Attempting To Speed Up The Game, Experimental Clock Is All About Managing Time

WASHINGTON, August 17, 2018 (by Michael Dickens)

A series of in-game innovations, including the use of a warm-up clock and serve clock designed at increasing the pace of play and ensuring a consistent set of enforcement standards, have been implemented at U.S. Open Series tournaments taking place in the U.S. and Canada this summer. Its use will also be included at the U.S. Open, which begins in less than two weeks.

Earlier this month, the Citi Open in Washington, D.C., a combined ATP 500 and WTA International event, and the WTA Mubadala Silicon Valley Classic in San Jose, Calif., became the first tournaments to test the warm-up and serve clocks. It continued last week during the Rogers Cup tournaments in Montreal and Toronto, and is present this week at the Western & Southern Open in Cincinnati. They will also be used next week during tournaments in Winston-Salem, North Carolina, and New Haven, Connecticut.

The clock will not be used in tournaments after the U.S. Open. However, its use will be considered for the 2019 season.

Test run in Washington

At the Citi Open, clocks were placed behind both baselines, located in the right-hand corners adjacent to digital screens showing serve speed. They were plainly visible to players, fans and the chair umpire. The numbers displayed were a tool designed to help make more consistent the enforcement of a time-limit rule that previously had been left to the discretion of the chair umpire.

Many players at the Citi Open were asked about the clock, a digital timepiece that counted down the time allotted players before they must begin their warm-ups (1 minute) or their service motion (25 seconds). It became a standard post-match press conference question throughout the weeklong tournament. Although most players favored the use of the clock, others were critical or, at best, skeptical of its future.

“I think it’s a good thing that they are trying it out before the U.S. Open and not straight away at a Grand Slam,” said Alexander Zverev of Germany. “For me, I’m specifically one of the quickest players on tour. So, it probably won’t be as a big of a distraction as it might be for others.

“I like the idea; I like that they are trying it out. … I think it will be important to listen to player reaction from different kinds of players.”

How does it work?

The clock is started once the players walk on court, counting down one minute they are allotted between their arrival at their chairs and arriving on court for the pre-match coin toss. Then, a five-minute time clock counts down the warm-up before the start of the match. The clock also counts down time in between games (30 seconds), during changeovers (90 seconds), between sets (2 minutes) and the time allotted for medical time-outs (3 minutes).

The serve clock is turned off during points, but the countdown begins after the chair umpire announces the score. If a player has not started their service motion at the completion of the 25-second countdown, the chair umpire issues a time violation. The receiving player is responsible for playing to the server’s “reasonable pace.”

After playing with the clock in match conditions, Zverev, who successfully defended his Citi Open men’s title, was asked again about the serve clock. This time, the World No. 4 changed his tune about it. “I really don’t care about it to be honest. I don’t think I’ve served once over twenty seconds. So, I mean it’s there, but it’s not really there.”

Different opinions

Kei Nishikori of Japan, ranked No. 23, said the serve clock might be tough for him “because I usually take a lot of time between points.

“It’s not going to be easy for myself, and I’m not going to have too much time to think where I should go on my serve, and not going to have time to think much in between points. Mentally, it’s going to be a little bit tougher, I think.”

Among the leading women, World No. 3 Sloane Stephens of the U.S. said she thinks the idea of a serve clock is interesting. “Obviously, adding something new to the game is always difficult and different, but we’ll see how it goes,” she said. “I can’t really say if it will be good or bad. I have no idea, but we’ll see. And you’ll see when I see if it’s very good or very bad.”

Japan’s Naomi Osaka, ranked No. 19, said she’s okay with the serve clock “because I’m generally really fast going up to the serve anyways.”

The 38th-ranked American Frances Tiafoe said he doesn’t really mind the serve clock, but he doesn’t like the one-minute limit that follows the introductory players’ walk-on to get ready for warming up. “I don’t really like that because I have headphones and a hood on. It takes a while to take all that off and I’m trying not to get fined. So, I have to find a way to hurry up,” he said.

Tiafoe said he isn’t sure if the serve clock will help increase the pace of matches, but remains open-minded to the idea. “Matches are long – matches will be long – but I definitely think it’s cool to add something new to tennis. So, I’m all for it.”

Room for improvements

Although Great Britain’s Kyle Edmund, ranked No. 16, believes the shot clock is fine, he thinks the positioning of it could be different. “Just because its right behind the player and you just see it flicking all the time,” he said. “That’s easily done, but I think the shot clock is a good addition. It’s very much black and white. We’re dealing with facts so if someone goes over it’s right there.”

John Isner of the U.S., the top-ranked American male at No. 9, admitted that after losing to fellow American Noah Rubin at the Citi Open, he could’ve done “a little better” taking his time. He pointed to two pivotal points during his match. “The 4-all game in the first set when I broke back a bunch of deuces, and the 30-all point I served with like 15 seconds and I double faulted. I was really mad at myself. I could’ve really given myself seven more seconds to try to put a better serve in there.

“Look, I think it was fine. It’s definitely unique. I don’t have an issue with it.”

Neither does No. 15 Stefanos Tsitsipas of Greece, who reached the semifinals of the Citi Open and was a finalist at the Rogers Cup in Toronto last week. “Well, I didn’t even pay attention to it. I didn’t even know it was there,” he said after one of his early round matches in Washington, D.C. “I didn’t even know it was on the court, so I’m pretty much used to it.”

Following his Citi Open semifinal victory over Tsitsipas, in which he received a time violation, Zverev said, “I think they (could) turn the clock off sometimes when a player is changing a racket or something. I got my violation when changing a racket. I thought that was pretty pointless … but I don’t mind it. I don’t think I’ve served one time under 15 seconds.”

“It’s manageable!”

Meanwhile, Citi Open women’s champion Svetlana Kuznetsova of Russia was a little bit skeptical, at first. “Okay, so you play in a tough match before, the chair umpire says it’s not the same if I only take 30 seconds in the first set. Or when you are on the court for three hours – which I have long matches – when you are 33-and-a-half (years-old) … you need more time. Chair umpires, sometimes they are machines. 

“I do like it because you can see the time when I serve. So, if I see 20 seconds, I’m like I can chill. It’s quite good. The minute before the coin toss is confusing, but I will get it.”

Finally, Andrea Petkovic of Germany, who reached the Citi Open semifinals before losing to Kuznetsova, was very expressive in sharing her thoughts about why she favors the serve clock. “I think it does speed up the game. I can only speak for myself, but I feel like I get ready quicker than I used to,” she said. “It did stress me out in the first match because I felt I was a decently quick player but I didn’t know because I never really took the time between points.

“In the beginning, I was looking at it all the time just to see how long it takes me from point to point. Once I realized ‘you’re doing fine, you’re always at a solid 19, 20 seconds when you start serving,’ it relaxed me, actually, and I sometimes take another deep breath when I’m already at the servers’ position and I see that I have 15 seconds left.

“So, I think it’s a good thing … it’s manageable.”