It’s time tennis accepts and implements the 25-second shot clock
WIMBLEDON — It’s time for the fence-sitting Grand Slams to hop off and follow the US Open’s lead in adopting a 25-second shot clock to keep the game moving.
The US Open is committed to implementing an on-court clock intended to enforce the rule specifying players have 25 seconds to initiate play after a point ends. But the other majors have been dragging their feet in the clay, on the grass and over the hard courts in Melbourne.
Here at Wimbledon, the most traditional of events, chief executive Richard Lewis recently told the The Times of London, “‘It probably will happen. But we are not charging in because we do not think it is necessary.”
Mr. Lewis, perhaps it’s time to charge in.
This issue has been festering way too long. Poor enforcement of the time rules has had some damaging consequences, adding to the tedium of overlong matches and sometimes makes a mockery of the rule that the game proceeds at the pace of the server. Returners who make servers wait break the rules. You can’t sugarcoat that as “traditional.”
The reminder that the US Open, the first major to use Hawkeye in the main draw, will be the first to adopt the on-court shot clock was greeted here with the familiar range of reactions from players. Some major attractions, like Maria Sharapova and Juan Martin del Potro, basically said: No problem, we’ll work with it for the good of the game.”
Others, led by Rafael Nadal, fired broadsides at the lords of tennis. No surprise there: Nadal is the player most responsible for the growing preoccupation with players’ time between points, as well as millennials and younger fans who seem less willing to sit through four-hour tennis matches or lengthy towelings or baseline wanderings between points.
“Seems like sometimes [tennis] is only about the business, so I can’t support this, no,” Nadal said. “I don’t feel the matches that [made history in] our sport went that quick [Nadal snapped his fingers as he spoke]. I don’t remember emotional matches that the total time of those matches have been two hours. All the matches that have been important in the history of our sport have been four hours, five hours, 3:45.”
Reality check: The lords of tennis, and television, would jump for joy if a shot clock could make that big a difference, given that 120 minutes is much closer to the ideal length of a sports broadcast. The truth is, enforcing the already existing rule is more of a tweak, and its most important long-term benefit may be the added opportunity it offers for fan engagement.
Even Novak Djokovic took a swipe at the establishment here Tuesday, when he was asked about the shot clock. His beef was that players on the ATP council were not consulted on the matter. “I know that they’ve tried it out last year in [US Open qualifiers],” Djokovic said. “It was not too many negative comments about it, but it’s quite different if you introduce that to the show courts and main draw, playing best-of-five.”
Fair enough. Lobbing in a call to the council members would have been a nice courtesy; it might have produced some valuable input, as well. On the other hand, the players are not necessarily the best choice to run the asylum. And history has shown that, in general, players are inherently resistant to change. Heck, if you even mention eliminating the “let” serve, players go apoplectic.
The history of electronic line-calling is instructive. When viable technology first became available, there was great concern that it would make a quiet, relatively “cool” game downright cold. Tennis would become too “Big Brother,” lacking in the “human touch” provided by linespeople, no matter the unjustifiably large number of erroneous, outcome-affecting calls all those linesfolks made.
We saw the result: Hawkeye not only drastically cut down on the number of matches ruined by linecall controversies, but it has also added considerable value to the fan experience. The shot-clock protocols, if properly conceived and implemented, could similarly engage fans, even if no one is thrilled by the prospect of a stadium full of voices counting — “Four … three … two … one” — as Nadal is in the middle of his service motion.
The constituents in tennis all agree the game needs to evolve and adapt to changing times.
Four … three … two … one …
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