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SERVE CLOCK IS A U.S. OPEN CAN OF WORMS

by

Matt Zemek

It is true that sports can use certain reforms… but no, not THAT one there, or THAT one over there.

Such is the reaction from many in the tennis community after it was announced that the U.S. Open — which did give tennis the tiebreaker in 1970, a great advancement for the sport — would dip its toes into the waters of another reform: a 25-second serve clock.

This, unlike the tiebreaker, is not poised to have the same positive effect on tennis which Jimmy Van Alen’s tiebreaker did.

Imagine the scene at Arthur Ashe Stadium:

In a women’s semifinal between Serena and Venus Williams, or a men’s semifinal between Novak Djokovic and Andy Murray, the most amazing 40-shot rally you’ve ever seen unfolds in real time. Beautifully struck overheads from the baseline, perfect defensive lobs from the other side of the court. Wide forehands pulling opponents beyond the doubles alleys. Backhand stab retrievals to keep the point going. Drop shots met with lobs met with passing shots met with stab volleys. These points have EVERYTHING.

The crowd roars.

It’s only the first set, at 3-3 and 15-30.

The serve clock is ticking. The players are exhausted.

5, 4, 3, 2, 1… THE HORN SOUNDS!

Serve clock violation.

A few minutes later, at 6-5 and deuce, another INCREDIBLE point takes shape. The stakes could not be higher. The server loses the point, though, and faces set point at ad-out.

The server, after a ridiculous 32-shot rally, wants to take a few extra moments to regroup, but…

tick, tick, tick.

THE HORN SOUNDS!

Violation No. 2.

POINT AND SET, TO THE RECEIVER.

Come on. That’s not tennis. That’s not fair. That’s not any sane person’s version of a healthy sport.

This is LUNACY.

So, you might be thinking: “Well, that’s that. I agree.”

That’s not the end of the story, though. There is a larger point to be made here: Sports carry an essence with them. While reforms should always be discussed, certain reforms have the effect of taking away something essential about a sport.

As an American, I find this a particularly distressing development for reasons I will explain below:

Soccer, basketball, American-style football, ice hockey — these primary team sports are all timed.

Tennis and baseball are not.

At the beginning of February this year, Major League Baseball Commissioner Rob Manfred stopped short of instituting a “pitch clock” in baseball games, but he did say that he would not be afraid to implement it a few years down the line if the average length of a baseball game did not hit certain desired targets.

One of the exquisite sources of joy in a tennis match or baseball game is this freedom from a clock. The spectator in the stands or on TV does not have to look up at a scoreboard and get anxious about the amount of time left. These sports are governed by the opportunities the athletes do or don’t convert, by the ability or inability to seize important moments.

John Isner and Nicolas Mahut went to a 70-68 final set at Wimbledon, taking over 11 hours to move forward in the draw. In 1989, the Los Angeles Dodgers and Montreal Expos needed 22 innings to not only decide a winner, but to score one run. The Dodgers scored one run in the top of the 22nd inning to win that game in Quebec province. The game took just over six hours to complete.

Did those competitions get boring at some point? Surely, at least for many in the crowds or watching on TV. Yet, that is part of the charm of untimed sports: You don’t know what you are going to see when you come to the stadium. You don’t know if you’re going to see a 12-10 final set or a five-hour match. Obviously, this doesn’t mean timed sports can’t surprise as well, but they surprise in different ways. The awareness that the length of a tennis match or a baseball game is not narrowly confined adds mystery to the proceedings.

Can tennis players adjust to a serve clock? Sure they can. Can this reform regulate or streamline player responses to serves? Sure it can.

That, however, is not the point.

The point is that chair umpires who already know that HawkEye might change a call in a non-clay-court match — and might therefore be more reticent to overturn linescalls — are now being stripped of more agency in the attempt to regulate player conduct.

A chair umpire, like a referee in any sport, is paid to not only make “sight judgments” — did the ball hit the line, did the player touch the net, etc. — but to use discretion in governing the flow of the match.

A human being is rightly paid to sit in a chair and allow Serena and Venus — or Novak and Andy — to take an extra 45-second break after a 40-shot rally at 3-3 in the first set, or after a 32-shot exchange at 6-5 and deuce in the first set. That is when and where the human element of umpiring is essential to sport. The insertion of a serve clock into tennis opens up a can of worms on a number of levels. The chief one is that tennis is robbed of its “no time clock on a scoreboard” freedom. The second one, close behind that first point, is that if we’re going to farm out linescalls to HawkEye and pace of play to the serve clock, what is keeping tennis from adopting umpire-free matches?

Remember, the Next Gen ATP Finals in Milan last November had automated linecalling with only one human official, the chair umpire, on the court. Would umpire-free matches be immediately ushered into the sport? No… but the slippery slope can be seen a mile away.

Sports are human dramas. This doesn’t mean replay — an aid for officials — shouldn’t be used. HawkEye, in fact, has become the most successful replay review system in any sport, largely (not entirely, but largely) free from the complications and dissatisfactions of America’s major team sports. Replay has been marked by problems, to be sure. Yet, tennis clearly shows that reform has a place in sport and can create enormous benefits to the players involved.

The people in charge of tennis — and baseball — are succumbing to this American instinct to micromanage the length of competitions and the pace of play. A big part of this is television’s desire to have competitions fit in tidy windows which can more easily be marketed to advertisers. The big problem with this is not the actual attempt to modernize, because sports (as commercial entities) always need to be conscious of the need to evolve in changing times. The problem is that while certain reforms enhance the experience of a sport and retain everything good about the sport while adding a necessary new ingredient (for HawkEye, that new ingredient was: “Get more calls right”), other reforms take away essential aspects of the sport. The sport becomes a mutated version without a recognizable character generations of fans have come to embrace.

Any reasonable person would agree that when reforming a sport or any other entity, the best possible pursuit of reform is to enact a change which creates the desired result or effect while being the least intrusive or overwhelming. If the less intrusive reform fails, then the more intrusive reform can be tried.

In tennis (and in baseball), less intrusive reforms on pace of play have not been fully tried. They have been inadequately implemented by umpires, specifically those who call or don’t call certain violations in important moments but aren’t consistent throughout a competition from start to finish. Putting baseball aside (it’s important for international readers outside the U.S. to realize this tennis reform is not isolated within American sports in 2018), tennis runs the risk of trying to appeal to a younger demographic in ways which will turn off segments of its older and more reliable demographic groups.

If tennis is concerned about the TV product on Tennis Channel or ESPN, serve clocks aren’t going to be the thing which sustains or wins back fans. Making tennis more like the NBA or NFL is an unneeded concession to modernity and its discontents, rather than a strong assertion of the tennis experience.

Unlike Jimmy Van Alen’s tiebreaker — which dramatically shortened matches without changing the fundamental experience of tennis (winning a handful of key points in a tiebreaker format is little different from winning a handful of key points in any service game) — the serve clock in tennis will reorient the way the human mind and human eyes process a match.

Here’s hoping time runs out on the serve clock immediately after the U.S. Open.

 

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