By Jessica Luther
Last week it was shoe-meltingly hot in southern Australia. Literally. French tennis player Jo-Wilfried Tsonga said that the synthetic rubber, latex, plastic, plexicushion court's acrylic surface at the Australian Open had softened the soles of his shoes during a match.
Beginning on Tuesday of last week and lasting through Friday, the highs in Melbourne ranged from 108 to 111°F. While the Australian Open has an Extreme Heat Policy (EHP), it is subjective and at the discretion of the tournament referee, who chose not invoke it until Wednesday afternoon, meaning many players had their first-round matches on Tuesday in extreme conditions. This seeming disregard for the effects of the heat on the players is a reminder of the way in which the overall tennis season beats on players' bodies, and how the many matches played on quick hard courts these days lead to injuries and epically long, exhausting battles. The heat of Australia can open a conversation about multiple issues facing tennis today and it is a conversation we should be having.
When in effect, the EHP closes down outer courts and shuts the main court roofs, though only at the end of sets. Set times range wildly and the Australian Open does not have a third-set tiebreaker; the winner of the set must win at least six games and two more than their opponent. On Thursday, the EHP was invoked when Maria Sharapova was up 5-4 in the third set of her second-round match against Karin Knapp. The temperature at the time was close to 111°F, and often the temperatures on the courts are even higher. Following the match, Sharapova said that players "have never received any emails or warnings about the weather or what to do." She quickly amended that: "Actually, I did receive one, I think, while I was in the ice bath a few minutes ago. I was like, 'that's a little too late.'"
The stories of the physical toll of playing through these high temperatures and under this particular EHP poured out of Melbourne. On Tuesday, Caroline Wozniacki reported that the hot court melted the bottom of her water bottle. Canada's Frank Dancevic fainted on court that day, later saying, "I was dizzy from the middle of the first set and then I saw Snoopy and I thought, 'Wow Snoopy, that's weird.'" Victoria Azarenka reported that Tuesday's conditions "felt pretty hot, like you're dancing in a frying pan or something like that." John Isner, who retired during his first-round match, said, "It was like an oven -- when I open the oven and the potatoes are done. That's what it's like." According to Yahoo, "Chinese player Peng Shuai cramped and vomited during her loss to Japan's Kurumi Nara, and also received a violation for time-wasting at a moment when she said she was unable to walk."
That same day, tournament referee Wayne McKewen stated that he did not invoke the EHP because, "while conditions were hot and uncomfortable, the relatively low level of humidity ensured play would continue." Tim Wood, the chief medical officer of the Australian Open, said "The majority of matches today were completed without any court calls from the medical team. Of course there were a few players who experienced heat-related illness or discomfort, but none required significant medical intervention after they had completed their match."
That would not remain true the next day. On Wednesday, Ivan Dodig retired after more than two hours of play in the heat. He later told reporter he was worried he "could maybe even die" on court and "30 minutes after the match, I could not walk." That same day, Varvara Lepchenko said that during her match, "I couldn't focus at one point and started feeling dizzier and dizzier. Towards the middle of the second set, I started feeling more and more dizzy and everything started going so fast." On Thursday, on the same day as Sharapova's long three-setter, Zheng Jie told reporters after her third-round loss to Casey Dellacqua that during the match, "I feel so hot, my [mind] is not working. I just watch the ball and just hit it. I don't know where I hit it."
Earlier that morning, Dr. Tim Wood told BBC radio, "From a medical perspective we know that man is well adapted to exercising in the heat. If you take us back a few thousand years, we evolved on the high plains of Africa chasing antelope for eight hours under these conditions." Referring to our evolutionary path is a strange way to prove medically that players can handle extreme heat for hours on end (also, "a few thousand years" makes one question what he knows about time and the evolution of man). In the interview, Dr. Wood sidestepped Dancevic's claim earlier in the week that playing in these temperatures was "inhumane," saying, "Whether it's humane or not, that's a whole different issue."
While the Australian Open heat wave is an extreme case, it serves as a good example of larger issues that have been bubbling to the surface of the sport over the last few years: Namely, how much is too much for these players?
For the casual viewer of tennis, it appears that tennis players compete each year in the four Grand Slams with some smaller tournaments in between. That's true -- except it's a whole lot of tournaments in between, and their season runs nearly all year long. Rankings are complicated and are calculated on a rolling basis. The more tournaments you compete in (and the better you do in each tournament), the better your chance of a higher ranking. And higher rankings matter for securing automatic bids to major tournaments and Grand Slams, and the calculations of seeding in those tournaments. Many events are now mandatory, a move that allows the sponsors of events to sell tickets on the promise that big tennis stars will be in attendance. Plus, players who are not big names rely on the money they get from playing as many tournaments as possible (though the cost of the sport means they often only scrape by in any case).
This year-round play can be brutal on the body. Hard courts give very little, and most tournaments are now played on them. For players like Rafael Nadal who hit big from the baseline and chase down every point, these courts can cause continued injury to the knees. The repetitive motion of each point can lead to the kind of shoulder injury that waylaid Sharapova. Andy Murray, known for his on-court grimacing, decided to skip the French Open last year to rest his injured back, a move that resulted in his first Wimbledon title weeks later. Meanwhile, one aspect of Roger Federer's game that has helped him win more Grand Slam titles than any other man is that he is almost never injured. It is a true rarity in the sport for someone to play as often as Federer has, for years on end, and not succumb to injuries that take him off the circuit for months or even years at a time. In May 2013, John Leicester, wrote an entire piece for the Associated Press about this, describing Federer as "one of the most durable [players], the iron man of his, indeed any, generation."
One way to measure the impact of injury and the strenuous nature of the nearly year-long tennis schedule is a new phenomenon of early round retirements at the grand slams. This year's Australian Open set a record for the tournament when nine players retired in the first round. According to the AP, "the nine retirements in the first round matched the record set in the first round at the 2011 U.S. Open and the second round at the 2013 Wimbledon. The U.S. Open in 2011 holds the record for most overall number of retirements with 17."
Another challenging aspect of tennis these days is the epic, marathon match. Most famously, at Wimbledon in 2010, John Isner and Nicolas Mahut played for three days and a total of 11 hours and five minutes. In 2012, Isner played the longest fifth set in French Open history, defeating Paul-Henri Mathieu 18-16. In 2011, Francesca Schiavone and Svetlana Kuznetsova played the longest match on record for women, coming in at four hours and 44 minutes. The previous record at four hours, 19 minutes, had been set the year before at the same Grand Slam. Last year, when Serena Williams defeated Victoria Azarenka for the U.S. Open title, their two hour, 46-minute match was the longest final on record for that tournament.
At the Australian Open in 2012, Novak Djokovic and Nadal played the longest men's final on record, five hours and 53 minutes. They could barely stand afterward and chairs were brought onto the court for them to sit down in during the trophy presentation. Later in 2012, Murray took four hours and 54 minutes to defeat Djokovic in the final of the U.S. Open, tying the record of the longest U.S. Open final.
These are some of the most famous examples. But there's also Tsonga and Raonic setting the record for the longest three-set match in 2012 and Haas' defeat of Isner at last year's French Open. That same tournament also gave us an epic three-set win for Marion Bartoli. A few days ago, in the brutal Australian heat, Daniela Hantuchova took three hours, 13 minutes to win a first-round match.
In order to find ways to minimize the damage to player's bodies, some have suggested changing the format of the Grand Slam tournament so that the men play best-of-three the first week instead of best-of-five, to limit how many long matches they may have to play in a two-week period. There have also been calls to end the practice of not having tiebreakers in the final set at the Grand Slams (the only Grand Slam currently with a fifth-set tiebreaker is the U.S. Open). Another option is to change the surface of the courts to make the game quicker and to cut down on the possibility of playing long, defensive games from behind the baseline.
And after this past week's extreme conditions and the failure of those in charge to adapt to the circumstances in order to protect the players, there will be new talks about how to handle extreme heat situations. As Murray succinctly said last week, "It looks terrible for the whole sport when people are collapsing."
If nothing changes, we will continue to see epic matches, players suffering through ridiculous conditions, and long-term injuries that remove players from the game for months or years at a time. Hopefully whatever discussion follows the completion of this tournament, it takes into account the many aspects of the sport that make the game hard on the people who play it.
* * *
Jessica Luther is a writer and journalist who lives in Austin, Texas. Her writing on sports have appeared at the Guardian, the Atlantic, Salon, Think Progress, RH Reality Check, and in The Texas Observer. Her site and podcast about sports and culture is Power Forward.