The Grand Slam Board or GSB held 2 days of meetings in London on November 15-16. A significant portion of the GSB Agenda concerned possible Grand Slam rule amendments and trials in 2018.
At the end of it all, it was decided to trial and/or implement several rule changes in the majors in the 2018 season.
Over the last couple of years, the powers-that-be in men’s tennis have been looking to experiment with various changes to the sport in order to maintain and enhance its appeal with the general fans and public. Whether it is at all necessary has been a hotly debated topic. The upshot of it all is that several things have been tried at various levels of the sport in recent times, with varying degrees of success. The NextGen ATP Finals held in Milan earlier this month was a radical new event where several new rules, formats and scoring systems were trialled.
Now it looks like the authorities are ready to shake things up at the highest level of the sport – the majors. Following are the various rule changes decided upon and my take on each of them:
25 second shot clock between serves
There are effectively 2 parts to this rule – 1) the 20 seconds limit between points at the majors has been increased to 25 seconds, in line with all the other events on the ATP Tour. 2) A serve/shot clock system will be implemented in order to allow for a stricter implantation of the rule.
These will be implemented at the 2018 Australian Open.
Both parts of the rule seem like no-brainers here. It really made no sense having separate time limits in between points for the Grand Slams and other tour level events. In fact, if there had to be a discrepancy at all, you’d have expected the Slams to have a greater time limit than the rest of the tour events, because they are the more physical best-of-5 matches.
Introducing a uniform 25-second limit across the tour just seems to make sense, and has quite frankly been long overdue.
The shot clock has already been trialled at the 2017 US Open qualifiers and the NextGen Finals in Milan. In both cases, it has been a relative success.
The time taken between points has regularly been one of the most abused laws in the game. Players have often complained that the enforcement of the law itself is quite arbitrary and irregular, and even varies significantly from chair umpire to chair umpire. The introduction of the shot clock would definitely help attain a more transparent and consistent enforcement of the law.
In the US Open qualifiers, with the shot clock, out of approximately 17000 points, there were only 9 violations on the shot clock. This would definitely seem to suggest that it is working.
Going into further details, this is how the shot clock is expected to work – the point ends, the umpire calls the score, then turns on the shot clock. Now this also gives the umpire a little room for some much-needed discretion. When there is a very long and physical point, typically the players take a little longer to recover their breath, compose themselves and start the next point. In such a case, the umpire’s discretion lies in when to call the score. Typically, on the main showcourts, a long physical point is followed by a period of crowd cheering, and the umpire waits for the crowd to calm down before calling the score. On the outer courts, this impact might be slightly reduced. But this is still the point at which the chair upmires can use their discretion to give the players a little more time to recover.
Overall, both the 25 seconds uniformity and the shot clock, seem to be very welcome additions to the game. According to the press release, it was “unanimously agreed” to implement this rule at the upcoming Australian Open.
The timing of the pre-match warm-up to be strictly enforced
Players will get 1 minute after walk-on to be ready for the pre-match meeting, followed by the 5 minute warm-up, then 1 minute to be ready to start the match. Violation of this timing may subject a player to a fine up to $20,000.
This is not really a major change. It’s more a matter of implementation and enforcement of a specific mode of operation than anything. Players generally warm up sufficiently before walking on to the court anyway. What it might mean – sometimes – is that a younger or lower-ranked player who is a bit nervous about a match, might get slightly less time to acclimatize to a major show court environment.
Prize money incentives for injured players to retire early
Any player who qualifies for the main draw, but is unfit to play and withdraws on-site after 12:00 noon on Thursday before the start of the Main Draw will now receive 50% of the first round prize money. The lucky loser who takes his place will receive the remaining 50% plus any additional prize money earned thereafter.
Nowadays, just participating in the main draw of a Grand Slam event guarantees a player a rather lucrative payday. Rightfully so, it clearly is an achievement in itself. The downside of this has been that often players have taken to the court despite being severely compromised physically, so that they’re eligible for the prize money. This was extremely apparent at this year’s Wimbledon, which saw 7 first round retirements, including 2 matches on Centre Court in a single day.
Obviously, such incidents that leave the paying spectators feeling short-changed are highly undesirable. It was only a matter of time before rules were brought in to incentivize players to withdraw if they were not in any condition to compete.
A prominent and pleasing aspect of the rule is that players are incentivized to withdraw before the actual draw takes place. No one – be it players, fans or organizers – wants to see major changes to the draw occur once the draw ceremony has taken place.
Fines for performances below professional standards
This is keeping in line with the previous rule. Not only are injured players incentivized to withdraw early, they are also being discouraged from taking to court in the first round just for the sake of it.
Any player who competes in the first round of a singles main draw and retires or is deemed to have performed below professional standards, may now be subject to a fine up to First Round Prize Money in 2018.
16 seeds from 2019
There’s some good news and some bad news here. The good news is that there will be 32 seeds in the Slams in 2018. The bad news is that they plan to revert to 16 seeds in 2019.
The thinking behind this is clear enough – protect fewer players and encourage high profile clashes in the early rounds.
But are the early rounds of slams really so boring that you need to risk the quality of the later rounds to spice them up? Personally, I would like to see the most deserving 8, 16, 32, etc. players playing in the corresponding round of a major, and fighting it out among themselves for the right to progress to the next round. Having 16 seeds instead of 32 makes the luck of the draw a much bigger factor.
There are some very clear examples to illustrate my point. At this year’s Australian Open, Roger Federer was the 17th seed. Had we had a 16-seed draw, we might possibly have seen the epic Fedal matchup occur in the first or second round itself. That’s a possibility we really could do without. At the coming Australian Open, we would probably have the likes of Andy Murray, Kei Nishikori, Tomas Berdych, Milos Raonic and Nick Kyrgios seeded between 17 and 32. Let’s not make the luck of the draw such a massive factor.
Another argument I have against reducing the number of seeds is it reduces the potential for younger players to make a real breakthrough. An up and coming player who might have broken into the top 30, and is looking for the one big breakthrough tournament would stand a much better chance of achieving it, if he is provided the seed protection without which he might end up facing a top 5 player first round.
It is important to note that up until 2000, the Slams used to have only 16 seeds. The switch to 32 seeds has mostly been a smooth transition. While it has led to fewer early round upsets, it has also led to fewer round of 16 or quarter-final hammerings.
However, today we have a much greater depth in the sport than at any time before, and I believe that 32 seeds is an absolute must. While upsets definitely add to the romanticism and overall appeal of the sport, intense tussles between top players are its life and blood.