Cool Down Tennis

This is a guest post by Carl Bialik.

Imagine you’re named boss of tennis. Right after being sworn in by Rod Laver and Martina Navratilova, you’re handed an empty wall calendar. You make the schedule for 2018. What’s your first move?

Mine would be to move Indian Wells and Miami earlier in the calendar, and the Australian Open later, after the two U.S. Masters tournaments.

I never wanted this more than while sweating my way around the Indian Wells grounds in search of shade last month. I wasn’t alone. The only full sections of the main stadium during day sessions were the ones protected from the sun. Around the fan-friendly venue, there are plenty of seats in the shade — under tents, or in Adirondack chairs that shade-seeking people push ever closer to the screen as the sun shifts. The players can only wait for shade to slowly descend on the court. Jack Sock needed a towel holding 50 ice cubes to cool down.

Sweating in the grass

 

Sure, it was unusually hot at this year’s Indian Wells tournament. But the climatological averages are clear: It’s hot in the California desert and in the Florida sunshine in March, and in the antipodean summer in January. It’d be cooler in Indian Wells, Miami and Melbourne if the two Masters events moved two months earlier and led up to the year’s first Grand Slam in March. Each of the two-week events would be, on average, 4 to 10 degrees Fahrenheit cooler each year. (The precipitation would be about the same, so Miami men’s finalist Rafael Nadal might continue to bemoan humidity, request sawdust and show more than he’d planned beneath his shorts; while women’s champ Johanna Konta might keep having to change clothes midmatch because they’ve accumulated approximately five kilograms of sweat.)

I’m using the averages because I don’t want to make too much of an unseasonably hot Indian Wells, or too little of an unusually cold March in Miami. But the averages might understate the problem because it’s precisely the outliers we’re worried about. A nudge downward of a few degrees, on average, could translate into a big drop in the probability of an unbearably hot fortnight — say, from 25 percent to 5 percent.

Changing the tennis calendar would also mean less daylight. That wouldn’t be so good for the nickname Sunshine Double, but it’d be good for tennis. Until more tennis stadiums adopt overhanging partial roofs — but for sun, not for rain — shorter days means less sun for fans to contend with and more reason to fill the seats. Plus, night tennis is exciting. The venues already have plenty of lights and evening sessions.

Scrambling the schedule would do more than cool down tennis. The three midyear majors’ proximity to each other helps the sport carry some momentum and mainstream buzz from one to the next. The Australian Open squanders all that in the four-month gap between its end and the start of the French Open. There’s even a month between the Aussie Open and the next big event.

The other three majors also get opening acts, to help players build up familiarity with the surface and for fans to build anticipation. The Australian Open gets two weeks at the start of the season — without so much as a 500 event on the men’s side.

The lack of buffer between the offseason and Melbourne also means it loses some players still recovering from the end of the previous season. That was the case this year with Juan Martin del Potro, who skipped this year’s first major after winning the Davis Cup with Argentina in November.

Imagine instead starting the season with Indian Wells and Miami — or Miami, then Indian Wells, while we’re scrambling things, for the convenience of travel from the sport’s power center of Europe — using the same courts and balls as Melbourne. Follow that month — or less, if one or both of the U.S. early-year Masters succumbs to the reality that they could be just a week — by Doha and Dubai, then Brisbane, Sydney and the like, before the main event in Melbourne at the start of March. We’d start the season with a real hard-court swing, ending with the first major.

From Australia, the tour could stay in the southern hemisphere. The swing through South America has a long history and a terrible spot on the current calendar. It was traditionally played on clay but some of its biggest events are moving to hard courts — first (North American) Acapulco, now, maybe, Rio, in search of Masters status — to the chagrin of Nadal and others. Too many players simply don’t think it’s worth it to compete on clay for a few weeks if that’s followed by a month of hard-court events. But move Indian Wells and Miami, and South American clay could move a month later in the calendar — while slightly tempering what Nadal bemoans as “too extreme” weather conditions by an average of 1 degree. The swing would give way seamlessly to Houston, Charleston and the European clay spell — which, by the way, would absorb Bucharest, Hamburg, Umag, Bastad and Gstaad from their awkward post-Wimbledon calendar slots. And no one would suggest Miami move to green clay.

We’d be left with a coherent calendar with five seasons of roughly equal length and importance, four with a major and one with the year-end finals: (1) Outdoor hard courts in the U.S., the Middle East and Oceania, followed by (2) clay in the Americas and Europe, (3) English and German grass (with Newport for those who want to visit the sport’s hall of fame), (4) North American and Asian outdoor hard courts, and (5) European indoor hard courts (absorbing the current winter events such as St. Petersburg and Rotterdam) culminating in wherever the tours’ multiplying year-end finals are calling home that year. And let’s play Davis Cup and Fed Cup at the same time — the tours acting in sync; what a concept! — on weekends at the edge of the five new seasons, giving hosts a wider range of sensible surfaces to choose from, and creating the option for combined venues if men and women from the same country are hosting the same round. (Prague in 2012 would’ve been tennis nirvana.) Or, hell, consider merging the events.

Could all this happen? Sure — if tennis power were centralized in a person or people who prioritize the overall good of the global game. Without a radical transformation of tennis, though, it’ll be slow going: It took years for the idea of lengthening the grass-court season by a week to become reality.

Carl Bialik has written about tennis for fivethirtyeight.com and The Wall Street Journal. He lives and plays tennis in New York City and has a Tennis Abstract page.