Australian Open For All To See: Two Ugly Facts Brought To Light By Nadal’s Early Exit

The men’s tennis World #1, Rafael Nadal of Spain, was derailed in his attempt to win a second Australian Open title by an injury that forced him out of his quarterfinal against Croatia’s Marin Cilic.

Injury, and specifically injury in Australia, is familiar territory for Nadal and his fans.  On three previous occasions – during his quarterfinal against Andy Murray in 2010, during his quarterfinal against David Ferrer in 2011, and during the final against Stan Wawrinka in 2014 – Nadal suffered injuries that stopped him in his tracks (knee, thigh, and back, respectively).

This year’s setback, though, differed from the others.  During his previous Australia injury losses, Nadal was never in a winning position.  He lost in 2010 and in 2011 in straight sets, and he won a set in 2014 only because Wawrinka played execrably for a half-hour.  Against Cilic in 2018, however, Nadal was up in the score by two sets to one and playing well enough to win when, in the fourth game of the fourth set, he pulled a right hip flexor muscle on a sprint to the net.

Had the injury not occurred, Nadal might well have won the match.  His record against the semifinal opponent, Kyle Edmund, suggests that absent the injury, Nadal would probably have reached the final.

While Nadal’s fans gnash their teeth and grumble about the Spaniard’s rotten luck in Australia since his 2009 title run, his serendipitous absence from this year’s final cast a spotlight onto two unpleasant facts that would have remained sub rosa had Nadal played for the trophy.

 

  1. Roger Federer is not the infallible box office draw that journalists, commentators, and others in the tennis establishment assert that he is.

Midway through the tournament’s second week, ESPN’s John McEnroe declared, “Roger Federer is the player people come to see!”

This rang false when he said it.  The 2017 Wimbledon final between Federer and Cilic garnered poor television ratings in the United States, while the most-watched stream from that Wimbledon tournament was a match featuring Nadal, not Federer.

Because about 90 percent of tennis commentators and writers are Federer zealots, it is understandable that McEnroe, who seems rarely to step outside the tennis media bubble, might be under the impression that Federer sells the most tickets.  Evidence from this year’s Australian Open final suggests otherwise.

Here was Roger Federer, treated as a god by many in the sporting media, reputed to be the most graceful athlete ever to don gym shoes, attempting to win an historic 20th Major title in a sparkling career.

And there were still tickets available at full price (or at discounts!) a scant four hours before the match was to begin?

Had Nadal played in the final, the match would have sold out; his sizable and enthusiastic local fan base would have snapped the tickets up.

Nadal’s absence from the final made it all too evident that Federer is not McEnroe’s “player people come to see.”

The tennis establishment – commentators, writers, governing bodies, and tournament managers – does itself a disservice with its worshipful focus on Federer.  Data from Wimbledon 2017 and Australia 2018 suggest that if the sport continues to promote Federer at the expense of other players, it does so at its peril.

 

2. The tennis establishment is willing to “grease the skids” for Federer.

Throughout the Australian Open fortnight, Federer played essentially a different tournament from everyone else.  Daytime temperatures soared above 105 degrees Fahrenheit, reaching at court level in the “heat bowls” of the stadia up to 150 degrees Fahrenheit.  Federer’s potential opponents for later rounds, including his most recent vanquisher, World #7 David Goffin, sweltered through afternoon matches and lost.  Federer, meanwhile, was generously scheduled for the cooler evenings in five of his first six rounds.  (The sole exception was a gimme fourth-round contest with world #80 Marton Fucsovics.)

Fans complained mightily and with justification as six-time former champion Novak Djokovic was forced to play the highly entertaining, and box office gold, Gael Monfils in oven-like conditions on the same day as one of Federer’s evening matches.  (On the other half of the draw, the box office stars Nadal and Grigor Dimitrov alternated in the daytime and evening slots during the five rounds they both played.)

That Federer’s salubrious scheduling throughout the tournament smacked of favoritism all observers agreed, but no one could identify clear bias on the part of the tournament until the final.

Conditions were forecast to be hot for the 7 p.m. final on Sunday, 28 January, with temperatures in the high 30s C (above 95 degrees Fahrenheit).  Cilic warmed up for the match on an outdoor court in order to become acclimated to the conditions.  Presumably, he set his string tensions, which are sensitive to temperature and humidity, accordingly.

Meanwhile, Federer made the puzzling decision to prepare for the contest on an indoor court.

Shortly before match time, the tournament announced its decision to close the roof of Rod Laver Arena and turn on the air conditioning.  Cilic had been given no warning.  His string tensions were all wrong.  Unsurprisingly, he started slowly.  Cilic lost the first four games of the match and, although he pushed the match to five sets, he never recovered.

According to the tournament’s own Extreme Heat Policy (which had not been invoked a day before, when the women’s finalists fought so hard over nearly three hours that one was sent to the hospital with dehydration), the stadium roof is to be closed only when both the following criteria obtain: ambient air temperature over 40 C, and a humidity measure called “wet bulb” above a specific threshold.  Although the wet bulb reading on the evening of the men’s final was slightly above threshold, the air temperature was never over 37 C.

From the tournament’s official media guide:

Closing the stadium roof changes court conditions profoundly.  Indoor courts are windless and more humid than outdoor courts.  Tennis balls tend to bounce lower indoors than outdoors.

All four of the Grand Slams are supposed to be outdoor tournaments at which players are tested against the elements.  Only two men’s Slam finals have ever been played under roofs: the 2012 Australian Open, and 2012 Wimbledon.  In both cases, the matches started in the open air, and the roofs were closed only because of rain.  The 2018 Australian Open final is the first men’s Slam final to have been played entirely indoors.

Not coincidentally, Roger Federer is one of the best indoor players in the history of tennis.  Wind is his adversary, neutering his aggressive attacking style.  A closed roof suits him to perfection.

Had Cilic been warned that the roof was to be closed for the final, he would have had a chance.  He would have prepared himself and his racquets for the conditions he would face.  But he was not told in advance.

And Federer is quite candid about the fact that he was told.

So the Australian Open violated its own heat rules to close the roof for the men’s final, thus handing the better indoor player (Federer) an advantage.  They told Federer in advance, enabling him to prepare himself and his string tensions for the cooler air.  They did not warn Cilic.

In the long and colorful history of sports malfeasance, I think medals and trophies have been stripped for less.

Of course, it is not Federer’s responsibility to keep his opponent informed.  He might not have known that the tournament was leaving Cilic in the dark.

That said, the tournament’s cheating on Federer’s behalf rather than Federer’s cheating himself does not render his title any more legitimate.

Only the appearance of corruption is necessary in order to ruin a sport and thus destroy the livelihoods of many.

As writer Andrew Prochnow pointed out, “Had Nadal been in [the] final, blowback from roof closure would have made that act impossible.”  The tournament would not have dared pull the same trick.

Tennis fans have long suspected tournaments and the sport’s governing bodies of taking subtle steps to favor Federer, from unfair scheduling decisions, to selective rule enforcement (such as a disproportionate focus on the Time Rule during Nadal’s matches in 2015), to selective rule non-enforcement (e.g., in Montreal in 2017, when Federer should have been called for both ball abuse and audible obscenity and thus lost a penalty point against Ferrer but was not cited for either infraction), to ad hoc rule changes (e.g., requiring players to stand for the coin toss within 60 seconds of walking onto court, which affects Nadal more than any other player).

Even the Slams’ dropping from 32 seeds to 16 seeds in 2019, which appears to be favored only by a handful of bored journalists, would have the effect of knocking out the player(s) who make(s) slow and/or nervous starts in the Slams.  This is usually Nadal.

Until now, tennis fans have been unable to prove structural favoritism toward Federer.  With the 2018 Australian Open final, everything has changed.  It is now demonstrably clear that the tennis establishment, if given the opportunity, will cheat on Federer’s behalf.

This is terrible for tennis.

 

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18 thoughts on “Australian Open For All To See: Two Ugly Facts Brought To Light By Nadal’s Early Exit

  1. Hi Cynthia,
    It’s been a while since you showed up here, I’m happy to read you again.
    It is true that it seems that Rafa has to try harder to win games, especially against Roger Federer. What I did not know is all that is behind, thank you for explaining it to the world adding such a bag of contrasted facts. Thanks as well for always defending Rafa.
    I hope you are well, kind regards and best wishes,
    Fernando

    Liked by 2 people

  2. Well done, Cynthia. All the relevant points made, clearly and tellingly, with support provided. I should like to see a decent response from the tournament officials.
    The extreme-heat policies of the Australian Open have been dangerously flawed for years, as the matches have demonstrated. Now they are also shown to be manipulated for other than safety reasons. Tennis suffers from this clumsy bias, just as it suffers from rules made or enforced only against certain successful players who threaten the legacies of the Favored Ones. This is Corruption.
    Thanks for your hard work!

    Liked by 1 person

  3. I think this has gone a little too far concerning these alleged biases. Conditions will always be in favor of the favorites because that is good for business. It’s just the way it is

    Like

  4. The crybaby could never be a goat if he refuses to accept the challenge of roland-garros. Poor Nadal has to face champions on his way to win a slam while Federer faces people no one has ever heard of. And one more thing, I am tired of him exploiting and lining his pockets with the African people.

    Liked by 1 person

    • What a stupid comment. Rafa is the King of Clay. That’s a fact. And Roger, at 36 wants to keep playing for a long time. If he wants to do so, his body has to be fit. And clay is the hardest for a player of his style. It’s easier for him to injure himself on clay than it is for Nadal who has grown on clay.
      As for the facing champions, it’s all based on the seeds. Federer faced the same difficulty in matches in the slams last year.
      Both had hard opponents at the AO, Federer had harder ones at the Wimbledon and both were nearly the same at the US Open.
      In fact, at this year’s AO, Federer was set to face Djokovic . So your theory of him not facing champions is utter rubbish.

      Like

  5. Thank you so much for the enlightenment. My gut feeling thinks AO only favors one person who is associated with them. I still feel devastated about my champ Rafa’s retirement due to scorching summer heat. I will keep this article and will share it to my friends. I feel so relieved after reading your article. Again thank you so much.

    Liked by 1 person

  6. I have rarely seen an article so generously riddled with factual errors. There are almost too many to count, but I’ll point out the most obvious ones:

    1. The article gives no evidence about the availability of tickets before the final, other than a dubious Twitter screenshot. And I have strong reason to doubt the claims made, considering I was in Melbourne on 25th January and was told, at the Melbourne Park ticket counter itself, that there were no tickets available for the Federer-Chung semifinal.

    2. The article claims that the Federer-Cilic Wimbledon final had ‘poor’ ratings in the US. Poor in comparison to which match? What were the exact rating figures? The reader has no clue.

    3. Cilic never said he had adjusted his strings for an outdoor match. To suggest that he made a slow start in the final because of having the wrong string tension is a total fabrication. Also, Cilic said later that he was informed by the organizers that the roof may be closed, ‘just before’ the match started. Federer also said he was informed earlier, without the ‘just’. Who’s to say how much time ‘just before’ represents, and whether Federer was informed a lot earlier than Cilic? Without any confirmation either way, you are clutching on straws with this whole argument.

    4. You question the closing of the roof for the men’s final, and lament that it wasn’t closed for the women’s final or the other matches during the tournament. And yet you didn’t make even the smallest attempt to compare the wet bulb globe temperature (WBGT) on 28th to that of any other day. The tournament organizers clearly stated that the WBGT on 28th was the highest of all the tournament days; before crying foul, did anybody bother to check how much it was on 27th, or on the day that Djokovic played Monfils? Also, the rule about closing the roof only when the temperature is above 40 AND the WBGT is above 32.5 is outdated; as per the current rule (check the AO site), closing the roof is at the discretion of the tournament referee. And on 28th, the referee was advised by the Bureau of Meteorology to close the roof. This is not the first time I’ve seen an armchair ‘analyst’ contending that they know more than a professional expert, but it still makes me cringe.

    It’s a little sad that Nadal, a great champion, has such incompetent apologists who come up with such ridiculously half-baked arguments on his behalf. Or maybe it is purely hatred towards Federer that is prompting such laughable conspiracy theories? Either way, the sport of tennis deserves better.

    Like

    • Thank you for writing.

      Responding to your points:

      1. I see no reason to doubt the ticket-availability information presented in the two tweets embedded in the post.

      2. http://www.tennisworldusa.org/tennis/news/Roger_Federer/45629/wimbledon-final-federercilic-tv-ratings-were-worse-than-expected/
      I have added to the post a link to this article.

      3. a) Viewers of the final reported that Cilic changed his racquet at least once early in the match. This is consistent with his having had string tension problems.

      b) According to the Federer press excerpt included here (and already embedded in the post), Federer knew when he “arrived to the courts” that “it will probably be indoor.”

      Cilic, by contrast, was clear that although he knew of the possibility of the roof’s closure (which he appears to have viewed a low probability, since he practiced outdoors), he did not know until shortly before the match that the roof would be closed.

      4. Here are my sources about the Heat Rule.

      Both of these tweets are now embedded in the post.

      Like

      • It seems you consider Twitter to be the only source of news on the planet, but let me assure you that is not the case. Twitter often has incorrect information, and closing your mind to everything but random screenshots of tweets is probably the worst way to go about sports writing of any kind.

        1. Do you realize how easy it would be for someone with an agenda to screenshot the website page from 2 weeks ago, and then claim that the screenshot was from the day of the final? I have personally seen evidence that is exactly opposite to what is claimed in the tweet. Now you may not want to believe me, but I’m sure you can appreciate why basing your argument on unverified information like this is thoroughly irresponsible.

        2. Tennis World is another site known for dubious information. Here is a far more reliable source: http://www.tennisnow.com/Blogs/NET-POSTS/July-2017/Wimbledon-Final-Ratings-Winner.aspx

        3. a) So you’re going to decide that Cilic’s string tension was adjusted for an outdoor court, based merely on the fact that Cilic changed his racquet once? If you’ve ever played tennis at any level, you’d know that there are about 10 different reasons apart from incorrect string tension for changing your racquet.

        b) I had already mentioned this in my comment. Cilic said he had been informed about the possibility of playing indoors ‘just before’ the match, while Federer said he was told of the possibility when ‘he arrived on the court’ (presumably for his practice hit). Do you know when Federer arrived for practice? Was it ‘just before’ the match or hours before the match? Does ‘just before’ mean an hour before the match, or two hours before the match? With so much unverified and he-said-she-said information floating around, forgive me for thinking your whole premise is nothing more than a witch hunt based on rumours and hearsay.

        4. Again, all these tweets have patently false information. In 2008 the extreme heat policy was changed to make it completely discretionary. Here is the link from the AO website: https://ausopen.com/essentials/match-info/extreme-heat-policy. And here is the news piece that talks about this change: http://www.tenniscountry.com/blog/2007/12/in_the_heat_of_a_tennis_match.html

        I’d be interested to hear whether you still think there is nothing factually wrong with your article.

        Liked by 1 person

  7. Thank you , yes i admit i love rafa, but i love tennis . The reason is it a gentleman sport rafa is a true gentleman, rafa respects his opponent and fights fair, if rafa was offer to play only at night i know he would refuse. Rodger should do the right thing and give the trophy back. Points both he and marin should receive 1200. and history will reflect no tournament winner for 2018. tennis needs to win and thw australian open should be warned for cheating.

    Liked by 1 person

  8. For the record, i would like tv stats on all rafa matches at the aussie open this vs rodgers , robbie koenig is a bias commentataer as are jim courier and john mcneroe.we need unbias commmentors the jan is a great one he commentate on the game and why the player play the shot so well

    Liked by 1 person

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