We all wish we could have an extra minute in our daily lives. To finish an exam, to catch a train, or even one to add to the DVR when your favorite show runs past the hour.
But as matches become more physical, more intense, and more high-stakes affairs, tennis players have begun taking time into their own hands. What is meant to be a brief respite after one point – 20 seconds at majors and on the WTA, 25 on the ATP – often becomes a 40-60 second siesta to regroup and recover for the next. That time is arguably spent to deliver spectators a better product, but those precious moments taken to hop, skip, and jump (and that’s just Rafael Nadal) take time away from those paying for that product in the first place. East Coast viewers could have taken a 5AM zumba class in the 70 extra minutes Nadal and Novak Djokovic took between points during the 2012 Australian Open final.
While it is clear this phenomenon has become problematic, both time violations and their resulting punishments – a warning for a first offense, a missed first serve on the ATP and at the Grand Slams, and a point penalty at WTA events for a second – continue to be met with indignant incredulity. Players throw up their hands and take more even time to argue the infraction with the umpire. Commentators sway on their opinion of the rule with the wind – and with whoever is headlining the marquee – claiming justice for all one minute, privilege for the game’s best the next.
The inconsistency of the rule’s enforcement allows leverage for an increasingly cantankerous elite, many of whom are now calling for a shot clock to keep everyone honest. A familiar apparatus to fans of most team sports, a shot clock in tennis would presumably be positioned in plain sight. From the moment the preceding point ends, the clock would begin, and run down to its appointed time when, players claim, officials would be sufficiently empowered to do their job.
Only Mylan World TeamTennis has attempted to take elements of other sports and integrate them into a game which prides itself on staid traditionalism. The co-ed pro league’s varying levels of success with those endeavors should serve to illustrate why the main tours are not as quick to install such intrinsic deviations. A shot clock blends well into other sports because it is constantly running. Where tennis matches are fairly open-ended, sports like hockey, football, and basketball give their respective matches and games time limits from the start. Their buzzers do not signal an end to pre-serve rituals; they punctuate periods, quarters, and halves, depending on your sport of choice.
The shot clock in tennis would serve an entirely different purpose, and thus engender potentially different reactions. At their pristine ideal, the moments immediately before and during a point in a tennis match are conducted in utter silence. Raucous teammates are absent from this, an individual sport. Face-painted fans allow their body art to speak for itself. But as fans “ooh” and “ahh” over a Hawkeye challenge, so too would they join in to count down from 10…9…8… as if the Times Square Ball were dropping from the umpire’s chair.
Does this scenario think too little of tennis fans? Is it wrong to assume we would all bark like seals as an ever-moving clock wound down to zero?
Perhaps, if not for the introduction of a little historical context. This past January, a rare countdown clock appeared on the final day of the U.S. Figure Skating Nationals, where athletes are given no more than a minute to take their place on the ice and begin their program. Gold Medalist Jeremy Abbott risked disqualification as he skated about unaware of the ticking clock. Had it not been for the help of counting fans, the American might have missed out on a ticket to the Winter Olympics in Sochi, Russia. That Abbott completed his program with few mistakes should be a point in the shot clock’s favor. But where skaters can build up to 20 seconds into their programs to ease into more difficult elements, tennis players have to begin each point with laser-sharp focus. A sudden gust of wind or noise from a low-flying plane is often enough to disrupt a serve, even one already in motion.
Tennis players aren’t merely personalities. They’re Sugarpova flavors. Are these really the kinds of people you would expect not to become upset with a rowdy crowd counting down to an already nerve-wracking moment?
To be clear, debunking a solution does not eliminate the problem. An official clock would, in theory, help keep all important parties accountable. Its presence at a tennis match would likely shorten the time taken between points. The location of the clock is where the solution succeeds or fails.
Give it to the umpire.
We already trust the umpire to call “time” at the end of changeovers, proving an unimpeachable ability to count past the requisite 20 and as high as 90. From the end of each point, the umpire’s shot clock could commence; it could even be made large enough for a player to see it. The umpire is empowered, the players cannot argue, and the crowd is kept out of the entire exchange.
Every point. No exceptions.
Therein lies a possible rub. A umpire’s shot clock would unequivocally end the abuse of a much maligned rule. It would also mark the end of any and all subjectivity when it comes to said rule’s application. One-two punches and 60-shot rallies would all be followed by a break of no more than 20-25 seconds. Strange as it may be to see a player ask for a towel after serving an ace, would it not be just as strange to, after a scintillating rally, hold a player to a recovery time less than half as long as the point itself?
Revolutions have ripple effects; is this one worth fighting for?