Australian Open rule change floated after Aryna Sabalenka cops 'unacceptable' error

The defending Australian Open champion was made to wait until almost midnight to walk out onto Rod Laver Arena on Sunday night.

Picture: Aryna Sabalenka
Aryna Sabalenka was made to wait until almost midnight to walk out onto Rod Laver Arena on Sunday night. Image: Getty

Australian Open officials were left red-faced on the opening day of the tournament after the extension of the event by an additional day in an attempt to eradicate late-night finishes spectacularly backfired. The Australian Open began on Sunday for the first time in history, extending the tennis tournament to 15 days, up from the traditional 14, to spread the first-round action across three days rather than jamming it into two.

The theory was that with fewer matches each day, the night session shouldn't run so late. The move came after years of backlash about how matches finishing in the early hours of the morning was unfair for victorious players as it left them little time to recover. However, it did little to aid defending champion Aryna Sabalenka, after she walked out barely before midnight and played until after 1am in her first-round clash.

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This was due to Novak Djokovic being taken to four sets by Croatian teenager Dino Prizmic, with the four-hour battle lasting until after 11pm. Co-host of The Tennis Podcast Catherine Whitaker believes the drama could have been easily avoided, suggesting that a blanket rule should be introduced to stop that scenario from unfolding again.

Belarus' Aryna Sabalenka celebrates after victory against Germany's Ella Seidel in their women's singles match on day one of the Australian Open tennis tournament in Melbourne on January 15, 2024. (Photo by Anthony WALLACE / AFP) / -- IMAGE RESTRICTED TO EDITORIAL USE - STRICTLY NO COMMERCIAL USE -- (Photo by ANTHONY WALLACE/AFP via Getty Images)
Aryna Sabalenka celebrates after victory against Ella Seidel in their women's singles match on day one of the Australian Open. Image: Getty (ANTHONY WALLACE via Getty Images)

“I just think there should be a blanket policy that you can’t schedule any match after a best-of-five set match. You can’t have a second-night session match after best-of-five,” Whitaker said. The ATP and WTA tours recently moved to introduce a rule that means matches won't be allowed to start after 11pm unless approved by a supervisor. Games will be moved to an alternate court if they don't start by 10:30pm, and night sessions can't start after 7:30pm.

However, co-host Matt Roberts added that the rule excludes grand slams. “The big one is they absolutely have to start with the women’s matches at night – it’s simply unacceptable for matches to be starting at 11.41,” Roberts said. “That’s 41 minutes after the tours have just decided that is too late for matches to be starting.

“That is 71 minutes after that match would’ve been moved if it was on the tour – the new Tour policy is ‘10.30, we’re going to move to a new court’. The whole point is that walking out moment onto the court is the one chance you get as a defending champion to return to the court for the first time since you won it, and receive the applause and the ovation you deserve.

“That was simply taken away from Aryna Sabalenka tonight. She is never going to be a first-time defending Australian Open champion again. That was her moment, and it was barely a moment because there was barely anyone there to recognise it. No one is blaming any (members of the crowd who left) – it’s the scheduling.”

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The majority of the crowd exited after Djokovic's match concluded, leaving Sabalenka to play in front of a bare stadium. American legend John McEnroe before the tournament slammed the decision to extend to 15 days saying it is nothing more than a "money grab".

“They just found another way to make some money," he said last week. "I don't agree with it. I'm a commentator. No one's particularly concerned about my feelings. The players, if they accept it and they're getting something from it, like some money for their pensions or retirement for some players that don't have insurance, I would say that's a good thing that they have added an extra day."

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