For the fourth day in a row, the lights were on late at night at Wimbledon.
A service winner by Andy Murray at 11:02 p.m. two days ago ended his third-round match two minutes beyond a curfew negotiated between the events’ organizers and the local council to keep disturbance at a minimum for nearby residents during the annual two-week Grand Slam tennis tournament.
As Murray spoke to reporters after his 7-5, 3-6, 7-5, 6-1 win against Marcos Baghdatis of Cyprus in the latest finish in Wimbledon history, thousands of tennis fans walked the dark and empty streets outside the All England Club for an unprecedented fourth consecutive night, looking for a taxi or bus to get home.
“With the roof there’s always going to be some difficult situations for the tournament director or the referee,” said Murray, who had rushed through the fourth set in 28 minutes to get the match finished on time.
Closing the retractable roof over Centre Court, which has been in use since 2009 after years of rain delays, added 34 minutes to the match. Following yesterday’s rest day, Murray and Baghdatis would have finished today had they gone longer, which may have meant the winner playing three straight days while other participants rested.
Two days ago on Court 2, Murray’s next opponent, Croatia’s Marin Cilic, beat Sam Querrey of the U.S. 17-15 in the final set after 5 hours, 31 minutes. That’s the second-longest match at Wimbledon, after John Isner of the U.S. beat France’s Nicolas Mahut in 11 hours, 5 minutes two years ago in the longest match ever played.
On Friday, six-time champion Roger Federer came back from two sets down against France’s Julien Benneteau to finish at 9:18 p.m. local time under the roof, which had been closed all day in anticipation of rain. The evening before, two-time champion Rafael Nadal of Spain was knocked out by 100th-ranked Lukas Rosol of the Czech Republic in a five-set match that started in daylight and finished under the roof at 10:04 p.m. Defending men’s champion Novak Djokovic finished at 9:52 p.m. on Wednesday against Ryan Harrison of the U.S. after a rainy day.
The weather isn’t the only reason for the late finishes.
Players including women’s top seed Maria Sharapova and four-time champion Serena Williams have said Wimbledon’s grass courts have become slower over the years.
“I look back to when I won here in 2004, the speed of this court was quite different,” Sharapova told reporters at the end of last week. “It was much faster than it is now. Look back five years before that and it was like another story.”
There have been 26 five-set matches in the men’s singles draw at Wimbledon this year after the first three rounds, compared to 17 during the entire tournament last year. The overall average in the 10 years until 2011 was 23.5.
“I feel the balls don’t bounce as high,” Williams told reporters after beating China’s Zheng Jie in three sets on Centre Court two days ago.
All men’s and women’s fourth-round matches are scheduled today, as third-seeded Federer of Switzerland takes on Belgium’s Xavier Malisse and Djokovic faces fellow Serbian Viktor Troicki. Defending women’s champion Petra Kvitova of the Czech Republic plays Francesca Schiavone of Italy, while Sharapova of Russia meets Germany’s Sabine Lisicki. Williams of the U.S. plays Yaroslava Shvedova of Kazakhstan.
Eddie Seaward, head groundsman at Wimbledon, said a change in the grasses used had resulted in a more consistent bounce throughout the two-week tournament.
“The one thing that we’ve done is that we’ve firmed the courts up more,” Seaward, who has worked at the All England Club for 23 years and will retire after the London Olympics, said in an interview. “They’re harder now. They’re as hard on day one as they were on day 13 when I first came here. So they are harder, and that gives us a harder bounce.”
Matches are going longer at the other majors too.
At the Australian Open, which is played on high-bouncing hard courts, Djokovic beat Nadal in 5 hours, 53 minutes, the longest Grand Slam final in history. Two days before, Djokovic needed 4 hours, 50 minutes in his semifinal against Murray.
Last month’s French Open, which is played on red clay, had 27 five-set matches in the men’s singles draw, compared to 16 the year before.
In an interview at Roland Garros, French Open tournament director Gilbert Ysern said the men’s matches in the first three rounds had taken half an hour longer on average compared to the year before.
Although Ysern said the tournament had switched to softer tennis balls after players complained they were too hard, he didn’t want to use that as an explanation.
“Maybe the overall level is moving up,” Ysern said.
Williams, a 13-time major singles champion who was beaten in the first round of Roland Garros by then 111th-ranked Virginie Razzano of France, agreed that player depth may also be contributing to longer matches.
“Everyone is playing everyone tough nowadays,” she said after beating Zheng. “You can’t underestimate anyone.”
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