Court dramas allow Australian Open to overrule controversies

<span>Photograph: Cameron Spencer/Getty Images</span>
Photograph: Cameron Spencer/Getty Images

Another Australian Open is in the books with worthy champions crowned, new names welcomed to the top level and record crowds having enjoyed the first grand slam of the year. Having begun with fear over what kind of reception Novak Djokovic would receive on his return, after his deportation last year over his decision not to be vaccinated against Covid-19, the tournament ended with the Serb winning the title for a 10th time and equalling Rafael Nadal’s men’s record of 22 grand slams. Aryna Sabalenka, of Belarus, picked up her first slam title after an outstanding final against the Wimbledon champion, Elena Rybakina.

For all the talk of the “Happy Slam” (a term coined by the now-retired Roger Federer), the Australian Open has had more than its share of controversial moments over the past 20 years. From 2005, when a Belgian sports minister said Russia’s Svetlana Kuznetsova had failed a drugs test at a pre-tournament exhibition (she was cleared); to two strike threats, a match-fixing scandal in 2016, bushfires in 2020, Covid-19 in 2021 and 2022 and the debacle that was the handling of the Djokovic case, things have not always gone smoothly.

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If you were to read some sections of the home media over the past fortnight, you could think this was another scandalous Australian Open. The tournament director, Craig Tiley, criticised for disappearing from public view when the Djokovic case was at its height last year, has come under fire again, but his ability to “dodge bullets” as one Australian paper put it, is almost unmatched.

Even Tiley, though, will be relieved the event is over because there were more contentious issues. The launch of the Netflix series, Break Point, had people talking, while Nick Kyrgios, the enfant terrible turned genuine contender, provided his usual reams of newspaper print only to pull out because of injury. From an Australian media point of view, his departure hit hard.

There was the “Netflix curse” as all the protagonists of the first five episodes either fell early or pulled out, although – spoiler – there is no such thing a curse. Then there was the state of the balls, which, according to the players, fluffed up too soon, making conditions slower than usual and extending matches.

The decision to allow Russians and Belarusians to compete – as they did last year – was again a talking point. Ukrainian players continued to say the other slams should follow Wimbledon’s lead in banning Russians and Belarusians and players were asked their opinion on the war. There was controversy with various flags being raised and even more so when Djokovic’s father, Srdjan, was photographed with pro-Russian supporters, though he said the incident was a misinterpretation.

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Most of these were one- or two-day stories, the kind of thing that is quickly forgotten. It is easy to get lost in the tennis bubble and believe everything that happens on site is the biggest story ever, but for the most part, they passed quickly. Perhaps the one controversy that will stick is that of scheduling. Andy Murray’s 4.05am finish against Thanasi Kokkinakis was the second-latest finish in Australian Open history, behind only the 4.34am end to the Lleyton Hewitt-Marcos Baghdatis match in 2008. It was the third-latest finish in any tennis event.

The 35-year-old Murray, with a metal hip, had little chance of recovering for his next match, while the Scot also pointed out the effect late finishes have not just on players but also on officials, ball-kids, staff, fans and, dare we say it, journalists.

Victoria Azarenka finished her match with Zhu Lin at 2.17am and play finished well past midnight several times. Though Tiley said there are no plans to change, behind the scenes there is an acknowledgment something may need to happen, perhaps by reducing the number of matches in the day session from three to two to ensure the night session starts on time and/or starting the night session earlier.

Andy Murray plays a forehand against Thanasi Kokkinakis
Andy Murray’s late-night finish against Thanasi Kokkinakis showed up the big problem with scheduling. Photograph: Clive Brunskill/Getty Images

But despite the problems, there was plenty of drama on the court: Murray’s magical wins over Matteo Berrettini, the former Wimbledon runner-up, and Kokkinakis; the sad departure of the defending champion, Rafael Nadal, because of injury; surprise losses for Ons Jabeur and the world No 1, Iga Swiatek. Over three weeks, including qualifying, the tournament welcomed more than 900,000 people through the gates, a record.

To paraphrase Gary Lineker’s old saying about football and Germany, 128 men played for the title and in the end Djokovic won while Sabalenka was the fifth first-time women’s champion in Melbourne in the past 12 years. With Djokovic and Nadal vying for grand slam supremacy, there is a reassuring normality to the state of the game as the tours head to the next slam stop, the French Open in May.