After the mess that has unfolded at the Australian Open qualifying, where players were faced with hazardous air-quality, it’s time to get out in front of this crisis.
Tennis Australia should move– and move right now– to make the men’s draw best-of-three sets for the 2020 Australian Open.
Let me raise my hand as someone who sees all the benefits of men playing best-of-five sets at Grand Slams. I feel the drama. I see the specialness. The battles can be topline entertainment–extreme contests of attrition where the fittest man wins.
But the country of Australia is a fiery, smoky mess. Situation: Not Normal.
Have you seen the infamous, ongoing tweet-war between New York Times writer Ben Rothenberg and longtime player/coach/broadcaster/tennis mind Brad Gilbert? Best-of-three versus best-of-five in the Grand Slams. They’ve debated the issue inside-and-out, taken their shots, and the fans of Tennis Twitter have lined up behind them. I lean Team Gilbert. Keep it best-of-five.
Gilbert has asked for a “chill pill” on this issue, and I have to admit, a chill pill would be perfect in Australia right about now. So let’s do this.
Go to best-of-three sets instead of best-of-five for the men’s draw.
#1 The Health and Safety of the Players, Tournament Staff and Fans
Tennis Australia has clearly stated it is committed to holding the tournament as scheduled no matter what. So the main concern shifts to air quality. Scientists and meteorologists say that while the city of Melbourne is not a high risk to burn, the winds are pushing the bounds of safety for– wait for it– breathing air. As we know, tennis players breathe a lot. Heavily. Oxygen is needed in large supply to play this sport.
Right now, even being outside and breathing in the particulate-filled haze is a health hazard. Australian Open officials have responded by saying they will spend lots of money to monitor air quality. On bad days during the tournament, they will even consider moving play exclusively indoors to its three stadiums with roofs as well as the eight indoor practice courts.
But the indoor practice courts don’t have seating for fans. If this indoor scenario happens for all or part of the tournament, it becomes a scheduling nightmare. And can you imagine the refund situation for tickets? By going to best-of-3 sets for the men in all their matches, pressure is immediately relieved.
#2 This Is Something That’s Been Discussed Anyway, So Now Is The Perfect Time To Experiment With Innovations
If the Australian Open were to try this, the tennis world might decide that best-of-3 in a Grand Slam was a complete flop and should not become a regular thing. That’s fine. At least it was tried to see what it was like. Some people think that the marathon matches are outdated for an attention-span-challenged world anyway. Now is the perfect time to put that theory to the test. Let’s experiment. Let’s innovate. Let’s try something new. Nobody can ever get mad for an adjustment like this, under the circumstances of a bushfire crisis. Check that– somebody on Twitter will get mad, but we have a fresh debate with the real data from having tried it.
#3 Things Like This Have Happened Before In Sports, And Life Went On
Speaking as a fan of the Atlanta Braves, who won a World Series in a strike-shortened season, I know that sometimes leagues must adjust on the fly and change the standard operating procedures. You know what? It’s ok. The fans are still there. Major League Baseball, the NFL, the NBA and the NHL have all had to deal with abbreviated seasons. During World War II, Major League Baseball did all sorts of things to keep playing.
And, of course, who can forget the 1982 Australian Open, where extensive rain actually forced the men’s tournament to play best-of-three sets for the third and fourth rounds? Wars happen. Disasters happen. The sport will still thrive after a minor blip like this.
After this year’s Australian Open, if we hate the change, we can go back to the way it was, having learned from the experience. Tennis Australia: We’re in a crisis. Now’s the time to be bold.
Main Photo from Getty.