The father of an Australian Open ball-boy has called for a curfew to protect young teenagers from the strain of extreme late-night finishes after Andy Murray’s win over Thanasi Kokkinakis finished past 4am on Friday morning.
Children as young as 13 were working on Margaret Court Arena until 4.05am on Friday morning, as Murray battled through the longest match of his career.
Afterwards, Murray told reporters that “If my child was a ball-kid for a tournament and they’re coming home at five in the morning, as a parent, I’m snapping at that. It’s not beneficial for them. It’s not beneficial for the umpires, the officials. I don’t think it’s amazing for the fans. It’s not good for the players.”
Damien Saunder, the president of Bendigo Tennis Club, told Telegraph Sport about his 15-year-old son Flynn’s experience on Rod Laver Arena last year, which involved working at a 3hr 23min night match between Stefanos Tsitsipas and Taylor Fritz.
“We got back home at around 1am,” said Saunder, “and then you’re so wired after all the excitement that it’s hard to sleep. I remember having to get on a 6am call to California the next morning with my eyes hanging out of my head, and I think Flynn slept until 10am before I rustled him out of bed. But he was definitely wrecked the next day, and then we had to set off at noon for his next shift.
“Overall, it was a positive experience for us, but there comes a time when you have to ask ‘Is that suitable for the ball-kids?” And for everyone else, because how do thousands of people get home? I know players don’t like coming back the next day and losing their day off, but that’s what can happen when it rains or in extreme heat. I feel like we should look after our main actors here and decide we won’t go past 2am, say.”
Voices around the tennis world expressed their alarm at the scenes played out on Margaret Court Arena on Thursday night. “This is crazy to have players play to this hour at this level with so much at stake,” said John McEnroe on Eurosport. “To me it’s just absurd. It’s going to be a match people talk about, but it’s also a match that greatly affects Andy’s chances of going deeper in the tournament.”
But tournament director Craig Tiley said that Tennis Australia had raised several other options with the players, only for them to be rejected. “We would like to have a curfew,” Tiley told Telegraph Sport. “But the feedback we get from the players is nearly 100 per cent say they want to finish any match they’re playing. They understand stopping the match when it rains, but I picture a situation where a player comes back from two sets down and it’s 3-3 in the fifth. I’d like to see you walk out on the court and tell the players that they have to come off.
“It was the same when we suggested starting the day earlier,” Tiley added. “We didn’t get much positive feedback from the players on that either. I agree with Andy, I think it’s not ideal to play that late. But the centre of our event is the players, they all have to be on the same page.”
Proof that tennis matches are getting longer
It’s true that tennis is fiendishly difficult to schedule. The very thing that makes the scoring system so compelling – the fact that you can lose a match point and then find yourself playing two more sets – creates havoc with the timings. Add in the extra curveball of possible injuries, and tournaments face such a wide variety of scenarios that it’s impossible to plan for them all.
But while Tiley makes valid points, tennis as a whole is failing to address the creeping trend for longer matches. The players are becoming fitter, and the margins narrower, which makes for closer contests. Research by the Lawn Tennis Association’s John Dolan reveals that there were 55 three-hour matches on the WTA Tour last year, as opposed to zero in 2000.
The upshot is that, like heatwaves or other extreme weather events, these late-night anomalies are becoming more common with each passing year. You could see it as the equivalent of golf’s problem with distance, as the advent of Bryson DeChambeau’s 320m drives turns respected courses into giant pitch-and-putts.
Carlos Alcaraz and Jannik Sinner’s match at September’s US Open was another recent example. A 5hr 15min arm-wrestle extended the night session until 2.50am – a new record for the tournament. The best-of-five-set format of men’s grand-slam matches makes the majors particularly susceptible to these scenarios, but they do crop up on the ATP Tour as well. Despite a schedule composed of best-of-three-set matches, Alexander Zverev and Jenson Brooksby found themselves finishing at a new record time of 4.55am in Acapulco last February in a match that began at 1:30am.
Are the balls to blame?
So what is the solution? The curfew idea proposed by Saunder would be beneficial for ball-kids and other staff members, but players hate the idea of being interrupted mid-flow. Perhaps a match could be taken out of the day schedule, to avoid the common situation where the night session starts late. And the easiest tweak of all would be to speed up the courts and the balls, making rallies shorter.
The Dunlop balls used in this tournament have come under heavy criticism from Rafael Nadal and many others, even though organisers insist that they are unchanged from last year. “At the beginning of the match,” said Murray in a brief 4.30am press conference on Friday, “it felt like there was no pressure in the ball, flat almost. So it’s just difficult to hit winners once you’re in the rallies. I think there was a 70-shot rally yesterday or multiple 35-, 40-shot rallies, which is not normal.”
Neither is arriving back at your flat as the sun is coming up, which was the situation a weary Murray encountered at 5.30am.