pic-wimbledon

Wimbledon’s Weakness: Middle Sunday Madness

There’s so much about Wimbledon that’s right, more than the other three major tournaments and, for that matter, any other major sporting event in the world.

No overt commercialism. Hushed, respectful crowds. A sense of reverence for the sport. An awareness of the importance of tradition. Clean, white clothing, free of loudness or attitude. A willingness to embrace modernity amidst the continued relationship with traditions (giving equal prize money to the women; getting a retractable roof for Centre Court). Playing all the women’s and men’s quarterfinals on the same day, to give players a full day of rest before the semifinals. Having Centre Court, one of the timeless sports theaters on the planet.

So much about Wimbledon is pure magic, making this the Super Bowl of tennis and the crown jewel for most players who don’t revere red clay.

Yet, for all that fits at Wimbledon, for everything about the tournament that works, there’s a pathetic side — not so much dark or menacing, just a side of the event which projects incompetence and impotence to the rest of the tennis world. This is the part of Wimbledon which emerges whenever rain disrupts the schedule, especially just before the day known as “Middle Sunday,” the midpoint of the fortnight when Wimbledon likes to take a break. Explaining Middle Sunday’s tennis silence and other related quirks represent an unhappy task for any tennis chronicler, but this is a necessary job when all hell breaks loose on the scheduling front. That’s exactly what did happen on Saturday, and it’s what has already happened in relationship to the coming week’s schedule at the All-England Lawn Tennis and Croquet Club.

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First, let’s give you a brief overview on where the tournament stands at the present moment: Five singles matches from the third round — always scheduled to be completed before Middle Sunday at every Wimbledon — did not finish on Saturday. Two of them did not even begin. On the women’s side, an Ana Ivanovic-Sabine Lisicki match and a Madison Keys-Yaroslava Shvedova clash were suspended due to darkness. On the men’s side, a match between Kei Nishikori and Simone Bolelli was suspended at 3-3 in the fifth set after Nishikori saved a match point at 5-6 in the fourth set. Two matches — John Isner versus Feliciano Lopez and Stan Wawrinka versus Denis Istomin — never began on Saturday.

In a rational world, Wimbledon would finish these five matches on Sunday to ensure that the planned schedule for its second Monday — nicknamed “Manic Monday” — could go off without a hitch. Manic Monday is regarded as one of the signature days on the tennis calendar. Every round-of-16 match for the men and women normally takes place within the confines of one day, giving tennis fans a spectacular buffet table of entertainment and a set of matches far more consequential than mere first- or second-round encounters.

The round of 16 is the gateway to the quarterfinals, and it frequently matches players seeded in the top 15. Getting 16 of these matches (eight for both the women and the men) on the same day is akin to Christmas morning for a lot of tennis diehards. Every tennis fan and journalist waits for Manic Monday and the electricity it sends through Wimbledon over the course of its 10 hours of action. The catch, though, is that if play isn’t fully up to date by the time Middle Sunday arrives, the All-England Club generally slides back the schedule instead of making Sunday a workday. This is where it’s necessary (though certainly not pleasant) to offer a brief history lesson about Wimbledon’s relationship with Middle Sunday and other scheduling limitations, complete with links to several explanatory pieces.

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Only three times in Wimbledon history has the All-England Club played tennis on Middle Sunday: 1991, 1997, and 2004. This is a tournament, mind you, which began in 1877. Protecting tradition matters for the Club and the Wimbledon village. The mixture of politics, custom, and tennis values which upholds the Middle Sunday silence is a murky one, but it’s clear that an emphasis on giving rest to everyone is a paramount reason for perpetuating this part of The Championships. The All-England Club wants players, linespeople, and tournament staff to rest. It doesn’t want to spend extra money on security personnel and other kinds of resources that go into staging a day of major-tournament tennis. Yet, the Club also wants to give village residents some peace and quiet for a day, in order to preserve a longstanding relationship with the cozy, little place in which Wimbledon — the global tournament — is staged.

Middle Sunday is meant as a break from tennis, but it’s not just a break from something. For the locals, it’s a break for something — namely, to go to church, have a social life, and be freed from the hassles of a normal match day at the tournament. This article is one of several which provides a key bit of perspective on the context from which the “no-play Middle Sunday” has risen. You’ll notice if you check the link that the Merton Town Council (part of the Wimbledon village’s local mechanism of governance) granted the All-England Club permission to play on Middle Sunday in rare emergencies.

Yes, the All-England Club just doesn’t make decisions on its own; it makes them with an intent to appease the residents of the Wimbledon village. Being overly aggressive in the interests of playing more tennis (on Middle Sunday) would create a more strained and frayed relationship with the locals. This is what keeps Wimbledon in check, preventing the tournament and the All-England Club from being more proactive on behalf of tennis players and fans. This isn’t right, but it lays out the fuller context in which the Middle Sunday tradition endures.

For more articles that provide important details on this exasperating part of Wimbledon, click here and here. Each article offers a quote from Wimbledon or All-England Club officials on the importance of tending to the needs of neighbors, otherwise known as the residents of the village.

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That’s the summation of the Middle Sunday issue. Yet, what was seen on Saturday at the All-England Club pertained to a different scheduling problem witnessed many times at Wimbledon over the years: dealing with a rain-compressed schedule. We’ll now attempt to deal with this perplexing portion of life on the most hallowed lawns in tennis.

When rain hits at Wimbledon, tournament organizers easily lose their minds. Just two years ago, rain during the second week created a large batch of controversies. The first and most basic point to make about Wimbledon’s failures in adjusting a schedule following a rain delay is that it puts boys or girls (aka, junior-level) matches on court instead of insisting on getting all singles matches finished for the day. This is precisely what happened on Saturday, with boys’ and girls’ matches occurring in the evening while the Isner-Lopez and Wawrinka-Istomin matches were postponed well in advance. There’s absolutely no excuse for that event. If Isner-Lopez and Wawrinka-Istomin had to be moved away from television courts, so be it. That’s a small price to pay within the larger context of the integrity and balance of the tournament.

Beyond that specific mess, another problem which surfaced on Saturday was the imbalance regarding the point in time when various matches were suspended due to darkness. The No. 1 Court has an overhang, as you can see here:

wimbledon_1_court_470x350

 

Late in the day, that overhang reduces the flow of daylight from the west. Contrast that overhang with the availability of western light on any of the outer courts that don’t have a larger edifice, as shown here:

h_aerial_2012_background_AELTC

 

You can readily grasp why a match on No. 1 Court would be suspended for darkness at one point in time, and a match on an outer court would be suspended many minutes later. On Saturday, the match between Ana Ivanovic and Sabine Lisicki on the No. 1 Court was suspended at four minutes after 9 p.m. local time, as this time-stamped tweet indicates. (I’m on Pacific time in the United States, so if you see 1:04 p.m., that’s 9:04 in England.) Meanwhile, the Saturday match on an outer court between Madison Keys and Yaroslava Shvedova was suspended roughly half an hour later.  A night earlier, a match on an outer court between Tomas Berdych and Marin Cilic ended at 9:38 p.m. local time.

Naturally, these uneven times for suspending (or finishing) matches — earlier on No. 1 Court, later on the outer courts that allow more light — pose a number of issues to Wimbledon organizers, issues that can be presented in the form of legitimate questions such as these:

A) Should it be policy that all matches should be uniformly suspended at the same time by the tournament referee, in order to make sure that if one match doesn’t finish, all matches don’t finish (or that if one match finishes, all matches have the same chance to finish, whether or not they actually reach such a point)?

B) Should advanced tools be used for arriving at a determination of when to suspend a match on account of darkness? 

C) Is it worth it to install a few banks of lights in order to shepherd matches to a natural same-day conclusion? (Lights are also lacking at the French Open, but the Australian and U.S. Opens facilitate and regularly feature night tennis.)

D) Why wasn’t another match put on Centre Court (the one court that can facilitate night tennis, due to its lit roof) once the final regularly-scheduled match ended just a little bit after 7 p.m. local time on Saturday evening? As a follow-up, why hasn’t this been done more consistently on prior occasions when rain has struck the grounds of the All-England Club?

These are all important questions, and they must be discussed not just by Wimbledon organizers, but by Roland Garros organizers as well. However, while debating these issues, it has to be said that they coexist with a limitation as inconvenient as Middle Sunday: the 11 p.m. curfew imposed by the Merton Town Council. See this archived item on an 11:02 p.m. finish of an Andy Murray-Marcos Baghdatis match for some context. See this link for a fuller treatment of the issue. The lack of readily available public transportation in the Wimbledon village is one important inconvenience tied to the 11 p.m. curfew.

When you consider all the problems posed by this curfew, you began to realize how tricky it is for Wimbledon to handle various scheduling problems, with the exception of the easy decision to put main-draw singles matches on court first instead of boys’ or girls’ singles matches.

Given the curfew, should Wimbledon bother to put up lights? If the curfew is at 11, is it a worthwhile investment for Wimbledon to get lights that would merely extend matches another hour and a half (past 9:30, generally the limit for any outer-court match)?

Given the curfew, is it realistic to put another match on Centre Court, knowing that the match’s winner might have to face an opponent who is playing on an outer court and thereby has a much greater chance of failing to finish his or her match on that same night? With respect to Saturday’s situation at the All-England Club, had the tournament’s organizers put the Ivanovic-Lisicki match on Centre Court instead of No. 1 Court, the match would indeed have been completed. However, under such a hypothetical scenario, the winner would have gained multiple days of rest while the Madison Keys-Yaroslava Shvedova winner wouldn’t have been determined until the completion of that match on Monday. Do tournaments want to make life more convenient for some players at the expense of others? It’s not that easy a question.

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At any rate, we arrive at a messy reality on Middle Sunday and its silence. The order of play has been released for Monday, and tennis fans aren’t happy. Because two men’s third-round matches haven’t even begun, the bottom half of the draw (which played on Saturday; the top half played on Friday) isn’t going to start its fourth round until Tuesday, meaning that the bottom half will have to play best-of-five matches on consecutive days, Tuesday (fourth round) and Wednesday (quarterfinals). The four men who never began their third-round matches on Saturday — Isner, Lopez, Wawrinka, Istomin — will have to play matches on three straight days, Monday through Wednesday, if they want to make the semifinals. 

There are other concerns about the Monday order of play, chiefly, that the four men starting their third-round matches are scheduled away from Centre Court. If indeed rain hits Wimbledon on Monday, those men will face an even more difficult scheduling situation. They should be given the protection of Centre Court’s roof in the event of rain. Just imagine how much more the tournament’s schedule will be thrown off if Monday’s schedule is rained out.

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So much about Wimbledon creates one of the world’s most recognizable and beloved sporting events. It’s a good thing, too, that The Championships are so popular among global tennis fans and the casual sports fans looking for some summer fun between the NBA Finals and the start of football (international or North American, depending on where one lives). If Wimbledon wasn’t such a powerful global brand, many more fans would ditch the event whenever Middle Sunday, the 11 p.m. curfew, and manifestly deficient scheduling adjustments accompany the rains that are so common in this part of not-always-jolly-old England.

Matt Zemek

About Matt Zemek

Matt Zemek is the managing editor of The Student Section, covering college football and basketball with associate editors Terry Johnson and Bart Doan. Mr. Zemek is also Bloguin's lead tennis writer, covering the major tournaments in 2014. He contributes to Crossover Chronicles and other Bloguin sites.

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