Tennis: Time is called on dallying

By Paul Lewis

Juan Martin del Porto. Photo / Getty Images
Juan Martin del Porto. Photo / Getty Images

Rafael Nadal and his wonky knees are absent but he will be one of those watching closely as a new element enters men's grand slam tennis at the Australian Open this year - timekeeping.

Tennis officials are clearly determined to stop time wasting this year and are cracking down on the time taken between points. Grand slam events allow players to take 20 seconds between points (although regular ATP tournaments apply a 25-second rule, a strange double standard). In past years, many players have flouted the rules. Some take 30 seconds or a great deal more between points - even after being warned by umpires.

Nadal, with his protracted set-up routine, and defending Australian Open champion Novak Djokovic (with his infernal, prolonged ball bouncing on serve), are two of the worst offenders. Last year's US Open champion, Andy Murray, can also take too long, while the other member of the 'Big Four', Roger Federer, is the fastest of the quartet between points.

Cast your minds back to the Australian Open final last year. Nadal lost to Djokovic in a gargantuan almost-six-hour struggle - the longest grand slam final in tennis history, beating the previous record by nearly an hour.

Some tennis geeks figured out that the match would have finished about an hour earlier if Nadal and Djokovic had stuck to the time rules.

Or if they had been enforced. There's the rub. Many of the top players say the likes of Nadal and Djokovic get too much leeway from officials frightened to enforce the rules.

Certainly Federer thinks so: "I think they are being too loose about it," the Swiss said when asked if the time rule was being properly enforced by umpires. "I don't know how you can go through a four-hour match with Rafa and him never getting a time violation."

Federer's stake in this is obvious. It suits his game if matters are sped up. A server is called for an automatic fault if he takes too long, while a receiver can be automatically docked a point. Being called for time can also have an unsettling effect on a player.

Evidence of that came in this week's Heineken tournament when Austrian world No29 Jurgen Melzer reacted vehemently to being time called during his upset loss to Australian Greg Jones, ranked over 300 spots behind him - although it must be said that wasn't the only reason behind Melzer's outburst.

In Australia, Cypriot Marcos Baghdatis, another almost obsessive ball-bouncer on serve, appeared to be thrown off stride by a time violation applied against him in the crucial tiebreaker against up-and-coming Bulgarian Grigor Dimitrov - which Baghdatis lost. Temperamental US player Ryan Harrison got tetchy when he was called for time after a 42-shot rally against Murray in Australia last year. He also lost that match.

Some players, like Murray, say the rules are one thing - but say the game has changed so much that 20 seconds or even 25 may not be long enough any more. Murray recently said that while time limits should be enforced, they should be re-set at 30 seconds so players have time to adjust.

"All it takes is a shoelace to come undone and you're out of time," he said. "Guys have been getting warnings when they change their racquet for breaking a string or whatever."

The rules also failed to factor in that rallies were longer and more brutal.

"I also think tennis has changed ... since the time came into it. The rallies are much, much longer, so therefore it takes longer to recover. I like the idea behind it. I just think they could have adjusted the time in between the points a bit."

The key will be when and how much the Open officials make the time calls - and whether they steel themselves against the wrath of the "big boys". The players agreed to the changes last year and the Open will be the first major to see them applied since the crackdown was announced in September.

TIME KEEPING is one thing. Time at the top is another. With Serena Williams the hottest of favourites in the women's event, interest is mainly on which of the Big Four from favourite Djokovic, the elegant Federer or Murray will win the men's title.

It looks almost a sure bet that the winner is set to come from the four (minus Nadal), as they have won 31 of the last 32 grand slam events.

Djokovic will be a deserved favourite as he tries for a new record - the first man to win three Australian Opens in a row - and he has looked mostly sharp in his few outings so far.

That's the point - few outings. It is early season and the Australian Open is prone to upsets as players look to throw off the rust and as they are subject to a big helping of pressure. Djokovic has benefitted from the draw, with Federer, Murray and dangerous Argentine Juan Martin del Potro all in the other half, meaning he will not have to meet any until the final - which has confirmed his favouritism.

However, if there is to be a winner from the top three, it may be the much-improved Murray. He won the last of the majors in 2012 and has seemed to grow in confidence since that US Open win. A tendency to be too cautious in big matches against top opponents seems to have gone and he now seems to have the mental strength to play more attacking, aggressive tennis. His association with coach Ivan Lendl has been successful and he shapes as a real title prospect this year with his strong all-round game. He has beaten Djokovic seven times in 17 meetings.

If there should be a winner outside the three, do not look much past del Potro. Still only 24, he was the last outside the Big Four to win a major (the US Open of 2009) and he seemed set to join the top echelon after that victory, only for a bad wrist injury to wreck his 2010. He struggled back in 2011, rising over 240 places in the world rankings and winning two titles. He finished last year strongly and is now ranked No 7.

His enormous strike zone and his clubbing forehand are among the nastiest weapons in tennis and his backhand is more than reliable. He too has a strong all-round game, he can volley and his net play is generally good. Some observers say he does not yet have the mental strength, as his overall win-loss record against the Big Four is not particularly flash.

However, he beat Federer to win the US Open in 2009 and he gave Nadal perhaps his biggest hiding in a major with his 6-2 6-2 6-2 semifinal win in that same tournament. His bete noire could be Djokovic whom he has beaten only twice - and one of those due to injury - in nine meetings.

- Herald on Sunday

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