MELBOURNE, Australia — With the first Grand Slam of the year fast approaching, one of the hottest topics among players is the speed of play at the Australian Open.
Top seed Rafael Nadal, a player most comfortable on slow clay, said he thought the blue hard courts at Melbourne Park were considerably faster than in the past.
“Completely different conditions than I remembered from this tournament, faster conditions than I’ve ever played here in Australia,” Nadal said, his tone indicating his displeasure with the perceived change.
Nadal, who played a five-hour, 53-minute marathon match here against Novak Djokovic in 2012 in the longest Grand Slam final of all time.expressed confusion as to why the Open would want to change the conditions that he believes produce the most epic and enjoyable matches.
“I really don’t quite understand why they’re changing, because the last two years the Australian Open has had some incredible matches, long and good for the crowd,” he said on Saturday. “I don’t know why people decide to create conditions so quickly. I’m not sure the show is the best thing. But they decide, and I’m just a player trying to be competitive from the start.
Most players disagreed with Nadal’s perception of a major change.
Djokovic, the defending men’s champion, said Sunday there was “no major difference, nothing significant that I would notice” between last year and this one. Three-time finalist Andy Murray echoed the sentiment a day earlier, saying the conditions were “exactly the same”.
Tournament Director Craig Tiley said Melbourne eraHowever, no changes have been made to the Plexicushion surface from last year, although Wilson did change its tennis balls last year to ones with a more tightly woven felt, which could allow for a faster game.
Speculation that the game could be much faster here first emerged during a warm-up two weeks ago in Brisbane. The courts there are meant to reflect Melbourne conditions and they played much faster than in previous years.
Court conditions were also faster and smoother at last week’s tournament in Sydney, giving grasscourt specialist Tsvetana Pironkova her best week ever on hard court. She beat three top 10 players en route to her first career WTA title.
When Nadal first learned that conditions in Australia would be faster, he responded with mock outrage.
Maria Sharapova, who reached the semi-finals in Brisbane, said she was playing on “one of the fastest courts we’ve played on in a very long time” there, but that the Melbourne courts were “a bit slower.”
“I don’t know why there isn’t more consistency in terms of all the events having the same speed,” said Sharapova, the second seed at the Open, which begins Monday. “I guess that’s what it is.”
While playing in the faster conditions of Brisbane, Roger Federer lamented that no matter how the balls were changed, the grainy courts of Melbourne would swell the balls’ felt.
“You can speed up the balls as much as you want, they will be so blurry after two games that it will be difficult to hit winners and serve winners,” he said. “If that’s what people want to see, just rallies, rallies, rallies all the time, then it’s good to have a slow pitch. If you want a little more even terrain for everyone, even the lower ranked guys, and more danger for the top guys, you go for a faster terrain. Maybe we’ll find more serve and volley in the game or more unknowns, which I think is good.
Federer, seeded No. 6 at the Open, also pointed out that the conditions of the final rounds in Melbourne were changed by the fact that the semi-finals and finals were played at night, which he said had “significantly slowed conditions over time.” The semi-finals were first moved to night sessions in 2000, and the first men’s night final took place in 2005.
“I think it’s pretty amazing how much things have slowed down over the years,” Federer said of the tour in general. “I remember when I first came on tour with Lleyton, things were so different,” he said, referring to Lleyton Hewitt, who turned professional in 1998, the same year as Federer. “We had to change our games to be able to still compete today.”
Murray offered a different critique of the newly renovated Margaret Court Arena, besides the speed of the surface.
After practicing on it earlier in the day, Murray determined that the pitch was “on a very steep slope.”
“The terrain is like this,” he said, tilting his arm to indicate the alpine conditions. “It’s strange.”