A Matter of Time

The headline-generating topic of the 2012 Australian Open has been noise, specifically the concern that rather too much of it periodically emanates from the shapely throats of several women players. The controversy reached a fevered pitch when two of the worst offenders progressed to the final, whereupon the taller one came to a screeching halt. Despite the earnest efforts of those eager to stir up controversy, the sound and fury achieved little beyond incensing a few talk-back callers, who duly said their piece. In any case, it hardly constitutes a serious issue. I suspect committed tennis fans have long since learned to block the shrieks out. I know I have. Of far greater concern, though far less discussion, was the speed of play in the men’s event, which as the draw pared down grew increasingly glacial. While the rallies were furious and fascinating, the space around each one became excessively vast, as though each frenzied exchange required adequate time before and after for genuine contemplation, or a quick nap.

The statistic flashed up after the second set of last night’s men’s final that Novak Djokovic was averaging 30 seconds between each point; Rafael Nadal 33 seconds. Pascal Maria, the chair umpire, bestowed an unofficial warning upon both players, a tactic apparently designed to make no difference whatsoever. By that measure, it worked. If the goal was that they actually get on with it, however, why not just deliver an official time violation warning? That’s why it is a warning – it doesn’t cost idling players anything, but simply cautions them that further transgressions will result in a point penalty. Stale talk of an on-court shot-clock was once again brought out for an airing, and duly beaten with a stick. Chris Bowers was opposed to it on the grounds of its inflexibility: some points are so gruelling that the allotted 20 seconds is insufficient time to recover. Pat Cash favours it, because watching athletes gather tennis balls, towel off, and extract their underwear is even less exciting than it sounds.

The upshot is that Djokovic and Nadal, who number among the slowest players on tour, will always have an innate advantage when it comes to posting time-based records. Last night’s final was the longest final in grand slam history, and the longest match ever played at the Australian Open. They already hold the record for the longest best-of-three match in history, which they achieved in Madrid in 2009, a four and a half hour grind featuring endless sojourns behind the baseline and a number of medical timeouts, and which only came alive in its final minutes. Tonight’s match clocked in at 5hrs 53mins – Djokovic posed next to the clock with the trophy afterwards – though I suspect this number includes the 10-15 minute delay while the roof was closed in the fourth set. Whether it does or not, I’d be curious to know how much time was spent actually playing tennis (as compared with, say, Djokovic’s semifinal against Murray), although nowhere near curious enough to find out for myself. Notwithstanding that such records are not particularly meaningful, a better way to measure them would be to record only the time while the ball is in play.

In lieu of some dull hours with a stopwatch, I can hazard an educated guess. There were 369 points played in last night’s final. Of those points, 56 occurred at the end of a game or set (as well as one during the changeover in the fourth set tiebreaker). Assuredly, there is scope in those situations to further retard play, but for now I’ll ignore those points. That leaves 313 points. For the sake of argument, let’s say Djokovic and Nadal averaged about 30 seconds between points, which is ten seconds more than the allotted limit as set out in the rules. In reality, they justifiably availed themselves of ever-longer breathers as that fifth set wore down, but I’ll leave it at a conservative 30 seconds. Simple maths tells us that 313 x 10 = 3,130 seconds, or a touch over 52 minutes. In other words, in last night’s final, there were at least 52 minutes when the players weren’t playing, but according to the rules should have been. That’s a lot of extra time spent watching very fit men not play tennis.

To the contention that sufficiently dramatic tennis renders this issue null, I am happy to concede. I didn’t notice the time between points at all in the fifth set, when it was stretched farthest. But the first two sets took two and half hours, with neither extending to a tiebreak. You may be sure that fewer people witnessed the electrifying fourth and fifth sets than might have been the case had the lightning struck sooner.

It seems undeniable to me that in this case there is a disjunction between many players’ actions and the rule intended to govern those actions, not helped by a level of official enforcement that oscillates from toothlessness to woeful inconsistency, without ever going beyond either. Now it may be that the rule is wrong, and that 20 seconds is on average not enough time to recover from today’s increasingly demanding points, and the extended rallies encouraged by universally slow courts. (Fans of Federer should be careful when parading his name at this point, just because he plays quickly. Those who exalt him for being unique cannot therefore hold him up as being typical, and he would be the first to insist that rules should not reflect any single player.) If the rule is wrong, then it needs to be changed. If it isn’t then it needs to be enforced. If a ‘shot-clock’ is the best way, then so be it. I have no doubt it can be made to work, given adequate will.

None of this is intended to diminish the monumental achievements of either player, nor the outstanding match they collaborated on in the Australian Open final. Talk of where it rates among the greatest matches of all time has been premature. Djokovic was eager to insist it was the greatest match he has ever contested, and I cannot disagree with him. It is unquestionably the finest match he has ever played against Nadal, which may sound backhanded, but shouldn’t considering they had met 29 times before last night. It was a great match, but its greatness owed to the skill, endurance, sportsmanship, and determination of its protagonists, and the drama, context, and shape of its unfolding. There are many things a great match must have – and this one had it all – but a big number on the match clock isn’t one of them.

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