The Grand Slam Board announced at the ATP World Finals a few weeks ago that the Grand Slam events will feature some significant changes intended to enhance the speed and integrity of the game in 2018. But the rule changes have also created a measure of confusion, so an FAQ is in order, starting with the most significant of the proposed revisions:
Will the Australian Open use a 25-second shot clock?
As of now, the 25-second clock between points will be used only in the qualifying tournament. But it may yet be introduced for use in the main draws.
The wording in the news release announcing that decision was vague. As a result, many outlets inaccurately reported that the shot clock would be used in the tournament at large. But while it is confirmed only for qualifying, Australian officials told ESPN that no final decision has been made regarding main draw matches.
Our take: The shot clock is a powder keg. Rafael Nadal, the man most famous for playing at his own leisurely pace, has already told the press, “Having a clock with 25 seconds playing in some extreme conditions, you cannot have the best show possible.”
Roger Federer has weighed in as well, suggesting at the ATP World Tour Finals that it could be “quite stressful” to be on a clock. You can consider those warning shots fired by the men most responsible for the spectacular success of the 2017 Australian Open. Tournament officials seem torn between wanting to be hailed as innovators and keeping their indispensable partners (the players) happy.
This is a real conflict. As Justin Gimelstob, an ATP board member and Tennis Channel commentator, told ESPN: “Keep in mind that these are not player-driven initiatives. They’re sport- and event-driven. You have to proceed with some caution.”
How will the new rules curb first-round retirements?
Novak Djokovic and Federer each won their first-round matches at Wimbledon this year when their opponents retired less than 45 minutes into their matches. It highlighted a disturbing, growing trend of injured players starting but quickly retiring from first-round matches — but still collecting first-round loser prize money. A first-round loser at the US Open earns $50,000.
The new rule for majors gives a player half the first-round payout for withdrawing before the tournament starts and allowing a lucky loser to take his place. The lucky loser gets the other 50 percent of the first-round prize money, along with any additional money that might be earned.
Our take: It isn’t a moment too soon for this rule, but the Grand Slams made a mistake in not adopting the ATP’s policy of awarding the full amount of first-round money to an injured player who withdraws before play starts. The $25,000 difference at the US Open is still substantial enough to tempt players to make a cameo appearance while hurt.
What’s different about the new rules as they may apply to tanking?
A player who “retires or performs below professional standards” could be fined up to the total amount of his first-round prize money. You can call this one the “Tomic rule” because of the sensation caused in July at Wimbledon by Bernard Tomic. The controversial Australian said he was “bored” and “couldn’t care less” about the result following his first-round loss to Mischa Zverev.
The incident was recorded as an unsportsmanlike conduct violation of the code of conduct, and Tomic was hit with the maximum fine of $20,000. But he still left Wimbledon with a profit of over $25,000, or the balance of his prize money. Under the new rule, Tomic would forfeit all his prize money.
Our take: While the antics of Tomic and his Australian countryman Nick Kyrgios have forced the ATP and Grand Slam officials to take a good hard look at tanking, there’s another useful purpose for this rule. It pertains to the earlier change regarding first-round withdrawals. Injured players who retire during the first round rather than withdraw earlier can now be docked all their prize money if they quit or it’s obvious they weren’t fit to play.
What’s the big deal about streamlining the prematch warm-up?
The lords of tennis are looking at all the ways to “speed up” the game for fans whose attention spans in this age of social media are only getting shorter. The warm-up and players’ little preparation rituals are areas that represent fat that can be cut without threatening the nature of the game.
The majors will now strictly enforce a regimen that requires players to be ready for the prematch meeting (coin toss) one minute after they walk on court. The warm-up will last five minutes, and the match will start 60 seconds later. A player could be fined up to $20,000 for ignoring the timetable.
Our take: It’s a welcome bit of belt-tightening, but why not eliminate the warm-up entirely? You can argue that a first-timer on Centre Court at Wimbledon must get a quick feel for how the court plays. But hard and clay courts have greater uniformity one to another, making it easy to warm up on one court and play on another. There’s no good reason to start the match with the warm-up. Do it elsewhere, with whomever, then come out and start the match immediately with the coin flip.
What potential changes weren’t implemented, or even looked at?
The grail for tennis reformers is the scoring system, and officials are moving toward changing it in the rush to please an evolving audience. The ATP Nextgen Finals in Milan featured many innovations, including a shot clock and, most significantly, shorter sets and no-ad scoring.
Gimelstob isn’t suggesting that the ATP or Grand Slam Board embrace the full menu of changes, but his reaction after attending the Nextgen Finals is noteworthy: “The event was exciting. There was more crowd engagement, and more points mattered.”
Also, the Grand Slams considered seeding just 16 players, as was once the custom, but decided to stick with 32 seeds for 2018. The majors “intend” to revert to a 16-seed format in 2019.
Our take: The game is fast approaching the banks of the Rubicon, where officials will have no choice but to act on what they learn about the needs and habits of fans, especially younger ones. The duration of matches, which is mainly a function of the scoring system, may have to be significantly shortened. But it will probably take a significant drop in fan interest — something unlikely to happen while Federer and Nadal are active — to force such a radical change.
Dropping back to 16 seeds would be welcome, and create more high-quality matchups in the early rounds.