It's no secret that players like to take their time between points. During long and grueling rallies, it's understandable that players need a longer break once in a while. The top players have their routines, making sure everything is 'complete' before a point. Nadal likes to spend some thorough time with the towel, and Djokovic likes to bounce the ball repeatedly. That's no crime, is it? There's one rule that gets in the way of this, often at the worst possible times. A rule of 25 seconds between points (20 seconds in slams) is in action, but rarely enforced. Many players consistently break this rule, and 14-time Grand Slam champion Nadal has an infamous reputation for taking too long between his points. He clearly opposes the rule, often calling it a 'disaster' and 'wrong'.
In 2013, he gave a blistering critique: "The best points of the season are long rallies and amazing points," the Spanish Grand Slam champion said. "With this 25 seconds, you play a long rally and you think you can play another long rally next point? No." It's a legitimate argument. Long rallies are the show-stopping points in a match, they engage the crowd and add the necessary thrill in a contest. Without sufficient rest time, how can you expect an athlete to perform point after point? “The rules are there, but you cannot expect to play a six-hour match, play rallies of crazy points and rest 20 seconds.” he explained a few years ago.
Not only is the rule often unrealistic, it's not consistently enforced. Some umpires are loose about it, other rigorous. It's increasingly common for warnings to be given at difficult times such as break points, but violations are rare. A major incident that actually led to Nadal asking for umpire Carlos Bernardes to be removed from his matches, occurred in Rio de Janiero earlier this year. Rafa had mistakenly put on his shorts the wrong way around, and when he asked to change, Bernardes said he would give him a time violation warning if he did so. This resulted in Rafa having to perform an on-court short change. Although popular with female fans, it made a laughing stock of the rule.
It's not just Nadal that runs over time. During the Australian Open final in 2012, the gruelling 5 hour and 53 minute match, both players broke the rule. Nadal took an average of 30 seconds between points, and Djokovic an average of 33 seconds. Such a physically demanding battle clearly required extra time for the competitors to rest. However, if both Nadal and Djokovic had kept to the 20 second rule, the match would have been roughly one hour shorter.
Some fans have the opinion of 'the longer, the better', but when a match comes close to six hours, the audience can lose interest. Watching an exceptionally long match with a high proprtion of the time not actually being play can be bothersome. "I do believe that the officials could be a bit more tough on timing… Because at the end of the day I don’t want the fans to get frustrated and say you know, watch five points is going to take us five minutes, " Federer explains.
The most recent offender was Andy Murray, who in today's match against Joao Sousa received a warning from Pascal Maria. He complained that the screen showing the replay was right in his eyeline, distracting him from serving. We calculated that it was exactly four seconds after the replay finished to when the umpire gave him the warning. Obviously, Murray didn't have enough time. He lost a first serve, putting himself at a disadvantage. Whenever rules are enforced, they're often at peculiar times, today was just another example of that.
It's clearly a complex issue, but there are a few paths the ATP can now take to fix the issue. The time allowed could be extended to say 25 seconds, or 30 seconds in slams. Or, umpires could be stricter on upholding the rules. Certain time allowances could be allowed for different shot rallies. For example, a rally under fifteen shots could allow 25 seconds, and a rally over twenty five shots could allow 35 seconds. Alternatively, it could just be at the umpires discretion to decide if a rally should allow a longer time for players to recover.
Whatever the ATP decide to do, they need to do it quickly. The issue is becoming out of hand and even more laughable. More players are criticizing its inconsistency. Just how effective is the time violation warning?