As the cliché says we're at the business end of the Australian Open. Sixteen men and sixteen women are all that remain of draws that started out with 128 men and 128 women. It's been a week hasn't it?
There is no doubt what the big story of week one was. Everyone knew it would be the heat. Not just regular summer time high nineties flirting with but not going over the one hundred degree mark. By the way please bear with me. The United States is the only country still using Fahrenheit to measure wire temperature so while I now know that forty degrees Celsius or Centigrade means you're hitting Death Valley day time temperatures I still think in Fahrenheit. But no matter what system you use to measure air temperature the title of Stevie Wonder's song still applies.
Let me digress for a minute. As serious tennis fans we've long known that the men and women who run the Grand Slams are not demigods. They're men and women who put a sport on display to the general public for profit. We get that. What we do expect is that they value their product, the players, over everything else. If they players can't perform at their top level no fans will show up. If you're a member of the Twitterati you're also aware that when a totally lopsided draw is presented by one tour or another the bitching starts as soon as said draw is done. When you have one day of play that leaves most fans underwhelmed and unafraid to say so you have to wonder how the computer could do such a thing. But the draws are random so this kind of thing can happen.
But back to the weather. When the temperature goes over a certain level the body's inner core, our own personal thermometer, goes haywire. When the body's core can't regulate body temperature mayhem ensues.
Here's a brief medical explanation.
Our bodies try to keep an average temperature of around 37 C (98.6F). It does this in two ways: by a process called vasodilation and sweating.
Vasodilation sends warm blood out to the skin’s surface. The warm blood is closer to the air outside, therefore moving the heat away from the body. This is how it tries to cool the body.
Sweating allows the body to get rid of heat by moving water to the body’s surface. The water then evaporates.
But in Australia, the heat is making it much more difficult for the body to cool itself off.
“In the Australian Open, you have a third challenge..the air temperature is warmer than your body… You’re actually not losing heat, you’re gaining it,” Stephen Cheung, Canada Research Chair in Environmental Ergonomics and a professor at the University of Brock’s Kinesiology Department, who studies the effects of temperature on our bodies. ”So the only way to lose heat is through evaporation, through sweating.”
This causes you to lose fluid, which in turn causes dehydration. As well, your heart rate increases, putting your body through a lot of stress.
Hallucinations can also occur. That's why no one was laughing when one player said he saw the cartoon character Snoopy before he fainted. Another player passed out from heat stroke after playing a doubles match, and still another collapsed and vomited on court.
Frank Dancevic passed out. Photo by Aijaz Rahi AP
I sincerely hope the ITF sits the Australian Open tournament officials down and reads them the riot act. Were they callous? Yes. Were they condescending? Yes. It took the former Tournament Director and player Paul McNamee, now working as a journalist to make the current officials say that there was really no heat policy anymore. Here is what he had to say to reporter Leigh Sales .
Paul, today is the first time that the heat policy has been activated. Do you think that it should have been activated before now, as some players and former players have suggested?
PAUL MCNAMEE, COMMENTATOR/FORMER PLAYER: Yes, I do. On Tuesday and Wednesday, being yesterday, the conditions were oppressive and we had the record number of withdrawals, or retirements, mid-match in the history of Grand Slam tennis here in the first round. So I think you could safely say it should have been activated 48 hours ago.
LEIGH SALES: Do you think that the British player Andy Murray's right when he says that it could lead to some really serious on-court consequences, including death?
PAUL MCNAMEE: Well, I think death is very - is probably putting a little bit too extreme, but no-one likes to see anyone in trouble. And we instituted a rule some years ago in major consultation with medical authorities and both the ATP and WTA tours which looked at all the science and came up to a threshold level which was valuable and very useful and giving certainty to players. Unfortunately, that was ditched on the eve of this year's tournament.
LEIGH SALES: And why do you believe that was ditched and does that now mean that activating the heat policy is solely at the discretion of the organisers?
PAUL MCNAMEE: Yes. Well, I've spoken to the WTA tour. They're very concerned that it is left to discretion when the science is there. I think it's irresponsible that the tournament has done this and thank goodness it was instituted today and now we're going to have many matches played in the cooler conditions in the evening, out of the direct sunlight in beautiful conditions with sun - with flood-lit courts. That's the way I think the tournament should happen.
LEIGH SALES: Do you think that the organisers are reluctant to activate the extreme heat policy, and if so, why?
PAUL MCNAMEE: Well they're clearly reluctant because everyone believed it should have happened a couple of days ago. Why? I mean, you'd have to ask the reasons for that. The science doesn't appear to validate their decision. There are very good indications for when the threshold is reached. Perhaps it has something to do with the business model. I hope not. But clearly the policy is about health and safety and the risks not only to players, but to ball kids and to officials, many of whom are older. So, let's hope that it's nothing to do with the business, and I think that finally, we've got a more sensible outcome today.
LEIGH SALES: How disruptive is it to the tournament if you do have to activate this policy?
PAUL MCNAMEE: It is disruptive because obviously matches are suspended. One particular match today, they had to come back and play the fifth set, but the important thing is that the players are able to play in conditions that are fair and the spectators can watch in some level of comfort instead of just being a war of attrition. I mean, we really are turning the clock back here in expecting players to just tough it out in the worst conditions imaginable. So, I think that the players understand if there's a certain threshold and it's clear and it's transparent and it's reached, they understand there's going to be a break in play. They're used to that. It happens with rain. It's no different with extreme heat.
LEIGH SALES: To put the devil's advocate argument, I think it was Roger Federer who said that, "Well, you know, these are the conditions everyone plays under. You've got to have the mental toughness to do it and just get on with it."
PAUL MCNAMEE: Well that's one player's opinion and of course he's the great Roger Federer; he plays on either Rod Laver Arena or the multi-purpose arena where there's shadow at the back of the court that you can kind of escape to. But most of the players who are on the outside courts, they haven't got that luxury. So, many of the players have been very worried about it. I mean, I was in the gym just before some of the matches this afternoon and I can assure you Caroline Wozniacki and other players were so relieved that they didn't have to go out in those conditions. For Northern Europeans, they can't possibly prepare for it. It's not in their DNA. And there was great relief when the policy was brought in today.
Maybe that last statement is what led to the Tournament Doctor Tim Wood to spout some gibberish about ancient humans on the plains of the African continent chasing antelope? Maybe he was having a heat affected moment when he said what he said.
Varvara Lepchenko during a break in her match. Photo by Robert Prezioso Getty Images
I also think McNamee, who can now pretty much say what he wants, was right in calling Roger Federer out for his ridiculous statement. It was irresponsible and selfish to say about players who suffered in the heat, most of whom can't afford to train in Dubai or get to Australia a week or two ahead to adjust to the time and climate. Federer's fans have been busy all week trying to say he was misquoted, that his words were taken out of context, and that he was somehow "set up" by the reporter asking the question. This isn't Federer's first rodeo and in my opinion he said what he meant and meant what he said. No amount of explaining will make his words any less harsh. The full transcript is on the Australian Open web site so anyone who wants to can read the comments in context. Their meaning doesn't change.
Andy Roddick joined his nemesis in asshattery. Here's his quote provided by John Wertheim .
"Spoken from the comfort of a television studio an ocean away, but 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 off-season [on my fitness]."
I'll let that statement stand on it's own.
The heat wave has broken and projections show temperatures in the mid to high 20's Celsius for the remainder of the tournament. That means the level of tennis should improve. Fighting your way through molasses like air does not make for good tennis no matter the player.