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Tuesday, June 29, 2010
Rafa and the rules


"The rules are the rules," Rafael Nadal said Monday when it was announced he would be fined $2,000 for receiving illegal coaching from his uncle Toni during his third-round match at Wimbledon.

Nadal said he didn't believe Toni had done anything wrong on this occasion, but he admitted his uncle had crossed the line from cheerleader to adviser during other matches.

"Sometime in the past, maybe Toni talk too much," Nadal said, "but not this time, in my opinion."

The rules are the rules. It was good to hear Nadal say that. While he has been a tremendous figure for the sport and has charmed even the crustiest veterans of tennis with his intelligence, forthrightness, desire and humility, the one thing he hasn't done as well as his fans might like is stick to the rules. Receiving coaching from his uncle was something other players, including Roger Federer, had obliquely charged Nadal with back in 2006, but it seemed to have become a dead issue until this weekend. I've never seen Toni give any specific tactical advice from his seat, the way Carlos Rodriguez has to Justine Henin, but now we know it has happened.

The issue that has never really died away -- and the one that has bothered his opponents the most -- is the amount of time Nadal takes between points. Rafa has gotten better about this over the years, but he still towels off (thoroughly), selects the balls (carefully), pulls back his hair (delicately), bounces the ball (slowly) and stares across the net (thoughtfully) before going into his motion.

Nadal isn't stalling, exactly, because he's always in motion between points. It's difficult for a chair umpire to call him on it because he gets up to the line relatively quickly, which makes it seem like he's in his service motion when he's still got a ways to go before he actually puts the ball in play. Most of the time he does it within the 25-second time limit. But there are points, particularly crucial points, when he doesn't.

As anyone who has played tennis knows, this isn't a minor issue. Controlling the tempo is a significant aspect of the sport. If someone is taking longer than you like, it makes you edgier and more impatient when the ball finally does get to you. Andre Agassi, who played as quickly as anyone, once got so tired of waiting for Nadal to serve that he sat down at the back of the court. If you take your time but stay within the limit, it's intelligent tennis; if you go over, it's cheating. When Nadal, or anyone else, starts to go over with any regularity during a match, he should be docked points until he has no choice but to stay within the limit.

This isn't an easy thing for an umpire to do. As I said, Nadal is at the line for much of that time, and he takes the most time before the most important moments, exactly when an umpire doesn't want to interfere. But it's for Nadal's own good.

In the same match in which he was fined for receiving coaching, he also called an injury timeout and had his leg rubbed right around the same time that his opponent, Philipp Petzschner, had gone up two sets to one. Nadal was a little vague afterward about what the problem was, but we can give him the benefit of the doubt that it was real and not strategic. (He has lost plenty of matches without calling any timeouts.) But it would be a lot easier for fans and opponents to give him that benefit if we knew he wasn't bending the sport's laws in other ways.

The rules are the rules, and Nadal can only help himself, his popularity and the popularity of the sport by always staying inside them.