"I'm black, so I sweat a lot," Gael Monfils' said in defense of a time violation in Doha.
Last fall, the ATP announced a rule change that eased the penalty for a a player receiving a time violation for taking more than 25 seconds between points. The rule change allows umpires to give a time-violation warning at the first infraction, and then the equivalent of a service "fault" -- as opposed to a full point penalty under the prior rule -- for each subsequent infraction. The rule change was all fine and good, but the question was whether the umpires would have the courage to actually enforce it. Turns out the answer is yes. Kind of. And the players aren't too happy about it.
Monfils is one of those players. He received a time violation in the second set of his second round match against Phillip Kolhschreiber in Doha, and instead of shaking it off Monfils grew petulant. He complained to the umpire about the ball kids slowing down his ability to serve in a timely fashion and he blamed the humid conditions. "I'm black so I sweat a lot," he said.
Asked about the incident after the match, Monfils continued with some rather odd logic.
"I think I let down my concentration (after the time violation),” said Monfils after the win. “Because I think I was up 1-0, and as I told the umpire ‘I'm fit. I'm not (breathing heavy) at all. And if I'm taking time, it's because I'm just trying to dry my hands. So actually, it's not a violation.”
So according to Monfils, if you're fit as a fiddle but just need a few extra seconds to towel off between points you should be forgiven for exceeding the allotted time. The penalties should be reserved for those left huffing and puffing due to their lack of fitness.
“So I think the umpire has to judge if the guy is really taking time because he's tired or whatever or he's taking maybe two or three seconds more because of ball kids or whatever.”
Monfils wasn't the only victim this week. Feliciano Lopez received a warning when he was serving at 4-5, 0-40 in the first set against Lukas Kubot on Tuesday. Lopez clearly went over the allotted 25 seconds, but in years past an umpire probably would have let it go, especially given the scoreline, with Lopez facing three set points on his own serve. Not this time. The umpire issued the penalty, and Lopez was docked his first serve. The Spaniard let his displeasure be known.
You can seen the incident at the 46-minute mark:
While it's easy to come down on the players for complaining when they're clearly breaking the rule -- a rule they've been told will be enforced in earnest this year -- I can understand their frustration. This practice of giving the players upwards of 30-40 seconds between points has gone on for years. The rule has become completely illusory in light of marquee players like Rafael Nadal, Novak Djokovic, Andy Murray and Juan Martin del Potro, all of whom are not shy about taking their time when they want to. Umpires refused to enforce the rule, players abused it, and now no one knows what exactly the rule is.
Now the ATP wants to enforce the 25-second rule, which I fully applaud. But again, it's about actual enforcement and consistency. You can't just call a time violation when you happen to look at your watch and see it's clicked past the 25-second mark. Enforcement has to be objective, unforgiving and automatic. It doesn't matter the scoreline, the players or whether the players just played a 45-shot rally and need extra time to recover. You go over 25 seconds, you get dinged. It's the only way to keep things fair for the players. Show them clear boundaries, and they will adjust.
It will be interesting to see how this rule change plays out. It's one thing for this to happen to journeymen players at an ATP 250 that no one is watching. It's quite another if or when you call it on the men who basically bankroll your tour.