In the week leading up to the Masters tournament in Indian Wells, both Roger Federer and Rafael Nadal were asked about the issue of how much time players take between points. Federer said that officials were being too loose with the rules about the pace of play, and that warnings and point penalties should be given out much more frequently than they currently are. This should not come as a surprise, since Federer plays exceptionally quickly and probably has never been in danger of receiving one of these warnings in his entire career. On the other hand, Rafael Nadal is happy with the way that the system is currently being run. He believes that it’s in the umpire’s discretion to determine whether or not the regular time limit (either 20 or 25 seconds) between points is sufficient given the particular situation. I think that this is a fair position to take, but there are some numbers that are worth looking into when considering this question.
Before I continue, I should say that Rafael Nadal is without question one of the greatest tennis players of all time. His talent and determination are practically unequaled, and nothing that I say is meant in any way to take away from his laundry list of accomplishments and records, which are sufficiently impressive and numerous that it would be pointless to try to spell them out here. By the time he retires, there will be arguments about whether or not he is the best player of all time, and this is justly so. But there will no argument about the fact that Rafael Nadal is the slowest player of all time.
I have written previously about a method of roughly determining the pace of play for a particular match. It isn’t perfect, but given the data that we have available, it’s the best method I can come up with. By taking the length of a match and the total number of points played from the official ATP statistics, we can determine the average length of each point. This, by itself, may not tell us very much, but if we take these numbers for every match that a particular player has ever played over the course of their career, it’s fair to assume that we can get a rough picture of how fast that player is playing. When looking over an entire career, little variations will cancel each other out and the number we end up with will be significant.
I’ve done some work with these numbers, and what I’ve discovered is that for all players who have had a significant presence in professional tennis at the highest level (this data only goes back to 1991, when the ATP started keeping track of these stats in an official capacity), Nadal is literally the slowest pro to have ever played the game. Over the course of his career, he has taken an average of 47 seconds for each point he’s played. For reference, the absolute quickest players in the game take an average of 33 seconds per point. GoranIvanisevic is the most significant player to be in that vicinity.
Nadal is the most egregiously slow player, by my calculations, but he’s by no means the only player who is taking his sweet time. Juan Martin Del Potro and Novak Djokovic are ranked 4th and 5th on my list of the slowest players of the last 20 years, each taking about 44 seconds per point. Most of the players near that end of my chart are players who thrive on clay courts, but that doesn’t mean that clay court players necessarily have to play at a snail’s pace. Carlos Moya took just under 38 seconds per point that he played during his career, and Gustavo Kuerten actually took just over 36 seconds.
You may be noticing that all of the players that I’m mentioning as playing quickly are retired. This is because the trend has been towards slower play, among all players. The quickest players who are still active are almost all Americans. Sam Querrey is actually the youngest player who takes fewer than 37 seconds for each point he plays. James Blake and Robbie Ginepri play even quicker, while Andy Roddick takes just over 38 seconds, which is around the current average. As I mentioned before, Federer is a very quick player, taking around 37.6 seconds per point. That’s fairly close to the two giants of 90’s tennis, Andre Agassi at 36.6 and Pete Sampras at 36.1.
But there are many young players whose careers are on the upswing who are significantly slower. Andy Murray, Marin Cilic, and Kevin Anderson all take between 42 and 43 seconds for every point, and all three can hit huge serves. Before 2001, there were barely any players who played that slowly, and now there are dozens. This trend has several contributing factors, in my opinion. The end of serve-and-volley tennis and the increasingly demanding nature of baseline rallies are inevitably taking greater and greater tolls on players’ bodies, and it may be that the old rule about how much time should be allowed between points is no longer sufficient. I’m absolutely willing to listen to that argument.
I’m also sympathetic to Nadal’s opinion that umpires should have discretion about when to give a player a warning. Any sort of rule change that wouldn’t allow players some extra time to recover after a 30-stroke rally at 5-all in the fifth set would be doing more harm than good. But Federer is right, as well, when he suggests that the rule isn’t being enforced as often as it should be. There are circumstances when players should be given extra time, but since the two best players in the world at the moment are also two of the slowest players ever, umpires seem to have decided that nearly every point in every match deserves that extra recovery time. Either change the rule or enforce the one that’s on the books, that’s all there is to it.