Can Serena Williams, Victoria Azarenka and other WTA stars withstand the test of time?
SAN JOSE, California -- The first time Serena Williams played with an official serve clock, she suffered the worst loss of her legendary 23-year professional career.
Known for her fast tempo, Williams lost 6-1, 6-0 to Johanna Konta last week in the first round of the Mubadala Silicon Valley Classic. It marked the first time in 927 matches that Williams failed to win at least two games. Perhaps the greatest server in history, she was broken six straight times.
And while Williams revealed Monday night that she's been struggling to find the right balance between time spent training and time spent with her daughter, she said last week that she grappled with the tic-toc on the court, too.
"I don't really like it," she said of the clock. "I hate it, because I serve way faster than the serve clock, and then I feel like I need to play slower -- which is totally not the case, obviously -- so it's a little different. I just have to not think about it, because my game is a lot faster than the serve clock."
The clock will make its Grand Slam debut -- for both men and women -- later this month at the US Open. While many have been speculating on the impact it will have on the men's side with the likes of deliberate stars such as Rafael Nadal and Novak Djokovic, early reviews from WTA players are mixed.
Servers have always faced a time limit, but it had been selectively enforced by chair umpires. Now the countdown is official, with a third screen that displays the serve clock added to the courts along with ones that show match duration and serve speed.
The chair umpire has the ability to pause or reset the clock, but generally, players will have 25 seconds to serve, starting at the time the umpire announces the score. The first violation is a warning. The second violation would count as a fault for the server or a point penalty for the returner, if she is the one causing the delay. Subsequent violations could lead to the loss of a game.
Most players at last week's the Mubadala Silicon Valley Classic said the serve clock was no big deal -- including Serena's sister.
"I did look at it, but a lot of times I forgot about it too," Venus Williams said. "Players are used to playing within 25 seconds. I didn't think about it so much, to be honest."
It would seem that the serve clock would have a bigger effect on notoriously slower players like Maria Sharapova and Konta, who has an elaborate pre-serve routine that involves deliberately bouncing the ball five times before she starts her service motion. But Konta, who played singles and doubles at the tournament, said the new enforcement didn't affect her. And that she won't change her pre-serve routine.
"I was fine," Konta said. "I'm one to get quite a few time violations -- that's one of my weaknesses -- but the way it's been [implemented], it's not too bad.
"For us players, it won't make a massive difference, especially the way it's been put forward, but I think it's more for fan engagement and the fans so they see it more clearly and there's more structure. There's a lot of time limits during other events like basketball -- it's very present in current-day sports, so I think it's a way of modernizing tennis more than anything."
Ironically, the serve clock may actually lead to longer matches.
Two-time Australian Open champion Victoria Azarenka, who took 2 hours and 40 minutes to defeat Kateryna Bondarenko in the first round at the SVC, said that seeing the clock made her realize she could slow down.
"I actually feel like I have more time, to be honest," Azarenka said. "I feel like I'm always earlier than the clock is, and to be honest I feel like it helps me manage my time. I see how much time I have."
Rather, it was another new clock that threw her for a bit of a loop. In addition to the serve clock, tournaments have introduced a seven-minute warm-up period before each match. Players get one minute from the time they arrive on court to meet at the net for the coin flip. The clock then counts down a 5-minute warm-up before allowing one additional minute for the first serve of the match. Violations of the pre-match clock result in fines rather than score penalties.
"I feel like [the warm-up clock] is a little too quick and I have to rush, and it makes me prepare and put all my wristbands and everything before going on the court," Azarenka said. "But I do feel that it probably helps with the TV and with the spectators to get the game going."
Major League Baseball may soon institute a pitch clock (similar to the one in place in international softball), while various football and basketball leagues have cut down on timeouts. If the serve clock helps eliminate dead time between action, it will be here to stay. Even if the biggest name in women's tennis hates it.
"I've got to get used to [it] and not think about it," Serena Williams said. "Usually at 20 seconds [on the clock] I'm ready to start serving. I literally didn't realize I played so fast, so I'm just going to not think about it."