At the beginning of 2013, the ATP lessened the penalties for time violations, in hopes that chair umpires would call them more often. In a perfect world, that might lead to players committing fewer time violations.
So far this year, the new policy may have sped up the game a bit, but unsurprisingly, it has led to more disruptions of play. Whenever a violation is called, an additional delay is virtually automatic. After all, if a player is worn out from the previous point and lagging so much that he earns a time violation, why not take the opportunity to argue with the ump and physically recover for even longer?
Any time-violation policy should take into account three key guidelines:
- The game should move along at a reasonable pace. Some kind of time violation rule is here to stay.
- Any rule should be applied as fairly and consistently as possible, against all players, regardless of court, tournament, round, or set.
- Enforcement should interfere as little as possible with the flow of the game, both for fan enjoyment and player concentration.
The policy may be succeeding on (1). It might be an improvement towards (2), though based on the unscientific sample of matches I’ve watched, it still seems that violations are more likely to be called on the guys playing the big four (or top ten) than the big four themselves.
As for (3), it’s a disaster.
Keep the penalties; keep the flow.
The solution is simple. Instead of calling the time violation while the server is readying himself for the next point, call it immediately after the point is complete. There may still be an argument, but coming right after a point instead of 30 seconds after (and five seconds before the next one would have started), it would be less disruptive.
Sometimes a post-point violation warning wouldn’t be disruptive at all, as when the point finishes a game. Also, if the offending player has just won a point, he would probably be more in the mood to keep going than to stop and argue with the umpire.
This change would address (3). However, to ensure that the rule is justly applied, a better system needs to be in place. While a basketball-style shot clock is appealing for this reason, it would be far too distracting to both players and fans. As always, the onus is on the chair umpire.
To keep the umpire honest, his record of the match should be made available to both players and their camps. (Or best of all, to the public, but why suggest something the ATP would never consider?)
The umpire already keeps a point-by-point record of the match–that’s what you see him doing when he taps on the screen in front of him. We’re talking about a minor technological improvement here: When he finishes entering the previous point, a clock starts. In this new scenario, he would be asked to tap the screen again when the server starts his motion. The addition of a clock (a shot clock, but visible only to the umpire) and that one extra tap is all that is required.
This way, the screen in front of the umpire would notify him of every possible time violation. He would still be given leeway to call the time violation or not, perhaps ignoring the offense because of a long round of applause or a distraction on court. With those records available after the fact, opponents and ATP supervisors would know whether time violations were called, especially when a player averages more than 25 seconds between points.
With these minor changes, we can hope for men’s tennis that moves along at a reasonable pace, thanks to unobtrusive rules that are equally applied to all players.