Scorching weather made for a grueling first week at the Australian Open, but running from the heat would be a mistake
SHE LOOKED pretty, Maria Sharapova did—pretty damn uncomfortable. With on-court conditions resembling the inside of a kiln, Sharapova was basted in sweat, alternately flushed and pale, during her first-round Australian Open match last week. While the top-seeded Russian overcame a feisty opponent, France's Camille Pin, and temperatures that reached 116° on the court, after the match she called on tournament organizers to rethink the event's Extreme Heat Policy, which outlines conditions for suspending a match before it begins but does not allow for a match in progress to be suspended. "It's inhumanly possible to play three hours in that kind of heat," she said.
Sharapova was not alone in her displeasure. With a paucity of early-round upsets, the climate was the focus of discussion in Melbourne last week. Experiencing dizziness, nausea and respiratory problems, Serbia's Janko Tipsarevic retired in the fifth set of his first match. "It's not tennis anymore," he complained. "It's who is going to stand longest in the sun."
The oppressive heat provided more ammunition for critics who have lobbied to move tennis's first major further back in the season. One proposal last week was to switch the Australian Open dates with the March dates of the Indian Wells (Calif.) and Key Biscayne (Fla.) events. But this is the rare instance when bucking the status quo is not in the sport's best interest.
The defenders of the tournament's current calendar position point to a practical concern: Move the date to March, out of the Australian summer, and the ball boys will be in school and unavailable to work! There are even stronger arguments, however. The great asset of this tournament is qualitative. Coming as it does on the heels of tennis's short off-season, the players arrive rested, relaxed and relatively free of injury. As a result, some of the best tennis of the season is played in Melbourne. Andy Roddick's third-round defeat of Marat Safin, for instance, was a sensational match.
What's more, the tournament's scheduling helps expose those players who spend the off-season living a Tara Reid lifestyle. Marcos Baghdatis, a 2006 finalist who arrived out of shape, was bounced in the second round. Conversely, Andre Agassi won half of his eight career Grand Slams in Australia, in part because of his superior preparation.
The other common gripe is that it's counterintuitive to hold a major event in the first month of the season. As John McEnroe once put it, "It's like having a big test the first week of the semester." We prefer this analogy: Holding a major in January is like awarding the Best Supporting Actress Oscar during the first half hour of the Academy Awards broadcast. It draws the audience in and whets its appetite for what follows. Tennis is a sport of narratives, and the more time the threads have to unravel, the better.
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By the Numbers
A roundup of the more notable facts and figures from the first week of play at the 2007 Australian Open:
24 Times that fourth-seeded Ivan Ljubicic (right)—a first-round victim to Mardy Fish of the U.S.—has lost in the first or second round of the 30 Grand Slam events that he has entered.
6 Minutes that Jan Hajek of the Czech Republic lasted on the court in his first-round match against 24th seed Juan Carlos Ferrero before retiring because of a stomach illness.
$15,184 Payoff that Hajek received for those six minutes, standard for a first-round loser.
14 Difference in height, in inches, between Belgium's Olivier Rochus (5'5") and Australia's Chris Guccione (6'7"). Rochus won their first-round match 9--7 in the fifth set.
1 Games won by Spain's Alberto Martin after he was down 0--6, 0--6, 0--5 to Andy Murray, enabling Martin to avoid the first triple bagel in a Grand Slam event since 1993.