MELBOURNE, Australia — “I’ve never done this before,” Anastasia Pavlyuchenkova said as she climbed on a stationary bike in front of a crowd that didn’t feel that much smaller than the one that had watched her 6-7 (3), 6-3, 6-3 upset of fifth-seeded Sloane Stephens at the Australian Open.
The fourth-round match ended six minutes before 2 a.m. on Monday morning, and Pavlyuchenkova was mentally making a list of all the tasks that stood between her and a good morning’s sleep: the stationary bike, the reporters with their notebooks and microphones, the ice bath, the shower, the change of clothes, the drive back to the hotel.
Pavlyuchenkova asked if she could field questions from reporters while she pedaled so she could kill two tasks with one bike ride. She was so tired, she had struggled to construct her points on the court, and now she was having trouble organizing her thoughts in front of reporters.
That’s what a starting time of nearly half-past 11 will do to a player. “It’s honestly terrible,” Pavlyuchenkova said, adding, “It’s not ideal time to play tennis.”
Describing the match, she said, “I was like, ‘This match is so intense, why am I like still sometimes feeling like I’m going to fall asleep now?’”
The late, late, late show, with hosts Pavlyuchenkova and Stephens, started Sunday and ended Monday. It was the eighth match in the first seven days of the tournament that ended after midnight, but it wasn’t close to being the latest finish.
It was 12 minutes past 3 a.m. on Friday when Garbiñe Muguruza clinched her second-round match against Johanna Konta. By the time Muguruza met with her coach, showered, changed out of her tennis outfit, received a massage, fulfilled her media obligations and returned to her hotel, it was one hour before sunrise.
Not many fans stuck around for the end of Pavlyuchenkova’s match against Stephens.CreditMark Schiefelbein/Associated Press
And Muguruza’s match wasn’t close to being the latest-ever finish in Australian Open history; that feather is in the pillows of Lleyton Hewitt and Marcos Baghdatis, whose third-round slugfest here in 2008, won by Hewitt, ended at 4:33 in the morning.
The prime-time television hours in Muguruza’s native Spain are from 10:30 p.m. until 1 a.m., so she knows from flawed time systems.
And yet, Muguruza, 25, readily acknowledged that playing that late “is not normal.” She added, “It was very awkward.”
The post-midnight hours would pose no problem if the players had the body clocks of the mostly nocturnal koala bear, who can sleep up to 22 hours. But the human body’s inner clock has a circadian low, a window roughly between 2 a.m. and 6 a.m., when focus, strength, reaction time and physical flexibility ebb, the better to promote sleep.
The circadian rhythm can be reset by changing sleep or eating patterns. But how can players adjust their internal clocks for optimal performance when they’re playing at 2 a.m. one day and at 2 p.m. another?
“There is no way to train that,” said Maria Sharapova, who advanced to the third round in a match that ended at 12:36 a.m. — or roughly two hours past her preferred bedtime.
“If you ask any player that goes into this tournament how many times they have trained after midnight, unless you’re jet lagged or just crazy, you don’t train for that.”
On the same night that Muguruza barely beat both Konta and daybreak, Novak Djokovic outlasted Jo-Wilfried Tsonga in a match that ended 41 minutes past midnight. Djokovic, the men’s world No. 1, has a reputation for leaving few routes unexplored to gain a competitive edge. Over the years he has tried hyperbaric chambers, yoga, meditation, biofeedback and restrictive diets.
So is he crazy enough to have tried practicing after midnight?
“No, I have not done that I don’t think ever,” Djokovic said.
He added with a laugh, “I’m not doing push-ups at midnight before I go to sleep. You train a bit later, and the whole routine is pushed back a little bit. But you also want to get a good night’s sleep so your biological rhythm keeps going in the right way.”
Djokovic has one strategy, grudgingly adopted, that helps him sleep longer and sounder during tournaments: he leaves his two small children at home. He may be on to something. Norah Simpson, a clinical assistant professor at Stanford who studies the role of sleep on athletic performance, recommends that players get good, quality sleep in the days before matches so they don’t go into a late-night match already sleep-deprived.
“It’s very challenging to navigate the variable schedule in respect to both your internal clock and the amount of sleep you’re able to obtain,” Simpson said in a telephone interview.
Madison Keys played mostly night matches on her way to the final at the 2017 United States Open, and recalled going to bed after 4 a.m. many mornings, waking up around noon and taking power naps whenever she could. “It’s not natural,” she said, adding, “If I know I’m playing a night match, I sleep as much as I can the day before.”
Anastasia Pavlyuchenkova’s coach, Simon Goffin, encouraged her to stay up until 1 a.m. the night before playing Stephens to help reset her body clock.
“I pushed her to watch a movie, do something, even after midnight, to be used to this kind of late match,” said Goffin, who also insisted that she sleep in until noon. “It’s important for the body and the mind to have this routine.”
Still, Pavlyuchenkova said she felt sluggish. “It was so, so strange because I was like ‘Come on, I have to make rallies!’” she said. “My energy level was on and off as well. I was trying to get as many energy drinks and gel packs as I could take.”
After ingesting all that caffeine, how did Pavlyuchenkova plan to get to sleep? “I don’t know honestly,” she said, adding, “Try to take chamomile tea?”