Maria Sharapova was clearly relieved to be finished after playing for nearly three-and-a-half hours in triple-digit heat. (William West/AFP/Getty Images)
MELBOURNE, Australia -- Finally.
When the Australian Open announced that the Extreme Heat Policy was going into effect, the sighs of relief were nearly as loud as the blast of the locker room air conditioning in Rod Laver Arena. Officials called for show court roofs to close and for matches on the outer courts to halt at the end of the current set, in order to protect players and fans from the soaring temperatures.
With Australia in the midst of a crippling heat wave, temperatures in Melbourne have been in triple digits since Tuesday. However, Thursday was undoubtedly the hottest day of the week -- temperatures at Melbourne Park hit 109 degrees in the early afternoon, and are expected to exceed 110 degrees later in the day.
While players took to social media to rejoice over the suspension of play, Maria Sharapova was stuck grinding out a harrowing 6-3, 4-6, 10-8 victory over No. 44 Karin Knapp, which took three hours and 28 minutes. When the extreme heat policy went into effect, players were told to finish their current set. Sharapova and Knapp, in the midst of a third set, played another 48 minutes in temperatures that the tournament referee, Wayne McKewan, had already deemed to be too dangerous to play in.
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Sharapova said she was frustrated that there was no concrete rule communicated to the players as to when the Extreme Heat Policy would be implemented. Under the current rule it is entirely up to the discretion of the tournament referee, who takes into consideration the temperature, humidity, wind and forecast.
Tournament organizers came under fire for not invoking the Extreme Heat Policy earlier in the week, when temperatures peaked at 108 degrees on Tuesday. Canada's Frank Dancevic, who nearly fainted on court Tuesday in a three-set loss to Benoit Paire, described the conditions as "inhumane." Andy Murray, who was playing on Hisense Arena during the hottest part of the day on Tuesday, said the tournament's heat policies should be reconsidered, and that it's a bad look for the sport to see players and ballkids keeling over in the heat.
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Despite the extreme forecasts for the day, Sharapova doesn't think the roof should have been closed at the start of her match because temperatures, which were in the high 90s, were bearable. However, that wasn't the case during the third set. Given there's no tiebreaker in the final set at Grand Slams, matches can go on forever (just ask John Isner and Nicolas Mahut).
"I think in the third set for the women and the fifth set for the men, if you know that there is no tiebreaker, officials can't just rely on maybe the set will go fast and the set will be over and will we will be off court, because we have no tiebreaker in that last set."
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Sharapova, who spent every changeover wearing an ice vest and an ice towel to try and keep cool, not only had to manage the heat, but also had to navigate an opponent who was playing one of the best matches of her career. Knapp was down a set and a break before clawing her way back into the match in the second set, taking advantage of Sharapova's weak play. Sharapova was just 7-for-20 on break points, missing on easy second serve returns that would have made her afternoon much shorter.
"In the moment you have so many mixed emotions because you have opportunities and chances, and then you're down and then you feel you're out," Sharapova said when asked about what it felt like to play in the tough conditions. "So you're going through all of this within these three hours or more. I went through all the different ones, like, How could you miss those second‑serve returns? Why are you going for so much? The other side of my brain, Well, it's 110 degrees. Of course you're going for too much."
Before the start of the tournament, tournament doctor Tim Wood said no additional advisory notices were being sent to the players to inform them of the impending conditions. However, Sharapova said she did finally receive an email from the tournament, while she cooling off in the ice bath after her win.
"It was a little late," she said laughing. "It was probably when they were stopping the matches, like, 'Oh, maybe it's about time we sent out a warning.'"