On this last day of the year, Diogenes was delighted that the ATP World Tour has resumed after its annual six week off-season. Live play began today from the Persian Gulf state of Qatar, a relatively secular Arab state with a striking new skyline of eclectic modern skyscrapers. The incredibly international nature of the tour was reinforced while watching the first televised match on the Tennis Channel between the Italian Simone Bolelli and Spaniard Daniel Gimeno-Traver.
A new rule was put into effect for this season that ought to improve the viewing experience for the fans. The server has 25 seconds from the end of the last point to put the ball in play. Players today are mostly the products of academies that teach students to employ serving rituals to focus their attention as they step up to serve. Until this year, tour players regularly took three or four balls from ball kids to choose which two to use, even though six balls are used in tour matches and changed every 9 games, so there is not a lot or difference between them. In addition, many players toweled off between almost every point whether or not they were profusely perspiring. These routines sometimes elongated time between play to 45 seconds. (Imagine club play with opponents taking these kinds of delays, especially in New York, where we pay for court time by the hour and someone is always waiting to take your court when your time is up. In the absence of umpires, many would be tempted to club their opponents!)
Until now, umpires would issue a warning to players for time code violations. Additional time delays were supposed to be progressive in that they would result in the loss of the point. As a result, it was very rare for umpires to call second time violations. The new rule calls for umpires to start a clock which only they can see at the end of a point, and call a time violation at 25 seconds if the ball is not in play. The penalty is loss of the first serve. Subsequent violations are not progressive and results in loss of the next serve whether it is a first or second.
Tennis is one of few sports where there is no time limit to finish. Players must win 2 of 3 sets in regular tournaments, and 3 of 5 sets in Grans Slam events. This can sometimes result in very long matches. At the 2012 Australian Open final in January, Novak Djokovic defeated Rafa Nadal (two notoriously slow players) in the longest slam match in history, needing 5 hours and 53 minutes to prevail. In addition to scheduled 90 second breaks every two games, each player routinely took 30 or 40 seconds to serve, so the actual time the ball was in play was likely less than an hour. Such matches are almost as difficult for the spectators as for the players. Shortening them with faster play improves the game for everyone.
In the Bolelli v. Gimeno-Traver match today, time violations were called several times, particularly at crucial break point junctures. This was terrific to see. Diogenes expects that basketball-like countdown shot clocks will be put at court side by next season to further engage spectators and allow the players to time their actions to avoid the penalties. At the end of the day, it’s not just sport. It’s entertainment!