Tennis - the Greatest Game - No one will rush Rafael Nadal ...

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No one will rush Rafael Nadal ...

Everybody who has an interest in tennis knows that new stars like Nadal and Novak Djokovic take their time when they prepare to serve. Unless one times every point with a stopwatch (as is effectively expected from the umpire), it is however difficult to judge exactly how much time is wasted by their settling down routines. Before attempting to assess the latter, we should first take a look at the rule book.

According to the ATP 2008 Tennis Rulebook:

  • Play shall be continuous and shall not unreasonably be delayed [ATPRB, Rule IV-D-2, p. 44, Rule VI-M-1 p. 97, Rule VII-J-4-o), pp. 131-132].
  • Players have 25 seconds to strike the first serve from the moment the previous point has been decided (ball has gone out of play) or the players have been ordered to play by the umpire [ATPRB, Rule VI-M-1, p. 97]. Various rules apply to determine when the ball is in play and when a point has been lost [ATPRB, Rule IX-O-1, p. 181, IX-O-24, p. 184].
  • The first failure to strike the ball within 25 seconds results in a warning for Time Violation [ATPRB, Rule VI-M-1, p. 97].
  • For the second time violation and every subsequent time violation, the player shall receive a Delay of Game Code Violation [ATPRB, Rule VI-M-1, p. 97], resulting in a point penalty (second violation) and thereafter a game penalty for subsequent violations [ATPRB, Rule VII-J-2, p. 127].

A time violation warning appears to be very unpopular not only with the players (understandably), but also with the spectators. During the matches that I have seen, the umpire never went further than issuing a time violation warning. Players like Nadal are of course fully aware of this and simply shrug off the warning. If a second violation resulted in a penalty point one can only guess what the reaction would be, let alone the reaction to a game penalty. Even when the umpire gave Nadal a time violation warning during the Wimbledon 2008 final (point #124, with the score 4-5, 30-30 in favour of Nadal in the second set), one of the commentators questioned indignantly whether it was really necessary to do so at that stage. He also incorrectly stated that the time allowed is 20 seconds, the impractical ITF rule indeed [ITF Rules Of Tennis 2008, Rule 29a, p. 14], but not an ATP rule. The point is, in a closely contested match there may never be an appropriate time to do so. It is also very difficult for the umpire to monitor each and every serve by means of a stopwatch, as he has to concentrate on keeping score and then the actual play from the moment the point had started. The situation at present is therefore that play is not continuous and players do more or less what they want to do. When play had to commence after one of the rain delays at Wimbledon (point # 188, Nadal's serve # 111), Nadal took all the time in the world, prompting one commentator to reiterate that the umpire had already called time. The warm-up period was not recorded on the DVD, but from a video tape recording of the match, Nadal continued with his warm-up for 34 seconds after the umpire had called time (Federer had already returned to his chair). Nadal delivered his first serve 111 seconds after time had been called, more than 50 seconds after Federer had already been in position, ready to receive. This point in particular demonstrated Nadal's blatant disregard of the play-shall-be-continuous rule.

In order to determine the extent to which Nadal delays the game, I have written a computer program to record every point of the match as it progresses and specifically the time progression of the match. A stopwatch on the computer is started at the end of every point and stopped when the first serve ball is struck. The scoreboard advances automatically as the points are awarded to a player and as far as possible all aspects of the game are taken into account (challenges, umpire overrule, changeovers, etc). The accuracy of the time recording process is of course dependent on reaction time, but it tends to average out since a key is pushed when a point is awarded and again when the first serve is played. The reaction time is admittedly not constant either, but all in all the time record should be accurate to within a few percent.

What stands to be gained by delaying tactics?
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