Friday March 9th, 2012

Rafael Nadal works the towel as part of his deliberate between-points routine. (Ryan Pierse/Getty Images)

INDIAN WELLS, Calif. -- The issue of time violations has become a hot topic in the men's game. And not surprisingly, the spotlight has fallen on the sport's most high-profile and egregious offenders, Novak Djokovic and Rafael Nadal.

The top two players in the world are notoriously slow, routinely taking more than the 20 seconds allowed between points in Grand Slam tournaments and 25 seconds in ATP Tour events. According to some estimations, their five-hour, 53-minute marathon at the Australian Open could have been about an hour shorter and might not have set the record for longest Grand Slam final had they followed the time rules. And that match continued a trend of long major finals that aren't all the result of so many extended baseline rallies.

While their rule-breaking habits aren't considered gamesmanship per se, Djokovic and Nadal do gain a competitive advantage in maximizing their recovery time. Both men play grueling games that take a physical toll, with the ultimate display of that coming in Melbourne. Incredible fitness is obviously the main factor in being able to execute this style successfully, but having more time to catch your breath between points doesn't hurt either.

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Tour players may disagree on how frequently time violations should be issued, but they agree on one thing: It's for the officials, not the players, to worry about.

Roger Federer, one of the Tour's quicker players, said he understood some leniency after particularly tough points, but when a player consistently violates the rule, the umpire has to step in. And the Swiss used his longtime rival as an example.

"I do believe that officials could be a bit more tough on timing," Federer said. "I'm not complaining a lot, but I don't know how you can go through a four-hour match with Rafa and him never getting a time violation."

Federer stopped short of supporting a shot clock like some other players, saying, "I don't know if that's necessary. I hope it doesn't go that far."

In response to Federer's comments, Nadal said "the rule is there" but that umpire discretion is necessary. That's essentially the same thing Federer said, but Nadal made it clear that umpires can't blindly enforce the rule without understanding the rhythms of the match.

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"You cannot expect to play a six-hour match and play rallies of crazy points and rest for 20 seconds," Nadal said. Somebody’s ready to do it. I’m not ready to do it. If the umpire considers that he has to put a warning because the player is not doing the right thing between points, I think the players have to accept [that]. ... But you have to understand how the match goes and that’s the work of the umpire.”

Interestingly, Federer didn't express concern about any perceived competitive advantage that the frequent violators might enjoy (though he has to wonder how proper enforcement of the rule might have affected certain matches against Nadal and Djokovic). Instead, Federer cited the need to appease fans.

"At the end of the day, I don't want the fans feeling frustrated," Federer said. "Watch five points and it's going to takes five minutes? It can't happen that way."

But this is the predicament for players, umpires and the ATP Tour as they try to balance the desire to encourage the highest quality of tennis possible while not alienating fans and providing an unfair edge to players who clearly take extra time between points. Moreover, not unlike the grunting issue with the women, officials have let this practice go on for so long that it seems disruptive to stop the players now. Nadal, for example, has a between-point ritual that involves toweling off and a deliberate pre-serve routine that is the ATP's version of Maria Sharapova's staredown/hair tuck move.

If Tour executives sees this as a relative non-issue because it concerns only a small number of the top players, they're missing the point. Nadal and Djokovic may be the poster boys for the practice, but they're also consistently meeting in the finals of major tournaments when tennis commands the attention of casual fans. If it's true that fans are getting frustrated (unlike grunting, the public outcry over pace of play hasn't been deafening), then the fact that this is the type of tennis they're seeing on a regular basis is problematic. Player tendencies and officials' involvement figures to change only if it affects the bottom line, which in this case would mean having fans abandon the sport.

So what say you? Is this a small issue that's being blown out of proportion? Or are fans becoming increasingly annoyed by the time violations and lack of enforcement? Vote in our polls and sound off in the comments section.

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