The big news at this year’s Australian Open has been the weather. For four days temperatures hovered above 100 degrees Fahrenheit, peaking at 111 before breaking for the second week of play. These extreme conditions hobbled many competitors in both the ladies’ and gentlemen’s draws. The players in the Oz Open are all finely conditioned athletes, but the top players are also the most fit. Grand Slam champions win many matches with physicality rather than stroke production .
Many spectators are not aware that whatever the ambient temperature, it feels much warmer on the court. The Plexi-Cushion surface is an acrylic paint on top of a ground rubber cushion layer laid over an asphalt base. A thermometer hung off the net post would register 12-15 degrees warmer than the ambient temperature, while the surface of the court would have been 140-150 degrees F. during this period. Caroline Wozniaki claimed that she put a plastic water bottle on the court surface and it melted. Many players came to the court with multiple pairs of shoes because their feet blistered while frying on the court. Ice vests were placed over the competitors at changeovers. Even a couple of the ball kids passed out.
Under WTA rules the women (who play best 2 of 3 set matches) can get a 10 minute break after the second set in the heat. Men playing best of 5 sets (and getting equal pay) get no such accommodation. Players who have competitive 5 set encounters will be on court for around four hours. Expecting players to compete at such a high level for so long under ordinary summer conditions is tough enough. To do so in this level of heat borders on the ridiculous in that it ceases to be about the tennis and becomes strictly a test of endurance.
Early on the second day of the heat wave, Australian Open tournament officials invoked their “Extreme Heat Policy”. First introduced in 1998 at the insistence of the players, the EHP comes into play when a combination of temperature and heat stress makes play dangerous. They calculate the Wet Bulb Globe Temperature which is a combination of ambient temperature, wind speed, humidity and the intensity of solar radiation. A combination of the WBGT with the actual air temperature is used to decide whether the EHP is activated. On Tuesday, the 109 degree F. ambient temperature was high enough, but the WBGT was not, presumably because the humidity level was only 44%. On Wednesday, with temperatures at 111 degrees and humidity on the rise, play was stopped for several hours on the outside courts.
“Grinding” an opponent by extending rallies and refusing to miss is a time tested low risk strategy for well conditioned competitors to play their matches. Many top players who are also extremely fit welcome the heat. Jim Courier, known as a physically intimidating presence while on the tour and a resident of Florida, won the Oz Open twice. In 1993, the tournament discussed closing the roof of the arena to lower the court surface temperature. At the time the world #1 ranked player, Courier declared his refusal to play the final if that were done. The court stayed hot and he won. Today’s classic grinder is David Ferrer, the number 3 seed who today advanced to the quarterfinals.
Fitness can vary dependent upon training, and adaptations can improve resistance, but some players (as all people) are more susceptible to heat than others. Heat of 110+ degrees F. will eventually cause dehydration in all athletes. The symptoms include headaches, dizziness and cramping, which can set in even after the match ends. Part of the code of tennis etiquette is that default is anathema. If you are still on your feet, always believe that you can come back…and win! But when dehydration sets in, your brain becomes fuzzy. That can be dangerous, because if one continues to play, heat stroke or worse can follow.
Although they dread it, most competitors are prepared to suffer to win. They recognize that fitness is a weapon honorably employed. The television audience was treated to the gladiatorial spectacle of athletes struggling to stay coherent in the heat, even as the live audience was surely discomforted almost as much as the players. Diogenes believes that Grand Slam matches are tough enough and that play should be stopped at temperatures above 100 degrees F. If it’s sufficiently hot that a sensible individual wouldn’t volunteer to venture out anywhere other than to a beach or pool, then it’s just too hot to play!
What would happen if heat delays the competition early in the tournament? At the Oz Open, play could continue around the clock inside the two enclosed arenas (a third stadium will be finished by next year). The players are used to extended delays and playing at odd hours around the globe. Most of the television audience watches the matches on tape delays because of the time difference from Australia to the rest of the world. The Grand Slams are all grueling competitions. They should be more about tennis skills than physical endurance.