I'm trying to recall the last time I watched a really monumental tennis match -- say, at Wimbledon or the U.S. Open -- and thought to myself, "Quit stalling. Get on with it, for crying out loud."
Actually, the answer comes easily: Never. I'd wager that most serious tennis fans agree, which is why the notion of an on-court clock, with a strictly enforced time limit, sounds so terribly inappropriate.
In the realm of lesser matches, it can be an entirely different story. Over the past two years at the Northern California tour stop (San Jose), I began viewing Ryan Harrison and Sam Querrey in a different, more unsettling light -- all because of their obsession with towels.
Here was an indoor setting, ideal climate, not an element out of place. It takes a succession of furious, hard-fought points to work up a decent sweat under those circumstances. And yet, there they were, asking for a towel after virtually every point. I wanted to race behind the baseline, grab every towel in sight and make a break for the parking lot, just to spare the rest of the audience the misery of waiting out this nonsense.
If recent developments on the ATP Tour are any indication, the sport grows closer to the dreaded clock reality. Chair umpires have been ordered to pay more attention to the time limits between points (25 seconds at ATP tournaments) and have issued a number of warnings to players, including a very unhappy Rafael Nadal.
When it becomes commonplace to cite a second violation -- forcing the offending server to lose a first serve or returner to lose a point -- a full-blown crisis will be in play. But the very mention of an on-court clock makes one wonder: Have tour officials really thought this out?
Are we all supposed to be watching a clock during a compelling battle between two deliberate players, instead of hashing out the point that just took place? When does the clock start, exactly? What if the ball kids drop a towel or can't find one, devouring precious seconds? Is the chair umpire allowed discretion, backing off a citation under unusual circumstances? And what happens when the time expires -- is there some sort of noise?
"I can't imagine someone throwing the ball up to serve," Andy Murray said at Indian Wells, "and having a [harsh buzzing sound] like in basketball."
"I think it would stress the players more than it would do good," Caroline Wozniacki said.
In case you missed Nadal's comments on the subject, they are worth a look.
"You go against the great points of tennis," he told reporters at Indian Wells. "With 25 seconds, you play a long rally and you think you can play another long rally next point? No. So you want to go against the good tennis?"
Calling the recent enforcement "a disaster," Nadal recalled his third set of the 2011 U.S. Open against Novak Djokovic, when a sequence of long, unforgettable points had the crowd in a joyous frenzy.
"You tell me if the crowd was very happy about what happened in that set or not," he said, "and tell me if with this new rule that can happen again. Please."
My personal favorite in this regard was the 2001 Wimbledon final between Patrick Rafter and Goran Ivanisevic, played before a rowdy "People's Monday" crowd because of a Sunday rainout. With its decidedly blue-collar bent, this might have been the most delightfully uproarious crowd in Wimbledon history: singing, chanting, absolutely going nuts during a match showcasing one fabulous point after another.
Here was a crowd that had become a pulsating, vital part of the action. First came the point, and then the reaction, often lasting 30 seconds or more. The chair umpire routinely called for silence, but without a terrible sense of urgency. Common sense cast a vote for bedlam. There is no way a time limit -- in any shape or form -- would have been acceptable that day.
In short, Nadal is right. May his voice become the final word.
Images from Harrison's Men's Journal photo shoot
Best-of-three at majors?
For the past year or so, Sports Illustrated's Jon Wertheim has made a compelling case for three-set matches at all men's venues, believing that all the crucial components of victory -- endurance, strategic shifts, performance on the big points -- can be properly established within that time frame. I found the idea a bit crazy at first, but only from a knee-jerk, traditionalist's standpoint. I've made a 180-degree turn because it really makes a great deal of sense.
Interesting, too, to hear Billie Jean King tell Indian Wells reporters that five-set matches run too long and cause excessive wear on players' bodies. She even suggested the implementation of no-ad scoring (at 40-all, the returner chooses the receiving side of the court, and that point ends the game). TV executives certainly wouldn't mind. Would hardcore fans agree?
Old-school tactics resurface
A couple of long-dated bits of strategy came to the fore at Indian Wells. Juan Martin del Potro had remarkable success with the sliced backhand, and the "moonball" tactic found resurrection in the women's semifinals.
There was a time when the sliced backhand was one of the prettiest and most effective shots in the game. Serve-and-volley tennis was of the essence, and here was a low, net-skimming shot deep to the corners, a perfect approach for someone about to rush the net. Picture King, Martina Navratilova or Ken Rosewall leaning so athletically into this shot, a bit of aesthetic elegance you just don't see when someone takes a two-handed death grip on that backhand.
As the game evolved and equipment was refined, net-rushing became quite the risky proposition -- but there remains a place for the backhand slice. Del Potro said he recently began using the shot as a safeguard (to protect his surgically repaired right wrist), but it became an invaluable cross-court tool in his semifinal upset of Novak Djokovic. The forehand will always be his money shot, but he kept Djokovic off balance and prolonged some key points with that clever change of pace, and he found it equally effective in his quarterfinal win over Andy Murray.
As Wozniacki tried to rally from a shaky start against Angelique Kerber, she resorted to the tantalizing, high-flying "moonball" -- and Kerber obliged, resulting in some very retro-style rallies. Back in the 1970s and '80s, when women's pro tennis came to the fore, this was an all-too-common tactic that bored people to tears (Andrea Jaeger is always the first name that comes to mind). At Indian Wells, appearing out of nowhere, it seemed almost refreshing. Small doses recommended.
NGUYEN: Sony Open women's draw analysis