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MELBOURNE, Australia — It was 4 o’clock on Friday morning at the Australian Open, and Andy Murray and Thanasi Kokkinakis were still playing tennis.
It was not a particularly rare marathon match or a vagary of the tournament’s distant time zone. At the U.S. Open last September, Carlos Alcaraz and Jannik Sinner were still playing at nearly 3 a.m.
Professional tennis is the only major sport that puts athletes through all-night competitions and requires them to return less than 48 hours later and put their minds and bodies back on the line.
It is a longstanding problem. But as matches stretch later into the morning hours, increasingly players are pushing back, citing concerns for their physical and mental health, and performance. Not to mention fans who are falling asleep in the stands or on their sofas around the world.
“It’s crazy,” Jessica Pegula, the American women’s star, said on Friday.
Murray’s 5-hour, 45-minute victory over Kokkinakis in the second round ended at 4:05 a.m. It was the third-latest recorded finish in the history of professional tennis, surpassed only by Alexander Zverev’s victory over Jenson Brooksby in Acapulco, Mexico, last year that ended at 4:54 a.m., and by Lleyton Hewitt’s victory over Marcos Baghdatis at the 2008 Australian Open that ended at 4:34 a.m.
It will be one of the highlights of the 35-year-old Murray’s late career. But he experienced it, unnecessarily, with mixed emotions.
“If my child was a ball kid for a tournament, and they’re coming home at 5 in the morning, as a parent I’m snapping at that,” Murray said. “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.”
He added later, “Rather than it being like epic Murray-Kokkinakis match, it ends in a bit of a farce.”
It has been a particular challenge at the Australian and U.S. Open, where both a men’s and women’s singles match are scheduled in each night session, a great move for gender equality, ticket sales and star power.
In 2008 when Hewitt finally defeated Baghdatis at the Australian Open in a match that started just before midnight and ended not long before sunrise, Hewitt’s post-match news conference didn’t begin until 5:30 a.m.
The 2023 Australian Open
The year’s first Grand Slam tennis tournament runs from Jan. 16 to Jan. 29 in Melbourne.
“Obviously, going on that late is not easy for anyone, any players, because it does throw your whole rhythm and clock out quite a bit,” Hewitt said at the time.
The toll is heavy on athletes, support staff and spectators with regular jobs, even though a very informal poll of fans coming out of the Murray match at 4:15 a.m. did not reveal any outrage.
“We would never leave early,” said Kathie Griffith from Canberra, Australia. “Fantastic tennis.”
Requiring play into the middle of the night seems contradictory to the sport’s increased focus on supporting players’ mental health. Nick Kyrgios, the Australian star, said his series of late matches at last year’s U.S. Open were particularly draining.
“I was always last match, going on court at 10 p.m., finishing matches around, like 1 a.m., then doing media and treatment and eating,” Kyrgios said. “I was not going to sleep before 4 a.m. every night. And I felt as if, you know, I was going out night-clubbing or something. It was like I’m not even getting enough sleep to go and perform the next day.”
Decompressing from a late match is a challenge.
“I’m staring at the room,” Kyrgios said. “You’ve got so much adrenaline, and it’s incredibly hard to wind down and to do it on a daily basis potentially seven times to win a Grand Slam. It’s exhausting, for sure.”
The sport has never had a formal collective discussion about a better, saner approach but it could be coming. On Friday, the Professional Tennis Players Association, the player group recently co-founded by longtime men’s No. 1 Novak Djokovic, released a statement saying that “we look forward to exploring alternate means to scheduling that put fans and players and their well-being first.”
There are guidelines on both the men’s and women’s tours about not starting matches after midnight, but that still does not preclude long-after-midnight finishes. And while the men play best-of-three sets on the regular tour, they continue to play best-of-five at the four majors in part because that remains a point of separation for the Grand Slam tournaments.
Switching to best-of-three for the men (the women already play best-of-three everywhere) would be one of the most effective ways of controlling finish times. But there are less extreme measures available, including starting play earlier, establishing a curfew or playing one singles match in a night session instead of the customary two.
Long matches are becoming more common, and there are multiple factors. Craig Tiley, the Australian Open tournament director, said the institution of the 25-second shot clock, intended to speed up play, has not necessarily worked that way. “A lot of players are taking full time now between points because they can see the time,” he said. “There’s also the equity of play with so many good players.”
Nicolás Pereira, a coach and television analyst, thinks the recent widespread use of analytics in professional tennis may also have made matches more even.
Tiley said the sport should consider changes like reducing changeover times or cutting the time between points to 20 seconds. But the biggest obstacle still seems to be that the Australian Open and U.S. Open schedule a men’s singles match and women’s singles match in each night session. That is for gender equality in a sport that was a front-runner in that area but also for entertainment value. If one match is a rout or ends early because of an injury, the other could still be a classic.
Tiley said that market research showed that offering just one match on a court in an evening session would be risky.
“I think you lose a lot with broadcasters and with fans who would be buying a ticket to risk seeing one match where one player can potentially blow out another player,” he said on Friday in an interview. “All the data and research we have on that indicates that it’s an option that would have a significant impact on the success of the event. We have a number of examples where our first match has gone 56 minutes and if that was your only match that night, I think you start to run a risk in terms of the value you provide.”
The French Open, which started night sessions in 2021 that featured only one match, has sparked complaints about gender inequality by scheduling mostly men’s matches in that slot (best-of-five generally gives you more content than best-of-three). But with an 8:45 p.m. start, there have been some late finishes in Paris, too, leaving spectators without public transport and players with the too-familiar late-night routine.
Another option in Melbourne and New York would be to schedule one singles match each night, alternating men and women, and pair that match with a doubles match that could be moved to another court if the singles match turns into a marathon.
Tiley said the problem is that the doubles events do not start until several days into the tournament. “You’d miss the first three or four nights with that,” he said, also expressing resistance to the idea of scheduling an exhibition doubles match to supplement the main singles match.
“I think you would erode interest and the data shows us that,” he said.
Playing a compelling match in the middle of the night does not help local viewing figures. But because of the global audience, it could paradoxically generate bigger audiences elsewhere. When it was 4 a.m. in Melbourne, it was noon in New York and 6 p.m. in Paris. “I am more concerned about the well-being of the athletes playing that late than concerned about who is watching in different parts of the world,” Tiley said.
Tiley, like Stacey Allaster, the U.S. Open tournament director, agrees that late finishes like Alcaraz’s in New York and Murray’s in Melbourne are problematic. “Finishing that early in the morning is not ideal,” Tiley said. “I completely empathize with anyone who has to be there that late.”
Tiley said the Australian Open could be open to a curfew like the one at Wimbledon, which because of a town edict requires matches played under the lights to be stopped by 11 p.m. But Tiley said players traditionally have been resistant to the idea of stopping a match for the night once it begins.
That was once routine at the French Open and Wimbledon when there were no lights and certainly seems a better solution than testing players’ limits and reducing their chances of recovering well for subsequent matches. Alcaraz did manage to win last year’s U.S. Open after beating Marin Cilic and Sinner in matches that finished after 2 a.m., but that is an exception, and that draining effort could have contributed to Alcaraz’s recent struggles and injuries.
“If the players want to have a curfew, fine we’ll have it,” Tiley said. “We are open to anything, and we always have been. It’s not a new thing. We’ve always made adjustments.”
The Australian Open did recently move up the start of the night sessions to 7 p.m. from 7:45 p.m. But that clearly was not enough change to avoid, in Murray’s words, a “ridiculously late” finish.
Matthew Futterman contributed reporting.