MELBOURNE, Australia – The extreme speed of Melbourne Park’s courts was the topic of conversation at the 2021 Australian Open.
Dominic Thiem, last year’s finalist, called this year’s field the fastest Grand Slam I’ve ever played at. Two-time tournament winner Jim Currier compared the surface here to a game on glass, where it’s sometimes almost impossible to see the ball.
While it is not unusual for the work rate of heavy ships to fluctuate from year to year, the extreme increase in speed over last year is unusual. The balls slide down the blue lanes faster than ever, giving players much less time to react, follow the ball and hit it back.
This seems to give an advantage to power servers and heavy ball attackers in the game, but this is not the case. Great chess players Nick Kyrgios, Reilly Opelka, Alexander Bublik, Lloyd Harris and Feliciano Lopez did not make it to the fourth round of the tournament.
Instead, a familiar face seems to be blossoming in his new Melbourne surroundings, and taking his already stunning game to an almost unbeatable level.
Novak Djokovic, the world number one, won a record number of titles at the Australian Open and will battle for ninth place in the final on Sunday (3:30 p.m., ESPN/ESPN App). Serbia have never lost a final at Melbourne Park, have a perfect 17-0 record in the semi-finals and, as the courts turn blue ahead of the 2008 tournament, a stunning 78-5 overall.
Djokovic is obviously the last player to need an advantage at the Rod Laver Arena, which he has called his second baseline in recent weeks, but it seems speed could give him an unexpected advantage.
The 17-time Grand Slam champion has set the tone for defensive tennis over the past 15 years. He is often described as a brick wall with his ability to use speed and agility to track balls down the field. But if there was a weakness in his playing compared to some of his contemporaries on tour, it was his pitching.
Before that, Djokovic had 5,923 aces in two weeks during his illustrious career in Melbourne. This equates to 0.43 aces per set of serves, 2.08 per set and 5.4 per set. He’s had no trouble at all in this area and has proven to be one of the hardest to break players on the tour, but historically his shot hasn’t earned him many favorable points.
Djokovic’s serves have increased dramatically at this year’s Australian Open, thanks to extra momentum and pace on the courts. On his way to the final, he hit 100 aces in six games, far more than anyone else in the tournament. Only two others made it to 80, Alexander Zverev (86) and Milos Raonic (82). Unless Medvedev sets a new record for aces in a Grand Slam final, Djokovic will finish the tournament at the top of the ace standings and achieve this feat for the first time in his history in a major event.
It’s the fastest rhythm I’ve played on the court in 15 years, Novak Djokovic said. It’s like playing on ice. Patrick Hamilton/Belga Meg/AFP via Getty Images.
Djokovic is averaging 0.89 aces per service game (up 106.97 percent), 4.34 sets (up 108.65 percent) and 16.66 per match (up 208.52 percent), which is all the more impressive when you consider he has been struggling with injuries.
This is the fastest court I have played on in the last 15 years, Djokovic said during the first week of the tournament. It’s like playing on ice.
If I serve well, it will help me. The jobs are much better [this year] for big servers. If you are accurate in your shots, you can earn a lot of free points.
It’s not like he increased the speed of his service. Djokovic’s fastest serve in the tournament was in his quarterfinal against Alexander Zverev, where he sent an ace over the T at 206mph. Last year Djokovic’s fastest serve in Melbourne was also 206 kilometres per hour. On the contrary, the extra aces and cheap points he earns come from his lack of grip on the court, which reduces speed and makes the ball slide faster.
Medvedev, of course, will be able to reap similar rewards in his own lob matches in Sunday’s final, but Djokovic’s weakness, if you can call it that, is reversed.
There is no weakness at all, said the great tennis player Mats Wilander about Djokovic and his serve. He serves important and skilled service aces at certain break points. He’s the Djokovic we never talked about. He will see the finish line on Sunday and will be very hard to beat.
At the Australian Open, a number of factors contribute to the fluctuating pace of the match. Each year, all 16 courts at Melbourne Park are refurbished for the tournament. They are washed, polished and given a new coat of GreenSet acrylic paint. This paint contains grains of sand and it is the amount of sand used that determines the speed of the ships.
The more sand they add to the paint, the slower the tones become. They’re getting a little coarser, like sandpaper, ESPN analyst Darren Cahill said. According to player feedback last year, the courts were of medium speed, but after two or three games the balls became soft and quite slow. So this year they tried to speed it up a bit by removing the sand from the surface.
Historically, Tennis Australia has sought to construct courts that lie somewhere in the middle of the five levels of the International Tennis Federation’s Court Rhythm Index (CRI), as these generally provide the best tennis for spectators without favouring any particular style of player. A CPI score of 29 and below is considered slow, while anything above 45 is considered equally fast.
According to Hawk-Eye, the average IPC at the Australian Open over the last five years is 41, making it a surface with a consistent average speed that remains the fastest of the four Slams. However, this year’s CPI was measured at 50, confirming players’ comments about the speed of play on the courts.
Another factor making courts faster in 2021 is simply the amount of tennis played on them. Unlike previous years, when the Australian Open was held across the country as a warm-up and preparation tournament, most tennis players have been forced to play at Melbourne Park due to restrictions related to VIDOC-19 and viruses, including the Great Ocean Road Open, Murray River Open and ATP Cup. For example, a two-week tennis match in Melbourne quickly evaporates for over a month.
The more you play tennis, the more the players slide down the court and the more sand and gravel there is on the court, Cahill said. As the tournament progresses, it gets bigger and bigger.
Judging by Medvedev’s victory in the second semifinal on Friday night, he dominated the world number 6. Stefanos Tsitsipas 6-4, 6-2, 7-5 in two hours and nine minutes – could we see another epic Australian Open final?
Three of the last four men’s finals at Melbourne Park required a fifth set, of which Djokovic won two. And this year, the 33-year-old could have an unexpected advantage.