ATP begins cracking down on slow play

For players prone to bouncing the ball excessively, tugging at their shorts incessantly or taking too long to choose just the right ball, the tennis authorities are coming after you.

A subtle modification in the rules aimed at limiting the delay between points has gone into force in the first week of the season after the ATP, which runs the men’s tour, made it easier for umpires to crack down on players who take too long preparing to serve.

”It’s the same rule, the 25-second rule. It’s just giving the chair umpire a tool to enforce the rule,” ATP supervisor Thomas Karlberg told The Associated Press ”In the first week, we have been helping the guys during changeovers telling them you have to speed up to make it in time and before the match telling them what is going to happen. If they pass 25 seconds, they get hit.”

If the season-opening tournaments in Doha and Brisbane are any indication, the rule is being enforced. There were 36 instances of players being penalized at the Qatar Open as of Friday and quite a number at the Brisbane International.

Those who have suffered include Guillermo Garcia-Lopez of Spain, who lost his first-round match in Doha to Lukas Lacko, and 2006 Australian Open finalist Marcos Baghdatis, who was warned and penalized – losing a first serve – in his semifinal loss in Brisbane to Grigor Dimitrov on Saturday. Many others have been warned, including Olympic and U.S. Open champion Andy Murray in Brisbane and Gael Monfils in Qatar.

The rule modification changes mean an umpire can warn a player that they’re getting close to the limit. The penalty for a second and all subsequent violations of the 25-second rule by a server is an automatic fault, and a point penalty for the receiver. Previously, the penalty for multiple violations was a point, although it was rarely invoked.

Slow play between points has been a long-running complaint among fans and some players, and seems to have become worse with players developing intricate routines. Last year’s Australia Open final between Novak Djokovic and Rafael Nadal took 5 hours, 53 minutes to complete and while it has gone down in history as one of the classic major finals, it could have been over more quickly if both players hadn’t often taken more than 30 seconds between points.

Roger Federer has been among those who have called for time rules to be enforced, complaining last year ”how you can go through a 4-hour match with Rafa (Nadal) and him never getting a time violation?” Andy Roddick, before he retired last year, was pushing for an electronic shot-clock like those used in basketball.

The amended rule only applies to ATP World Tour and ATP Challenge Tour events right now, but its enforcement is likely to eventually spill over to the four Grand Slam tournaments which have a tougher, 20-second rule. There will be exceptions to the new rule, such as when a ball boy drops a ball or crowd noise makes play impossible.

”The rule has always been there that you have 25 seconds between points but the ATP Tour hasn’t really come down on … the umpire to enforce it,” said Jason Goodall, the former British No. 2 who is working as a TV analyst at the event at the Doha tournament. ”What always happened in the past is that umpires felt free to give a warning but then when it gets really tight in a match and players take longer between points, they haven’t felt comfortable penalizing them a point, so it never has happened. As a sport in general, the ATP Tour wants to see more ball in play time. So rather than watching the players towel down and spend a lot of time between points, they want the play to be quicker so it’s better for the fans.”

Among the players who have struggled to adjust this week was Monfils, who had a minor meltdown over the time rules during his second-round victory over Philipp Kohlschreiber. Repeatedly warned about his slow play, he argued with the umpire and complained that he would ”not be happy” if he lost a first serve during the match.

”I let down my concentration,” he said. ”If I’m taking time, it’s because I’m just like try to dry my hands. So actually, it’s not a violation. So then I tried to focus again.”

The Frenchman said he was struggling because the rules were being policed too strictly, too quickly, insisting ”it was no big deal” if he went one or two seconds over the time limit. Although he liked the concept of the time limit being properly imposed.

”Actually, I like it because I’m the type of player, you know, I play with my physique. So it’s cool if you have short time to recovery,” he said. ”The umpire have to judge if the guy is really taking time because he’s tired or whatever or he’s taking maybe two or three seconds more because of ball kids.”

Murray agreed with enforcing the time limit but thought the crackdown should have been offset by giving players more time between points.

”I’m for them being more strict with the time, but they maybe should have increased the time allowed first, because 25 seconds goes by pretty quick,” he said. ”We were told the reason for them changing the rule is because of the Aussie Open final last year, which everyone agrees was a classic match … it’s not like the TV hated the match and they’re never going to show it again.”

Dimitrov was one of the few players who spoke completely in favor of the modified time violation rule. Not surprisingly, considering he got the benefit in a deciding tiebreaker against Baghdatis.

”Rules are rules. They’re put out there, so there is not much else I can say about it. I’m sure it put him off a little or something,” he said. ”It’s good. Let’s not forget that the players voted for that … if they want it to be there, it’s there.”

Goodall and Robbie Koenig, his co-commentator at the Doha tournament, said the challenge now will be to ensure the rule is applied to all players regardless or rank.

”It’s fine to do at ATP tour 250 events when perhaps you don’t have the likes of a Djokovic or Nadal taking part. But you have to do it when they are playing,” Goodall said. ”Then in the locker room, players will feel it’s a fair rule and implemented across the board. As soon as it becomes subjective for umpire and he thinks `It was long rally and I’ll give them a little additional time to recover,’ or `I know that Nadal likes to take a little longer between points and that is part of his routine so I’ll be a bit more lenient,’ then you will have problems.”

Koenig said the public seems to be in favor of the tougher time enforcement.

”A lot of the feedback we have gotten through social media is that everyone is very much for it,” he said. ”It will reward those guys that are fitter than some of the other guys they are playing against. If your heart rate is still pumping and you have to get up there and hit a serve, it’s a lot tougher to do.”