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Late nights and fluffy balls: players pile in on Australian Open teething trouble

Late nights and fluffy balls: players pile in on Australian Open teething trouble

  • No changes scheduled despite complaints over late finishes
  • Condition of Dunlop balls also prompts player concern

In the minutes after his dramatic five-set victory over Thanasi Kokkinakis at 4am on Friday morning, Andy Murray should have been reflecting on his toughness and celebrating one of the most extraordinary triumphs of his career. Instead, as he was reminded of the time, he was merely frustrated. “Rather than it being: ‘Epic Murray-Kokkinakis match,’ it ends in a bit of a farce,” he said, noting the negative impact on players, officials, ball-kids and fans alike.

His frustration reflected one of a number of issues that have frustrated players at the Australian Open this year, even as the athletes continue to deliver on the courts.

The tournament director, Craig Tiley, said there would be no change to the schedule in order to discourage all-night matches, describing Murray’s late finish as an “anomaly” and claiming that the hotter conditions, among other things, were to blame for lengthier matches.

“It varies from year to year, mostly conditions driven,” said Tiley. “Especially in Australia, a lot more hot days, and in hot days matches take longer. It’s a combination of things, more equity between the players, the shot-clock giving the players more time because it’s gone from 20 to 25 seconds between points, all these things contribute.”

Numerous players have expressed disapproval at the late finishes. “I know it doesn’t happen that often,” said Jessica Pegula, the No 3 seed in the women’s draw. “But when it’s happening at a grand slam, at the biggest stage, those guys, that could be the next round for them or the tournament. Doing that is not healthy. Like, the recovery I can’t even imagine mentally and physically.

“People also don’t realise, you can’t sleep after that either. You’re so wired. I don’t even know if he probably could get any sleep after that.”

Jamie Murray concurred: “I’m sure Andy probably feels like he’s got a hangover today, because he got no sleep. I’m sure his body’s a complete mess.”

Murray did not sleep for very long. Five hours after departing Margaret Court Arena, he returned to Melbourne Park at 9.30am to continue his recovery. He is now at a major disadvantage before his match against Roberto Bautista Agut on Saturday.

Tiley said that the prospect of a curfew or starting matches earlier had brought negative feedback from players. Meanwhile, no matches will be removed from the day session. “We looked at that, we do have some challenges, it would mean putting more high-ranked players on outside courts,” he said.

Andy Murray lines up a backhand as the time approaches 4am in Melbourne.

Jamie Murray believes that night sessions at tournaments around the world should be shortened to one match in order to ensure that each day finishes at a reasonable time. “If you went into the locker room and you asked all the players, men and women, if they wanted to always have two matches on the night schedule, I’m sure the majority of them would say just one match because no one wants to play at 11 o’clock, 12 o’clock, one in the morning, two in the morning,” he said.

While some agreed with Murray’s frustration, others were unmoved by the prospect of competing until 4am. “You have to deal with it,” said Stefanos Tsitsipas, who faces a fourth-round tie against Jannik Sinner on Sunday. “What can you do? It started at a reasonable time, I would say. There’s a rule in place. They didn’t break any rule. The match started at 10pm. Kokkinakis made it long. Murray made it long, too.”

Tsitsipas argued that late finishes create memorable stories while Sinner, whose US Open quarter-final match against Carlos Alcaraz finished at 2:50am last year, simply shrugged. “Honestly, I don’t care so much, no? I’m happy to be on court. Doesn’t matter what time. For sure I prefer at 11 than playing in the night. It’s all part of our sport now.”

Murray’s fate had been predicted by Novak Djokovic, who pointed to lengthy matches endured by Alexei Popyrin and Casper Ruud as a trend that would continue throughout the event. Djokovic identified the other teething problem at the tournament – the controversial Dunlop balls – as the root of the problem.

A ball girl catches a ball during the first round match between Sofia Kenin and Victoria Azarenka

“I think we are going to see more of those longer duration of matches this year than we have maybe last year,” he said. “One of the biggest reasons will probably be the ball because particularly on the big courts, I don’t think the speed of the surface has changed much. The outside courts are pretty quick. The stadium courts are a bit slower. But the ball is slower. So that affects the play.”

Several players have expressed their frustration with the quality of the balls. Rafael Nadal described the ball as “worse quality” than the previous year and others have noted that they wear down easily, becoming fluffy, slowing down conditions and making it difficult to generate heavy topspin. During many matches this year, the condition of the balls have led players to complain to the umpire.

In response Tiley argued that the weather conditions, this time humidity, had changed player perception of the balls rather than the manufacturing quality.

“Look, the only thing I can say is that we will take the players’ feedback and debrief, I will leave that up to the technicians, who look at all the variables and the technical side of the ball, a lot of measurement takes place on the court,” he said.

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