Sorry to blast out an ALL-CAPS word in a story title, but it’s necessary. We can’t allow ourselves to think that tennis scheduling has improved in this first week at the 2019 Australian Open.
The hashtag #DrawsMatter is most centrally relevant to tennis when one considers the importance of gaining a seeded slot. The lack of a seeded slot is exactly why Nick Kyrgios and Stan Wawrinka are out of this tournament before round three. Having a seeded position has enabled Maria Sharapova (30) and Wang Qiang (21) to get very manageable draws in the first two rounds. Their roads will now get tougher, but they have banked some points and victories early in the season.
Yet, #DrawsMatter is more than just a commentary on who wins and loses early in a tournament. It is also a commentary on the nature of a bracket relative to scheduling. Draws shape who gets which assignments during a tournament. This leads to the central point of this column, a claim which will be buttressed later on by a separate note about a different but even more important occurrence.
Very simply: Tennis scheduling has NOT improved at the 2019 Australian Open. You might not think this is a big deal — and in some ways, it isn’t — but if we are going to litigate this point, we might as well be correct.
If scheduling really has improved, we need a lot more proof than what we have thus far.
Here’s the deal: I know some people are surprised that Roger Federer has played two straight day sessions. I will even confess that I was surprised for a few seconds that Federer got a day session in round two on Wednesday… but then I saw whom Rafael Nadal was scheduled to play in the night session: Matt Ebden.
My surprise instantly vanished.
I was so focused on Nadal playing Alex de Minaur in round three that I plainly did not look at the drawsheet in round two. Australian Open organizers did. Knowing de Minaur was always a strong possibility in round three, organizers put Nadal against Aussie James Duckworth in the first-round day session… but then they had to prioritize their better Aussie players.
Duckworth is No. 237 in the rankings. Ebden is No. 48. De Minaur is a seeded player, in the back end of the top 30.
Federer got his night session in Week 1 when Rafa played Duckworth. Then Rafa got two night sessions against top-50 opponents.
This is not complicated.
At most of the four majors, home-nation players of considerable stature get the kinds of court or session assignments they generally wouldn’t get at the other three majors. Superstars get the central courts almost all the time, but after the rock stars come the home-nation players.
Let’s offer a specific example in which we swap the scheduling practices at two major tournaments:
Ashleigh Barty-Maria Sakkari, which is a Rod Laver Arena match on Friday, wouldn’t have been played at Ashe Stadium if the 2019 Australian Open third-round field had existed at the 2018 U.S. Open. Yet, because this is Australia, Barty gains a center-court assignment.
If this field of 32 for the WTA had existed last August and September in New York, you know that Sloane Stephens (vs. Petra Martic) and Amanda Anisimova vs. Aryna Sabalenka would have been in Ashe. In Australia, they are in Margaret Court Arena, the equivalent of No. 1 Court at Wimbledon, Court Suzanne Lenglen in Paris, and Louis Armstrong Stadium in New York.
The Laver WTA schedule on Friday has Barty-Sakkari and Australian surprise Kimberly Birrell (vs. Angelique Kerber) on the slate. Those would be on the second show court at any other major, but they are on the main show court in Australia. (Caroline Wozniacki-Maria Sharapova would be on the main court at any of the four majors, given its level of star power.)
Do we see the landscape for what it is? We should… but let’s add a few other brief notes:
Jo Konta will get a Centre Court assignment at Wimbledon, but she usually won’t get the same preferred assignment at the other three majors unless a home-nation player or superstar opposes her.
The same applies to Caroline Garcia or Lucas Pouille at Roland Garros.
(The U.S. Open is a little different, in that top American women’s players ARE stars: Serena Williams most of all, but also Sloane Stephens and Madison Keys.)
What has happened with the men — and with the Federer and Nadal day-or-night schedules — is not fundamentally different.
When will you know that the philosophies and principles behind court assignment-based scheduling (for the main show court versus the second show court, or for day sessions versus night) have changed?
You will know when home-nation players aren’t as central to the orders of play you see each day.
One more point before I switch to the other key portion of this column: The importance of the draw is not just connected to who plays whom; it is also important relative to the halves of the draw.
Can we realize that there are fewer firestorms about scheduling among fans of the Big 3 for the simple reason that Novak Djokovic is removed from the half of the draw with Federer and Nadal in it, and with Andy Murray not part of the mix?
When players are in the same half of the draw, as Federer and Djokovic were at the 2018 Australian Open, and as they were at Wimbledon in 2017, organizers have to choose which player gets the preferred slot. Inevitably, Federer getting more preferred slots than Djokovic elicited the (legitimate, accurate) complaints from Djokovic fans and some people in the press.
Guess what? Djokovic isn’t competing with Federer OR even Nadal for slots this year! He is regularly getting night sessions.
This is not a “come to Jesus” moment for Tennis Australia. This is not a “Saul on the road to Damascus” situation in which Aussie Open organizers have seen the error of their ways and have bowed to public pressure.
Nope. The draw has simply worked out GREAT for putting Djokovic in preferred night slots, and for giving Nadal night sessions due to the pull of Australian players.
This is not a revolution, a tidal wave of reform sweeping through Melbourne. It is the same self-interest in selling tickets and accommodating television.
To be sure, selling tickets and accommodating TV aren’t bad things. Tournaments need to do them. The obvious point we always make when any of us decries a scheduling failure is that those values can’t always carry the day, and should not be allowed to trump everything else.
You will know that scheduling philosophies have changed when Djokovic and Federer are both in the same half of a draw, and the tournament gives each man the same amount of preferred slots. This Australian Open doesn’t prove that the game has changed.
I now move to a separate but hugely important point to close this column: Setting aside day or night sessions and planned court assignments, the matter of “adjusted scheduling” must also be part of any serious attempt to discern if the quality of scheduling has improved at the tennis majors. The Australian Open failed MISERABLY at the end of Day 4 in this regard.
“Adjusted scheduling” is simply the attempt to shift matches and players to other courts when the main show courts run well behind schedule, as they did on Thursday. When rain hits, or matches go four hours, what do tournaments do to adjust? This reveals how much the majors truly care about players.
They didn’t care at all about Garbine Muguruza and Johanna Konta, whose second-round match started at 12:30 a.m. local time in Melbourne and didn’t end until 3:12.
There are over a dozen other lit courts in Melbourne Park, but an initial decision to shift that match from its original court didn’t come until a few minutes before midnight. MIDNIGHT!
Then came the news that the match wouldn’t be shifted after all, since bird droppings (what a metaphor, right?) made the “Plan B” court subject to a cleaning which would have taken too much time to do.
This is why the women and men — all professional tennis players — need a unionized movement.
Unions fight for better working conditions and regulation of the circumstances and environments in which workers are asked to perform. It doesn’t get more basic than this: A tennis player union would negotiate when matches would need to start. A reasonable person would ask that 10 p.m. local time become the latest any match could start, weather permitting.
In American sports, you will see an NBA Finals basketball game begin just after 9 p.m. in the Eastern time zone of the country. The latest a sporting event might start in America at the site of the event — for reasons not connected to weather — is 10:15 p.m., give or take 10 minutes, for a college basketball game in the NCAA Tournament. Really: Anything well beyond 10:15 or 10:20 p.m. at a tennis tournament is absurd. Organizers might want fans to see every match on the ticket fans paid for, but at SOME POINT, the players have to be valued.
Muguruza and Konta were not valued.
Konta wasn’t afraid to say so, either:
Johanna Konta made no excuses, but in a quick interview for @5liveSport outside the locker room said:
“I don’t agree with athletes having to physically exert themselves in the wee hours of the morning. I don’t think it’s healthy. I think it’s quite dangerous.”
— Russell Fuller (@russellcfuller) January 17, 2019
Muguruza won, but she has far less turnaround time than most of the women in the field who will play in Saturday’s round of 32. Yes, she doesn’t have to play on Friday afternoon or evening — at a Premier Mandatory event, this kind of mess would be worse — but the larger point to make is that this is a preventable situation. If a firm rule existed to start every match no later than 10 p.m., a public announcement would have been made by the tournament at 9:20-9:30 p.m., with a rescheduled court ready for play.
A point to emphasize on this front: While keeping the players on the originally scheduled court is well-intentioned, since it tries to maximize the value of the ticket fans originally paid for, the move did not result in fans sticking around so late.
Look at the crowd on hand right after the match — which was an excellent and close match, ending at 7-5 in the third set:
Muguruza. ‘I can’t believe there are people watching this at 3.15am’ pic.twitter.com/zaKuiIA39t
— José Morgado (@josemorgado) January 17, 2019
Imagine if this match started at 10 p.m., not 12:30 a.m., on another court. The stadium probably wouldn’t have been stuffed, but it probably would have been more than a “close friends and relatives” crowd. Did this truly serve the interests of fans? No.
The intentions are good, but the execution of a plan isn’t… and FANS, not just players, were inconvenienced. Let’s have a players’ union already, shall we?
That’s more than enough evidence from Week 1 — and Day 4 — at the Australian Open to show that scheduling really hasn’t improved. The details are merely different — not the thought processes, which remain in place and all too familiar.
Oh, by the way: The Australian Open still hasn’t done the most important thing it must do if it wants to be an example of fair scheduling.
That one thing: moving the Thursday men’s semifinal to Friday, which would mean sliding the women’s semifinals into a late-afternoon/early-evening position on Thursday.
Until we see THAT, let us not pretend the Australian Open has learned the various lessons it needs to learn on the always-thorny matter of tennis scheduling.
Nothing has fundamentally changed, as much as we might wish it to be true.