- Stephen Tignor
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The ATP, as you probably are aware, decided to crack down on slow play this season. The tour has had a 25-second time limit between points for years, but in the past it was very loosely enforced. Its edges have been pushed and often overrun for years by many players, including two of the best, Rafael Nadal and Novak Djokovic. Rallies were lasting longer, and the rest time between them seemed to have been unofficially lengthened as well. Rafa and Nole managed to make a three-set match, in the 2009 Madrid semifinals, take more than four hours. It was a classic, no doubt, but it took a while.
The tour's patience was finally broken by another, longer epic between them: a 5-hour, 53-minute Australian Open final last year. Nadal and Djokovic were the game's marquee players, the ones playing all of the Grand Slam finals at the time, and the specter of ever longer contests between them wasn't one that the ATP, or its TV partners, wanted to contemplate. Nadal and Djokovic staged grueling rallies, but it also seemed that, because each of them played slowly, they felt liberated to take even longer when they faced each other.
The tighter time enforcement that began at the start of 2013 has had its ups and downs. The players' reactions have been a mix of anger, disbelief and occasional acceptance, and the chair umpires haven't always used their best discretion in punishing them. Calls for a shot clock for the players to see on court have multiplied. Nadal himself has continued to criticize the enforcement, saying that it would destroy the modern game. If we wanted the epic rallies and matches, he said, we had to give them time to recover.
All of that was a prelude to this past Sunday, when Rafa and Nole played their first match under the new system, in the final in Monte Carlo. The ATP brought out its best umpire, and the one who so far has had the most success in enforcing the time rules, Mohamed Lahyani. It was a smart move, and the result was a step forward for the new rules. For the first time we could see that they make a difference.
Nadal and Djokovic played 21 games in Monte Carlo; they lasted 1 hour and 52 minutes. Last year, in the Rome final, on the same surface, they also played 21 games; those took 2 hours and 20 minutes. There were, as far as I saw, no official time warnings handed out by Lahyani, and both Rafa and Nole were moving with dispatch between points. Over the course of the tournament, it looked to me as if Nadal had even stopped cleaning the entire baseline with his foot before he began his return games, proof that he can give up at least one his rituals and still be OK -- though having lost for the first time in 10 years in Monte Carlo, Rafa may not see it that way.
Points were shorter than they have been in some of their past matches, but the play between Nadal and Djokovic was just as high quality as always. The physical push and pull of their rallies was just like old times, and if less recovery time made them try to be more aggressive and end points a little more quickly, I'd say that's a good thing.
This isn't the end of the growing pains, by any means. There will be more arguments, more bad decisions by umpires, and more (unwarranted) talk of a shot clock. For now, I would recommend one thing to the ATP: When Rafa and Nole get together, do what you can to get Lahyani in the chair.