At The Australian Open, The Heat Is On — More Than Ever

Jan 16, 2014
Originally published on January 17, 2014 12:19 pm
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Inhumane, dangerous, like dancing in a frying pan, those are just some of the ways players at the Australian Open are describing the stifling heat plaguing the tennis tournament with temperatures on court topping a ridiculous 120 degrees. Players have passed out, vomited, complained of blurred vision as they try to carry on in a virtual blast furnace. Nearly 1,000 fans have been treated for heat exhaustion and yet the tournament goes on.

Jon Wertheim is in Melbourne covering the open for Sports Illustrated. Hey, Jon.

JON WERTHEIM: Hi, Melissa.

BLOCK: And describe the scene there as players are trying to get through these matches in this 120 degree heat.

WERTHEIM: This has really taxed our capacity for metaphors. You mentioned blast furnace, it's a kiln, it's an oven. I think I wrote that this was a heat wave masquerading as a sporting event. But these jokes that came the first few days have really gotten increasingly less funny, as these conditions have persisted.

BLOCK: I've seen reports of water bottles melting, shoes sticking to the surface.

WERTHEIM: Yeah, exactly. I mean it's all like one big science experiment. And yet the matches of continued.

BLOCK: Well, what's the explanation for that? Because they do have what's called an extreme heat policy at the Australian Open? I'm not sure, if 120 degrees isn't extreme heat, what exactly is?

WERTHEIM: Yeah, and players have asked that very question: Why you that this policy if you're not going to invoke it when it's, you know, 108 degrees outside. And, you know, I mean cynically there are commercial pressures to finish these matches, and let fans come in and pay for tickets and buy food.

I think there's something a little cultural going on. A local reporter said it's all the sort of survive the outback, survive these extreme conditions. But, you know, the organizers have said: Look, it's not as hot as you might think. These are well-conditioned athletes. And my response to that is, first of all, this has veered into dangerous when these well-conditioned athletes are suffering heat stroke.

But also, it's not just the athletes. There are fans. There are, you know, nine, 10, 11-year-old ball kids running around. There are officials. I mean they did invoke this policy for the first time, you know, Thursday local time. But to me, that was three days too late.

BLOCK: They invoked it and suspended play for a stretch, right?

WERTHEIM: Exactly, and that meant that the outdoor courts play stopped. And on the two main courts they close the roofs. And I think that's significant. I think there was a little bit of reluctance there for the competitive imbalance. If you've played a match in basically in an air-condition and I've been flogging it out in 110 degree heat, when we play in the subsequent rounds you probably have an advantage. And I think that's part of the reluctance.

But again, you'd walk by court to court and one player would have a necklace of ice and the other would be flat on his back. And the other would be woozy like a boxer. And you just sort of said why are we doing this?

BLOCK: And is the heat affecting all the players equally? Or do some seem to be better able to handle it than others?

WERTHEIM: Yes, some seem better able to handle than others. And I think there is this minority of players that says look, I trained and this is where my training comes in to play, and this is competitive sport. No question, some players are getting through this better than others. And what we see - one of tennis's great virtues is that there's no clock, there's no time. But it really makes a huge amount of difference if you can finish your match in two hours versus four. That will pay dividends in the latter rounds. I mean there really is a sort of element of get off the court quickly this week.

BLOCK: Jon, are you seeing fewer fans at the tournament because it is just so hot, they just can't stand it, they're staying home?

WERTHEIM: Yeah, unlike the U.S., they count attendance here by fans through the turnstiles and not just paid tickets, which is probably more honest. And the crowds are down fairly dramatically. This is a very, very popular event. Last year, for the Tuesday session, for example, there were almost 50,000 people. This year for that identical session, there were about 35. So I mean that's a 30 percent.

I mean attendance has fallen off dramatically to which I say: The fact that 35,000 people were willing to sit out and watch tennis in the circumstances is pretty remarkable.

BLOCK: Jon Wertheim with Sports Illustrated, covering the Australian Open, or oven, in Melbourne. Jon, thanks so much.

WERTHEIM: Thanks, Melissa.



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