Does the Australian Open Come Too Early?

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In the 1970s, many top players did not even bother showing up for the Australian Open. The country was too remote, the prize money too low, the facilities erratic as the event moved from city to city, and it was held over the Christmas holidays.

The tournament moved to mid-January in 1987 and found its groove. Yet there is still a lingering sense that the Open could be a little better if only it started a few weeks later.

Some players feel jumping almost immediately into a Grand Slam after the brief off-season yields less than stellar tennis. Rafael Nadal spoke up about the schedule in 2009.

“It’s too early, and I think, for my style of game, I need a little bit of rhythm,” Nadal said.

There are a few tournaments in early January, including the ATP Cup in Australia, which the men’s tour just introduced.

Novak Djokovic and Roger Federer, who have won 12 of the last 14 Australian Opens, typically limit themselves to exhibition matches or practices in those weeks, preferring to be rested and healthy instead of worrying about being match tough.

Brad Gilbert, an ESPN analyst, said more top women played tournaments the week before the Australian Open because the men want that time off before playing best-of-five matches in a Slam and because the top women are largely much younger than the top men.

Steve Simon, the chief executive of the WTA, said an additional week or two of preparation would be helpful but would be offset by having the players healthy. Still, the idea of a later start time continues to carry weight.

“It’s tough, the first matches after five or six weeks without playing to get in the rhythm again,” Dominic Thiem said during the ATP Cup.

And Félix Auger-Aliassime, 19, said that while older players might benefit from being fresh, he would rather play. “It’s more important to get matches,” he said. “I’m a bit rusty, and would prefer to have matches and get my confidence.”

The odds of a schedule change remain remote.

“If you were starting from scratch, in a perfect world, it would be held in the first week of February,” Gilbert said, creating room for a Masters 1000 or two 500-level tournaments in January. But any change now creates myriad logistical issues. “It took 40 years to get that extra week added between the French Open and Wimbledon.”

Craig Tiley, the chief executive of Tennis Australia and the Australian Open tournament director, said in a statement that while there had been debate about moving the tournament to March, “given our tremendous growth, the incredible quality of play from the athletes and the absence of a compelling reason for a move it is fair to say it has not seriously been contemplated in recent years.”

While the tournament draws fans from Asia, Simon says, January is the end of Australia’s summer vacation, so that exerts a certain power. And, he added, such a drastic shift would not only be a logistical challenge but would also bump established tournaments in other cities, harming businesses there.

He also said that starting the year with a Slam served the entire sport “because it gets everybody excited about tennis early on.”

The ATP Cup solves some problems on the men’s side, Thiem said. (Tiley is exploring a similar event with the WTA.)

“If you play a normal tournament and have a bad day, you can have just one match and then go to Melbourne not really knowing where you are,” he said. “The ATP Cup is amazing because it guarantees you three matches against top players.”

However, plenty of players are excluded from the ATP Cup, and Gilbert wonders how the older players will feel if they have to play six tough matches through the ATP final and then go into the Australian Open tired.

“It’s a great event, but we’ll see if there are repercussions as that plays out,” he said.

Tiley declined to address whether the climate crisis and the bush fires in Australia this year could ultimately force tennis to rearrange its calendar.

It is possible, Gilbert said. “But who can predict anything with that?”

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