by Matthew Laird
Rafael Nadal and Novak Djokovic contested their third consecutive Grand Slam final at the recently concluded 2012 Australian Open. It was by a wide margin their most competitive and exciting meeting at this stage. There was a great deal of high drama, multiple swings in momentum, and no shortage of stellar shot-making from both players. It was an epic match and will surely be remembered among the most exciting Grand Slam finals of all time. The match also had its place in history assured because it shattered the previous record for the longest Grand Slam final of all time, breaking the previous record set by Mats Wilander and Ivan Lendl at the 1988 US Open by nearly an hour.*
It should come as no surprise that the length of the Nadal-Djokovic final, which was seven minutes short of six hours, was not due entirely to the quality of play. Both Nadal and Djokovic are known for their pace of play, which is – not to put too fine a point on it – quite slow. There has been a great deal of discussion recently about the amount of time taken between points, and Nadal and Djokovic are usually at the center of these complaints.
For anyone who may not be aware, there is a rule in both the ITF and the ATP rulebooks that states “play shall be continuous” and that limits the amount of time a server should be allowed between the end of one point and the beginning of the next to either 20 or 25 seconds, depending on which set of rules is being followed during the match (Grand Slam matches take place under ITF auspices). Both Nadal and Djokovic routinely go over this time constraint.
It is difficult for a casual tennis observer to try to figure out whether or not these delays are truly egregious, because the amount of statistical data that we have easy access to is severely limited. We cannot see precisely how much time is expended by each player in between points, how long points take on average, or any number of other stats that would be useful in trying to parse the seriousness of these concerns.
I’ve come up with a simple, blunt method of estimating the amount of time taken between points, using only data that’s available on either the ATP or Australian Open websites. To find the average length of a point, just take the match length and divide it by the total number of points. Granted, this includes the amount of time that the ball was actually in play in addition to the time taken in between points, so it is not as sophisticated a measurement as I would prefer, but it is the best method that I could come up with, given the information available.
Given that there were 369 points played over 5 hours and 54 minutes, the average length of each point in the Nadal-Djokovic final was 57.4 seconds – nearly a minute per point played. This is the longest amount of time per point for any Grand Slam final since the ATP started keeping track of these statistics. To fully understand whether or not that is an unusual stat, more historical data is necessary.
Prior to 2009, the seven slowest finals had all taken place at the French Open, which is as it should be, considering the court conditions at Roland Garros lead to more long, drawn-out rallies than at the other majors. The slowest-played finals up to that point were Nadal-Federer in 2006 and Kuerten-Corretja in 2001, which both took about 47 seconds per point. The fastest-played finals have been at Wimbledon (again, no surprise there), where Sampras-Becker in 1995 took 29 seconds for each point, Agassi-Ivanisevic in 1992 took 27, and Sampras-Ivanisevic in 1998 took 25.5 seconds.
The trend over the last twenty years has generally been towards slower matches. This is partly because the serve-and-volley game has become significantly less common, so that almost all points are decided by baseline rallies, which necessarily take up more time. But I don’t think that fully explains the extent to which the pace of play has dropped.
While the most recent Grand Slam final was the slowest-played on record, it is important to note that the top six slowest are also the six most recent. The 2011 Djokovic-Nadal US Open took 56 seconds per point, their 2010 US Open meeting took 52.4, the 2011 Australian Open between Djokovic and Murray took 51.8, the 2011 Djokovic-Nadal final at Wimbledon took 50.2, and the 2011 French Open between Nadal and Federer took 48 seconds for each point.
Before the 2010 US Open, no Grand Slam final had been ever played at a pace of 50 seconds per point or slower. Since then, all of them except one have. That one involved Roger Federer, who is a very quick player and was able to bring the average down, even though he was playing on the red clay of Roland Garros. The other five finals all involved Djokovic, Nadal, and Andy Murray, all of whom take their time between points.
In all of these finals, there were many long, grinding rallies. All three of the players I just mentioned are fantastic defenders, but I have trouble believing that the rallies in all of these recent finals were so historically lengthy, on average, that they should be solely responsible for the unprecedented slow pace of the last half-dozen Grand Slam finals. It has to come down to the amount of time that these players are taking in between points.
I do not recall a single instance in the final of the umpire giving either Nadal or Djokovic a warning about taking too much time. Honestly, I can’t remember that happening in any of the six most recent finals. This is not a situation like what is happening with grunting in the women’s game, where people are saying that there ought to be a rule to deal with this behavior. There is a rule, it’s just being ignored.
There are some commentators (like Sports Illustrated’s Jon Wertheim) who find the pace of play on the men’s side to be as frustrating as the grunting or shrieking on the women’s side. I think there’s an argument to be made that the time limit as it currently stands is no longer appropriate. The game has gotten significantly more athletically-demanding in the last ten or fifteen years, so perhaps players do need more recovery time between points. However, I do think that the ATP and the ITF should either change the rule or enforce it, because simply ignoring it because the game’s top players flout it so consistently is not an appropriate response.