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Steve Flink: Time Management

3/24/2008 6:46:00 PM

by Steve Flink

Facing Kevin Anderson in the second round of the Sony Ericsson Open at Miami last week, Novak Djokovic seemed to have weathered a fierce storm from the 6'7" South African qualifier. Anderson, a surprise finalist at the Tennis Channel Open in Las Vegas, had handled Djokovic in an opening set tie-break but then the world No. 3 battled back as expected to win the second set. Djokovic maintained his momentum and took a 2-0 final set lead. He was serving at 30-40 in the third game when he was warned by veteran umpire Norm Chryst for taking too much time, and going over the 25 second limit.

Djokovic was well into his familiar ball bouncing routine as he prepared to serve. By all accounts, he won the next point to reach deuce and then let it be known in no uncertain terms that he was livid about the warning he received. After losing his cool, he then lost his serve and soon lost control of the match. The rapidly improving Anderson fully exploited the situation, and recorded the biggest win of his young career 7-6 (1), 3-6, 6-4. Anderson deserves high marks for having the gumption to pull off that triumph against a man who has ruled at the Australian Open and Indian Wells this season. Djokovic has himself to blame for letting a contest he should have won slip from his grasp.

But I believe this match was about something larger than the outcome. The issue here is that everyone concerned with the welfare of professional tennis--- players, fans, and officials-recognizes that matches must be conducted at a reasonable pace. When a player takes excessive time between points, it is patently unfair to his or her opponent, and those sitting in the stands or watching on television at home are turned off. Players are allowed 25 seconds from the end of one point until the beginning of the next one on the ATP Tour, and are permitted only 20 seconds at Davis Cup and the Grand Slam events.

Djokovic pushes the envelope every time he steps on the court with his ball bouncing ritual. I am convinced this is not gamesmanship on his part, but rather a long standing habit and a means of dealing with his nerves. His deliberate pace between points does not differ much from Rafa Nadal, who spends an inordinate amount of time tugging at his shorts and mentally preparing himself before he serves. He is also pushing the envelope and putting himself in a vulnerable position with chair umpires who are obligated to enforce the rules.

In the case of the Djokovic-Anderson match in Miami, I called Gayle Bradshaw, Executive Vice President of Rules & Competition for the ATP Tour. He informed me that Djokovic had stayed within the 25 second window throughout that match until he was warned in the third set. In that case, Bradshaw explained, "The rule is that the ball must be struck within 25 seconds, and 20 at the Grand Slams and Davis Cup. The rule is from the moment the previous point ended until the ball is struck on the next point. Djokovic had been under the 25 the entire match and then it was not a case where he went to 26 seconds. He was way over [the time limit], and he was still bouncing the ball when the official warning was given. "

I happen to admire both Djokovic and Nadal immensely, and enjoy watching them play. To be sure, it can be aggravating observing them during their service games. Some of my colleagues in the media and a significant number of fans might disagree with me. They get fed up with these great players slowing down the pace of matches to such a large degree. But, no matter where you or I stand on the current pace of professional tennis, we would do well to remember what it was like watching the game back in the 1980's, when all time greats Jimmy Connors, John McEnroe, and Ivan Lendl were allowed 30 seconds between points. Matches back then almost invariably took longer to complete than today's contests.

I was a great admirer of Lendl, and felt he never quite got his due as a player. He was an outstanding professional who transformed the game with his methodology, setting a new trend by packaging the big first serve and the inside-out forehand with a force and effectiveness no one had exhibited before in the modern game. I also respected his demeanor and professionalism; he went about his business in a no-nonsense fashion. There was no gamesmanship; he just played the game to the best of his ability, and managed to reach a men's record 19 Grand Slam tournament finals, winning 8 majors in the process. He also realized an astounding feat by reaching a record eight U.S. Open championship matches in a row from 1982-89.

And yet, Lendl could be infuriating in one respect: he seemed to have an inner clock clicking at all times, telling him precisely how much time was elapsing between points. He would frequently take 29 seconds; I know because I would use my stopwatch to time his routine. To be sure, this regimen allowed Lendl to totally prepare himself for each point, and he was not breaking the rules. Nevertheless, it was aggravating to watch. As for McEnroe and Connors, they also managed to go often to the brink of the 30 second rule before proceeding to play the next point. They would sometimes step over the limit when they were arguing with the officials, but that is another story.

The point I am making is that, by and large, matches did last longer in those days. A prime example was the longest ever recorded U.S. Open men's match between Stefan Edberg and Michael Chang in 1992. I watched that entire duel and it was gripping despite the five hours and 26 minutes that the battle consumed. It was a scorching day when they collided in the semifinals that year. And the ITF already had a 25 second rule in place back then. Perhaps recognizing that they needed to take even stricter measures, they went to 20 seconds in 1995. Until 1979, "continuous play" was entirely up to the umpire but that year the 30 second rule was instituted.

I am not sure what the solution is now. In many ways, the system is working. Great players like Justine Henin, the Williams sisters, and Roger Federer move through their matches at a crisp pace. As often as Djokovic and Nadal come close to taking too much time, even they rarely get warned for breaking the rule. In the final analysis, the guess here is that these two excellent players would become even more popular among the galleries all over the world if they would accelerate their pace between points. Perhaps the ATP Tour could join the ITF and require players to take only 20 seconds between points. If that occurred, it might just be the best thing that could happen not only for close followers of the sport but also for Djokovic and Nadal, who would learn to live within those confines.

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