How to Fix the ATP’s 25-Second Rule

At the beginning of 2013, the ATP lessened the penalties for time violations, in hopes that chair umpires would call them more often. In a perfect world, that might lead to players committing fewer time violations.

So far this year, the new policy may have sped up the game a bit, but unsurprisingly, it has led to more disruptions of play.  Whenever a violation is called, an additional delay is virtually automatic.  After all, if a player is worn out from the previous point and lagging so much that he earns a time violation, why not take the opportunity to argue with the ump and physically recover for even longer?

Any time-violation policy should take into account three key guidelines:

  1. The game should move along at a reasonable pace. Some kind of time violation rule is here to stay.
  2. Any rule should be applied as fairly and consistently as possible, against all players, regardless of court, tournament, round, or set.
  3. Enforcement should interfere as little as possible with the flow of the game, both for fan enjoyment and player concentration.

The policy may be succeeding on (1).  It might be an improvement towards (2), though based on the unscientific sample of matches I’ve watched, it still seems that violations are more likely to be called on the guys playing the big four (or top ten) than the big four themselves.

As for (3), it’s a disaster.

Keep the penalties; keep the flow.

The solution is simple.  Instead of calling the time violation while the server is readying himself for the next point, call it immediately after the point is complete.  There may still be an argument, but coming right after a point instead of 30 seconds after (and five seconds before the next one would have started), it would be less disruptive.

Sometimes a post-point violation warning wouldn’t be disruptive at all, as when the point finishes a game.  Also, if the offending player has just won a point, he would probably be more in the mood to keep going than to stop and argue with the umpire.

This change would address (3).  However, to ensure that the rule is justly applied, a better system needs to be in place.  While a basketball-style shot clock is appealing for this reason, it would be far too distracting to both players and fans.  As always, the onus is on the chair umpire.

To keep the umpire honest, his record of the match should be made available to both players and their camps.  (Or best of all, to the public, but why suggest something the ATP would never consider?)

The umpire already keeps a point-by-point record of the match–that’s what you see him doing when he taps on the screen in front of him.  We’re talking about a minor technological improvement here: When he finishes entering the previous point, a clock starts.  In this new scenario, he would be asked to tap the screen again when the server starts his motion.  The addition of a clock (a shot clock, but visible only to the umpire) and that one extra tap is all that is required.

This way, the screen in front of the umpire would notify him of every possible time violation.  He would still be given leeway to call the time violation or not, perhaps ignoring the offense because of a long round of applause or a distraction on court.  With those records available after the fact, opponents and ATP supervisors would know whether time violations were called, especially when a player averages more than 25 seconds between points.

With these minor changes, we can hope for men’s tennis that moves along at a reasonable pace, thanks to unobtrusive rules that are equally applied to all players.


6 thoughts on “How to Fix the ATP’s 25-Second Rule”

  1. Very good ideas, just a couple of clarifications.

    1, If the time violation is called following the point, how is the server being penalized? Second serve on the next point?

    2. How does the umpire keep track now and why would the clock start after the service motion, shouldn’t start when the point ends?

    1. 1. Yep, all the penalties would apply to the next point.
      2. I meant that the clock starts when the ump finishes entering the previous point (they are usually very brisk about that), then when the service motion starts, they click the screen again to *end* the clock, creating a record that it took, for instance, 21 seconds between points.

      I don’t know exactly what tool(s) the umps are currently using. I hope they are already looking at some kind of timer that starts when the previous point ends, but I don’t know if that’s the case.

  2. As much as I would like to be in favor of these ideas, I don’t think they would work. First of all, calling a delayed penalty of this sort is likely to cause at least as many, if not more, arguments & temper tantrums. Yes, penalties on the next play are accepted in sports like football, in designated circumstances, but the issue here is the whole nature of what constitutes a reasonable vs. unreasonable delay – and that dispute will remain. Pushing it to the next point doesn’t solve it, just makes it murkier.

    And I don’t think a “secret umpire clock” will work very well, either. It’s not transparent (whereas a shot clock would be) and it’s still making the umps multi-task too much – it doesn’t address the cognitive overload they’re suffering from. And making the ump’s record public after the match (or even during it) will be just as much of a distraction, if not more, than a shot clock.

    That said, I think it would be interesting to try these ideas out in a live tournament setting somehow, just to see – a sort of “skunk works” affair. I don’t think they’d work but who knows? I’m just not sure who would agree to be the test case.

    1. These are good points — they highlight how difficult this problem will be to solve. At one time I was in favor of a public shot clock, but anything the players can see the crowd can see too, and imagine the buzz growing in a once-silent stadium as it counts down from 5. At a match with any kind of crowd support, that would be enough disruption to stop the server’s prep and restart the clock.

      I think that if perceived fairness were addressed somehow–that’s what I’m trying to do with the transparency, at least after the fact–players would argue less, regardless of when the penalty was called/applied. You almost never see arguments over a service let call anymore, now that it’s a machine. And you almost never see arguments over ball/racquet abuse violations, though that’s more clear-cut. But in both cases, the arguments are cut down because the result is automatic. You probably can’t hand over time violations to a machine, but you can get closer.

  3. Just to add on the use of the umpire’s device to measure time, the umpire has to see the serve (to overrule in/out/let calls). If they’re even quickly looking down to tap a screen, it might disrupt that. If they don’t look down to tap the screen, thus keeping their eyes on play, they might mistap or move their pointer from the button, causing other problems.

    I think we all agree it needs improvement, just a question of how to do it. Would be nice to get an umpire’s take.

  4. Hey Jeff,

    Thanks for the interesting thoughts! It’s great to see you taking the time to propose a solution and it will be interesting at the end of year to see whether or not this rule sticks.

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