Allow me to present a completely unresearched theory. One that stems from nothing other than this tennis fan sitting on his couch or in the stands of Melbourne Park enjoying the sport for the past 20-or-so years.
In recent times, the number of withdrawals in tennis tournaments – as was particularly evident at Wimbledon this year – appear to have increased.
During the same period, tennis has changed in three key ways. Firstly, most of the courts around the world are now more similar in their speed and style than they used to be. The grass at Wimbledon isn’t as fast, for example, meaning that players are more likely to be rewarded for playing lengthy rallies from the back of the court. Secondly, the number of baseline players at the upper echelon of the sport has increased, with serve-and-volleyers disappearing almost completely. Whether this has been as a response to the change in court speed, or just a result of how difficult it is to serve-and-volley against the modern player’s incredible return game is an interesting conversation for a different time.
The third change that tennis has seen in the past decade is that many top players take a very long amount of time between points. It is this point that is at the heart of today’s random theory:
If tennis authorities simply forced players to play by the rules of their sport, might there be fewer injuries?
First, to the rules themselves. According to Matt Cronin of tennis.com, last year the ATP Players Council “unanimously approved the enforcement of the 25 second rule.” This rule states that once a point has been completed, the server has 25 seconds to start the next point.
The rule has been largely ignored by tennis officials and roundly criticised by a number of players, especially Rafael Nadal. He argues that “The rule is wrong. First thing, because the rules go against the great points of tennis. Because if you see the highlights of the end of the season, I did not see not one ace. The best points of the season are long rallies and amazing points. With this 25 seconds, you play a long rally and you think you can play another long rally next point? No. So go against the good tennis.”
Nadal makes a fair point, but it’s important to consider where the man is coming from. Here speaks a guy who has won more Grand Slam titles than anyone other than Federer and Sampras and has done so while hitting almost all of his shots from on or behind the baseline. He’s a man who has no desire at all to shorten points.
(As an aside, Nadal’s also the man who was on the receiving end of the joke video entitled “Nadal vs Federer: 55 seconds”, in which Federer holds serve in the same amount of time that it takes Nadal to recover from one lengthy point and serve the next.)
So, what if we were to take Nadal’s point and link it to the problems of the modern game?
No group of players has been injured as frequently as the current crop, despite the fact that they aren’t playing more tournaments, sets or points than their predecessors. As such, one must wonder if the fact that no generation has played long and brutal points with the regularity of Nadal and his generation is at least partly to blame for the plethora of injuries.
As such, mightn’t it be beneficial to the health of the players if they were to – at least some of the time – play shorter points?
Nadal himself argues that players will be forced to adapt their games if the 25 second rule is enforced. They wouldn’t be able to constantly repeat very lengthy rallies if they aren’t given longer than 25 seconds to recover.
Thus, the theory. By enforcing the 25 second rule, players will be forced to shorten some points during matches, which in turn should lessen the damage each match has on their bodies.
Obviously, there are other benefits to enforcing the 25 second rule. Nadal and Djokovic are known for playing epic matches that take almost 6 hours to complete. They are also known for being the two players who take the longest between points. Their 2012 Australian Open Final was feted for being a particularly lengthy classic – it took 353 minutes to complete as the two men played 369 points across 55 games before Djokovic won 7-5 in the fifth set. In contrast, in 2003 Andy Roddick defeated Younes El Aynaoui in a quarter-final match 21-19 in the fifth set. The two men played 484 points in 83 games in a match that lasted exactly 5 hours. They played 27% more points than Nadal-Djokovic in 15% fewer minutes. While not all of this discrepancy can be put down to time between points, of course, some of it surely can be. Indeed, the length of time that Nadal takes adjusting his clothes and the length of time Djokovic takes to bounce the ball before he serves could certainly be argued to be bad for television and contribute to fans’ relatively lacklustre response to their incredible rivalry.
But perhaps the most important argument in support of enforcing the 25 second-rule is the one that’s a little left-of-centre. Nadal’s body has suffered serious wear-and-tear through his style of play during his career. Perhaps it’s time for tennis officials to consider whether or not their own rules – that they are currently ignoring – actually have the potential to protect their greatest baseliners, and all who will follow in their footsteps, from themselves.