MELBOURNE, Australia — The consensus among tennis’ elite is that the courts at Melbourne Park are playing faster than in years past, with the outer courts playing faster than the show courts. But there is disagreement at the top of the men’s game as to whether the quicker conditions will result in more exciting play at this year’s Australian Open.
Rafael Nadal skipped last year’s tournament due to injury and was surprised to see how much faster the court was playing this year. “[These are] completely different conditions than what I remembered of this tournament,” Nadal said during his pre-tournament press conference. “Faster conditions that I ever played here in Australia.”
Sam Stosur has only had one practice session in Melbourne and she believes the difference is in the balls, which she believes are taking more spin. “Whether the court is faster, the balls are definitely different. The balls go through the air a lot faster. It’s easier to get something on it, try to hit winners, whereas a couple years ago it was almost impossible to hit winners.”
Roger Federer and Maria Sharapova got a preview of the faster courts at the Brisbane International, where the conditions were remarkably fast. Both agreed the speeds in Melbourne were faster than years past but noticeably slower than Brisbane. “We’re not talking about a lightning speed court,” Federer said. “In Brisbane it was fast, but it wasn’t lightning either. This is like medium, if that.”
Sharapova agreed. “I heard the outside courts are a bit faster than some of the main show courts,” she said. “I’m not sure why there’s not more consistency in terms of all the events having the same speed.”
Quick conditions tend to favor more aggressive and big-hitting players. In Brisbane, Federer made his first outdoor hard court final since 2012. At this week’s Sydney International, Juan Martin del Potro compared the conditions to those of a grass court. Perhaps that’s why it’s no surprise that Tsvetana Pironkova, a grass-court specialist ranked No. 107, won the women’s title in Sydney and the men’s final features del Potro and Bernard Tomic, two men who thrive on grass.
But will the change lead to more exciting, crowd-pleasing tennis? Nadal isn’t convinced.
“I really don’t understand very well why they change [the speed] because the last couple of years, the Australian Open had amazing [matches], long ones, good ones for the crowd,” he said. “I don’t know why the people decide to make the conditions that fast. I am not sure for the show [it] is the best thing.”
“I don’t know what the big problem is,” Federer said. “[You] really can still play from the baseline, no problem. You can stay back, return from the back. You can do all that stuff if you want to. It’s not like it’s impossible. [Nadal] does it on the indoors where you don’t think that’s possible. That’s how he beat me [at the ATP World Tour Finals] anyway.”
Nadal, who opens against Bernard Tomic on Tuesday, says he’s acclimating himself to the conditions with every practice session. Nadal says the conditions offer little margin for error and he’ll have to make adjustments to his game. “I think during my career I [have been] able to play well in any condition: fast, slow, different surfaces,” he said. “[The] important thing is try to be ready for the action from the beginning and be fresh mentally — something that I hope I am. I’m going to try to find the feelings, positive feelings. If that happens, I hope to be competitive.”
But not everyone has bought into the idea of fast courts. The lone holdout is last year’s finalist Andy Murray, who says the courts are playing the exact same as last year. That’s not to say he hasn’t noticed some changes. He had an interesting observation about Margaret Court Arena, which has undergone significant construction and expansion to accommodate a roof. “Margaret Court Arena is on a very big slope,” Murray said in his pre-tournament press conference. “I practiced on that today. It’s weird.”