I love tennis. I have the greatest respect for the dedication of all those crazy people who devote the best part of half a life to it. I’ve been to all but one of the Grand Slams and will tick the final one off next year. 15 Grand Slams attended, a third of the total that Roger Federer has played consecutively. I had the pleasure of seeing him beat Pete Sampras at Wimbledon and also saw him during his years of dominance. I’ve had the honour of watching most of the top players of this century up close; Nadal, the Williams sisters, Hewitt, Djokovic, Roddick, Kuerten, Clijsters, Hingis, Azarenka, Tim Henman of course and then some of those players that you just like but nobody else thinks are that big a deal; Fabio Fognini, Nadia Petrova. Then you can always try to spot an up-and-coming player before they make the big leap; Eugenie Bouchard looks set fair for the top but I’m still waiting for Ernests Gulbis to come good on my prediction.
Therein lies my point; I go to Grand Slam events to watch the players. I go to be entertained by the finest that the WTA and ATP tours have to offer. I go to watch them perform to their maximum capability. I’ve never once been to a Grand Slam to watch the tournament director. I recognise and respect how difficult it is to seamlessly organise an event which not only showcases the sport’s top talents but also caters for hundreds of thousands of visitors. But I’m not talking about shoddy US Open scheduling this time, I’m not talking about Roland Garros’ feet-dragging over building a roof, I’m not even talking about Wimbledon’s vague ‘outdoor daytime’ insistence. I’m talking about endangering the health of the participants that bankroll your event. The Australian Open and Tennis Australia by association have fallen way short of expected standards. They’ve failed the sport’s stars and they’ve failed the spectators who’ve paid top dollar to see this event.
When I go to a tennis event, I want each player to play to their best, and I want the best players to be left at the end of the fortnight. What we’ve witnessed during the first five days at Melbourne Park has been more akin to the macabre Hunger Games franchise, a survival of the fittest; and that is all it has been: survival. What are the defining images of the week? Sure, Roberto Bautista-Agut bust a gut to knock out the number 5 seed Juan-Martin Del Potro and Casey Dellacqua has given the Aussies a rare Melbourne treat by reaching the fourth round for the second time but that’s about it on the tennis front. No, we can remember pictures of well-travelled pro Frank Dancevic fainting on court, all of the top players being forced to wear ice vests and helmets, ball kids keeling over too. Yeah, ball kids. Because when you play on in these conditions, it’s not just the players who suffer, it’s the team around the court too. Money shouldn’t come into it here but at least the athletes are rewarded, what of the ball kids frying in that heat?
These conditions are nothing new for Melbourne but this wishy-washy response to it must be changed and done so in time for next year. The Wet Bulb Global Temperature reading is nonsense. Trust your athletes to tell you when it’s too hot to play. Andy Roddick has basically said players should just suck it up. He’s got clearly got selective amnesia. Roddick was always the first one to start crying out about any kind of injustice, obviously 18 months out of the game has made him forget that he would have been at the front of the queue to cry to the press. Old pros need to support their modern counterparts here. We’ve got Novak Djokovic praising ball kids, line judges and spectators for toughing it out these last four days. We’ve got Serena Williams, for goodness sake, telling us she’s not equipped to respond to a comment made by the tournament doctor that ‘man evolved on the high plains of Africa chasing antelope’ so the players are able to survive. This is not about surviving; it’s about giving your sport’s protagonists the chance to shine. Head of ATP Chris Kermode, the usual sole voice of reason, states that players need to be communicated to correctly and need to have a definite temperature indicator for when it’s time to stop play. Not a complicated equation, a simple temperature reading. How hard is that? And then when it reaches that, play should be stopped. How can you say the current conditions are too dangerous to start a match but the players who are currently playing and suffering must continue? That is illogical, inconsistent and, quite frankly, grossly inhumane.
The top players need to regroup with their respective organisations after this tournament and signal some kind of player revolt to make the changes to the extreme weather conditions rules. The Australian Open needs the ATP and the WTA. If the likes of Serena Williams and Novak Djokovic were to actually make a stand and say that, as champions there on multiple occasions, they’d support players putting rackets down and refusing to play on in such dangerous conditions then that would say way more than a ‘no comment’ or a nice tweet to the fans. Would the Australian Open really come down hard on Serena and Djokovic thus risking the wrath of the sport’s fans, who’ve been deprived of the very best game of so many players these past few days? Maybe I’m dreaming again, but I reckon both of them together could form one brilliant mocking jay to stop Craig Tiley and his team from putting on such an absurd spectacle of suffering for the masses. That way, this tournament would be the very last edition of the tennis Hunger Games.