Australian Open play suspended: How hot is too hot?

January 16, 2014

Maria Sharapova uses an ice towel to try to lower her body temperature. (Mal Fairclough / AFP Getty Images)

Temperatures that soared to 110 degrees forced Australian Open officials to suspend outside play Thursday in Melbourne, raising a debate over just when weather conditions are too extreme for competition.

After increasing criticism from players, the Extreme Heat Policy was enacted at Melbourne Park for the first time since 2009, with all matches on the outer courts suspended until early evening because of the combination of temperature and humidity. High temperatures have caused players to wilt, cramp and vomit all week and, on Thursday, Maria Sharapova bore the brunt of the heat. She was playing on the Rod Laver Arena court and, because the roof cannot be closed during a set, she had to finish a long third set — with no tiebreaker in the third set. After 3 1/2 grueling hours, she finished off Karin Knapp 6-3, 4-6, 10-8.

“There’s no way getting around the fact the conditions were extremely difficult and have been for the last few days,” Sharapova, who cooled down with an ice vest on changeovers, said. “It’s a tough call. I think the question I have is — no one really knows what the limit is. No one — not the players themselves, the trainers when you ask them when will the roof be closed — no one actually knows what that number is.”

Players are staying hydrated and drinking electrolytes, but the conditions are dangerous.

“I just lay down in the locker room for for the past hour,” Vavara Lepchenko, who received medical treatment during the match she lost to Simona Halep, said, “because I just couldn’t physically get up.”

Varvara Lepchenko received treatment during her match. (Robert Prezioso / Getty Images)

Heat radiating from the court surface increases the danger, as does a lack of air flow around the court. And Melbourne’s climate is typically dry, making sweat evaporate more quickly.

“Players can cool down but it takes a lot of sweat to achieve it,” George Havenith, a professor of environmental physiology and ergonomics at Loughborough University, told the BBC. According to his calculations players can’t drink enough to compensate for the loss of fluids.

With heat waves come storms. (Andrew Brownbill / AP)

One way to help is to “pre-cool,” by drinking cold fluids and keeping the extremities cold. It requires planning and attention, though. “I kept waking up in the middle of the night last night just paranoid,” Serena Williams said on Wednesday. “I just wanted to stay hydrated.”

It’s an issue that the people who run sports are being increasingly forced to consider. FIFA is mulling whether to move the World Cup in Qatar from the summer calendar and, in 2000, the Olympic Games in Sydney were moved to September. Moving the Australian Open, though, is more problematic, given that part of its cachet is its position as the first Grand Slam event on the calendar. The final vote may come from fans, who have stayed away from the event so far, perhaps waiting for the heat wave to break this weekend. Over 1,000 who have attended have been treated for heat-related problems.

Until the weather breaks, heat is going to overshadow the results, like fifth-seeded Juan Martin del Potro losing 4-6, 6-3, 5-7, 6-4, 7-5 to Roberto Bautista Agut in a nearly four-hour match.

After spending most of her career in traditional print sports journalism, Cindy began blogging and tweeting, first as NFL/Redskins editor, and, since August 2010, at The Early Lead. She also is the social media editor for Sports.
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