The French Open, known for its unique decision to begin the tournament on a Sunday rather than the traditional Monday start, has sparked a variety of opinions among tennis enthusiasts.
As the only Grand Slam event to adopt this schedule, the French Open extends its duration to 15 days, one day longer than the other three major tournaments. In contrast, Wimbledon, England's renowned tennis extravaganza, up until 2022 traditionally included a day of rest on the middle Sunday, making it a 13-day event.
The question arises: Is this Sunday start a good idea? Could it potentially serve as a model for the Australian Open? The French Open's choice to commence the tournament on a Sunday, offers a slight advantage in terms of attendance. By incorporating an extra weekend day, the organizers of the tournament open the gates to a larger pool of fans who may have work, or other commitments during weekdays.
This extended weekend period allows a greater number of spectators to witness the thrilling early-round matches, injecting the tournament with a heightened sense of excitement right from the start.
Additionally, starting matches on Sunday should ensure a larger television viewership from the opening match onwards. Most tennis tournaments face the challenge of holding matches at 11 am on a Monday morning, which is not particularly spectator-friendly. Although this hasn't significantly affected the attendance on day one at Melbourne Park, there is no doubt that commencing the matches on Sunday would result in higher television ratings. Like at Roland Garros, it would be a ‘soft start’, with almost a half day schedule.
The Australian Open often struggles with the challenge of fitting all first-round matches within a limited timeframe, particularly if weather conditions become unfavourable. This often leads to matches extending late into the night, placing immense pressure on players and potentially compromising their performance and well-being. By embracing the French Open model and spreading out the round one matches over three days, the Australian Open can alleviate this issue to some extent. A more spread-out schedule would allow players sufficient recovery time between matches, reducing the risk of injuries and early fatigue.
Consider a midday start with a couple of matches on each court, wrapping up by 5 pm (approximately of course…). This family-friendly timing would allow for perhaps, a concert within the grounds as an official opening, as a lead-in to the first night session at 7 pm on Rod Laver Arena. Such an arrangement would undoubtedly create a buzz around town and enable more families to attend the tournament together.
However, there are also a some negatives with a Sunday start.
Players will have one less day to prepare for the first major of the year. One day might not seem like a lot, but considering the season only officially starts around 3 weeks before the event, every day is precious. This is especially so for players who are entered in tournaments the week before. There would obviously have to be provisions in place for competitors making the finals of the lead-up tournaments.
The other issue is less of a logistical issue, and more of a ‘feeling’. For players who compete, and lose on Sunday afternoon, there is that sense of having never even really been a part of the event, as they’d be packing their bags before the week even starts. Again, it’s only one day earlier than normal, but I have no doubt some of the players would feel this way.
A Sunday start brings up another question. Or perhaps an opportunity… Which model could the Australian Open adopt? A 14-day or 15-day format?
At Roland Garros, once the first round has been played over the initial three days, the event continues as normal, until the men's final, which takes place on day 15. However, what if the Australian Open remained a 14-day event but simply shifted everything one day forward? How would that look? To create a more captivating climax, an alternative approach could be considered—an exciting Sunday-to-Saturday night finish.
Under this format, round 1 would still commence in full, on Sunday to maximize attendance. However, the women's final would be held on the final Friday night, followed by the men's final on Saturday night. This rearrangement would not detract from the significance of the women's match, as Friday night sports events are already a staple in Melbourne, and often draw bigger crowds than Saturday nights.
The Saturday night men's final would be far more convenient for spectators, compared to a Sunday finish. For the majority of viewers watching on TV or in attendance, a Sunday night finish around midnight, or later, simply isn't ideal when faced with a Monday morning ahead.
Admittedly, the main challenge with this format is the Friday night for the women's final, which falls during a weekday timeslot for some of the global viewership.
But by concluding the tournament on Saturday night, the following day could be transformed into a post-tournament celebration, either for the general public as another family day style event, or exclusively for the dedicated staff and volunteers who contribute so much to the fortnight.
The Australian Open has been at the forefront of innovation in tennis over the last couple of decades. Embracing the French Open model may provide a compelling opportunity to enhance the stature and appeal of the Australian Open. By considering these adjustments, the Australian Open could solidify its position as one of the most prestigious, forward-thinking, and unforgettable events in the world of tennis.