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May 18, 2009

Server Delays Hurt ATP Tennis

Last week's Madrid Masters' tennis tournament had several great matches, including a 4-hour baseline shoot-out between Rafael Nadal and Novak Djokovic in the semifinals, and a radically different final, where an attacking Roger Federer upset Nadal on clay to win the tournament. Unfortunately, the tournament was less entertaining than it should have been because officials refuse to enforce time rules. Nadal and Djokovic are among the worst offenders on the tour, and when they meet the matches become excruciatingly slow. As Nadal and Djokovic are preparing to serve they bounce the ball, and towel off, and bounce it, and bounce it, and fix their hair, and bounce the ball, and adjust their under ware, and then bounce the ball ... and so on. 

(Mise à jour: Traduction française pour les visiteurs)

Think it doesn't matter? Nadal and Djokovic's delays added over a full hour to their semi-final match. 

Rafael Nadal Service Delays Madrid

If you believe I'm exaggerating do the math yourself: The two played 245 points. Rules state that the server has to serve within 25 seconds at a maximum, and the USTA says typical sportsman-like play is supposed to be 12-15 seconds for a first serve.

UPDATE: 6/23/09 I just discovered that the four Grand Slam tournaments have their own rules, requiring serves be made within 20 seconds. Specifically: "A maximum of twenty (20) seconds shall elapse from the moment the ball goes out of play at the end of the point, until the ball is struck for the first serve of the next point. If the first serve is a fault then the second serve must be struck by the server without delay." This makes Nadal's delays of 40, 50 seconds even a full minute before first serves and protracted delays for his second serve all the more inexcusable in the biggest events.

Yet both players regularly delay into the mid-30's, often take 40 seconds and, when Nadal faces a break point, he will take longer, sometimes over a minute. In fairness, Djokovic has responded to competitors' complaints by speeding up his play, but facing Nadal brings out his worst. 

In this photo from Madrid, Nadal is down love-30 to Federer, and had been run from sideline-to-sideline, so he took 42 seconds to serve (see counter in bottom of photo). The delays included the full Sharapova bang-adjustment, slowly toweling off, bouncing, undoing the wedgie, and bouncing and bouncing. 

Multiply the 245 total points played in the Nadal-Djokovic three-set semifinal times an average of perhaps 15 seconds extra time on every serve (I'll readily admit it's hard to estimate the average excess rest time they consume. I took Nadal's typical 25 seconds up to 40 or even 60 seconds minus the 12-15 seconds that most players use, up to a maximum of 25 seconds, and called the difference 15 seconds on average.) you have over one hour (61.25 minutes) of rest time added to their match. 

But that doesn't include delays on second serves, which are supposed to come "without delay", nor waits for Nadal who thinks it is within his rights to keep opponents waiting on every change-over while carefully aligns his water bottles. Nor does it count Nadal's regular mid-match leg massage break, er medical treatment. You're supposed to get three minutes for an injury time out. Nadal abuses this process as well, not to get a sprained ankle taped, or blistered foot bandaged, but to get his aching muscles massaged, often for 5-to 8 minutes, again taking more time than the rules allow. So, these unnecessary delays added another, perhaps 15-20 minutes to their semifinal. 

Update: One commenter on the Tenniswarehouse discussion board,Jenny, timed the "ridiculous" delays for the last six points the Nadal-Djokovic tiebreaker: 

Time to serve each point:

1. 1 minute, 5 seconds

2. 53 seconds

3. 47 seconds

4. 46 seconds

5. 1 minutes 20 seconds (change of ends)

6. 44 seconds. 

(Update: 7/5/09. Here is an example of Nadal's other delays, those beyond simply holding up every serve, from "Strokes of Genius", a book dedicated to the Wimbledon 2008 finals: 

Federer went directly to the net for the ceremonial coin flip, where a local child, often one with a chronic illness, is summoned to play a small role in the match ...   The two were joined by Pascal Maria, the chair umpire for the match, and by the tournament referee, Andrew Jarrett. 

The quartet waited…and waited…and waited. Nadal sat at his chair, sipping Evian, chewing on an energy bar, folding his sweats and then indulging his longtime ritual of sipping from each of two bottles of water, one colder than the other, and then fastidiously arranging the bottles just so with the labels pointed outward toward the side of the court he’ll next assume....  

Impatience transparent on his face, Federer rocked back and forth and took a few practice swings near the net. ...

According to a member of the Nadal entourage, in the players’ box Federer’s girlfriend, Mirka Vavrinec, watched the Spaniard’s dallying and muttered, “Oh, come on.”

After a full minute of self-indulgence, Nadal trotted to the net. )

If you're skeptical, cut my numbers for the Nadal-Djokovic match in half and you still have over a half hour of delays. That's half an hour for spectators to sit around. Half an hour for the players to rest in the middle of play. 

This isn't trivial. It's bad for spectators. A good 2 hour 45 minute semifinal was turned into a turgid 4 hour 5 minute match because of the delays. Four-to-five-hour matches are becoming common place and, frankly, that is too long to sit watching all but the best tennis match. 

Plus, it is unfair to their opponents. When Nadal and Djokovic meet, both violate the rules, so it is a push. But when either does this to other players, they get an unfair advantage from violating the rules. Nadal's game relies on his tremendous defense, playing far behind the baseline and running far further than his opponents. Extra rest, beyond what the rules allow, after every single point helps him play the way he does. Djokovic has problems with stamina; if he had to play at a normal pace it would sometimes hurt his play. 

Nor are the delays inadvertent. In the final, Federer had to repeatedly stop his service motion to wait for Nadal at the start of critical games. Also, Nadal takes even more time when he faces a break point, sometimes over a full minute delay. {Again, this doesn't even count such gamesmanship as Nadal taking medical time outs before his opponent serves for a set.}

This isn't complicated. The umpire should simply follow the rule book, warn them once, if necessary penalizes them one point early in the match well before the tense times emerge and get control of the match. Nobody wants this type of penalty to decide a match, but if the rule is enforced early and regularly, players won't let it happen. 

Here's the section from the ATP rule book and the USTA, which allows 20 seconds): 

ATP Continuous Play / Delay of Game

Following the expiration of the warm-up period, play shall be continuous and a player shall not unreasonably delay a match for any cause. A maximum of twenty-five (25) seconds shall elapse from the moment the ball goes out of play until the time the ball is struck for the next point. If such serve is a fault, then the second serve must be struck by the server without delay. The exception is at a ninety (90) second changeover or a one hundred twenty (120) set break. The procedures for enforcing this rule are as follows:

i) 25 Seconds Between Points.

aa) Start stopwatch when the player is ordered to play or when the ball goes
out of play;

bb) Assess time violation or code violation if the ball is not struck for the next
point within the twenty-five (25) seconds allowed. There is no time warning
prior to the expiration of the twenty-five (25) seconds.

USTA rule excerpts:

USTA Comment 21.4: How much time may elapse from the
moment the ball goes out of play at the end of the point until the
serve is struck to start the next point? When practical this time
should not exceed 20 seconds.

USTA Comment 21.5: Does the 20-second provision of Rule 29
apply to the second serve? No. The server must strike the second
serve without delay.

... the receiver shall play to the reasonable pace of the server and shall be ready to receive within a reasonable time of the server being ready.



That's not so hard, is it? 

Reader Comments

Finally happy to see someone tell that the emperor has no clothes.
my bro and myself would get irritated by such delays more so when the commentators claim that he is controlling the pace of the game, where in truth he is just cheating.
claims of him being a champion is just glorifying a common cheat who cant win if made to play fair, thanks mate for your efforts to uncover this guy's unfair tactics

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