason, and if ‘discretion’ was used in their implementation, specially in a sport as competitive and precise as tennis, the mayhem it would lead to would be impossible to handle.

Nadal and Djokovic are extraordinary tennis players, and their recent encounters have taken the sport to heights seldom, if ever, seen before. But that doesn’t mean they should be given a pass for their transgressions, as minor as may they seem. It’s not fair to their opponents, and it’s not fair to the viewers. With all that in mind, it won’t be all that outrageous to enforce the time rule a little more stringently and put an end to the discussion, will it? It’s a pity that Federer chose a few too many ill-advised words to highlight this simple point.


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