When the ATP announced in the beginning of the season that it would begin to enforce the rule in regards to the time allowed to players between the points, anyone who recently became a tennis fan probably thought it was bizarre that the governing body of men’s tennis that sets the rules of the game would announce that a rule that has existed for years was going to be applied this year. If it was not applied properly before this year, why was it listed in the rules? To those of us who have been in the game of tennis, or who have followed tennis closely for many years, it was more than bizarre: it was downright absurd, as if how the rule has been ignored for so long was not comical enough in the first place
It seemed inevitable at the time that it would be the first of many absurdities to follow. It’s like having a promising project planned in writing, then never putting it into action for no apparent convincing reason, and finally having to answer to those who see the plan and ask why it was not put into action. In simpler words, when you talk the talk but don’t walk the walk, your talk becomes absurd. The rule itself is initially a good plan, and if the referees walked with it from the beginning, we would have avoided the confusion of today. Unfortunately, ATP is attempting to walk few years behind the talk, and nobody is certain that it can ever catch up.
The referees in the first tournament of the year in Doha were specifically instructed to tell the players during the coin toss before each match that they would apply the 25-second rule for time between points stricter than before. Did they also remind them that they get a second serve if they miss the first one, or that they lose the point if they miss two serves in a row, or that the long alleys on the sides of the court only matter in doubles? No, because the referees fully enforce those rules, and not “halfway”, therefore the players know and accept them. The otherwise reasonable 25-second rule would have same firm reception had it been enforced from the moment the rule-makers first put it in the rules. Since they did not do that, they are stuck in a catch-up game, except that just like in any other situation where one tries to do the right thing too late, absurdities multiply left and right and don’t let you advance straight on your course.
In Doha, Gaël Monfils became one of the early victims of the 25-second rule enforcement, and one could see the astonishment on his face as he was arguing with the referee who was reduced to repeating the same absurd sentence again and again, “it’s the rule”, as if that has always been enough to give the same penalty to the players in the past. Was it not a rule last year, and the years before that Mr. Chair Umpire? While you looked so sure of yourself when you responded to Monfils, did you penalize anybody who went over 25 seconds last year too when it was still “the rule”? Apparently one absurd quote perpetuates another, thus Gaël Monfils argued back: “I’m black so I sweat a lot!” While Lleyton Hewitt, John Isner, and Rafael Nadal may have a few thoughts about Monfils’ quote, I will simply let Monfils decide if black players are the only ones having trouble with the 25-second clock.
Other than Monfils, Feliciano Lopez received a penalty at a set point, and the big-serving Isner received a warning as early as his second serving game in Sydney. Needless to say, some disgruntled players complained and, slowly but surely, the ATP realized that enforcing the rule was not going to be a walk on the park.
The uncertainties before the Australian Open led to more absurdities, beginning with Novak Djokovic’s response last week to the enforcement of the rule: “I cannot have any complaints when I take more than 20 seconds between the points. If the chair umpire comes to me and said, ‘Listen, you should be a little bit more careful about it’. If I do it again, he gives me warning, I can’t complain about it. It’s within the rules and I will respect it.” But Novak, wait a minute! The rule does not say that if you violate it, the umpire should “come to you” (how exactly Novak?) and ask “to be more careful”. It says that you violated the rule and must receive a warning, and not just a friendly ‘pre-warning’, in the same way that the rules say that you will get a foot-fault call if you serve an ace with your feet placed one yard inside the court and not win the point while the referee ‘pre-warns’ you in a friendly way that you will receive a foot-fault call “the next time” you do that. So Novak, do you see better now how totally absurd your last sentence sounds after the previous three halfway-absurd ones?
How about the 20-second rule in the Slams vs. the 25-second rule in all other ATP tournaments? First of all, it’s absurd that there is a substantial difference in the rule from one men’s tournament to another. Is the tennis played on Court 5 of a Slam tournament a different game than the tennis played on Court 2 of a Masters Series tournament? Don’t answer that. Second, who in the right mind can possibly expect the players to be ready in twenty seconds during the fourth or fifth sets of a tough match after a long point? Don’t answer that either. Let’s simply get back to how one absurdity can perpetuate others.
When the ATP tried to flex its muscle with the “new enforcement” of the “old rule” during the smaller tournaments with Monfils, Isner and Lopez, most tennis followers knew that they were hoping to send a firm enough message to the players in order to avoid a potential controversy with a top player in the Australian Open. What they did not expect is the resulting disarray caused by the absurd application of an otherwise-needed adjustment. So, they hastily took some decisions only to find themselves in a position of being forced to explain one absurd decision with another. The ATP Chief Brad Drewett announced that the ATP will hold talks with the players, which seems absurd considering that the decision to enforce the time-between-the-points rule was enforced by the ATP Player’s council just a few weeks ago. Well, we can always hope that the walk will accompany the talk this time around.
Few days ago, the Australian Open tournament referee Wayne McEwen announced that the referees would be more “flexible” during the Australian Open with the 20-second rule and added another absurd statement to the already existing ones: “We don’t want players out there being penalized after playing a fantastic point, but then again we don’t want players deliberately taking too long and that’s what we really look at. We focus on that and tell them to use good common sense, good judgment.” Excuse me Mr. McEwen, but is that not what you have done in the past anyway? For many years, you never strictly enforced the absurd 20-second rule; your umpires used common sense, and in general, they watched for players deliberately taking too long and tried their best to warn them. It would have been less diplomatic but more honest if McEwen simply said: “we will ignore the absurd 20-second rule, as we have done in the past.” In fact, from watching a number of first-round matches, my occasional clocking of some of the time taken between the points shows that the application of the 20-second rule is no different in 2013 than it was in the previous years. For the most part, players stay around the 20 second-mark; they exceed it here and there; and every now and then, exceed it by a lot. And I have yet to see a time violation call against any player.
Let’s face it anyway: McEwen would do anything to avoid the embarrassment of having to defend the 20-second rule if the umpires penalized one of the top players. Penalizing Isner in the second round of the Sydney tournament is a much easier task than doing it at Rod Laver Arena against Djokovic or Murray.
The ATP can talk all it wants with the players, and can make as many absurd announcements as it wishes. There are only a couple of steps to take for anyone with common sense who desires to leave the absurd domain of the 20/25 second rule chaos: initiate a 25-second (or 30-second) rule over all men’s tournaments, and by all means, consistently enforce the rule on every court and every player, without explanations and announcements.
Enjoy the rest of the Australian Open!