The courtside microphones pick up almost everything a player says and on Tuesday at Melbourne Park the chatter was all about the movement of patrons in the stands.
Prior to her clash against Sofia Kenin, world No.1 Iga Swiatek quizzed the umpire as to a perceived change introduced in Melbourne allowing fans into the stands between games.
It has become a discussion point in this Australian Open after Novak Djokovic asked the umpire during his Sunday night thriller why fans were moving around between games.
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Aussie Jordan Thompson poured fuel on to the fire by branding the Open “woke”, a term he said he later regretted using without backing down from his critique.
The usual practice on stadium courts is to wait until a change of ends for fans to be allowed entry and the move does give fans more bang for the big bucks they are spending
But play is being delayed as a result of fans racing in to find their seats, while also proving a distraction for some players, Swiatek among them.
Players are not accustomed to seeing movement immediately behind their opponent as they are awaiting to return the serves of players with the power of Milos Raonic, for example.
“Some players, they don’t care. (But) I’m pretty sensitive. I can get my focus really in the zone, but sometimes I see the movement and it annoys me a little bit,” she said.
“For me it’s better to wait and see where these people are going to go. It’s fine. This is the audience. We are kind of playing for them. They should do whatever they want.
“On the other hand, everybody knows the rules in tennis. It would be nice if they would not move maybe right before the point.”
Australian Open tournament director Craig Tiley has come around to the idea that more needs to be done to cater to fans, hence a move to allow entry at the end of games.
It follows the introduction of a ‘party court’ to the tournament this year, but more on that later.
Among the questions is whether the players were actually made aware of the change.
The queries towards umpires suggests that is not the case, a point made by Grigor Dimitrov, who is not against improvements to cater for fans.
“I think the only message I can send on that is, whatever new rules we are having, whether it is a slam or any other tournament, (it is) just to know a little bit in advance,” he said.
“I think it is going to be better if it is communicated to the players first. Maybe let the players decide on things like that, because after all, you’re performing out there.
“You want to do well, not only for yourself, but for the crowd, for the family, for the team. And so on. That is my take. It would have been nice to know earlier.”
In an interview with the Nine Network, Tiley claimed there had been no rule change. And it is understood the players were emailed with advice surrounding the situation.
“Basically what we’ve said is that we want the fans to sit in their seats when the play is on,” he said.
“That is the expectation coming into the stadium and that has always been the case and hasn’t changed this year either. (But) what we have done is we have tried to get the fans into their seats quicker because the worst situation you can have as a fan is when you are waiting outside the stadium for three games to five games.”
Craig O’Shannessy, an American-based Australian coach and analyst who has worked with players including Novak Djokovic, is a fan of any fan-friendly move.
“It’s been a horrible rule for a long time and I’m ecstatic that Craig Tiley is championing this new directive,” he told foxsports.com.au.
“It’s just been a horrible rule since day one that fans need to stand outside and wait three games at the start of a set, which can be upwards of 20 minutes at times. I’ve been dead against keeping fans outside for a long time.
“When you go to the US Open, they have three courts that are together. I think they’re courts four, five and six and the fans are allowed to walk on the side of the court and do whatever they want. So I think it should actually be going even further than if you are sitting on the side of the court.
“On any court in the world, you should be able to come and go as you want. Because that quite often happens at a lot of courts. It even happens here on some of the outside courts, where you’ve got a small fence and a couple of rows of seats and people can walk on the side of the court all they want.”
Max Purcell, who edged Mate Valkusz from Hungary 3-6 7-6 (2) 6-4 7-5, has no issue with the movement either. But he did have a problem with the clothing worn by the security personnel.
“The only thing that was annoying me was the security guards at the entrance wearing floral yellow,” he said.
“People were throwing up balls on serve. I’m like, ‘What the f— are you doing? I can’t see the ball’. Any other color, please.”
…BUT HAVE THE ‘FAN-FRIENDLY’ CHANGES GONE TOO FAR?
The amount of people through the gates over the opening three days of the Australian Open suggests tennis is in the rudest of health amid an ambition to draw one million fans in 2024.
And AO organisers are determined to maximise the fan experience. Another addition this year has been the move to introduce a “party” atmosphere at a bar above Court No. 6.
Not all players are fans, with Petros Tsitsipas spitting chips after he and his famous brother Stefanos fell 7-5 7-5 to German Daniel Altmaier and Miguel Angel Reyes-Verela.
“It’s a very weird concept, in my opinion. It is way too accessible, in a way, for the public,” he said.
“It was a bit noisy as well, so it’s not as easy to concentrate. But, obviously, the smaller courts are always like that in slams. There is a lot going on with the people, you know, shouting also on other courts.”
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Stefanos Tsitsipas, a finalist at Melbourne Park last year, was less inclined to offer excuses for their loss.
“I wouldn’t blame it on anything. I wouldn’t blame it on the open-bar concept,” he said.
“I just believe we need to get better, both of us. I need to get better. Petros needs to get better.
“I know how much effort and how much practice goes on in Petros’ daily life in order to excel in the doubles field.”
Back to O’Shannessy, who has attended tournaments around the world and noted the impact the introduction of a “party hole” has had on golf.
“You absolutely should create more of a party atmosphere. I mean, just have a look around. Let’s just call a spade a spade,” he said.
“We’ve got a lot of drinks being served here around the Australian Open precinct, letting fans have a drink and will do whatever they want.
“Whether they want to have a drink, or whether it’s just a party court that is just fun, but certainly serving some alcohol there and bringing it closer to the court, there’s nothing wrong with it.
“It’s a direction where we should have been going a lot earlier. And I think, you know, putting the fans first is a great idea.
“So I’m all for the party court and I’m all for bringing that atmosphere, that raucous, jovial atmosphere … here at the Australian Open. So, yeah, absolutely do it.”
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ZVEREV QUESTION HANGING OVER TENNIS REMAINS UNANSWERED
To more serious matters. A problem with glossing over or trying to minimise controversies is that silence or a lack of action can cause discomfort to others, as Tuesday proved.
The world’s top ranked woman Iga Swiatek was clearly uncomfortable when asked on Tuesday about the appropriateness of Alexander Zverev sitting on the ATP Players Council.
As a recap, the No.6 seed and current Netflix star has been the subject of domestic violence allegations from two former partners over the past five years. He denies the claims.
But prior to play on the third day, it was announced in Germany that a court will judge the merits of a claim against him that resulted in him being fined nearly $700,000 last year.
It comes only weeks after Zverev starred in a Netflix episode that made no mention of the allegations and instead focused on his comeback to the tour after a serious ankle injury.
As a result, several of his peers on both tours were asked to comment on whether he was a suitable representative to sit on a representative body. And none appeared comfortable.
The case highlights the lack of progress from the ATP Tour when it comes to instituting a domestic violence policy.
It is now more than four years since Andy Murray called on the ATP to introduce a policy after allegations of domestic violence were levelled against a handful of players.
The most notable involved those levelled against Zverev, a former US Open finalist, from his former partner Olya Sharypova.
In response, the ATP Tour said it “condemned any form of violence or abuse” and launched a review into the allegations. Last year, the tour said it was unable to substantiate the claims.
But Zverev has since been the centre of further allegations from another former girlfriend, Brenda Patea, which resulted in the initial penalty order of nearly $700,000 last year.
He has since appealed the decision and the matter will now be heard over an eight day period beginning on May 31 in Germany. Zverev does not have to attend the hearing.
Put on the spot, Swiatek said she did not believe it was appropriate for a player facing domestic violence allegations to be promoted, as per the Netflix PR exercise.
“There’s no good answer to that. I think it’s up to ATP what they decide,” she said.
“For sure it’s not good when a player who’s facing charges like that is kind of being promoted. I don’t know what the result of the investigation or the case is going to be.
“I’m also not sure what’s the history in terms of the other cases that he had. I don’t know if he won or lost.
“I guess you have to ask ATP what they want to do with that ‘cause I’m not in the right position to judge.”
What is certain is that a clear policy related to the issue is something that should be enacted.
AZARENKA DELIVERS THE A TO Z ON BEING A SOCCER MUM
The return of major winners Naomi Osaka, Angelique Kerber and Caroline Wozniacki to the court after becoming mothers has been the topic of a lot of discussion over the past six months, with the talk escalating at the Australian Open.
Dual-Aussie Open winner Victoria Azarenka is an old hand at discussing the joys and pitfalls associated with balancing a career as a professional tennis play while parenting.
The former world No.1’s son Leo, who is now seven, is showing talent in ice hockey while pursuing a number of different athletic pursuits.
Azarenka is aware of what is required to top the world in a chosen field. She said that while she is not a pushy mother, her only wish is for her son to give 100 percent effort whenever he tackles a project.
“He loves sports. He’s very active kid. He plays ice hockey, is his number one. He plays football, soccer in U.S. He plays a bit of golf. I was trying to get him into tennis. He was like, ‘When are we going home? When are we going home?’” she said.
‘For me, what’s important is for him to be able to do sports, because I think it helps them to develop, it helps the brain to develop, it teaches discipline, et cetera.
“He wakes up at six in the morning, goes to practice at 6:45am, to the ice rink. I hate that because I’m freezing in the ice rinks. But I’m glad to see his dedication.
“My only rule with him is that effort is non-negotiable. If you decide to try to come here, if you try to do something, you give 100 percent of your effort.
“(The) result is … that he’s as competitive as I am. He’ll want to have a result. But the effort is non-negotiable. If he commits to something, he’s there 100 percent.”