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Beyond the Baseline

'Inhumane' conditions? Weather sparks heated debate at Australian Open

Frank Dancevic Frank Dancevic applies ice after blacking out during his loss Tuesday. (Aijaz Rahi/AP)

MELBOURNE -- Melting bottles, frying pans, hairdryers and ovens. That's how players described Tuesday's scorching temperatures at the Australian Open, where a ball kid fainted and a Canadian qualifier who also collapsed on the court blasted the tournament for playing through "inhumane" conditions.

Temperatures were already in the 90s when Caroline Wozniacki began her first-round match against Lourdes Dominguez Lino. The heat radiating off the court left her a little surprise when she returned to her chair during a changeover.

"I put the [water] bottle down on the court and it started melting a little bit underneath -- the plastic -- so you knew it was warm," she said.

While temperatures soared, one key metric remained mercifully low: the humidity. As a result, the Australian Open's extreme heat policy -- which can prompt roof closures on the two main courts and the stoppage of play on outer courts -- was not applied.

Kei Nishikori played the first five-set match of the day, a three-hour, 41-minute victory against Australia's Marinko Matosevic on a windy Show Court 2. He said the more humid conditions at the Brisbane International two weeks ago were much worse.

"It was no wind and humidity was high," Nishikori said. "Here it's with the wind and it's dry, so it wasn't too bad, actually."

Roger Federer, who trains in triple-digit temperatures in Dubai, wasn't bothered by the dry heat in his 6-4, 6-4, 6-2 win over James Duckworth.

"Depending on where you come from it has a bigger effect on you, this type of heat, than maybe humid heat," Federer said. "So it's very personal, and it can become just a very mental thing and you just can't accept that it's hot. Just deal with it, because it's the same for both."

Other players agreed about the importance of trying to ignore the elements.

"You need to push yourself, because it's easy to just go, Ah, I don't want to push my myself because it's hot," Wozniacki said. "It's the same for the other person, so you just need to try to pump yourself up all the time."

Juan Martin del Potro, who rallied past American qualifier Rhyne Williams 6-7 (1), 6-3, 6-4, 6-4, described the conditions as "terrible" for play.

"You are thinking about a lot more things than the tennis match," he said. "You are trying to drink a lot and always thinking about your body and not about the game."

Tim Wood, the tournament's chief medical officer, said in a statement Tuesday that a few players experienced heat-related illness or discomfort but none required "significant medical intervention" after their matches.

In a pre-tournament news conference, Wood said he believed tennis players were actually at a lower risk for heat problems because of the anaerobic nature of the sport. Compared to continuous running events, which would tax the body significantly in extreme heat, Wood pointed to the frequency of breaks during tennis matches as the main difference.

"They sit down every five to 10 minutes for every 90 seconds at change of ends, so there is chance to lose some heat at that time," Wood said. "Tennis by and large is a low-risk sport, and that's why, like cricket, we can play in these conditions and not be too concerned. We look into the health and well‑being of players, but we know over the years in different parts of the country and world they play under these conditions. A lot of people get hot and look distressed and hot and bothered, as we all do. The actually risk to the health is relatively small compared to other sports."

Wood said no additional measures had been taken to educate the players about the Melbourne heat wave.

"Look, the players don't need to be warned about the weather," McEwan told reporters. "You only have to look at the paper and look at the media that's being generated. They know what's going to happen for the next five days. ... It's like you go to Wimbledon. You expect it to rain. You come to Melbourne and you expect it to be hot. If you don't prepare for that, you can lead a horse to water, but you can't make it drink, obviously."

Wood also downplayed concerns about player dehydration.

"We have never had anybody die from dehydration on a tennis court," he said. "Given the length of time tennis matches generally go for and the sweat rate of most normal, healthy athletes, they won't get to a state where they get too critically dehydrated."

Wood's remarks caused a stir among current and former players.

"Dr. Tim Wood, who said the heat is not cumulative for the players, is completely clueless," Martina Navratilova tweeted on Tuesday. "No doubt to me that today it is too hot to play."

The most scathing comments came from Canadian Frank Dancevic, who, after passing out on the court during his loss to Benoit Paire, blasted organizers for their "inhumane" treatment of players. From Reuters:

"I think it's inhumane, I don't think it's fair to anybody, to the players, to the fans, to the sport, when you see players pulling out of matches, passing out," he told reporters. "I've played five set matches all my life and being out there for a set and a half and passing out with heat-stroke, it's not normal.

"Having players with so many problems and complaining to the tournament that it's too hot to play, until somebody dies, they're just keep going on with it and putting matches on in this heat. I personally don't think it's fair and I know a lot of players don't think it's fair."

Temperatures are forecast to stay above 100 degrees for the next three days before a significant cooling period arrives Saturday.

Andy Murray backed the suggestion of re-evaluating the rules regarding extreme heat.

"As much as it's easy to say the conditions are safe, it only takes one bad thing to happen," Murray said. "And it looks terrible for the whole sport when people are collapsing, ball kids are collapsing, people in the stands are collapsing."

Murray was on court right when the heat was at its worst. The temperature hit 108 degrees at 5:45 p.m., when Murray was trying to put away Go Soeda. Murray won easily, but things could have been different if he had been forced to play in that weather for more than three hours.

"Whether it's safe or not, I don't know," Murray said. "You just got to be very careful these days. There have been some issues in other sports with players having heart attacks. I don't know exactly why that is. Or collapsing. In this heat, that's when you're really pushing it to your limits. You don't want to see anything bad happen to anyone."

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