WIMBLEDON, England — The Jamaican sprinter Usain Bolt can complete a 200 meters in the time it takes the Spanish tennis player Rafael Nadal to start some of his points.
Nadal will often take 20 seconds or more to deliver his first serves, owing to a ritual that includes bouncing the ball a few times, tugging at his shorts, pinching the fabric on his left shoulder, then his right shoulder, bouncing the ball, swiping at his nose, his left ear, his nose, then his right ear, tucking his hair behind his left ear, then his right ear, and bouncing the ball a few more times.
Nadal squeezes the clock the way he does the lines with his heavy topspin forehand. If he were a tennis writer, Nadal would check his Twitter feed, his email and his Facebook page between each paragraph of his deadline story, making his editors squirm as much as fans do in their seats at his matches, waiting for him to deliver.
Nadal received two time-violation warnings during Wimbledon’s first week, but that hasn’t appreciably slowed him in his quest for a third title at the All England Club. It could be a different story next month at the United States Open, where a countdown clock between points will be introduced for the first time in the main draw of a Grand Slam event.
Instead of officials’ silently tracking time (and seeming to loosely enforce limits), the clock will tick off the seconds for all the fans to see — and count down out loud, if the alcoholic spirits move them. After the chair umpire announces the score, a server will have 25 seconds to start the next point.
If the player has not started the service motion at the completion of the 25-second countdown, the chair umpire will issue a violation. A subsequent violation, according to the rule book, would result in the loss of a first serve.
The United States Tennis Association, the ATP Tour and the WTA Tour announced Wednesday that the clock would be instituted at events leading up to the U.S. Open, including the Citi Open in Washington; the Mubadala Silicon Valley Classic in San Jose, Calif.; the Rogers Cup in Montreal and Toronto; and the Western & Southern Open outside Cincinnati.
For most of the top players at Wimbledon, that means their next tournament will feature the serve clock, which is intended to improve the pace of play, an issue that has vexed many sports.
Nadal, a 17-time major winner, isn’t happy about the change.
“All the matches that have been important in the history of our sport have been four hours, five hours,” he said last week. “To play these kind of matches, you need time between points because you cannot play points in a row with long rallies, with emotional points, having only 25 seconds between.”
Nadal’s time-consuming ways have been an issue for years. In 2012, Roger Federer said, “I don’t know how you can go through a four-hour match with Rafa, and he never gets a time violation.” Federer added, “There are times when they could be more firm because at the end of the day I don’t know if fans are getting frustrated to watch five points that are going to take us five minutes.”
But Nadal isn’t alone in taking his time between points. Pacing the baseline and constantly using a towel to dry off are common stalling tactics in the men’s and women’s game.
Nadal also isn’t alone in arguing that time is relative. Johanna Konta, the top British woman, suggested that allowances should be made for men playing a fifth set or for women stretched to a third. In a match in its third or fourth hour, Konta said, she hopes the chair umpires will show “some humane judgment,” and she added, “I think there’s got to be a bit of give and take there.”
But Konta acknowledged that tennis can end up the big loser when a scintillating rally is followed by the server bouncing the ball two dozen times. While a player catches his breath, are fans tuning out?
“I think the way society is now, people are quite impatient,” Konta said. “People don’t like to wait for things. I think everyone’s looking for instant gratification. So I think it just speeds things up in that manner.”
Novak Djokovic, a 12-time major winner who during his service games often bounces the ball more than a point guard, said he appreciated the shot clock as an attempt to modernize what he called “a very traditional sport.”
Djokovic said he was “not much against it,” and added, “Everybody is trying to get this new generation of people, young people, that are very, so to say, connected to the digital world, and the attention span is not maybe as it used to be.”
His objection is with how the change was carried out — without seeking input from the players.
“Prior to making this kind of big decisions that are going to affect the play, they’re going to affect the rhythm of a player, it’s just important to have these conversations,” he said.
A member of the ATP Player Council, Djokovic added, “We are not participating in the conversation or decision making, and that’s something that is really frustrating.”
Some of the Centre Court fans here could barely contain their grumbling at Djokovic’s ball bouncing during his third-round victory against Kyle Edmund. And that was before Djokovic received a warning for excessive time after seeming to bounce the fuzz off the ball.
One player standing above the shot-clock fray is Federer, who consistently puts the ball in play in less than 10 seconds. During his run to the quarterfinals here, he won a few of his service games in under a minute, proving his Swiss timing is impeccable.
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