The heat, humidity and on-court conditions have supplanted tennis talk during the U.S. Open. Is this a rising trend or a one-off scenario?

By Jon Wertheim
September 06, 2018

NEW YORK – A quick clean-out Mailbag for Week Two as we head for the home stretch…..

Have a question or comment for Jon? Email him at or tweet him @jon_wertheim.

Why does the U.S. Open think it's in their best interest to have matches that go until 2 a.m.? How many of us stayed up to watch the Nadal-Thiem fifth set tiebreaker? Not many.

In Grand Slams we go from ridiculous 11 p.m. curfews at Wimbledon to matches that often don't even really get going until AFTER 11 p.m. at the US Open. How about a middle ground?
Dominic Ciafardini, New York

• Years ago, the U.S. Open committed to a night session after a day session….not unreasonable given the lights, the different atmosphere, and the potential extra revenue. In a best-case scenario—which they helped foster this year by deciding to play only two day matches on Ashe—there’s no session overlap and the night shifts starts at 7 p.m. 

So, the first match spans, say, 100 minutes. It takes 20 minutes to conduct a courtside interview, clear the court, adjust the net and usher on the men. Now it’s 9 p.m. The men go for five sets and play four hours and 49 minutes and…presto. We’re in the infomercial hours.

I’m not sure I see an alternative, other than moving to best-of-three. (My usual plea goes here: best-of-three Week One to preserve bodies and the schedule. Best-of-Five in Week Two to preserve the gravitas of Slams and the possibility of classics. That wouldn’t have altered Nadal-Thiem, of course.)

I do think the USTA has done a nice job of marketing this as mirror of the chaos of the City. “It’s crazy New York! Come late and move down! The city that never sleeps sends its defending champ home at 3:30 a.m.!”)

Jon, it was so surreal watching Federer-Millman. Halfway through the second set I had a gut feeling Roger was going to lose (my wife can corroborate my clairvoyance).  Don’t want to get all conspiracist here but I really believe a part of Roger’s brain hated the idea of a likely loss to Djokovic in the next round and, while in no way tanked, gave a more desultory effort. Perhaps in his mind, the optics of being upset by a guy playing out of his mind versus losing another match to one of his GOAT contemporaries seems more optimal. Would love to get your thoughts on my “grassy knoll” theory.
Neil Grammer, Toronto

• We’re always game for examining—and in this case dismissing—a theory. Nah, I think Federer was simply overwhelmed (and surprised emotionally) by the conditions. Credit Millman for his relentless tennis and extreme stamina, the mark of a pro. But, no, I suspect that Federer would have relished playing Djokovic. The occasion, the test, the opportunity to reverse the Cincy defeat, the knowledge that the fan support would have been overwhelming. 

I keep hearing her name. How excited should I be about Coco Gauff?
Shirley Drummond

• That’s Coq au Gauff, as she is known in France. I’m really torn here. The talent is undeniable and her achievements back it up. (As I write this, she is the top seed in the girls draw, both in singles and doubles.) Her athleticism is obvious. That she excels on hard court but won the girls French Open speaks volumes about her game and training. Jim Courier makes a good point that, in juniors, pay close attention to age. An 18-year-old winning the boys may be an achievement, but there are also peers already in the top 100. In the case of Gauff, she is only 14 (!). Clearly the sports marketers have found her. (Note she has switched from Nike to New Balance this summer.)

And yet…..she is only 14. I am always uneasy about gushing over young teenagers. There are so many variables, so many traps and tripwires. Roger Federer won a junior major. So did Omar Jasika. I wonder if we can camp out in that soft space of “guarded optimism,” a no-man’s land where we admire her talents and potential; but don't burden her with too much expectation. 

Random aside as long as we’re in the neighborhood: We talk often how junior results are hardly predictive of pro success. But here’s a micro version. Heather Watson won the 2009 U.S Open junior title. As a pro, though, she is 0-8 in the U.S. Open main draw. After qualifying this year, she lost to Ekaterina Makarova in the first round.

You recently provided a lot of great insight/rationale into Federer's decision to leave Nike and switch to Uniqlo. I'm curious if we might see Serena leave Nike in the not too distant future. I'm not sure when her contract expires, but here is another athlete at the tail end of their career, and a lot of the reasons you listed for why Nike wouldn't pay up to retain Roger, could also apply to Serena.
Mitch, Fort Lauderdale, Fla.

• Different circumstances, different athletes, different dollar amounts. Nike has a history—especially in tennis—of cutting ties with athletes as they age. But Serena is a special case.

What players have impressed you most this tournament?
Steve, N.J.

• Lots. We’ll mention in the “50 Thoughts” column we’ll post after the men’s final.

A partial list: John Millman, Naomi Osaka, Aryna Sabalenka (who deserves an awful lot of credit for playing well here despite all the August mileage), Alex de Minaur, and—believe it or not—Kei Nishikori.

Rafa is conserving energy—he’s really subdued in his celebrations (rationing energy wisely). It’s this darned heat again. 

Also: Is Nadal’s laundry(wo)man a millionaire? I know it’s a sauna in NYC, but Rafa has piled on like a whole chaotic mountain of towels next to himself to deal with the heat...who does Rafa’s laundry? Any thoughts on Federer’s comment that the roof has essentially cut off natural air circulation? I’ve been inside the Laver Arena and it gets highly toasty there too... 
Deepak, Seattle

• This has been a theme echoing through this event. We’ve learned a) the difference between heat and humidity b) that even the most fit players struggle with conditions c) Federer actually sweats.

A lot of you have asked, quite rightly, about the conditions this year. They have played a huge role. When Roger Federer is barely able to exit the court before repairing to a side room to get some oxygen, you know there’s an issue. But—and this is a theme for this Mailbag—I’m not sure what can be done. Adjust extreme heat rules downward? Improve the Ashe ventilation? Re-engage the Paris Accords? 

It’s unfortunate all this meteorology talk (it used to be rain; not it’s humidity) has supplanted tennis talk. But you hold a tournament in late August and early September, as the earth heats up, inside a stadium without much ventilation and….here we are.            

I am watching Novak play and Millman take a break changing clothes, at what point of humidity and heat is it deemed "unsafe" to play? Does the Open have a rule?
Deepak, Seattle

• The USTA was very good about sending out an explanatory statement: 

“At two games all in the second set of the Novak Djokovic-John Millman match, Millman approached the chair umpire to note his excessive sweating and the moisture it was leaving on the court. The chair determined that the surface was dangerous enough to invoke the 'Equipment Out of Adjustment' provision in the ITF Duties and Procedures for Officials and allowed Millman to go off court to change clothes/shoes. Both players agreed that he should do so.

Because the chair umpire deemed the situation within the 'Equipment Out of Adjustment' provision, Millman was not charged with an official change of attire or bathroom break.

A similar situation occurred between the fourth and fifth sets of last night's Rafael Nadal-Dominic Thiem match, when Thiem was allowed to retrieve dry shoes from the locker room, which extended the normal amount of time that elapses between sets.”

Curious if you've thought/heard anyone talk about this: in tennis, a player won't have opportunities to get better via match play unless the player is already good enough to advance in tournaments (and earn more match play).  Strange dynamic, no?

I can't think of many comps here. Golf has its cut, but the golfer v. course dynamic feels more essential than golfer v. golfer (at least in terms of the athlete's ability to have meaningful reps and improve future outcomes). NBA/MLB/NFL/NHL—nope.  Boxing maybe? You get knocked out in the first round, and you don't get to practice your craft against a worthy opponent for the next 11 rounds?

Feels like this dynamic would make tennis unavoidably more top-heavy (and not just thinking about recent times/the Big HoweverMany), since the winners will always get ~seven rounds of "training" while the losers only get one.
Mike, Atlanta, Ga.

• Interesting. At some level this strikes me as circular. I’ll never study with a Harvard professor if I don’t get into Harvard. I’ll never practice with the best musicians if I am not admitted to the New York philharmonic. I’ll never test my skills against NBA players if I’m not in the NBA.

But—if I am understanding this—your point is well taken in tennis. Vicious and virtuous cycles are perpetuated. Losing players may compete for only one hour a week and have the rest of the time to marinate in defeat. They make no money and their rankings slip. Even if they practice they can only simulate competition. Winning players get more and more match play. They make more money and get more points and test their skills against competition.

I guess my response: what would the alternative be? A back draw, maybe?

I'm stunned that the U.S. Open doesn't seem to use any fans, misting devices, or umbrellas for all the courts, and potentially AC for the big stadiums once all competitors are in there (latter stages of the tournament).  

Would love to hear your thoughts on this... as you've said, it's only going to get hotter in future years. It also seems oppressively hot for fans, which the organizers may care about more!

• After the first U.S. Open played with a roof, the USTA hired an audio consultant (remember the “bell and butterfly” match between Murray and Nishikori.) This off-season we need an HVAC consultant. 

Skip Schwarzman has LLS for this week: John Millman and Alan Cumming

Mohammed Elshamy/Anadolu Agency/Getty Images; Manny Carabel/Getty Images


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