As the second week of the US Open gets underway, Mardy Fish plays Roger Federer this afternoon and Andy Murray plays Milos Raonic tonight at Arthur Ashe Stadium. Will the timing of these matches affect their outcome?
In the wake of John Isner's weak play in the last night's marathon US Open loss, most critics have joined in questioning his controversial foot fault and quick unraveling, finally losing to Philipp Kohlschreiber 6-4, 3-6, 4-6, 6-3, 6-4 at 2:26 a.m.
As one of the fans watching Isner lose, I was struck by the question of how night matches affect various players, and whether there was anything here that merited consideration for examining match scheduling in the US Open.
My conclusion is that, while the calls helped break Isner down, night play also had something to do with his loss. In fact, the Schedule of Play could affect the results in the US Open more than in any other grand slam.
Late night play is not uncommon in any tournament, especially the grand slams. Roger Federer was required to play a match at the 2011 Sony Ericsson Open in Miami that started at 12:25 a.m., winning in 52 minutes over Belgian Oliver Rochus. David Nalbanian beat Lleyton Hewitt at the 2011 Australian Open after 1:00 a.m. in four hours and 48 minutes, winning at 3-6, 6-4, 3-6, 7-6(1), 9-7. Angie Kerber beat Venus Williams in a three-set match in this US Open ending at 12:19 a.m. And Mardy Fish beat Giles Simon 6-1, 5-7, 7-6 (5), 6-3 in a match that ended around 1:00 a.m. Sunday morning.
While late night play may be routine for top players, the preparation for having a late match is one of the keys to a win.
Federer said after his Sony Ericsson post-midnight win: "I was home at the hotel till 7:00, so I had all day to do something else than to wait around. I first thought or heard it was going to be canceled maybe because of rain, or my session anyway. They would move the day session back and the night session. So that was a bit just a waiting game to find out if I was going to play at all or not. You want to keep the mind focused. Supposed to play tonight. That's what happened, so I'm happy I played a good match."
Federer also noted in the same interview: "So I have played for two days in a row now. Was extremely hot yesterday, and then today really late. That's what tennis is all about. We don't know when we play and we don't have a set schedule, and so we have to be able to adapt and warm up several times for the match, because you never know what's going to happen beforehand."
Fatigue is particularly difficult for those players forced to play at night throughout a tournament. Federer is one of several stars whose play is almost always reserved for nighttime play.
In perhaps his most notable night play dominated tournament, Federer said of his ouster in the semifinals of the Rome Masters: "I've probably had night sessions for the last 10-11 nights, it catches up with you, but at least you can sleep in. I'm not complaining but you need that dinner and time to relax and not have to go to bed right away. It's tough and it's always been that way but I love it."
Another factor in late night play could be why hometown favorites so often fail to advance.
The smaller crowds affect the noise level, providing less encouragement to the local players. And it is more likely that the late night crowds have a higher percentage of foreign fans. After all, they traveled a great distance to see the matches and have more of an incentive to stay.
This may not have happened to Australian Hewitt in his Australian Open loss to Nalbanian. Fewer fans outside of Australia attend this grand slam. But it certainly was a factor in American Isner's loss to Kohlschreiber over this weekend.
Better players can suffer defeat because the quality of play suffers as the match goes deeper into the next day. The players' internal clocks tell most of them that they should be in bed.
In this regard, another factor could be present.
Although having only taken a very unscientific poll, it appears that those players who are playing as if it is morning or afternoon in their native countries when they are playing their late night matches may play better as a rule.
Because of the higher percentage of players from countries in Europe and Asia playing in the US, these factors could make the US Open and the other tournaments played in the US even more affected than those played outside the US.
In factoring late night play into the equations for today's Schedule of Play, Mardy Fish lucked out playing Federer in the afternoon. Expect a better match than this would have been played at night. Also, Scot Andy Murray's match against Milos Raonic, a Canadian, being a night game should favor Murray.
The night factor in the US Open may be more than it is cracked up to be.