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.
- 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.