‘I go to sleep at 5am’: Tennis stars brace for more late shows at US Open | US Open Tennis 2023

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Even in the aftermath of a spectacular quarter-final victory over Daria Kasatkina in Montreal earlier this month, Elena Rybakina had little reason to celebrate. As satisfying as her grit and determination had been, Rybakina finished just shy of 3am. She was, in her own words, “destroyed”. She predictably lost her semi-final against Liudmila Samsonova, having played it with her shoulder heavily taped. Afterwards the 24-year-old did not hold her tongue, describing the Women’s Tennis Association as “unprofessional” and blasting its weak leadership.

Five days later Rybakina was still paying the price of that late night. After her loss in Montreal, she did not train at all before her first match in Cincinnati. Despite winning a round there, she retired from her second match, against Jasmine Paolini, in the second set despite having won the first. “It was horrible, to be honest,” Rybakina told the Guardian of her experience in Montreal, namely collecting multiple injuries. “It’s not easy because they [the injuries] are not even because of the amount of tennis I played or how long the matches were. It’s really tough to recover when you go to sleep at 5am.”

Unfortunately for Rybakina, late nights are increasingly becoming a core part of the sport. Exactly a week before Rybakina and Kasatkina played into the middle of the night, Borna Coric also completed his victory over Iliya Ivashka in Los Cabos at 3am. Such was his delirium at such an early hour, Coric did not even realise he had won. “It was not very nice,” said the world No 23. “It was not happy times for me.”

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Tennis’s late finishes have dominated the discourse for the past year. The clay court season was filled with discussions over scheduling, culminating in the Madrid Open’s ill-fated decision to refuse its doubles finalists a speech after Victoria Azarenka had strongly opposed their scheduling choices behind the scenes. Wimbledon’s 11pm curfew ensures that players can leave work on the same day they begin yet it was still alarming how frequently the curfew was either met or threatened this year.

The tone was set back in January when Andy Murray won his Australian Open second-round match against Thanasi Kokkinakis at 4.05am. Immediately afterwards, he pointed out that such long nights were a dire outcome for everyone involved, including fans, officials, the young ball-kids, as well as the players themselves.

Seven months on, Murray’s opinion has not shifted. “I think it’s generally just not good for anyone,” he says. “Often when the players complain about that stuff, you hear: ‘Oh, shut up and get on with it. Try working in a warehouse from nine to five.’

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“I get that. I know I’m fortunate to be playing tennis. It’s just … tennis is also entertainment. I don’t think it helps the sport that much when everyone’s leaving because they have to go and get public transport home and you finish a match in front of 10% of the crowd. You don’t see it in other sports, so it’s clearly wrong. “

The match time of 5hr 37min is displayed behind Andy Murray v Thanasi Kokkinakis in the second round of this year’s Australian Open
The match time is displayed behind Andy Murray v Thanasi Kokkinakis in the second round of the Australian Open. Eight minutes later, at 4.05am, Murray won. He lost in the next round. Photograph: Lukas Coch/EPA

Azarenka may not have been allowed near a microphone in Madrid but the world No 1, Iga Swiatek, noted her own displeasure about the scheduling after reaching the singles final. Her perspective has not shifted. “For sure it’s not healthy to play at that hour and it’s something we should totally work on because we’re gonna have more and more players that are burned out and having physical problems,” she says. “Because even in Rome I got injured. I don’t know for sure, like the whole intensity that added up to that. But playing at these hours isn’t healthy for sure.”

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For Coco Gauff, one of the biggest draws on the WTA, late-night tennis become a new experience since turning 18 in March last year. Due to her age before that point, tournaments were not allowed to schedule her matches as the second night match; Montreal saw its entire schedule ravaged by rain and, as all players tried to adapt, Gauff had to endure a rapid turnaround for her quarter-final against Jessica Pegula having beaten Marketa Vondrousova late at night. She fought for a later “not before” time and therefore 30 minutes sleep. Still, the following day, she felt the consequences in her legs.

“It still was rough waking up,” Gauff says. “It does affect you. That first set against Jess, my legs felt really flat. Her match … she finished even later, 3am, which is insane. [Rybakina is] right. It does set up a terrible week.”

The reasons for the late nights and early mornings are varied. As tennis has evolved, the physicality of matches has increased, courts have generally become slower and match lengths have increased. And while the shot clock has been implemented for some time with the intention of speeding up matches, it has hardly been a roaring success. Now players know exactly how much time they have between each point, some are taking more time than they may have previously.

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Across all levels of the ATP and WTA tours, night sessions have become more prevalent, meaning more tournaments spend time clearing out centre court crowds so new ticket holders can enter at night. “Whether that’s good for players, maybe not. But at the same time, you have to find balance,” says Novak Djokovic. “Tournaments are looking to gain more profit and more revenue; the night sessions are normally the ones that are more entertaining. You know, people get into it.”

Players also have to contend with the might of television, which continues to prefer matches to start around 7pm local time and care little about how late they finish. “I understand the business side, that we have to adjust with broadcasters and everything.” says Swiatek. “But I asked the WTA for some data – if people are watching these matches that are starting past 10pm – and I didn’t get anything. It would be easier to actually understand and to know that it actually makes sense for us to play that late.”

Despite her own concerns, Gauff recognises the challenge of trying to find a balance between protecting players and appeasing the broadcasters. “It’s not as easy as saying: ‘Let’s move all the matches up,’ because we still have to sell our sport. There definitely has to be some type of compromise,” she says.

What is certain is that there is unlikely to be any change at the US Open. Last year the tournament was defined by its late-night finishes, particularly as Carlos Alcaraz worked through numerous after-hours, five-set brawls, culminating in him finishing his marathon quarter-final victory over Jannik Sinner at 2.50am.

Last week Stacey Allaster, the US Open tournament director, said the event’s leadership team had discussed and reviewed last year’s tournament, discussing whether or not to start the evening session earlier. Their conclusion? Nothing will change. “At the moment we’re staying the course with two night matches,” Allaster said. “We’ll continue to evaluate it. I think until we were to dramatically change a feature that we offer our fans, we’ll experience this late-night moment here.”

If allowing players to compete at a reasonable time was a priority, there are numerous steps the tour could experiment with, from an earlier start time for night sessions to strict regulations forbidding matches from starting after a certain hour. Tournament officials could also be more flexible and prepare for the possibility that certain matches could be moved to smaller courts when feasible.

If none of this is tried, there will be many more late nights to come.

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