12:23 PM GMT November 04, 2017
At last, there will be no more confusion about just how long a player is taking between points. At the inaugural Next Gen ATP Finals, to be held 7-11 November in Milan, fans, players and the chair umpire all will have access to the same 25-second clock, which will be visible behind the baselines and on the main video boards.
If the clock hits zero and the server hasn't started his motion, the chair umpire will announce “time violation” and penalties can ensue for both the server and returner, depending on who caused the delay: First offence, warning; second and following offences, a fault if the player serving caused the delay and already has a time violation. If it's the returner's second or greater offence, loss of a point.
Refreshingly, there will be little doubt as to whether too much time was taken.
No longer will players be able to say they didn't know how much time was remaining, and chair umpires won't have to try to convince players that yes, you were taking 30 seconds on average during the first set. Fans will have a clear view of the clock as well.
“The shot clock has been talked about for several years on the tour. Every time the subject of how long players take in between points, it comes up, and this is a perfect place to try it, under real conditions, without just throwing it out at the Tour-level to start using. All of our initiatives work here because this is a high-profile event with top players and it will be with a good crowd,” said Gayle David Bradshaw, Executive Vice President, Rules and Competition, ATP.
The shot clock will be new, but the same rules around officiating the serve will remain. The chair umpire will still have discretion as to when to start the timer. For instance, the chair umpire doesn't need to rush to the next point after a 40-shot rally has just finished and thousands of fans are screaming their loudest.
“They don't call it over crowd noise. So if you have a long rally, an exciting point and the crowd is going crazy, the chair umpire waits until they calm down a little bit and then he calls the score,” Bradshaw said. “So the player will always know that the clock starts when the chair umpire says the score.”
The clock can briefly stop once it's started as well. The chair umpire will have discretion to freeze the countdown if something out of the ordinary occurs, such as a ball person dropping the ball and delaying the server.
In other sports, such as basketball, fans have seized the inherent drama of a shot clock, sometimes chanting along – “3, 2, 1!” – if the opposing team is running out of time.
But Bradshaw expects tennis fans to act as courteous as they do now. “I think the crowd will be respectful. They'll realise that that will be disturbing the player,” Bradshaw said.
The innovation has received resounding support from former greats.
“I love the serve clock. I think it makes sense for everyone. For the players it makes the most sense. They can actually see where they stand and they'll know if they're getting close to the limit,” said former World No. 1 Jim Courier.
Jonas Bjorkman, Marin Cilic's coach, sounds as if he's been clamouring for such an innovation for years. “Absolutely love it. Guys are hitting an ace and they go and get a towel. For me it doesn't matter how hot, how warm, how humid it is, you don't need a towel after hitting an ace,” said Bjorkman, who won six Tour-level singles titles and 54 doubles crowns during his career.
With the shot clock in place, players can still towel away as much as they'd like. But in Milan, they'll be on the clock.