Tennis is cursed by the boredom of slow play

Tennis legs

Tennis legs

The server steps up to the baseline and then … bounce, bounce, bounce, bounce, bounce, bounce, bounce, bounce.

Okay, so this wasn’t the most riveting opening paragraph you’ve ever read. But then, that’s exactly the point. It’s boring waiting for the bouncing for stop.

The worst bouncing offenders include 2014 US Open champion Marin Cilic and serial grand-slam winner Novak Djokovic, who has been known to bounce the ball 17 times at moments of high stress. During last month’s otherwise magnificent Wimbledon final, Djokovic’s interminable service preparations were interrupted more than once by cries of “Gerronwithit!” from the stands.

According to Tim Henman, who chairs Wimbledon’s tennis committee, this is becoming a serious issue. The sport needs to address the issue of dead time between points. Excessive ball-bouncing is just one of many tactics used to slow the game down and give players space to think. The most popular is the process of toweling down after each rally – which, ironically, was pioneered by Henman’s great rival Greg Rusedski in the 1990s as a way of stopping himself from rushing from one point to the next. Although Rusedski might have benefited personally from his innovation, these constant delays have become enervating for fans and infuriating for schedulers.

‘Rules not being implemented’

As Henman told Telegraph Sport last week, “The rule says that you have 25 seconds, but that’s not the way it’s being implemented. When I was down on court for the United Cup, the umpires weren’t starting the shot-clock countdown until eight, nine or even ten seconds after the previous rally had finished.

“If you add it up, that’s an extra minute for the average game, an extra ten minutes for the average set, and almost an hour in a five-setter. You’re seeing three-set matches like the Cincinatti final the other day – amazing though it was – and they’re running to almost four hours. And this at a time when most sports are trying to speed up.”

The statistics support Henman’s argument. At last year’s US Open, men’s matches averaged 176 minutes – comfortably the highest figure on record. Alarmingly, that number has grown by 26 minutes since the 2017 US Open, which was the final year before the tournament introduced a visible shot-clock.

This trend is not exclusively explained by delays between rallies. Balls and court surfaces tend to slow down slightly each year, while the athletes’ physicality improves, and the dreaded bathroom breaks – another method of regaining focus, or breaking your opponent’s rhythm – are also proliferating.

Still, it is hard to escape the conclusion that the shot-clock has backfired. The idea was to take subjectivity out of the process, and address claims of favouritism surrounding big-name players such as Rafael Nadal (another man with never-ending pre-serve routines, including eyebrow-smoothing and butt-picking). By making the 25-second countdown visible, the system was supposed to end the perception – bluntly expressed on court in 2014 by Dimitry Tursunov – that “Rafa is eight seconds over and no-one ever gives him a warning.”

Yet grey areas remain – especially that question mark over when the countdown is initiated. And there are many players who are now looking at the shot-clock and calibrating their timing so that they use the full entitlement.

According to the experienced British coach Dave Sammel, “It’s often the big names who are pushing the envelope to the limit.” Whereas, if you go back a few decades, 1970s giants such as Bjorn Borg and Arthur Ashe barely paused for breath. A video of their 1973 US Open meeting shows that the young Borg took an average of eight seconds to collect the ball from the ball-boy, turn around, bounce it once, and toss it up. Ashe was a comparative laggard, averaging ten seconds between points.

According to Henman, “The sport was very different in those days. There was more serve-volleying, and the physicality just wasn’t on the same level, so we can’t expect people to play that quickly today.

“Still,” he added, “we are seeing numerous instances of super-long matches, and players finishing at crazy times of the night, like Andy Murray getting off court after 4am in Australia. It makes scheduling very difficult, especially when you’re trying to organise night sessions.”

So what is the solution? Sammel suggests doing away with the warning system which allows players one “time violation” before they are punished by the loss of a first serve. He would simply dock that serve straight away. Henman would like to see the NextGen ATP Finals trial a countdown which starts automatically after the previous point finishes, thus removing the room for umpire interpretation. Others argue that the shot-clock’s duration should be cut back to 20 seconds.

Yet tennis officials have cogent responses to all these points. They say that the two-strikes principle makes it easier for umpires to call time violations. Were a first serve to be lost at once, there would often be a furious reaction from the player and thus a shift in the dynamic of the match. Many officials would prefer to let the timekeeping slide than to insert themselves into the foreground in that way.

As for the issue of when to start the clock, there are so many variables, including the weather and the size of the court. In New York, for instance, it takes longer for players to fetch their towels on Arthur Ashe Stadium – the largest arena in tennis – than it does on Court 14, especially as ball-kids have now been spared the responsibility of ferrying towels to and fro on hygienic grounds.

And what about crowd noise after spectacular or lengthy rallies? While umpires will usually call the score and start the shot-clock immediately after a service winner, they tend to wait until the applause for a barnstorming point has stopped. “You have to show some compassion when players are bending over and gasping for breath,” one told me. A reduction to a 20-second countdown, they added, would be “unenforceable”.

The recent Wimbledon final makes for an interesting case study. On the one hand, there was grumbling from the stands over Djokovic’s incessant ball-bouncing. On the other, the match is already being seen as an instant classic. If chair umpire Fergus Murphy had been stricter, and established himself as a third participant in the drama, wouldn’t it have detracted from the spectacle of two great players going head to head?

This complex situation is hardly helped by the disparate nature of tennis officiating. There are separate teams working for each of the sport’s seven main stakeholders (the ATP, the WTA, the ITF and the four grand slams). No single umpiring supremo exists. As Henman explains, “The whole sport needs to collaborate far better, so that we can come up with unified solutions. We’ve seen improvements like the ten-point deciding-set tie-break, which is now standard across the slams, but it would make sense to have the whole umpiring system under one roof.”

Without action, matches will surely continue to grow longer, especially now that juniors are actively being coached to incorporate lengthy mid-point routines into their games. Their role models on this front, unfortunately, are always bound to be Nadal and Djokovic rather than Borg and Ashe.

Broaden your horizons with award-winning British journalism. Try The Telegraph free for 1 month, then enjoy 1 year for just $9 with our US-exclusive offer.

Leave a Comment

Scroll to Top