Australian Open 2023 schedule criticism

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* Craig Gabriel is a renowned tennis journalist for Nine Radio. He has covered the Australian Open since 1981.

Let’s make this point from the outset about jobs at tennis tournaments. The worst role for someone to take on is the match schedule. It is a thankless task and it’s impossible to satisfy everyone. While you do get a sheet of paper and a pen or open a screen on the computer and write some names down, it is definitely not as simple or as straightforward as that.

You must consider where a player is competing in doubles, besides singles, and in the case of the majors, mixed doubles as well. Then there are requests from players for certain match times or a specific court, on top of that make sure a player has enough rest between matches or days. Let’s not forget the local environment, in other words what might sell tickets and the biggest of all, probably, television, local and international, all with different time zones wanting players at different times.

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Okay, got it? Is your head starting to spin? So, with that in mind think of what has gone into the situation when any matches go incredibly long. It was the matter that became controversial during the Australian Open. No, it is not ideal, but delays happen, long matches back-to-back can throw things out of whack, and the unknown of the weather is a compounding factor. So it was as the perfect storm hit the brilliant match between Andy Murray and Thanasi Kokkinakis which, just as a side note, is an early contender for best five-set match of the year. It will take a lot to beat it.

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The match lasted five hours 49 minutes and ended at 4.05am. The Margaret Court Arena was at least still half full, and the atmosphere made for goosebumps upon goosebumps. This was extraordinary tennis and it’s a match that will be remembered for a long time as will the occasion.

While a match with that much attention can’t be a bad thing for tennis, it will, also, always have an impact on the schedule, not just those players but those beyond.

There was a similar situation at the Australian Open in 2008 which was colloquially called ‘the 24 hours of tennis’. 

When the Murray-Kokkinakis match happened, social media went nuts with people saying ‘it should never have been allowed’, ‘this must stop’, ‘find another way’ and on and on. It was pathetic hysterics. Past players, many not even in Australia, tennis media, talk back radio, were all negative; people you would hope or expect to have a better understanding of the situation but don’t. 

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No question, it was not ideal, but if you are going to rant and rave about it, then come up with a legitimate and feasible alternative that could or would work.

Not one person did that. They were quite happy to shout about how terrible a situation and get attention on to themselves, but no one can provide a better solution.

The Australian Open was picked on but there was forgetfulness about the extreme late nights at the US Open. The French Open has experienced it as well, with one match played per night, but the issue there is obvious, despite it being only one match, that match has a scheduled start of 9pm. Sure there is a cultural aspect but in theory that is an easy fix with the time being brought forward to a 7.30pm start.

Let’s not ignore the very relevant fact that the extreme late nights are not happening every night and nor are they happening to the same players every night. It was 16 years since the last ultra-late finish. The naysayers have been loud and make it appear to those naïve about the situation that it is atrocious to player A or player F or whomever. It is not the case at all as it does not happen to the same person night after night.

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Nor does it occur to those officials on court. As an example, ballkids are not on the whole time. As an example, from the Murray-Kokkinakis match, the same ballkids were not on there for the whole five hours, 49 minutes. They work in teams and after a certain period they are changed around, so let’s not beat the drum about ‘poor ballkids’. And now there are no linespeople at so many tournaments, so that’s not an issue.

There are also added reasons that matches are tending to stretch out longer. Players are taking time to get their own towels and the serve clock on the court is allowing players to take the full time between points because they can see the countdown. Previously there was a bit more urgency. They sound small, but they are very relevant.

Andy Murray’s brother Jamie, a doubles star, suggested one remedy would be to cut down the night session to just one singles match. Not a very good idea for several reasons: 1. Would it be a men’s or women’s match? If it’s men, then the women will throw their hands up and vice versa. 2. Tickets are expensive for night matches and one match does not provide value. 3. What if the match was a blowout, or the player withdrew or had to retire mid-match, how would you as a ticket holder feel?

One smart individual with no regard for the traditions and history of the sport indicated that matches need to be reduced from best of five to best of three. With that change, great matches with all their momentum swings will be rare. The four majors are the pinnacle of tennis, and those aspects must never be broken down, tennis has already lost too many traditions.

There was a suggestion that a match should be moved if the previous one is going long. That also doesn’t work. 1. Players don’t want to move, which was the case in 2008 when Venus Williams and Sania Mirza were the second match of three even though they would have been done and not have to wait so late – they did not want to move. 2. Players have a mindset for where they are due to play. 3. Reopening a court that was closed for the night takes time.

Then it was said that matches should start earlier. The night session starts at 7pm at the Australian Open. That is a good time to get people from work. Would it have made much difference to the Murray-Kokkinakis match or Victoria Azarenka’s match? Maybe by an hour. Is 3am or 1.30am really a vastly better situation. I dare say at that hour it’s all pretty much the same. Someone made the stupid suggestion that the day session should start at 10am instead of 11am. Players would not be happy, and you are more than likely to see even more empty seats, which is not good for the game.

And there was the curfew suggestion like at Wimbledon which is 11pm and that is purely because the club where it is played is in the middle of a residential suburb. A match is stopped at 11pm irrespective what the score is, so then you could have someone potentially having to play one game to finish. As for finishing on a different court, well players don’t take kindly to that unless in extreme chances due to the weather. Furthermore, when the idea of a curfew for finishing time was raised some time ago, the players were never in support.

Maybe someone will pitch a sensible, workable alternative but until then save the ranting and raving.

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