Australian Open: Summer stokes heat, sparks fly about scheduling woes

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Australian Open: Summer stokes heat, sparks fly about scheduling woes

With mercury touching 39°C on Thursday at Melbourne Park, it was obvious that players taking to the courts – in the morning session – had a tough day ahead. As expected as this was, what was unexpected was how this topic would escalate into a debate about scheduling bias favouring certain players.  

Novak Djokovic’s second-round match against Gael Monfils at the Rod Laver Arena saw the six-time champion make it through to the third round, despite losing the opening set and the prevailing harsh weather condition. However, the latter factor made the match a hot topic of discussion long after it had been completed, with two reasons fuelling its continuity.

During the match, the players visibly struggled in the heat – frequently bending down trying to stem the flow of sweat pouring through and going towards shady nooks in an otherwise blistering court. Yet, the tournament officials decided not to enforce their ‘extreme heat policy’ and as play continued with an open roof, criticism circulated about the tournament’s organising.

The tournament officials’ explanation for lack of application of the policy to ensure consistency of playing conditions across all courts and to keep all players on an equal footing. Neither with the players, nor with the audiences. Which, then, brings us to the other problem that cropped up on the day.

In his on-court interview with Roger Federer after his second-round win over Jan-Lennard Struff, Jim Courier asked the Swiss if he had asked to play in the evening session with an eye on the weather. The defending champion looked surprised by the question, but didn’t sidestep answering the question. He also, however, stated that while he could only request his preference, the eventual decision rested on the tournament officials.

“It’s not my call. It’s their call,” he said. “There’s a guy like Novak [Djokovic], there’s other guys who they are going to listen to – the Aussies. Maybe, also TV [broadcaster] decides.”

Federer’s answer should – and could – have been left at that. Yet, it became the raison d'être for complaints to crop up about how biased the tournament officials were in favour of the 19-time Grand Slam champion. Especially vis-à-vis Djokovic. When Saturday’s schedule was released, the match-ups’ listing prompted more disgruntlement. Both Federer and Djokovic were scheduled to play in the evening, but where the Swiss was put on the Rod Laver Arena, the Serbian was to play on the Margaret Court Arena.

Thus, where it was initially felt that Djokovic was being unfairly treated by being made to play in the morning – though according to Andy Roddick and Chris Fowler, Djokovic had had requested for a day session against Monfils – the debate now shifted to Federer being always scheduled on the Rod Laver Arena instead of being put in the Margaret Court Arena as the other top-ranked players.

Leaving behind subjective fandom, either towards Federer or Djokovic, rationale prompts that such scheduling is also subject to the sole discretion of the organisers in-line with the factors laid out by Federer to Courier.

As such, trying to paint a picture of unfairness is quite immature. It also takes the focus away from what should have been the focal point of the topic in the first place.

That the onus largely remains on the tournament officials to be keener in protecting the players’ health interests, irrespective of how minute the differences in the applicable norms may be, and which player takes to the court when. That said, players also the responsibility of being aware that the Australian summer has always been demanding and it’s to help their physique get acclimatised to such brutal conditions – alongside getting due match practice to start the season – they play in the preparatory tournaments. Arguments can be raised against the tournament officials, but not against nature. Thus, the only option that remains, is to play on.

Thus, to reiterate Federer for one last time, “If you want to get to the top, you have got to be able to play in all conditions.”