The Server’s Pace

We’re talking today about the serve clock and the time limit rules for recreational players. But first, a little aside about last night’s quarterfinal match at the U.S. Open…

Did you see Nadal get bageled in the first set?! Man, was Thiem belting that ball! Full credit to Thiem for coming out firing on all cylinders, but Nadal did look a step slower than normal. The commentators wondered if he was injured, while coach Carlos Moya attributed it to possible nerves.

Personally, I like my brother’s theory for Nadal’s sluggishness: “Maybe he’s getting tired carrying those giant arms around.”

Nadal eventually recovered his form, eking out the five-set win in almost five hours. That’s a long match–and would have been much longer if Nadal had won more than seven points in the first set. (Nope, that’s not a typo. He won seven points.)

Shortening matches was one of the rationales for the introduction of the serve clock at the U.S. Open. Players like Nadal and Djokovic routinely exceed the time limit with toweling off, bouncing the ball, adjusting underwear, and just generally collecting their thoughts. Not only is the time infraction potentially unfair to opponents, the slower pace of play may drive away today’s attention-impaired television audience.

But in defense of the slower servers, up to now there hasn’t been a way for a player to tell how much time had elapsed. Only the chair umpire had access to the timer.

With the serve clock comes transparency. Players can see the time, and warnings and penalties should no longer come from out of the blue. It’s hard to understand how the so-called innovation of an on-court clock could be considered controversial. For his part, Nadal seems to have adjusted beautifully, streamlining his complicated choreography of tics, touches and tugs.

(Ironically, some early reporting from this summer’s Rogers Cup suggests that matches are taking slightly longer, on average, with the serve clock in use. Why? Players who normally serve quickly are now slowing down, taking advantage of the extra seconds they hadn’t realized they had.)

All of which got me to thinking about the serving pace rules for us recreational league players. Here are two ITF rules on the subject, along with additional USTA comments.

Rule 21:
The server shall not serve until the receiver is ready. However, the receiver shall play to the reasonable pace of the server and shall be ready to receive within a reasonable time of the server being ready.

A receiver who attempts to return the service shall be considered as being ready. If it is demonstrated that the receiver is not ready, the service cannot be called a fault.

USTA Comment 21.3. May the server hit the serve just as the receiver looks up after getting into the ready position? No. The receiver is not ready until the receiver is in the ready position and has a second or two to make eye contact with the server.

And the second rule…

Rule 29:
a. Between points, a maximum of twenty (20) seconds is allowed. When the players change ends at the end of a game, a maximum of ninety (90) seconds are allowed. However, after the first game of each set and during a tie-break game, play shall be continuous and the players shall change ends without a rest.

USTA Comment 29.1. The 20-second time limit does not apply if a player has to chase a stray ball.

The rules seem pretty clear, and I especially like the explanation of what constitutes a receiver being “ready.” What’s missing, though, is a definition of the server’s “reasonable” pace. Probably everyone would agree that jogging from one serving side to the other wouldn’t be reasonable–at least, it isn’t customary.

But beyond what’s customary, “reasonable” seems a bit vague. Reasonable for a 35-year-old tri-athlete server may not be reasonable for a 70-year-old receiver in a knee brace. So while the ITF language sounds legalistic and precise, we’re left without much useful guidance.

I admit, this one stumps me.

Is your own serving pace fast or slow? Have you ever dealt with players who refused to play to your “reasonable pace”? And who wants to take a crack at a good definition of “reasonable pace of the server”? 

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