Tennis feeling the heat amid record highs at Australian Open

Thursday January 16th, 2014

Varvara Lepchenko was just one of many players affected by extreme heat at the Australian Open.
Robert Prezioso/Getty Images

MELBOURNE, Australia -- They held a heat wave and a tennis tournament broke out.

The fans sweat so much they required outdoor pool permits.

How hot was it? In one player's heat-induced hallucination, he saw Snoopy.

Another player's water bottle started melting into the court.

Ice vests are the new tennis accessory.

But really, folks, it's a dry 111 degrees; it feels like 107, max.

For all the jokes and throwaway lines that flew around Melbourne Park earlier in the week, Thursday turned gravely serious. In kiln-like conditions, players took the court at 11 a.m. It was the hottest day yet, which is saying something: Triple-digit temperatures with no wind or cloud cover, temperatures on court eclipsing 120 degrees. These weren't tennis matches so much as they were physical battles, sadistic tests of the outer limits of human endurance. Fans passed out; ball kids, too. A TV cameraman vomited into bushes. And they weren't the ones chasing after a felt ball for hours on end.

To pick a name among many, consider the fate of American player Varvara Lepchenko, playing 11th-seeded Simona Halep on Court 8. After winning a strong first set, Lepchenko began to feel woozy. By the end of the second set, as temperatures climbed to 110 degrees, she was flat on her back, packed in ice like a fish at the market, as two courtside assistants massaged and tried to cool her off. Lepchenko ended up losing 6-4, 6-0, 6-1. As she staggered to the locker room afterward, a towel filled with ice atop her head, I recognized her look: It was that a of a dazed UFC fighter.

"This is just too much," she said. "They definitely should have just not started the matches in the first place, and same goes for a couple of days ago."

NGUYEN: Sharapova prevails despite searing heat, relentless opponent

She's right. As devastating as the heat has been, the reaction by the sport's officials has been comparably brutal. Double-speak. Vagueness. An absence of common sense. This was tennis -- fractious and fractured -- at its worst.

We got our first indication on Monday, when the tournament referee and tournament doctor sat in a press conference and projected a strange indifference to the weather forecast and the resulting conditions.

Here's the tournament doctor, Tim Wood: "Tennis, as a sport, is relatively low risk for major heat problems compared to... continuous running events. So you're more likely to get into trouble in these events, in a 10K road race, than you are in a tennis match. As you can appreciate, the players, the time the ball is in play, in total time for the match is relatively small. The amount of heat they produce from muscles exercising is relatively small in terms of what someone continuously exercising will do. They sit down every five to ten minutes for every 90 seconds at change of ends, so there is chance to lose some heat at that time. Tennis by and large is a low risk sport, and that's why by and large, like cricket, we can play in these conditions and not be too concerned."


The referee and doctor were then peppered by a particularly persistent interrogator. Folding under cross-examination, they admitted that the heat policy had been changed before the event. There would not be a threshold, as there had been in the past; there would be a subjective judgment. Who was the intrepid reporter extracting this bit of information? Paul McNamee, now a commentator for Fox, was also ... the previous Australian Open tournament director. (Only in tennis.)

As more than three days of tennis were played in oppressive conditions, player after player wilted. There were abundant complaints. Andy Murray was spot on when he described the conditions as "inhumane." Agnieszka Radwanska said, "Some of the girls can't even talk after the match or practice. You can see who played a match -- just so red."

But this wasn't unanimous. Speaking from the comfort of a television studio an ocean away, Andy Roddick gave voice to another school of thought when he said dismissively, "I used to hate it when they took us out of the extreme conditions and put us indoors, because I felt like I had worked in the offseason [on my fitness]."

Australian Open Day 3 recap: Smashed rackets, torn shirts and serenades

Players also complained that the policy had never been articulated.

"It seems a little strange that the WTA trainers don't know what the threshold is," Maria Sharapova said after spending more than three hours in Rod Laver Arena on Thursday, fending off Karin Knapp of Italy.

Where were the tours, ostensibly the advocates for the players? Silent. Then again, both the ATP and WTA extracted giant increases in the prize money from the Grand Slams. Did they now have the political capital to complain about working conditions?

Finally, at 2 p.m., after three days of oppressive conditions, the Extreme Heat Policy was invoked. Play, mercifully, was halted on the outdoor courts. It was 107 at the time. Only after the roofs were unfurled on the two prime courts did matches continue. By then the conditions were mild, air-conditioned indoor matches rather than tennis inside the blast furnace.

The heat wave is supposed to pass by the weekend. Saturday, temperatures are expected to be in the 60s. Even if the heat returns next week, by then, we'll be in the latter rounds, the field will be thinner and the matches can continue under the roof without fear of a schedule backlog. Novak Djokovic or Rafael Nadal or Serena Williams or Sharapova or an endearing arriviste will win the title. That, not the incapacitating heat or the officials' callousness and clumsiness, will be the enduring memory of the event.

This week, though? As the world has seen image after image like this?

The sport -- and its reputed leaders -- should be taking some heat.

WERTHEIM: Federer's current career situation comes down to a simple debate


We've heard a lot about the intense heat at the Australian Open, which isn't surprising as it often is intensely hot in Australia in the summer. I've always wondered what it would be like for tennis to be played outdoors in the cold weather. If the courts are kept dry and free of ice and snow, it might be interesting. They play many other sports in the cold. How do you think a tennis tournament in Maine in January would turn out? What would be the effects on the game played in below-freezing temperatures?
-- Raymond, Newington, Conn.

• Most of us recreational players have braved the cold, dressed in layers and played in frigid temperatures. Platform tennis, of course, goes a step further. Curious what you guys think: Snow notwithstanding, what's the coldest conditions in which one can still play outdoor tennis?

Interesting article on Roger Federer about the Simpson's Paradox, though I am not convinced about the author's assertion that the fact that Federer has lost the highest percentage of matches while winning more points than his opponent further adds to his greatness. Doesn't it simply mean that Federer failed to win the big points in those matches? Mot sure how this adds to his GOATness. On a related note, I am willing to bet 10 bucks that Federer would have the worst break-point conversion ratio among all multiple Grand Slam winners since 1990. Any way to check this?
-- HG, Herndon, Va.

• Right. I had a very similar "devil's advocate" reaction. I think you could just as easily take that data and use it to cut against Federer. Think of the most extreme Simpson's Paradox score: 0-6, 0-6, 7-6, 7-6, 7-6. You won more games, 30-21, but lost the match. I take that to mean Player A is likely more talented than Player B, but a weak closer. Also, before we extrapolate "GOAT-ness" from these figures, do we not need quantities? If Federer played only X number of these matches Nadal played 2X, that is relevant, is it not?

As for your break-point conversion rate, if anyone wants to take up HG on his request, I'd be much obliged. But do we not need to control for the quality of opposition before this becomes a relevant metric?

What do you think about the tennis season in general being too long? I blinked after the ATP World Tour Finals and here we are Down Under. Shouldn't players be fresh at the beginning of the year? Instead, it sounds like a larger portion of the field is having to retire, which doesn't bode well for ranking when you miss 10 percent of your possible points.
-- Eric, Atlanta

• You're entirely too logical.

As a numbers guy, I figure you're the guy to ask this: Every time a defensive player loses a big point, the commentators all join in, saying the player wasn't aggressive enough. My take: if a player wins a higher percentage of his/her points when playing defensively, the logical approach to an important point should be to keep doing what works. Diverting from your bread and butter when the pressure's on is pretty much a sub-category of choking. Conventional commentator wisdom seems to me to fly in the face of evidence. Your thoughts?
-- Ro'ee, Israel

• This, in essence is Roddick's complaint about commentators. If you're too defensive, they reflexively say, "Caroline needs to be more aggressive and dictate play. You won't stay No. 1 as a backboard." If players make errors with aggressive, uninhibited ball striking, the trope goes like this: "James needs to pick his spots, work the point and stop taking such heedless risks."

As for the analytics, I think you can drill a lot of deeper than percentage of points won. If you were inclined, you could really dissect playing patterns and pace and what balls (and spots on the court) give opponents the most trouble. But I don't see much evidence of players doing that. To your point, though, I agree: Stick with your most effective strategy.

Looking at Stanislas Wawrinka's backhand and wondering why in the world we do not have many players like this. Somehow one-handed backhands makes tennis look more natural and effortless. Hope youngsters keep in mind that the highest record for Grand Slam titles in the Open Era is held by one-handed backhanders on both circuits (22 and 17, respectively). People might argue that they might have won more if they were two-handed, but I disagree.
-- Anonymous

• Funny, I had the same impressions watching Carla Suarez Navarro silkily stroke her one-hander Thursday. It's such a natural, easy stroke and she deploys it so effectively.

Who has a better chance of winning the Australian Open, Roger Federer or Lleyton Hewitt?
-- Bhooshan, Pleasanton, Calif.

• Federer. (In fairness, Bhooshan sent this question before Hewitt lost in the first round. But I am no courtsider.)

Best photos from Day 3 at the Australian Open

Shots, miscellany

This is such a great read from Archie Bland.

• It's officially hot when the Aussie Open heat gets the Taiwanese animation treatment.

• Another reason why you're a fool to bet on tennis.

• Reader John D. of London has long-lost siblings: Alize Cornet and Linda Cardellini of Freaks and Geeks and Mad Men.

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