The Daft and the Spurious

Australian Open, Day 10

The story has emerged, or coagulated, that Andy Murray and his support team are dissatisfied with the Australian Open’s decision to schedule his quarterfinal against Jeremy Chardy for this afternoon, while Roger Federer was once again granted the night match. The story was broken, not to say invented, by The Daily Mail, and predictably fails to transcend the subterranean standards for which that publication is renowned. (The comments at the end are particularly revealing, assuming one has the fortitude to wade into the minds of those who derive their news from a tabloid, apparently with the sole aim of being whipped into gleeful outrage. Source: Scott Barbour/Getty Images AsiaPacThe common themes are that Australians hate the British, Federer is a complete bastard, and that no one has it harder than poor Murray. These themes are diligently adhered to throughout, with only very minor variations, and occasionally combine into fugal delirium.)

Of course, inciting umbrage in the readership is hardly beside the point. That’s the mission of tabloid journalism, and I don’t mean to suggest that local Australian versions are any nobler than their English counterparts. Indeed, The Herald Sun this morning produced this gem: Andy Murray’s camp fumes as Australian Open rolls out red carpet for Roger Federer, which does nothing but quote from the Daily Mail’s original report. Anyway, the whole thing is allegedly ‘a favouritism row’ as the ‘Australian Open chiefs come under fire’. Who is laying down the fire is never precisely established. No sources are named in the original: ‘Sources close to the Murray camp have confirmed…’ Names that are mentioned remain merely notional presences within vague clouds of fluff: ‘Murray’s coaching staff, Ivan Lendl and Dani Vallverdu, are both said to have made their opinions known to organisers about what seems an unfair situation…’

Indeed the only person directly quoted in the article is Craig Tiley, the tournament director for the Australian Open, who wastes his time and breath by trying to explain that there are numerous factors informing every scheduling decision. These factors are duly listed, but are trumped by the reporter’s closing assertion that it’s ‘hard to see what other reason [besides television] lies behind yet another Federer night match tomorrow, and another day fixture for Murray’. I suppose anything is hard to see if you’re unwilling to look. What else could it be?

Well, for starters there’s the fact that Murray is playing the unseeded Jeremy Chardy, while Federer is facing the seventh-seed Jo-Wilfried Tsonga, who is also hugely popular in Australia, having reached the final in 2008 and the semifinals in 2010. Which of those matches deserves to be the featured night match? If you’d paid $130 to attend Rod Laver Arena tonight, would you be satisfied, all else being equal, if you were obliged to watch Murray thrash Chardy, followed by a doubles match? Bear in mind that day ticket holders will, in addition to Murray and Chardy, also see a pair of women’s quarterfinals featuring Serena Williams and Victoria Azarenka.

But what about the fourth round? Federer faced Milos Raonic, and Murray played Gilles Simon. On paper this is far more comparable. But Simon had been hospitalised after he and Gael Monfils laboriously recreated Il Purgatorio in the third round, only longer, duller and with more cramping. Even at his best Simon is unlikely to trouble Murray over five sets, and the organisers are well-aware of this. Enervated and over-matched, the Frenchman was lucky to get seven games. In truth both matches were fizzers, but only one of them was predictably so when the schedule was made. In the third round Federer played Bernard Tomic, and the chance of that not being the featured night match were precisely zero, no matter who Murray faced (he played qualifier Ricardas Berankis). In the second round Federer played Nikolay Davydenko, and Murray played Joao Sousa. Davydenko is certainly not the force he once was, and his record against Federer is abysmal, but he’d shown strong form in Doha (beating David Ferrer), and was far more likely to challenge a top seed than Sousa. In the first round both Murray and Federer played during the day (the featured night match was naturally Lleyton Hewitt and Janko Tipsarevic).

Given the specific merits of each encounter, there was no point at which Murray deserved a night slot. Bear in mind that the schedule is made the day before each round. It isn’t planned out before the event, since even in this era the tournament cannot assume the top seeds will all progress. The only way Murray would have been given tonight’s match on Rod Laver Arena would have been through a kind of affirmative action, in order that he needed it to prepare for the later rounds. But again, the organisers don’t assume that Murray will reach the later rounds. To do so would be disrespectful to his opponents.

Another issue begs to be raised, it not addressed. What if Murray had played his second or third round at night instead of Federer? Would this have realistically helped in his preparation for a semifinal a week later, given that the matches in between would have been played during the day? The common belief – largely overstated– is that the playing conditions alter radically from day to night, as though evening sessions are conducted on an ice rink using pogo-sticks. (The difference is much less now on Plexicushion than it was on Rebound Ace, which being rubber reacts differently to the heat.) The players have my utmost respect for their mastery of the sport, but I don’t believe they’re so finely attuned that a match played a week earlier is of much use for calibration purposes.

As it happens, I don’t think it’ll matter much: Murray will be fine. I also don’t have much time for the counter-claim that Federer deserves any extra help because he had a tougher draw. For one thing, I’m not sure how playing at night constitutes an advantage. Federer was fitter than each of his opponents so far, has won most of his Majors during daylight, and thrives in quicker conditions. If anything playing during the day would help him more. But aside from that, I really doubt whether the daily schedule was based on a consideration of the respective difficulties of each man’s draw. To suggest it was is, again, to suggest that the organisers (now under fire) were scheduling each round based on the assumption that Federer and Murray would both reach the semifinals.

Scholarly types with an interest in tennis draws and a penchant for adultery will naturally be familiar with my key work Bracketology, the Reading of Draws, and Why Men Have to Sleep Around. They might consequently recall Stage Two of the standard model of draw analysis, which is called Indignation. The function of this stage is to determine that your preferred player has the most dreadful path to the finals imaginable. Your favourite can thereby be granted the cherished status of the underdog, and his or her journey can be recast as a slog to Mordor, notoriously a location one does not simply walk into.

Last year Murray was blessed with truly horrid draws at Wimbledon and the Olympics, leaving fans of other players in a desperate position. (Some Federer fans tried to paint Mikhail Youzhny as a tough quarterfinal opponent, but no one was buying it.) On the other hand, even that proved insufficient for sections of the British press. Readers may recall the proto-controversy at Wimbledon when Murray was obliged to beat Marin Cilic on Court One instead of Centre Court. Murray’s response was that he honestly doesn’t care what court he plays on. Unsurprisingly, his indifference failed to soothe those who felt differently on his behalf.

Sadly, Murray’s draw at this Australian Open has been exceptionally benign, and only grew easier with Juan Martin del Potro’s third round exit. However, indignation must be found somewhere, I suppose, otherwise The Daily Mail doesn’t sell papers. The man who last year said he didn’t care what court he played on has now been positioned at the ‘centre of a heated row’, notwithstanding that he has said nothing on the matter at all. But that’s okay, because sources close to him are furious. Apparently.

Also, thanks to Jewel for linking me that Daily Mail song!

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