the Australian Open will not amend its scheduling despite coming in for criticism after an epic encounter between Andy Murray and Thanasi Kokkinakis did not finish until 4am in Melbourne.
The decision to allow the match – which Murray eventually won 4-6, 6-7 (4), 7-6 (5), 6-3, 7-5 after five hours and 45 minutes on court – to run into the early hours of the morning sparked a backlash, with concerns raised over player welfare and the benefits of playing so late.
The pair only got on to Margaret Court Arena to begin their second-round clash at 10:20pm local time. Martina Navratilova called it “crazy”, while Murray’s brother, Jamie, said late finishes like this were “rubbish for everyone involved”.
Murray himself labeled the spectacle “a bit of a farce” and not good for players, fans and officials alike. “I don’t know who it’s beneficial for,” he said at his post-match press conference.
But the Australian Open’ director, Craig Tiley, dug in on Friday morning and backed the scheduling of the tournament, which has been affected by delays due to extreme weather earlier in the week, saying late-night finishes were an unavoidable part of the year’s first grand slam tournament.
“At this point there is no need to alter the schedule,” Tiley told Channel Nine. “We always look at it when we do the debrief like we do every year. At this point we’ve got to fit the matches in the 14 days. You don’t have many options.
“It was an epic match and when you schedule a match like that just before 10 in the evening, you’re not expecting it to go close to six hours. When you have 25 sessions, two weeks, hundreds of thousands of people coming through the gate, all the best players – 500 of them – in the world here, you’re going to have those moments.”
Wild weather wreaked havoc on Tuesday at Melbourne Park as play was twice suspended for an extended period due to oppressive heat followed by heavy rain within a matter of hours. The delays created a backlog of matches to get through.
Tiley said it was difficult to change the schedule given there are so many variables to contend with and that there will always be at least one match each tournament that will go as long as the one between Murray and Kokkinakis went. Broadcast deals were also a factor in not implementing a cut-off point, he said.
“Over the last few days we have had extreme heat, we’ve had over five breaks of rain … so we’ve had three late nights with scheduling trying to catch up with matches,” Tiley noted. “But generally a women’s match is about an hour and a half and a men’s match a little over two and a half hours – that’s the length of match you work your schedule around.
“There is always one, and it is hard to schedule the entire event around the potential that happens one time. You’ve also got to protect the matches. If you just put on one match at night and there’s an injury you don’t have anything for fans or broadcasters.”
Murray pointed out it was not just players who were suffering from the punishing schedule – officials, ball kids and fans were also impacted on Thursday night. “Rather than the discussion being about an epic Murray-Kokkinakis match it ends in a bit of a farce,” he said. “If I had a ball kid who is coming home at 5am I’m snapping at that; it’s not beneficial for them, the umpires, the officials, I don’t think it’s amazing for the fans or good for players.”
Murray was also annoyed after the chair umpire denied him a 3am bathroom break after leveling the score at two sets apiece. “It’s so disrespectful that the tournament has us out here until three, four o’ clock in the morning and we’re not allowed to go and take a piss. It’s a joke,” he said.
Each grand slam has different policies on night session scheduling. While play can go late into the night and early hours at both the US Open and French Open, Wimbledon has a strict 11pm curfew, with unfinished matches rolling over into the next day’s play.
Only one grand slam match has finished later than this most recent one – at the 2008 Australian Open, Lleyton Hewitt and Marcos Baghdatis finished at 4.34am.
Navratilova, the 18-time grand slam champion, led those calling for rule changes to avoid more early-morning finishes. “It is essential we create better rules in tennis regarding the weather (light and wind) and starting times or cut-off times for matches,” she tweeted. “Murray and Kokkinakis will finish around 4am. Crazy – no other sport does this.”
Jamie Murray, the seven-time grand slam doubles champion, said it was time for tournament organizers to move to schedule just one match in the night sessions of grand slams. “This is the best outcome for all singles players,” he tweeted. “We can’t continue to have players compete into the wee hours of the morning. Rubbish for everyone involved – players/fans/event staff etc.”
Tiley said player welfare was “absolutely” part of the conversation, with busy schedules a result of many players being involved in more than one event at a grand slam.