MELBOURNE — The old saying goes that you wait ages for a bus in London, and then two come along at once.
The same is often true of trams in Melbourne, and in Novak Djokovic’s case, tennis matches during the day.
He had played 15 consecutive times under the floodlights on Rod Laver Arena until his match against Adrian Mannarino on Sunday, a run stretching back to 2021, and will be out in the sunshine again on Tuesday against Taylor Fritz.
Why? Well it’s an explanation the 24-time grand slam champion and serial winner should well understand: it’s a numbers game.
The schedule is ultimately controlled by Tennis Australia, organisers of the Australian Open, but Channel Nine, the network who hold the rights to show the tournament in Australia, are understood to have significant input, especially when it comes to the night session, where viewer numbers are way higher than on any other part of the programming.
And with Alex de Minaur playing the best tennis of his life, Nine have been eager to get him on their screens at the best possible times, chasing those headline eyeball numbers that attract advertisers to the channel which is free-to-air and free to stream Down Under.
De Minaur’s third-round match against Flavio Cobolli on Friday night had helped them top a million viewers nationally and bag the No 1 spot in the ratings. By comparison, Djokovic’s opening round five days earlier against Dino Prizmic had only peaked at 822,000. For all Djokovic’s global appeal, the Aussies love a home favourite.
So by the time the fourth round swung around and schedulers had to put both De Minaur and Djokovic on Rod Laver, it created a difficult choice: bump Djokovic from what has virtually become his slot or miss out a guaranteed ratings hit.
“That primetime slot is pretty special, and you’ve got to earn it,” said De Minaur, admitting he would love to play the night match on Rod Laver.
In the end, Nine took a pragmatic decision: there was a good chance that De Minaur would lose to No 5 seed Andrey Rublev and then their ratings cash cow would be for the slaughterhouse. So they gave the Australian No 1 his primetime dream and in entertainment he delivered, going all the way to five sets before ultimately losing, and the ratings reflected it too, peaking at 1.85m viewers nationally.
Djokovic vs Mannarino, stuck in the day slot when many who might flick the tennis on after dinner are still at work, bagged just over a third of that number, but the Serbian who won for the loss of just three games seemed unperturbed.
“It’s no secret I love to play at 7pm!” Djokovic said to the 616,000 local viewers who tuned in.
“But it wasn’t bad at all today. The way I played today, I don’t mind playing in the day.”
And he will hope to repeat that performance on Tuesday, when he once again finds himself thrust into the heat of the day, this time against Taylor Fritz.
It’s entirely possible that this too is a ratings play. There is no Australian favourite that Nine might want to manoeuvre into the night slot, and Tuesday is not such a big ratings night anyway. Instead, putting Djokovic in against the last remaining American not before 2.30pm in Melbourne will hit the US market in the heart of primetime: 2.30pm in Melbourne is 7.30pm on the west coast of America, 9.30pm in Texas and 10.30pm in New York.
But playing in the day does bother Djokovic – and in this tournament it could be for a number of reasons.
For starters, he may not yet be 100 per cent fit, having been suffering from an audible cold in the first week of the tournament.
“I was kind of going with the flow and the last couple of days has been really good,” he said after handing such a thrashing to Mannarino that he could hardly claim to be *that* ill.
“It’s going in a positive direction, health wise, tennis wise, so I’m really pleased with where I am at the moment.”
Even so, he won’t relish Tuesday’s temperatures upwards of 32 degrees Celsius. It was back in 2018 that he suggested the Australian Open needed to change their heat rules because they were putting players “in danger” and spells of dizziness in the humidity of Tokyo in 2021 ended his Olympic dream.
Fritz would probably rather avoid the heat too though. Ahead of the tournament, he ended up in a practice session when the mercury passed 30 degrees Celsius in Melbourne.
“That was tough. It would have definitely been a struggle to play a physical five-setter in those type of conditions,” Fritz admitted.
Hot afternoons here are also often windy afternoons, and that creates difficult situations for both players.
“It changes things a lot for sure,” Fritz added.
“There’s one side where you feel like you can dictate, you have the wind at your back. You get a lot of extra power on the ball. It’s just easier to be offensive and hurt the person.
“Then on the other side it’s so much harder to attack. You feel like it’s so easy for the other person to hurt you off your shots.”
Djokovic has never been much of a fan of wind. Tennis players, as a rule, rarely are, but his great rival Rafael Nadal is one of the best wind players in history, and Djokovic himself has often been negatively affected by it, because it seems to throw off the mechanics of his shots. He is still the greatest player of all-time, but the wind does seem to trouble him more than other conditions.
And that’s the truth of it in the end. He is still the greatest player of all time, and hell or high water probably won’t stop him winning an 11th Australian Open. But it certainly won’t be straightforward.