Players struggled mightily with extreme heat at the Australian Open on Thursday – with tournament officials offering little relief.
The Australian Open has an extreme heat policy in place which will take players off the court if necessary, but despite temperatures at Melbourne Park nearing 40 degrees celcius (104°F) – the point at which the policy would normally kick in – officials decided against initiating it and the players were forced to tough it out.
Because of radiated heat from the stands, the temperatures on court actually reach much higher than the ambient temperature, and there were reports suggesting highs of 69°C on the Rod Laver Arena.
After his gruelling four-set victory over Gael Monfils at the main venue, six-time champion Novak Djokovic urged officials to not only look at weather indexes but consider player wellbeing.
“There are certain days where you just have to, as a tournament supervisor, recognise that you might need to give players few extra hours until it (temperature) comes down,” Djokovic said.
“People might say, well, at this level you have to be as a professional tennis player fit. It’s the beginning of the season. You kind of work and train hard to be able to sustain these kind of conditions, to be tough.
“But I think there is a limit, and that is a level of, I guess, tolerance between being fit and being in danger in terms of health.
“It was right at the limit (today).”
Djokovic said officials needs to look at the bigger picture when assessing the conditions.
“Our sport has become an industry, like most of the other global sports. It’s more business than a sport,” he said.
“At times I mind that, I don’t like that. As someone that has started to play, still plays this sport, for the sake of playing it, pure passion to be part of it, of course we’re all blessed to have a great financial compensations, great lives. I’m very grateful for that.
“(But) at the same time what is most important for us is our health and what happens after career, after you’re 30, 35.
“There are many players that are struggling. They can’t physically walk, run, jog, whatever. I mean, they’re struggling some way or another, health-wise or physiologically, whatever.”
Djokovic’s opponent Monfils pleaded with the chair umpire and tournament referees to extend time between points during the second set of their match as he was “going to collapse”. At one point, he also tried to leave the court but his request was refused.
Afterwards, the Frenchman said it was the toughest conditions he’d ever played under.
“It was tough to breathe,” he said. “Yeah, I think it was the hardest (conditions) I have.
“No matter how much you train in the heat, how much you like the heat, is very tough.
“It was a tough decision I think for the official. I mean, it’s both, you know. We have the same condition.
“It’s a little bit hot, maybe a little bit too hot.
“It puts you so much pressure with the heat, then you rush. Honestly, I played two set half a breath, for nothing, just to please the official.
“I get super dizzy. I think I have a small heat stroke for 40 minutes. Couldn’t feel like fresh. I try to cool down.
“But even with the ice towel, the water, I think my body was super warm. Could not be very fresh after any points, so it was tougher.”
The Australian Open later defended its decision not to initiate the heat policy following a barrage of criticism from fans.
“The health of our players is of paramount concern, but we need to be consistent with the outside courts so some don’t get an unfair advantage,” the tournament tweeted.
The Extreme Heat Policy comes into effect once the ambient temperature exceeds 40C & the Wet Bulb index (WBGT) exceeds 32.5C. The health of our players is of paramount concern to us, and we are constantly monitoring conditions. Let’s hope it cools down!
— #AusOpen (@AustralianOpen) January 18, 2018
“The referee will initiate the Extreme Heat Policy once the ambient temperature exceeds 40C & the Wet Bulb index (WBGT) exceeds 32.5C.
“The health of our players is of paramount concern to us, and we are constantly monitoring conditions. Let’s hope it cools down!”
Tennis Australia’s chief operations officer Tom Larner provided further information on the heat policy.
“We take into account the ambient temperature the outside temperature and if it hits 40 degrees and the wet bulb index, a humidity measure and we look at the incoming forecast for the immediate forecast and make a decision whether we apply,” he said.
“(The formula) is based on advice from our chief medical officers and looking at our player welfare and if it is a safe environment for the players to play.”
The players weren’t the only ones suffering under the heat. Spectators were scrambling for shade while many courtside seats that did not offer any cover were left empty – despite fan favourites like Nick Kyrgios being in action.
A woman was also treated by St John Ambulance staff after collapsing near the main entrance.
Speaking after his energy-sapping win over Karen Khachanov, Juan Martin del Potro said: “Almost 40 degrees out there is too much for the health, you know.
“We did a big effort to play good tennis. The weather condition was too high for playing tennis. Also you can see the crowds, nobody was there watching under the sun.”
Tournament officials will face similar decisions about player safety and comfort on Friday, with temperatures expected to reach 42°C.