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TENNIS RULES EVOLVE — IS THE ITF’s MASTER PLAN WORKING?

Saqib Ali

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Briana Foust

The most popular conversation about rules within tennis is whether new mother Serena Williams should be placed into tournament draws as a seeded player. Being a seeded player is reserved for the top 32 players in the rankings. Think of it as receiving a performance-based reward at a job. Seeded players may receive byes for their first match in tournaments outside of the four majors. A seed allows a player to avoid tough matchups with other seeded players until certain points of a tournament, and gives a tennis tournament the best chance of balancing a draw without being subjected to the temptations (and darker consequences) of any charges of rigging that draw.

During Williams’s maternity absence her ranking slowly receded from world number one to being unranked. Now she can be described as the oxymoronic world number 453. To be fair, being unseeded is not a slight toward Williams, but simply a progression all new mothers currently face when returning to the WTA Tour. Her fame and stature within tennis and pop culture have brought attention to an issue that will need to be addressed. The urgency of the matter is heightened by the reality that the standard length of a woman’s career as a professional athlete is being redefined by Williams and her peers, such as Victoria Azarenka, Mandy Minella, Kateryna Bondarenko and the now-retired Kim Clijsters.  

Still, Williams’s large superhero cloak has managed to draw attention away from current rule changes that began in January of 2018. The International Tennis Federation (ITF) Grand Slam Board voted unanimously in late 2017 to implement a one-minute time limit for players to arrive at the net for pre-match proceedings once they walk on court followed by another one-minute time limit to be ready for the (also) newly shortened five-minute warm-up. Any forms of dawdling, as reported by the New York Times, can leave violators subjected to a $20,000 fine. That is an extremely hefty fine from the ITF, considering most standard fines for egregious behavior reside in the low four-digit range. The ITF is flexing its powers in hopes of modernizing tennis for television audiences. A common complaint by tennis executives across the alphabet soup (WTA, ATP, and ITF) of governing bodies is that the pace of play must increase to keep audiences engaged in the era of cord cutting. Tennis must remain relevant and attractive — most importantly to executives, thereby enabling the sport to compete in a landscape with booming network TV revenue deals.

At the time this article was published, no player has been fined by the ITF for any warm-up violations. That includes the most notorious of time benders such as legendary icons Venus Williams or Rafael Nadal. Nadal didn’t seem fazed when asked in his press conference about the new warm-up.

“No problem. That’s all,” he said. “No that’s things that if they want to do it, I’m completely fine, no problem, not creating any impact on the game.”

One rule that has created an immediate impact on tennis: The majors now split prize money normally given to first-round losers. This split occurs between both injured players who withdraw in the days before a major tournament, and the “lucky losers” who replace them in the first round. As reported by the New York Times, in the past decade the major tournaments have been averaging 3.13 retirements in the first round for the men and 1.05 for the women’s tour. At this year’s Australian Open, there was only one retirement combined between both tours. In Paris, however, Roland Garros has had eight men alone withdraw before their first-round matches. The difference in withdrawal rate between the year’s first two majors can likely be attributed to the physical toll caused by playing competitive tennis week after week over five months. It is also worth noting the effort that the “living” surface of clay requires, since playing conditions can change as quickly as the weather turns.

This new rule also addresses the pay disparity between players who easily can make the main draw of tennis’s greatest prize money offerings and, on the other hand, the ones who lose in qualification rounds. Previously, lucky losers did not get any share of the prize money if a late withdrawal occurred. Their reward was simply a second opportunity to advance to the next round after essentially being eliminated. Now qualifiers are encouraged to stick around and keep their ears to the gossip mill in hopes of pouncing on a withdrawal.

Most famously Marco Trungelliti and his family drove over 1,000 kilometers (621 miles) from Barcelona to Paris after he was eliminated in qualifying to shoot his shot and seek a richer payday. Trungelliti had already returned to his training base in Barcelona when his coach informed him of his rare chance. This revelation occurred when he saw another lucky loser, Mohamad Safwat, playing Grigor Dimitrov on the biggest tennis stage in Paris.  Incredibly, Trungelliti — whose coach did his job and alerted him of an opportunity when it was still available — won his first match over Bernard Tomic, a former top-20-ranked opponent, in spite of the highest odds. The Argentine received around a 20 percent raise. That figure could grow even larger if Trungelliti manages to defeat his next opponent. I don’t know about you, but I would walk a thousand miles for a chance to see that paycheck.  

Image source – Jimmie 48

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