No one has gone as far as Nastase, a master of high jinks, to make that point against Rafael Nadal, Novak Djokovic or Mardy Fish, the most deliberate of today’s men’s stars. But frustration among their rivals — fueled by Djokovic’s bounces by the dozen or Fish’s overdependence on his towel — continues to percolate.
It has gone on long enough, in fact, that a perhaps once heretical notion has gained some momentum: the installation of a shot clock, an on-court countdown that would require a player to get the ball back in play by a set time: 30 seconds is one working figure.
“I’m a really big fan of putting a shot clock in the corner,” said Ivan Ljubicic, a Croat once ranked in the top five and a former president of the ATP Player Council.
Excessively slow play can create issues of fairness to the player returning the ball, particularly if the player serving it disrupts the rhythm of the match by saving the longest delays for critical points. It is also a question of entertainment value in a competitive sports market.
“It’s not good for the spectator, absolutely not good,” said Francesco Ricci Bitti, president of the International Tennis Federation. “The game has to be continuous.”
Under the rules of tennis, in Grand Slam events the server has 20 seconds from the time the ball goes out of play to strike the first serve of the next point. In regular men’s tour events, the limit is 25 seconds; in the women’s tour, it is 20. The limits, however, are interpreted loosely by chair umpires. And players routinely exceed it without sanction, which, after a warning, can be a penalty of a point.
“You have to use your judgment with common sense, because if there’s a huge point with half a minute of people cheering, you cannot say it’s 20 seconds,” said Stefan Fransson, a Swede who is the tournament referee at the French Open and also the rules and regulations officer for the I.T.F.
Warnings are, however, given. Djokovic, with his repeated ball bouncing, received one for slow play early in his semifinal loss to Roger Federer at this year’s French Open. Nadal received one here Monday during his fourth-round victory over Juan Martín del Potro.
But in most cases, no action is taken if the barrier is breached. In the latter stages of his tight third-round Wimbledon match against Marcos Baghdatis, Djokovic was routinely taking more than 30 seconds before serving and once took more than 40 without receiving a warning.
“He’s going way over,” said John Newcombe, the three-time Wimbledon champion from Australia. “With the bounces, I don’t know why the players don’t complain. I wouldn’t stand for it. I would say to the umpire before the match, ‘I want you to know, and I want the tournament referee to know, that if we go over 25 seconds with the ball bounce, I’m complaining.’
“In fact, if he went over a certain number of ball bounces, I would turn around and walk away. I wouldn’t stand there and receive it. It’s an old tactic. Jimmy Connors used to bounce the ball four times, but when he was down 15-30 or 15-40, he’d bounce it 14 times.”
Newcombe said such changes in pace take the player returning the ball out of his rhythm.
Ljubicic, who favors a clock, said he was not concerned solely with Nadal’s pace of play between points as he goes through his pre-serve ritual, which includes cleaning the line with his foot, arranging his hair and adjusting the seat of his pants. He also has a problem, he said, with prematch delays as Nadal arrives on court and organizes his gear and water bottles, making his opponent wait at the net for the coin toss.
“It takes him forever,” Ljubicic said. “I know that’s his routine, and I know it’s what he does all the time. I personally feel offended when he does it.”
Ljubicic said chair umpires have sometimes told him to speed up his own play, most recently at the French Open.