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Playing conditions become this century’s tennis epicenter

Matt Zemek

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Susan Mullane - USA TODAY Sports

Roland Garros is hardly the only tournament which shows how big a deal playing conditions have become in tennis and among tennis fans. If you look at the last four majors, playing conditions have featured prominently in all of them, in various forms.

At 2018 Wimbledon, playing conditions came under scrutiny when the Saturday resumption of Friday night’s Novak Djokovic-Rafael Nadal men’s semifinal was placed under a roof despite sunny and pleasant conditions of 82 degrees (28 Celsius). Two principles clashed against each other: 1) the idea that the conditions for the start of a match should be preserved or continued if at all possible, versus: 2) the competing idea that if a match can be played in outdoor conditions, it should be.

It seemed like common sense to play the Saturday resumption outdoors in the perfectly decent weather conditions, but while Nadal fans were correct on that point, the idea that Djokovic derived a substantial advantage from a match he came THISCLOSE to losing seemed dramatically overplayed.

Nevertheless — and regardless of where you stand on that particular debate — it is plainly true that playing conditions became a big point of contention and discussion at Wimbledon in 2018.

Of the past four majors, the 2018 U.S. Open became the most prominent one relative to a discussion of playing conditions. The high humidity in New York, combined with the large roof structure at Ashe Stadium trapping air and preventing it from circulating (the pre-2015 open bowl would have created much milder conditions relative to the prevailing humidity), smothered lots of players, including Roger Federer, whose body simply could not cope with the stagnant air. The intense heat, combined with the humidity, caught up with Sloane Stephens in her quarterfinal loss. Novak Djokovic was in trouble for a brief period of time against Marton Fucsovics, but survived and managed to escape the worst weather. Once he enjoyed calmer weather conditions in the semifinals and final, he crushed his opposition with elite tennis he was finally able to display.

Imagine, for a few moments, if New York’s Madison Square Garden — an air-conditioned arena — had hosted any of several U.S. Open matches. Imagine how different the various match outcomes might have been. The U.S. Open surpassed the Australian Open last year as the nastiest, most unplayable major. The Australian Open can feature brutal heat, but the 2018 U.S. Open had the heat AND the humidity AND the stagnant, trapped air inside the horribly-built Ashe Stadium.

The Australian Open did have a heat-related incident of note in 2019: The women’s semifinals — which ought to be held at night, but are not, due to the men having a stand-alone Thursday night semifinal — are played in the daytime. Semifinal No. 1 between Petra Kvitova (who has long been vulnerable to very hot weather) and Danielle Collins was played in high-90-degree heat. Kvitova had been steamrolling through the tournament, but in that first set, played in extreme heat, Collins was level at 4-4 through eight games, when the roof was finally used.

After the match switched to indoor conditions, Kvitova rolled 7-2 in the subsequent first-set tiebreaker and bageled Collins in the second set.

THAT is an example of how indoor conditions affect an outcome. THAT is a textbook case of how a change in conditions matters.

(Side note: WORKING CONDITIONS are not the same as PLAYING CONDITIONS. “Working conditions” refer to the structures and circumstances in which players are asked to play matches. The playing conditions can be totally comfortable, but the working conditions can be very unconvenient, if not unfair. Such was the case when Jo Konta and Garbine Muguruza started a match after midnight at that Australian Open, an appalling performance by tournament organizers. Working conditions are separate from playing conditions — that distinction is worth noting here.)

At the just-concluded Roland Garros tournament, we don’t need to revisit what just happened in any great detail. The two men’s semifinals on Friday were played in conditions just as extreme as the U.S. Open… but in realms unrelated to heat and humidity. This was about wind and the reality of blowing dust getting into players’ eyes.

Without making a grand statement about any specific player, can we simply note that at the last four majors, playing conditions have become centrally important at some point in the tournament? Interestingly enough, at three of the last four majors, a semifinal-round match has become the epicenter of fierce argumentation and profound displeasure in the tennis community:

  • 2018 Wimbledon: Djokovic-Nadal
  • 2019 Australian Open: Kvitova-Collins
  • 2019 Roland Garros: Djokovic-Thiem first, Federer-Nadal second

I am not going to argue that indoor tennis should be used more. I have done that in separate articles and forums.

The purpose of this column is simply to show how weather conditions and overall playing environments are becoming more and more of a story — and a variable — at the biggest events in tennis.

This means the sport needs to care about this stuff more than it already does.

In an era of climate volatility, these debates are only going to become more frequent, not less. The presence of more roofs at the four majors will make more people debate when roofs should — or shouldn’t — be used.

“I can’t wait to see this sport handle these delicate issues,” he said sarcastically.

Being serious: I have zero confidence tennis will handle these issues well.

I would love to be proved wrong.

Matt Zemek is the co-editor of Tennis With An Accent with Saqib Ali. Matt is the lead writer for the site and helps Saqib with the TWAA podcast, produced by Radio Influence at radioinfluence.com. Matt has written professionally about men's and women's tennis since 2014 for multiple outlets: Comeback Media, FanRagSports, and independently at Patreon, where he maintains a tennis site. You can reach Matt by e-mail: mzemek@hotmail.com. You can find him on Twitter at @mzemek.

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