U.S. Open players are on the clock. Should they be alarmed? Are they being rushed unfairly? Especially in this week’s draining heat and humidity? And, anyway, is this really anything new — just because the countdown of 25 seconds to the next serve is being publicly displayed to spectators and players?
Basically: No. No. Possibly. And, sort of.
Here’s the deal. For the first time at a Grand Slam event, small “serve clocks” are visible at the end of the court. The chair umpire triggers the clock after announcing each point. If the clock goes to zero before a player begins his or her service motion, the player receives a warning. A subsequent violation results in the loss of that first serve.
More than 30 warnings were issued, in men’s and women’s singles play, through the tournament’s first three days, though without notable controversy.
Spanish veteran Fernando Verdasco was briefly annoyed by a clock warning as the tension ratcheted up in the final game of his four-set victory over Andy Murray on Wednesday. And Rafael Nadal felt he was innocent of a violation when his second-round opponent, Vasek Pospisil, indicated he wasn’t ready to receive Nadal’s serve. (The receiver, by the way, can be penalized a point if he causes the delay.)
“Initially, prior to playing a match with it, I wasn’t a fan,” said John Isner, the top-ranked American male. “I feared it would cause me to rush. But that hasn’t really been the case. Once I played a match with it, I liked it. I think it’s a good thing to speed up the pace of play.”
Tennis officials note that the 25-second rule has been on the books for a while, but previously enforced based on a stopwatch in the umpire’s chair. The new display clocks are meant to free players from keeping time in their heads and to give them — and fans — the sense that traditionally pokey opponents are being held to the same standard.
“It brings consistency and holds guys accountable,” American Sam Querrey said.
That might include Nadal and Novak Djokovic, the two perennial champs notorious for prolonged bouts of twitching and bouncing the ball to settle themselves. Nadal originally argued against the clock, but recently insisted that he follows all rules and will adjust. “Just part of the show,” he said Thursday. “I believe, especially under some tough conditions, the show is worse because you can’t play a couple points in a row, great rallies, with no time to recover. But [umpires] are doing a very good job.”
Djokovic said he only was upset that the Open introduced the clock without consulting the players’ union. Taking the temperature on the innovation this week — with soaring temperatures tending to slow everyone’s metabolism — several players have suggested making an adjustment when the Extreme Heat Policy is in force to give servers a bit more time.
But Djokovic, while saying he understood that concern, acknowledged that “when a rule is implemented, it’s kind of hard to just switch the shot clock off just because of the conditions.” He said he fully expects the clock to be put in use at the other Grand Slam tournaments and to become “an integral part of the tour.”
To defending Open champ Sloane Stephens, the clock’s presence is among the “distractions you have to deal with.” Jelena Ostapenko, the 2017 French Open winner, declared herself “not a big fan…because, before you serve, you have to look there. I think it’s kind of more pressure…and we still are not used to it.”
Getting used to it might be the point, though — conditioning players not to develop loitering habits.