The COVID-19 pandemic has forced some experimentation on the US Open ahead of schedule. After just a couple of years at marginal events such as the NextGen Finals, Hawkeye’s live line-calling system is taking over (on most courts) for human line judges. Another NextGen-tested innovation, requiring players to fetch their own towels, has also arrived for social distancing reasons.
Automated line-calling and towel-fetching pale in comparison to the biggest change for the bubble slam: no fans. The biggest stars now get to experience what has long been de rigueur for qualifiers and challengers: high-stakes competition with no one in the stands watching.
All of these changes come not long after the US Open (and a few other tournaments) finally adopted a serve clock. I’ve written ad nauseam* about the effect of the serve clock, which is nominally designed to speed up play, but in practice has slowed it down. The problem is that chair umpires start the clock when they announce the score, which is not always immediately after the preceding point. The bigger the crowd, the more serious the discrepancy, as noisy fans tend to delay announcements from the chair.
* Incidentally, this is also the Latin term for a long game with many deuces.
Therefore, the pace of play should be faster with no fans, right? Use of the Hawkeye live system also eliminates challenges, which should speed things up a little more. The counteracting force is the time it takes players to fetch their towels. It would be nice to evaluate each of these effects in isolation*, but most of the data we have comes from matches with all of these changes at once.
* No pun intended.
The net effect
The most straightforward measurement of pace of play is seconds per point, where we simply take the official match time and divide by the total number of points. It’s an approximate measure, because official match time includes changeovers, medical timeouts, and all sorts of other delays which have nothing to do with how long it takes for players to get themselves to the line and hit a serve. It also captures a bit of first serve percentage (second serve points take more time) and rally length (longer rallies take more time), although these factors mostly wash out, especially when comparing pace of play at the same tournament from one year to the next.
The following graph shows seconds per point for all Cincinnati (and “Cincinnati”) main draw men’s singles matches each year since 2000:
(I’m looking only at pace of play for men’s matches because I don’t have match time for women before 2016. Lame, I know.)
Over the 21-year span, the average time per point is just under 40 seconds, and before 2020, the yearly average exceeded 42 seconds only once. This year, Cinci clocked in at a whopping 44.6 seconds per point, more than three standard deviations above the 2000-2017 (that is, pre-serve clock) average. The pace has gradually slowed down over the years for reasons unrelated to the serve clock, so it’s probably overstating things a bit to say that the effect of the bubble is 3 SD, but it’s clear that 2020 was slow.
But wait, what about
All four of this year’s men’s semi-finalists are rather deliberate, so you might think that the slow average pace is due in part to the mix of players who won a lot of matches. That’s what I thought too, but it’s not so. (It helps to remember that more than half of a tournament’s matches are in the first two rounds, even with some first-round byes, so we’re guaranteed a decent mix of players for calculations like this, no matter who advances.)
First, I re-did the seconds-per-point calculations above, but excluded all matches with Novak Djokovic or Rafael Nadal, two guys who win a lot of matches and are known to play slowly. It didn’t really matter. I won’t bother to print a second graph, because it looks essentially the same as the one above.
Another approach is to consider the average pace of play for each player in the draw, and compare his seconds per point in Cincinnati to his seconds per point at other events. If every man played at the same speed in Cincinnati that he did on average in 2019, the average seconds per point at the 2020 Cinci event would have been 41.3. That’s just barely above the 2019 Cinci figure of 41.0, and of course it is far below the actual rate of 44.6 seconds per point. The mix of players can’t account for 2020’s glacial pace.
I hope you’re with me thus far that the pace of play in the 2020 Cincinnati men’s event was very slow. It seems reasonable to assume that the US Open will be the same, because the conditions and rules are identical.
The simplest explanation is that players are spending extra time fetching their own towels.*
* No, you’re a towel.
It’s true–walking to and from the towel takes time. But it’s not the whole story. At the typical non-bubble rate of 40 seconds per point (again, including changeovers and other delays), there are plenty of points where the umpire delays calling the score and the server ends up taking longer than the rulebook-permitted 25 seconds without getting called for a time violation. So if the average is now pushing 45 seconds, there must be a lot of points like that.
Anecdotally, there definitely are such points. In the Cincinnati semi-final, I noticed one instance in which Roberto Bautista Agut used more than 40 seconds before serving. He’s not the only offender: All four men’s semi-finalists (among many others) occasionally used more than 25 seconds. My impression was that, ironically, Djokovic was the speediest of the four.
Chair umpires are using their discretion to act as if there are fans making noise. After long points, they often wait to call the score, and even when they announce the score immediately, they hold off several more seconds before starting the clock. In one glaring instance in the Lexington final, the umpire waited a full 17 seconds after the previous point ended before the clock showed 0:25. The broadcast camera angles at the National Tennis Center made it hard to measure the same thing for Cincinnati matches, but given the length of time between points and the dearth of time violation penalties, there must have been other delays in the range of 15 to 20 seconds.
With no fans delaying play, and no tactical challenges to force a delay, a slow pace is something that the umpire can control. Yes, towel-fetching takes time, but if the 25-second clock starts immediately and it is enforced, players will make it back to the line in time–matches at the NextGen Finals were generally brisk. But apparently, enforcing the rulebook-standard pace is not something that the officials are willing to do. We’re two years into the great tennis serve-clock experiment, and the game just keeps getting slower.