The conspiracy theories around Roger Federer's Australian Open win need to stop. Now.
At first, it looked like the usual banter between rival fan camps.
If you've been following tennis at all the last few years, you know how it's been. Roger Federer wins a Slam, and the Rafael Nadal fans scream "Weak era!" or "Fluke!". Nadal wins a Slam, and the Federer fans cry "Steroids!" or "One-trick pony!".
But the aftermath of Federer's 20th Slam title - at the recently concluded Australian Open - has been a little more dark and disturbing. This time, we've had articles on proper websites decrying the supposedly unfair bias that helped Federer win the tournament. We've even had bloggers making impassioned pleas to the tennis establishment, to stop them from cheating on Federer's behalf.
And it hasn't ended there. A few former players, like Pat Cash and Mats Wilander, have joined in the chorus too, throwing their weight behind the contention that the Australian Open organizers gave preferential treatment to Federer.
If there's any truth to these claims, then the tennis world has a serious problem. We absolutely cannot have a Slam, or any tournament, rigged in favour of a particular player - no matter how great that player may be.
But is there any truth to the claims? Not if you are willing to look beyond Twitter for your information.
I have rarely, if ever, seen so many twisted facts and false information being presented under the garb of tennis analysis. Almost every single one of the claims being made has zero basis in reality, and 100% basis in hearsay.
But you don't have to take my word for it; instead, we can look at the issue from a factual and statistical standpoint, and analyze each claim separately.
Claim #1: Federer always gets night matches, while the others are made to sweat it out in the heat
There was a fair bit of teeth-gnashing over the fact that Novak Djokovic was made to play Gael Monfils in borderline inhumane conditions in the second round; the temperature reportedly rose up to 69 degrees Celsius on the court. Federer, on the other hand, played his match against Aljaz Bedene in the cool night session, eventually cruising in straight sets.
The decision to not close the roof during the Djokovic match seemed irrational in hindsight, with the organizers' only excuse being that the humidity level never got too high. But the odd coincidence by which Federer escaped the heat made a few people believe that it was not a coincidence; that Federer always gets night matches (or the preferable session) at the Australian Open.
Before I go any further, a bit of context: Federer actually asked for a night match that day. Now riddle me this: if you were a tournament official in charge of deciding the order of play, would you turn down a seemingly harmless request from a star as big as Federer? Not if you were in your right mind.
Djokovic was free to ask for a similar favour. And considering his stature - especially in Melbourne, where he has won six titles - it is likely that such a request would have been accommodated.
The rumors, however, were the opposite: that Djokovic had asked for a day match.
Djokovic later shot down those rumors, saying in his post-match press conference that he hadn't asked for a day session (note that he merely refuted the bit about the day match; he didn't say anything about asking for a night session). Nevertheless, there's little doubt that the conditions ended up helping him.
After the first set it had looked like Djokovic's still-recovering elbow would be a huge factor in the result; the Frenchman was hitting through his opponent with remarkable ease. But as the match wore on, Djokovic, by far the fittest player on the court, was able to handle the heat a lot better than Monfils. The Frenchman practically wilted, and by the end it was obvious that he couldn't possibly hurt Djokovic given the conditions.
But let's leave that aside for the moment, and address the specific point of whether Federer always gets night matches in Melbourne, or even a significantly higher proportion of night matches.
I did the math for the last four editions of the Australian Open (2015 to 2018). In these four years both Federer and Djokovic won two crowns each, so the sample size would be fairly representative of the median.
You can see the day-wise breakdown of Federer's and Djokovic's schedules, along with the source links, here.
The numbers I arrived at are rather eye-opening: up to the quarterfinal stage - I have disregarded semifinals and finals as those matches are always played at night - Federer and Djokovic have played in the day session seven times each. That's right: Federer and Djokovic have played the same number of day matches in the last four years. (Overall, Federer has played two matches more than Djokovic - 18 to 16).
Can anyone still say with a straight face that Federer always gets night matches, or that Djokovic is forced to play in the heat all the time?
Claim #2: The Australian Open organizers disregarded their own extreme heat policy while closing the roof for the final
The Extreme Heat Policy (EHP) at the Australian Open has always been a subject of great debate and controversy, and this year was no different.
During the Djokovic match the referee refused to close the roof citing the relatively low humidity levels, despite several clear signs that the conditions were not fit for play. Conversely, the roof was closed for the final despite the temperature being lower than 40 degrees, prompting many to question the rationale behind the decision.
Now the prevailing assumption was that the roof is closed only if BOTH of the following conditions are met:
1. The ambient temperature (which is, in layman terms, the air temperature) is above 40C; and
2. The Wet Bulb Globe Temperature (WBGT) is above 32.5C.
But is that really what the Australian Open's EHP states? As per the policy page on the official website, the closing of the roof is at the discretion of the tournament referee. So technically, neither of the above two conditions needs to be met if the referee believes that closing the roof is in the best interests of the players.
That said, while the official website itself doesn't say so, there ARE a couple of parameters laid down which automatically trigger the EHP. Ahead of the 2015 edition, tournament director Craig Tiley had said, "The decision on implementing the heat policy will take into account the forecast once the ambient temperature exceeds 40C, and the WBGT reading exceeds 32.5C."
So there you have it: the EHP takes into account two temperature parameters, but it also takes into account the forecast as well as the referee's personal disrection. The ambiguity of the language perhaps makes it understandable why so many people were misled into believing that the roof can be closed ONLY when the ambient temperature and WBGT reading are above 40C and 32.5C respectively.
But what is not understandable is how so many armchair analysts believed they knew better than professional meteorological and medical experts.
The statement released by the Australian Open on the closing of the roof clearly stated that the WBGT was above 32.5 for a while and was forecast to remain that way until 8.30 pm. It also stated that the referee had arrived at his decision after taking advice from the Bureau of Meteorology and the Chief Medical Officer. That last bit is of particular importance considering what had happened just a day earlier: Simona Halep suffered severe dehydration during the women's final and had to be hospitalized for four hours after the match.
Another couple of things that were overlooked amid all the hand-wringing:
- The WBGT takes into account the ambient temperature too. So even if the ambient temperature was below 40, the fact that the WBGT was above 32.5 indicated that the conditions were pretty brutal.
- Sunset in Melbourne on 28th January, the day of the final, was at 8.37 pm. So there would have been plenty of sunlight on the court if the match had started with the roof open.
- The men's final was not the first match played on 28th January; the day was kicked off by the mixed doubles final, wihch started at 4 pm. At 4.16 pm, the ambient temperature in Melbourne was 38C and relative humidity was 25%, with the latter number forecast to rise even further with the passage of time. The referee made the decision to close the roof for that match, keeping in mind the extremely high humidity at the start and also the forecast for the next couple of hours.
- The ambient temperature at 7.30 pm was 37C and the relative humidity was 27%. The humidity was forecast to rise to 30% by 8.30 pm (at which point the men's final would be well underway). Naturally, the WBGT would be extremely high throughout this period; the ambient temperature, while below 40C, was not far from that mark, and the humidity was unnaturally high.
- In contrast, while the ambient temperature on 18th January (the day of the Djokovic-Monfils match) was above 40C at various points of the day, the humidity was below 15% from 11 am to 9 pm.
In summary, these are the relevant facts:
A) The relative humidity at the time of the men's final was much higher than normal.
B) The ambient temperature at the time of the men's final wasn't much lower than the figure that had everyone up in arms about the inhuman conditions that the players were forced to play in (37C versus 40C).
C) The WBGT at the time of the men's final was higher than it had been at any point during the tournament.
D) The losing women's finalist had been hospitalized just a day earlier because of dehydration (the ambient temperature during the women's final was 31C, and relative humidity was 52%).
Any objective observer would contend that these ground realities were sufficient to enforce the EHP.
But why let facts get in the way of a good story, right? The meteorological and medical experts were summarily ignored by the conspiracy theorists; all that mattered was how the tournament organizers had deliberately violated their own policy just because they were desperate for Federer to play with the roof closed.
Never mind that the tournament organizers actually followed the EHP to the letter.
Claim #3: The roof was closed to favour Federer, the God of indoor tennis
This one's my favourite. The organizers wanted Federer to win, and Federer is the God of indoor tennis, so a closed roof would automatically mean Slam No. 20 for the Swiss, right?
Contrary to popular belief, Federer actually isn't a better player indoors than outdoors. And that's not just my personal belief; it is the ATP website that says so.
Federer has won 1,139 and lost 250 matches in his career, for an overall success rate of 82%. If you eliminate clay from his outdoor stats, his win-loss ratio is 653-117, for a whopping success rate of 84.8%. That number takes a serious hit when you consider only indoor matches: Federer has won 272 and lost 65 matches indoors, for a success rate of 80.7%.
So the numbers suggest that if you move Federer from an outdoor court to an indoor court, his chances of winning recede from 84.8% to 80.7%. Some indoor god, eh?
But hold the phone; it gets better. Surely poor Marin Cilic is a terrible player indoors, and he suffered the worst kind of injustice imaginable by being made to play the final with the roof closed?
Again, the stats prove otherwise. Cilic has an overall success rate of 65.4% when you include all environments. But put him on an indoor court, and his chances of winning increase to 66.9%.
Cilic has won 8 out of his 17 titles indoors - that's 47% of his career haul. For Federer, the corresponding number is a measly 24%.
So the evidence suggests that the closing of the roof actually increased Cilic's chances of winning it, and decreased those of Federer.
Maybe the Australian Open organizers wanted Federer to lose rather than win?
Moving past the unverified speculations and the he-said-she-said hearsay
The Twitter hordes alluded to other supposed 'scandals' too, one of which was that Cilic wasn't informed about the decision to close the roof while Federer was. Here too the facts paint a different picture: Cilic said he knew in advance about the possibility of playing indoors.
"They just came to tell me they were thinking about the decision (to close the roof), and they were going to make the final decision just around 7 pm, just slightly before the match," he said.
Federer said something very similar: "They told me they were thinking...it will probably be indoor. Then they kept me posted along the way. Half an hour before (the match), we got the word that it's going to be indoors."
So both Federer and Cilic were informed about the possibility of playing indoors well in advance, and were given the confirmation about half an hour before play started. Where's the injustice here, I wonder?
Whichever way you look at it, there is no evidence to support the idea that Federer won the Australian Open because he was helped by the organizers. He won the title fair and square, which is how he has won all of his titles.
Sure, Federer does get preferential treatment with the court schedule; he almost always plays on Centre Court. And when he makes a request to play a particular match at night, the organizers tend to listen.
But that's exactly how you'd expect the biggest star in the sport to be treated. Federer is the most popular player wherever he plays. And tournament organizers would be stupid to not showcase their biggest draw on the largest of courts and in the most lucrative of time slots.
Yes, it's just good old business sense, as Andy Roddick says. And no, playing on Centre Court does not increase your chances of winning the title; all the players are professional enough, and good enough, to win - no matter which court they are put on.
Federer has been on the tour for close to 20 years, and he's been a Slam champion for 15 of them. He has earned his privileges by putting in the hard yards. And you know what? Nadal and Djokovic have earned their privileges too; if you're a top player, you have certain powers that the middle-tier and journeymen players don't. It's just how the way things are.
But to suggest that tournament organizers are bending the rules to ensure that Federer keeps winning Slams? That's as ludicrous as suggesting that Nadal wins because he receives on-court coaching, or that Djokovic wins because he dopes.
In other words, it is as laughable as the work of a troll.
Throwing around accusations without a shred of proof is a zero-sum game at the best of times. In this case, it is probably a negative-sum game.