Tennis set for radical change as US Open trials 'shot-clocks' to combat slow play

Tennis is set for a time-keeping revolution, Telegraph Sport has learned, as the US Open prepares to introduce a shot-clock at its qualifying event in August.

The move is intended to address concerns over slow play between points – but this is not its only purpose. Observers have long complained about warm-ups continuing beyond their allotted five minutes and medical time-outs beyond three minutes. With a visible clock on the court, such details will be more transparent and defined.

Tennis Court Flushing Meadows


In another dramatic move, the US Open will also allow coaching at any time during matches – except, obviously, when the ball is in play. While players are at the same end of the court as their coaches, they will be able to speak between points. When they are at the opposite end, they will have to settle for sign language.

The moves are part of an adventurous package of reforms that were put forward during the French Open by Stacey Allaster, the former head of the Women’s Tennis Association who is now the head of professional tennis at the United States Tennis Association.

They do not have widespread support from the other majors at this stage, so the USTA have been given a waiver to test out these ideas as an experiment. They will operate at the US Open in everything but the five main draws, which means qualifying as well as juniors, wheelchair and legends matches.

Similar ideas were already due to be trialled at the Association of Tennis Professionals’ NextGen Finals in November, but that is a new and experimental project with no rankings points attached. Shot-clocks and coaching have never previously been used within the established structures of the professional game.

Confusingly, the theoretical time limits between points stand at 20 seconds at grand slams and 25 seconds at regular tour events. The US Open trial will opt for the latter, and in fact the whole of tennis has effectively agreed to move to 25 seconds from next year onwards, although that detail needs to be rubber-stamped at next week’s meeting of the Grand Slam Board.

At the moment, umpires use their discretion before applying “time violation” penalties, which begin with a warning, continue with a docked first serve, and then result in the loss of the point itself.

There will be a different sort of discretion under the new system, because the umpire chooses when to start the timer. If there is a 30-shot rally, leaving the crowd on their feet and both players on their knees, they have the option to take a little extra time before setting the clock in motion.

Some are concerned that the crowd in New York – which tends to be more unruly than at other major events – might join in by shouting “five, four, three …” as the clock reaches its later stages. Again, the umpire would have to try to control the noise, but this might become more difficult as the day wears on.

Player reaction will be fascinating. There are likely to be cases where a fan shouts out during the service action, or a ballboy misses his throw, and the players expect the umpire to reset the clock. Arguments could ensue if it continues to run.

The French player Adrian Mannarino put the case for a shot-clock yesterday at Wimbledon, where he was docked a first serve after receiving two time-violation warnings. “I took a time violation basically at the start of the match,” he said. “So I was scared at the start of each rally that I was going to be too long [and] I didn’t know if I was fast or slow. If they're strict about the time then we should have a clock.”

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