Starting in August, the U.S. Open will test out in qualifying rounds a number of new rules and innovations designed to speed up matches and limit time between points. The most dramatic and noticeable of these rules will be a shot clock visible to all fans, as well as the ability for players to speak to coaches in the stands in-between points.
The new timing regulations are more about clarity and consistency, rather than a dramatic shift. Technically, there already are rules preventing players from taking more than 25 seconds between points, but the application of these rules can get a little fuzzy, because it’s entirely at the discretion of the umpire. Without a visible clock, players can be unsure about whether or not they’re taking too much time.
The rationale behind the new coaching rules, meanwhile, is simply to make easier what players have already been doing for many years—communicate with their coaches during matches, which is currently banned at the Grand Slam level. That bothers some traditionalists who love the one-on-one battle inherent to tennis, but that might already be a lost cause.
USTA chief executive Stacey Allaster said to ESPN, “We know it already happens today, through signals and so forth. We know it’s part of the game and we wanted to test it.”
These timing changes are controversial as well, and the U.S. Open is the only major tournament that currently supports them. Especially in a rowdy atmosphere like Arthur Ashe, the most feared outcome for tennis officials is a crowd that loudly counts down the shot clock as it nears zero, which would inject drama for a casual fan but screw with any player’s concentration. The umpire will also have the ability to decide when the clock starts and when to reset it, which could lead to as much subjectivity and confusion as the clock tries to solve.
While the conversation about the pace of play in tennis isn’t quite as ubiquitous as in a sport like baseball, a large cause of these new rules is the demands of TV. Allaster noted that ESPN wanted more consistent start times for matches, and in addition to the shot clock between points, warm-up and locker-room time will also be more strictly enforced.
The result, if the USTA gets its desired effect, will be a tighter game that’s easier for fans to follow. But if no one else in tennis wants to follow its lead, the qualifying rounds in August will simply pass as an odd experiment.