Here in Melbourne, we’ve recently been debating the start time of Friday night football. A commencement at 7:50pm is deemed too late by general consensus. The match doesn’t conclude until 10:30, and the fans, including children, have to navigate car parks or public transport, endeavouring to make it home before Friday ticks into Saturday.
Oh how tennis tournament organisers must wish they had that problem…
If there’s one sport you wouldn’t want to be a scheduler for, it’d probably be tennis. Rain can play havoc to an event’s timetable, as can, to a lesser extent, heat. But probably the hardest aspect to get right, is to foresee the length of matches. This is particularly evident at a major event, when best of 5 sets come into play for the men, plus the addition of further events such as mixed doubles, wheelchair events, and juniors.
On the back of a successful US Open, there is still the debate of night sessions finishing unreasonably late. Too late for players, too late for spectators, too late for television stations, too late for media correspondents who have usually been on site since early morning.
Wimbledon doesn’t have a night session, and the French Open had their first night sessions this year, which were also plagued by scheduling controversy, with matches starting at 9pm, cold weather, and very few women’s matches as the showpiece.
But both the US Open, and Australian Open are famous (or perhaps infamous) for matches continuing into the early hours of the following morning. It’s not unusual to see young twenty-somethings, dressed to the nines following a night at the local watering-hole, holding themselves up at a taxi rank, alongside ragged-looking, t-shirt and shorts wearing, tennis fans at 3am.
There are numerous justifications as to why it might be time to genuinely consider reducing the chances of these late night finishes.
Player welfare - Do we really want our best players not able to perform at their best, simply due to scheduling? Venus Williams was asked at the US Open this year what single thing she would change in the sport. Her answer?
“If I could change one thing it would be no second night match. It’s a little brutal. A lot of brutal.”
Television audiences – ‘Prime time viewing’ is classified as 8pm – 11pm. So what benefit is there for TV if a match is still going at 1, 2, or 3am, and most of the TV’s have long been switched off?
The attending fans – While there are some that revel in a marathon late-night/early morning finish, those who rely on public transport, who have kids, or even just those who have to work the next morning, usually have to make a decision sometime around 11pm. Do I stay for a few more hours to get my money’s worth, or do I make sure I get home at a comfortable hour, and miss half of the match I wanted to see? It shouldn’t have to get to that.
At Flushing Meadows this year, Carlos Alcaraz finished his match against Cilic at nearly 2:30am. His subsequent match against Sinner was completed at nearly 3am. This was followed by a semi-final which finished at the relatively early time, of a few minutes before midnight.
Ironically, going against my argument, Alcaraz went on to win the title. Yet no tennis fan, player, coach, etc. can honestly say it’s a good thing for a player to be getting into bed as the sun is going up. Recovery is compromised, sleep is compromised, and it has a similar effect on the body to jet lag. We already expect our players to perform week on week, as they zig-zag across time zones. Expecting them to play at times varying from 11am to 3am at the same tournament, is asking too much.
One of the strangest things I find, is that tournaments celebrate the late finishes, as if it was a badge of honour. It’s not. It’s quite ridiculous that tennis is the only sport that expects its athletes to perform at their best, during a time when they ought to be sleeping soundly.
Only a couple of weeks ago, at the Davis Cup, Andy Murray was forced to begin his match at 22:10. Post-match, it was clear the Scotsman wasn’t overly impressed about it…
“It’s something that tennis needs to sort of have a bit of a think about,” he told reporters. “I don’t think it looks that professional. It would be better if they (the matches) were earlier I think for everyone involved.”
In 2019 at Melbourne Park, Anastasia Pavlyuchenkova and Sloane Stephens took to the court at 11:30pm, and finished up just before 2am. At the press conference, she asked if she could field questions while riding a stationary bike, in order to knock over two tasks at once to ensure she could get into bed as early as possible.
“It’s honestly terrible,” Pavlyuchenkova said, adding, “It’s not an ideal time to play tennis.”
Talking about the match, she remarked, “I was like, this match is so intense, why am I like still sometimes feeling like I’m going to fall asleep now?”
In the same year, Maria Sharapova also played a match finishing well past midnight, and later commented, “There’s no way to train for that. If you ask any player that goes into this tournament how many times they have trained after midnight, unless you’re jet lagged or just crazy, you don’t train for that.”
On the flipside, most players would kill for the chance to play a big night match on a big stadium, at a big tournament. Yet that’s not really the point. Simple scheduling changes could at the very least, lessen the recurrence of these late finishes.
Earlier this year, the tennis world was stunned by a series of ridiculous marathon matches at the ATP 500 event in Acapulco. Three consecutive first round matches each went to a deciding set, resulting in the day’s play finishing at 5am local time. The final match of the day didn’t even begin until 1:35am.
With the heat in Acapulco making midday tennis unbearable, the sessions are usually pushed to night time. But really? Do we need to have players and spectators pulling ‘all-nighters’ for the sport?
What are the solutions to these scheduling issues?
Clearly, tennis is extremely unpredictable in its length. That’s the beauty, and problem with the scoring system. This evidently means we will never fix every late night match, particularly when rain and heat cause delays in play.
Perhaps in the case of Acapulco, the tournament could have a morning session, followed by a siesta of sorts during the afternoon. Their night session, would then have fewer matches needing to be completed. Perhaps not straight forward, but unquestionably conceivable.
However, for tournaments such as the Australian Open and US Open, it can’t be too difficult. Currently the night sessions start at 7pm. If this was pushed back to start at 6pm, we would most likely end up with the second match beginning around 8:30pm. A perfect time for TV ratings, and although there is still the chance it will finish after midnight, we significantly reduce that option.
Thereby, allowing players to get to bed at a normal time, and spectators the chance to see an entire session before taking transport home.
At the US Open, there are only 2 scheduled day matches, starting at 1pm. Plenty of time to start a little earlier to accommodate a 6pm night session.
The Australian Open does start earlier (11am), but has 3 matches scheduled on Rod Laver Arena. In some cases, we do see the day session causing delays to the evening session, so perhaps there is the option of scheduling just two matches, with a proviso to move a third to centre court if the first two are over quickly. This way, ticket holders can be certain they will get value for money, but we avoid the overlap of day into night.
Certainly night sessions are big business for tournaments, with corporates, and stakeholders paying big money. However, I don’t think it would take a huge tweak in scheduling to limit the number of late, late finishes. Most of us can accept a late night finish, but once we start venturing into the early hours of the following morning, for me, the sport has got it wrong.