Tennis - the Greatest Game - Timing something that cannot realistically be timed...

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Timing something that cannot realistically be timed...

Even if the more practical time limit scheme proposed above is accepted, the question still remains as to how it can be enforced. According to the rules, a player should receive a warning following the first time violation offence, then be penalized by a point and thereafter be penalized by a game for every offence. To begin with, this will require the umpire to time virtually every point by means of a stopwatch. This would be a totally unrealistic expectation as the umpire has many other aspects of the game to concentrate on.

Secondly, and even more difficult to implement, is the decision of when to penalize. Strictly speaking, when a player has already been penalized by a point and then takes 26 seconds instead of 25 to deliver his first serve, he must forfeit one complete game. This would of course be utterly ridiculous and would wreak havoc on the nerves of the server. There therefore seems to be no practical way in which the time limit rules can be enforced as they stand. An option would of course be to simply scrap all the time limit rules, but that would allow players to take as much time between points as they want to. A 10 minute rest break midway through a game would for example then still be in order.
Federer's Time
 To Serve for the
Wimbledon 2008 Final, proposed time limit scheme
Figure 3. Federer's Time To Serve for the Wimbledon 2008 Final, proposed time limit scheme
Nadal's Time To
Serve for the
 Wimbledon 2008 Final, proposed time limit scheme
Figure 4. Nadal's Time To Serve for Wimbledon 2008 Final, proposed time limit scheme

A method that could potentially work very well is not to penalize a player on a point by point basis, but rather on the basis of an accumulation of time violations, a balance of excess time. For instance, if a player exceeds a serve time limit of 35 seconds by 2 seconds, then 2 seconds must be added to the excess time balance. Once a specified balance limit is exceeded, the player loses one point, the balance is cleared and the process of accumulation starts afresh. A realistic limit would be 25 seconds, which means that a player loses a point for every full point he delays. As the accumulated time can easily build up to 25 seconds during a long match, it would be essential to clear the balance at the end of every set, regardless of the balance at that point in time. With the proposed time limit scheme, Federer would nevertheless not have lost a single point even if the account had not been cleared after every set. One may be tempted to say that Nadal would have lost about 35 points, but had the accumulated time penalty scheme been in place, he would of course have avoided being penalized by hurrying between points on his serve.

There are numerous other aspects of the scheme that have to be considered in the spirit of the game. The intention is neither to rush players nor to put them under any unnecessary stress - it is simply a means of preventing some players to exploit the time restriction rules. In the interest and spirit of the game, the following guidelines are suggested:

  • An accumulated balance of 25 seconds is proposed as a time limit, which if exceeded will result in a player losing one point and the balance thereafter being cleared. The accumulation of excess time is restarted afresh.
  • The balance should be cleared at the end of every set regardless of the balance at that stage.
  • Either the umpire or an preferably an electronic signal could warn a player if his balance reaches say 20 seconds, so that he can avoid losing points by hurrying between further points.
  • If a player is preparing to serve and exceeds the serve time limit to such an extent that the balance exceeds 25 seconds, a buzzer could immediately be sounded and the player would lose the point, even without completing the serve.
  • One would not want a set to be decided in such a manner and if a player serves at set point and exceeds the time balance with yet another delay, the following rules could be implemented:
  • If he either wins or loses the point and the set, there will be no penalty and the balance will be cleared.
  • If he had advantage and loses the point, the penalty will kick in, he will lose the next point (deuce) immediately, the balance being cleared and he will serve again from the same (the advantage) side, this time with advantage to the receiver.
  • If the receiver had advantage and the server wins the point, the penalty will kick in, he will lose the next point (deuce) immediately, the balance being cleared and he will serve again from the same (the advantage) side, with advantage again to the receiver.
  • The umpire and or match referee should always have the freedom to control the time excess balance and should be allowed to adjust the time balance for incorrectly awarded time delays, etc.
  • If a time delay of say more than 50 seconds (2 points) should occur, the umpire may declare this to be an injury time-out of 3 minutes, resulting in the immediate forfeiture of 4 additional points. This would prevent players from conceding successive points for arbitrary reasons.
  • The umpire and/or match referee should always have the freedom to control the excess time balance and the actual awarding of penalty points. Should a match progress to a final set, the umpire and/or match referee should for instance have the freedom to suspend the time monitoring process altogether at any appropriate time, in the interest and spirit of the game.

The practical implementation of this timing scheme will require some additional electronic equipment, similar to but much less sophisticated than Hawkeye. When the time progression of the match was recorded with my computer program, the end of each point (signaling the beginning of the next time-to-serve period) and the time of the actual serve were both recorded by pressing a key. A personal computer could be used in identical fashion for actual matches, but a better approach would be to have only the end of points recorded by a person (more than one may be a good idea). The actual time when the serve is played can easily be recorded by a microphone with a focused beam (similar the parabolic reflector type), which can be directed to pick up mainly the sound of the ball being hit. That sound can even be electronically processed to discern it from surrounding noise (there should of course not be any!). In addition to the conventional keyboard of the computer, a simple control panel may be added with keys for temporarily stopping the timing process when the receiver or external factors delay the game, correcting a specific time excess addition to the balance, clearing a specific time excess addition, etc.

The proposed time monitoring system will take time to investigate and even longer to implement. As an intermediate solution, or possibly even the long term solution, one may rather opt to time-analyze matches after its completion and enforce a penalty if gross violation of the rule of continuous play is found. The penalty could take the form of a hefty fine (possibly related to annual prize money or ranking, for if it is too small and it will simply be laughed off), or even banning the offending player from participating in the next tournament of equal stature. It all depends on how serious the delaying tactics offence is deemed to be. The disadvantage from a post facto penalty scheme would be that the player will not be aware of the level of his time limit transgression during a match, which he can control at that stage, and it would certainly not be in the interest of the game to exclude players from participating in any of the high level tournaments.

This may all sound like an enormous effort to control a less important aspect of the game, but at the same time it is also ridiculous to have formal rules that are impossible to implement. On the other hand, the high profile matches are watched by millions of people around the globe and millions are spent on broadcasting and advertising rights, in comparison to which the extra effort and expense would be insignificant.
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