Making a Happier Slam

Tuesday, January 22, 2013 /by

Far be it from me to criticize the Australian Open. Besides, what chance is there that any complaint I make would stick? You see, this is the “Happy Slam.” The G’Day major. The No Worries Open.

Heck, even those disgruntled, underpaid tennis pros who labor for their paychecks at this time of year—the same ones who set rumblings of work stoppages and boycotts in motion between rainstorms in New York these past few years—gave Australian Open tournament director Craig Tiley a standing ovation when he turned up the player meeting at the start of the tournament.

Less imperious than their rivals at the other three majors, the promoters of the first Grand Slam event of the year have staked out the “good guy” high ground. Someone figured out that one way to the heart of the public and the media is to court the players more aggressively: Reward them amply and they will be happy Slammers. The promoters have have also been very progressive, what with the whole “Grand Slam of Asia and the Pacific” branding.

I don’t know if the Australian Open is the best Grand Slam or not, unless by “best” you mean “most fun,” “most comfortable,” or “least stressful.” Those things it certainly is. Striving for those distinctions may not yield much in the way of gravitas—notice that none many players have said this is the title they most want to win—but the formula has paid big dividends. This tournament has clearly won the public relations war.

The Happy Slam has also done more than its three rivals to improve remuneration and perks for the players, and to improve infrastructure. It’s the only major with two roofed stadia, and another on the way. You can do all these things when you have seemingly unlimited access to government money and nobody makes a big stink about it—probably because the tournament is flourishing, and a focal point of national pride. It’s a powerful formula, but you have to wonder what that means for other Grand Slam nations where the relationship between tournament and government is not as cozy. We’ll leave that for another time.

For now, let’s look at a few elements that should give players and/or fans good reason to actually be less than thrilled about the Happy Slam. Here are three:

1. The extreme heat policy, and no final-set tie-breakers.

Although the temperatures in Melbourne have only spiked intermittently in this unusually tennis-friendly year, the policy remains an opaque and unsatisfying solution to the common, predictable heat waves in Melbourne. I’m not saying the tournament should have halted play last Thursday (or on any other day), but the 100-plus degree temperature was approaching a critical point, reminding us that this event has routinely come close to disaster on numerous occasions over the years.

Despite the high temperatures on Thursday, the retractable roofs on Laver and Hisense Arenas remained open because that “perfect storm” of conditions that would trigger action didn’t quite materialize. That is, the “Wet Bulb Globe Temperature” never reached or exceeded a pre-determined, variable threshold set by a combination of factors in including heat, humidity, and radiation. . .

It’s pretty clear from the gobbledygook above that the entire Extreme Heat Policy is pretty complex—and as tournament director Tiley reminded us, the policy and its mandates are launched at the discretion of the tournament referee. In other words, it’s automatic, except when it’s not. That’s convenient for the promoters.

My feeling is that, given the way the game is played today, it’s just a matter of time before someone keels over with something more serious than a case of heat exhaustion. But I’m just leading up to a bigger point, because we all know the tournament can’t just be stopped when it gets very hot. And my complaint is that it’s crazy for the tournament to cling to the "deuce-set" final-set format, at least for the men (the situation isn’t as critical in best-of-three set matches).

No tournament is a better candidate for a fifth-set tiebreaker than the Australian Open, with its sometimes debilitating heat and opaque extreme heat policy. I’d like to see it happen before someone dies out there on a hot day while serving at 18-all, with the referee unwilling to exercise his discretionary powers to halt a match at such a late stage.

2. The time-between-points rule.

This isn’t exclusively an Australian Open problem, but one of the hot questions of the moment is what to do about the time violation rules that require players to—at least in theory—take no longer than 25 (in tour events) or 20 (at Grand Slams) seconds between points.

At the request of the players, the ATP vigorously enforced the rule during the first tour events of the year, but there was enough push-back that Australian Open officials decided not to take as hard a line as they might. That was a wise move, given that the five fewer seconds allotted at a major represents a substantial difference, and if anything, players embroiled in long, five-set matches deserve more rather than less time—even if it adds to the awkward length of those matches. Last year’s men’s final was hailed as the longest in Grand Slam history at an epic five hours and 53 minutes. But number crunchers figured that if you threw out the extra time the men took, the real length was 4:48—no longer the record.

Australian Open officials punted this week, but they (and their Grand Slam brethren) ought to get together with the tours and come up with a uniform time policy. Personally, I don’t think the clock should start when a point ends. I think it should start when the server takes position at the baseline notch, and thus the time limit could be significantly shorter than even 20 seconds.

I like this concept because nobody really minds a slightly longer wait between serves when the players have just finished a great point. It’s natural. But it’s also natural for the players to walk up to the service notch pretty quickly, and a lot of the futzing around takes place there. The worst offenders gobble up a lot of the extra time, oblivious to the unenforced rule that you play at the server’s pace—within reasonable bounds.

So I say start the clock when the server steps up to the notch (or the baseline near it), and have an eight or 10-second clock right on the court for all to see, like the service speed clock. Also, stress that the match is supposed to proceed at the pace of the server, not the returner.

3. The change in court speed.

This issue is very much an Australian Open one. The courts in Melbourne seem decidedly faster this year, and during a conversation last week, Andy Murray said that tournaments ought to inform players in advance of any change in court speed. “Sometimes, at some events, one year it’s lightning quick, and then the next year it’s been one of the slowest courts on the tour.” Murray said. “It’s impossible to prepare for that.”

Murray makes a great point. But court speed is a surprisingly subjective issue—Rafael Nadal might have a very different idea of what constitutes a “fast” court than, say, Ivo Karlovic. As well, resurfacing some of these high-tech hard courts is a bit of a crap shoot; you’re never sure just how much a court will change after a makeover.

But there are ways to quantify court speed on a sliding scale—the ITF uses it to judge surfaces for Davis Cup ties—so for the players it will become a simple matter of familiarity with that scale once the process gets rolling.

It’s a good idea, and just one of a few that could the Australian Open a happier Slam for all.

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