Anyone who organizes a tennis tournament that involves Roger Federer should be concerned when this sentence comes out of that man’s mouth, as it did Monday night, while discussing the conditions of his match:
But, look, at some point also I was just happy that the match was over, I guess.
This is a person who has won 20 majors, has been playing professionally for exactly as many years, made himself richer than God in the process, earned himself a clothing sponsorship that will probably outlast his playing career by quite a bit, and has nothing left to prove professionally. And yet he keeps playing even after injuries and in his advanced age, because, by all available accounts, he profoundly loves the game and life on tour. “I’ve never fallen out of love with the sport,” he said this year. (Often it seems that the only thing stranger than how good Federer is at tennis is how much he loves tennis itself.)
Anyway, that man is saying, after an enormous upset at a tournament he hasn’t won in 10 years, that he was happy that the match was over. This is likely because he doesn’t enjoy wet tennis. And boy, is the tennis wet. John Millman’s shirt should be weighed.
This is from a night match, too.
And this is a man who famously does not sweat.
John Isner changed his shirt 11 times over the course of his quarterfinal match. He also assumed this position after most points.
Kei Nishikori does not look well. (This tournament hasn’t been the greatest endorsement of Uniqlo sweat-wicking capabilities.)
Rafael Nadal and Dominic Thiem just put on a five-set classic, but its quality might have been even higher if it was not staged in a swamp. The general point is: Wet tennis is no good. It can be surreal to watch, and thus a novelty in its own right, but it is bad for everyone involved.
In these conditions athletes are physically weighed down, encumbering their movement; they can lose their grip on the rackets, hindering their shot-making. “It feels like everything is boiling in your body; the brain, everything,” said Novak Djokovic earlier in the tournament. Because wet tennis is bad for the players, the quality of play declines, making it bad for anyone watching from afar. For the fans and staff actually in attendance, Arthur Ashe Stadium can feel like a bowl of moist, stale air. From personal experience, watching—let alone playing—tennis in the stadium, even at night, can feel downright cardiovascular.
But these are all solvable problems, with already-bought solutions: the roofs can be closed on the U.S. Open’s stadiums, and the air inside can then be circulated, if not fully air-conditioned. I was sitting inside Louis Armstrong Stadium when the roof closed for rain late in the third-round match between Denis Shapovalov and Kevin Anderson; it was temperate, breezy, and otherwise pleasant. Deadspin asked the USTA if they would consider making these adjustments, and this was spokesperson Chris Widmaier’s response:
Our roof policy is that the two retractable roofs, the one over Arthur Ashe Stadium and the one over Louis Armstrong Stadium, are only closed for rain. We do not close the roofs for only heat to maintain competitive fairness for those players who are not playing in either stadium. In a rain situation, play would continue in the Stadiums, but would be suspended on all other courts without roofs (know I’m stating the obvious there), but the roofs would be re-opened once the rain subsided and play on the outer courts resumed.
Competitive fairness is a value worth preserving. To whatever extent possible, players in the same round of a competition should be given the same playing conditions. But it’s a little harder to justify playing outside in these conditions in the quarterfinals at beyond, when all singles players have their matches in Arthur Ashe Stadium, which is fitted with a roof and an air diffusion system to control humidity once the roof is up. When asked about this possibility, Widmaier told me:
That’s a fair question, and we have discussed this. We are not planning to change the policy this year. That said, it will be a point of discussion following this year’s tournament.
People buy tickets and tune in to watch good tennis, and good tennis can involve suffering. But if the players are suffering, it should be because they are being challenged by the opposition, not by planet Earth. A tennis tournament is an entertainment product that can be adjusted to taste—not a pious sacrifice of two mortals to the tennis gods, with rules engraved in stone. If the product is suffering because of the conditions, it is possible to adjust those conditions with technology, especially when that technology has already been installed in those nice shiny stadiums. It is not worth slogging through sopping-wet tennis to preserve the sanctity of an “outdoor” tournament. It may be too late for this year’s U.S. Open, but for next year, and beyond: no more wet tennis. If even Roger wants out, there’s no hope for the rest of us.