Player complaints continue after rule change allowing more fan movement at Australian Open

Tournament organisers were criticised Tuesday for not giving players enough information about the decision to allow spectators to move around the courts between games.

Published : Jan 16, 2024 16:41 IST , MELBOURNE - 4 MINS READ

Emma Raducanu serves during the Australian Open 2024.
Emma Raducanu serves during the Australian Open 2024. | Photo Credit: AP

Emma Raducanu serves during the Australian Open 2024. | Photo Credit: AP

When Novak Djokovic complained to the chair umpire about wasting “30, 40, 50 seconds” because of spectators moving after every game during his first-round match, it was obvious rules had been relaxed at the Australian Open.

Two days later, players were still complaining.

Tournament organisers were criticised Tuesday for not giving players enough information about the decision to allow spectators to move around the courts between games.

The past convention has been fans can exit and enter the arena only during changeovers.

Grigor Dimitrov, a member of the ATP Player Council, found out about the change only when his coach let him know on the morning of his first match.

“I personally was not aware,” he said. “I think a lot of players didn’t know, from what I heard. That was actually a little bit of a topic in the locker room.”

Dimitrov, who won a title at a tune-up tournament in Brisbane last week, said the players should get more notice “whether it’s a Slam or any other tournament.”

“I think it’s going to be better if it’s communicated to the players first. Maybe let the players decide on things like that,” he said. “Because, after all, you’re performing out there — you want to do well, not only for yourself, for the crowd, for the family, for the team.”

Djokovic, who has won 10 Australian championships among his record 24 Grand Slam titles, was taken by surprise during his opening win Sunday against Dino Prizmic. In the third set, he let the umpire know in no uncertain terms he wasn’t happy with the constant delays.

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“I understand the motive behind it is to enhance and improve the experience for fans, right?” Djokovic said. “We want fans to have a great, thrilling experience of being out on the court.

“Today we lost quite a bit of time when they were letting people in to come to their seats, even though it was not a changeover. My opponent would wait for them to sit down; It dragged a lot.”

The 36-year-old Djokovic has been playing by a different set of rules his entire career, and said it would take time to adjust.

“I don’t know if it’s really the best rule, but I do understand from a tournament and fan perspective it’s probably better because they don’t want to wait,” he said. “They want to come out and enjoy every single point.”

Leading players in the women’s draw were also surprised by the late notice.

Top-ranked Iga Swiatek said her psychologist informed her of the rule change on the morning of her opening match, a 7-6 (2), 6-2 win over 2020 Australian Open champion Sofia Kenin.

Victoria Azarenka, who is on the WTA Player Council, said she didn’t even know before her opening win.

“I feel like we keep making some rules that make no sense at times,” the two-time Australian Open champion said. “Like we’re trying to shorten the changeovers, (but) then we are waiting for people to sit down.”

Tournament director Craig Tiley defended the changes, telling the tournament’s host broadcaster that organisers will have to “go on a bit of a journey with the players and with the fans.”

“We’ve been doing it in the upper bowl of the stadiums now for years, and we just want to bring it down to the lower bowls,” he said. “Obviously you’ve got to use discretion, you don’t want to just be running into the stands ... that’s a disruption.”

Tiley said the majority of players “will be fine with it”.

“There will be some that it will be distracting, but we’ll work with that.”

In response to questions about the timing of its notification to players, Tennis Australia said in a statement to the Associated Press that “enhancing the experience for everyone” was its top priority.

“For the fans, we want them to get to their seats more quickly so they can see more tennis. For the players we want stadiums full of supportive fans to help them compete at their best,” read the statement.

Daniil Medvedev, a two-time runner-up at Melbourne Park, said it was distracting for the server and the receiver when people were moving in the stands behind the baseline, meaning players wait until the crowd has settled.

He said there could be a compromise.

Medvedev said rather than allow access after every game, a longer period of time should be allowed for the changeovers — which are usually after two games and between sets, to allow more fans more time to move around.

“Today we took 30 extra seconds all the time to settle down for a serve,” he said of his opening match on Monday. “So I think (the changeover) should be just 1 minute 30. Everyone can sit down. The advertisement on TV can be 30 seconds longer. They win some money.”

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