Before the mid 1990’s, the Australian Open was viewed as something of an embarrassment. Aging facilities and being scheduled at the end of a long tennis season caused many top players to skip the event completely. That all changed thanks to a massive event overhaul and recommitment to making the players feel welcomed. The result – the now first major of the year is cited as the favorite of many pros and fans earning it the unofficial nickname of “the happy Slam”.
But the one thing organizers have little control over is the weather. Despite adding roofs to the main show courts and implementing what’s called an “extreme heat policy” to deal with the continent’s often brutal hot summer, it hasn’t been enough this year. During the first week of play, multiple players and ticket paying fans have been treated for heat related issues.
While tournament officials continue to stress that they are putting safety first, that hasn’t stopped matches from taking place. And that’s where the debate lies.
Some players, including former champion Maria Sharapova, says the current heat policy is too vague. She, and her second round opponent, Karin Knapp of Italy, found themselves locked in a lengthy third set battle on Rod Laver Arena with on-court temperatures soaring well over 107 degrees Fahrenheit. But, because of the policy, their match on a show court could not be suspended. Meanwhile, matches on the outer courts, that do not have roofs, were halted until temperatures reached a suitable level.
What makes the issue even trickier to resolve is the fact that the heat, intense as it is, seems to affect some players more than others.
Roger Federer, after his opening round match, was quoted as saying that dealing with the heat was just, in his words, “a mental thing”. Some agreed with his view while others felt that comment smacked of condescension, especially for those players suffering with heat ailments. Former pro Andy Roddick, when asked about the ongoing heat, felt that it all came to down how players prepared in the off-season for a tournament that is known to feature hot weather every year. Roddick also pointed out that elite players like Federer, Rafael Nadal and Novak Djokovic to name a few, known for their grueling off-season training methods, were not the ones currently “keeling over”.
Though rain often plagues the other Grand Slams, the wet annoyance can easily be handled. When courts get too slick with water, play is stopped until the courts dry off. Excessive heat, though not ideal, does not prevent actual competition from happening just as excessive cold would not either. What is the determining factor is the individual player. Is it fair for one competitor to receive multiple medical timeouts to get “iced down” while their opponent, unbothered by the torrid temperatures, waits for play to resume? No one wants to see someone put themselves in extreme duress to win a tennis match. But the obvious solution would be to prepare as best as possible, especially for an event that’s known for getting hot every single year.
The recent heat wave and its resulting impact has sparked (no pun intended) talk of a players union. Who can forget a few years ago when an angry Roddick led a mini-revolt at the U.S. Open over court conditions brought on by excessive rain? That moment also caused a brief discussion on why players on both tours don’t organize themselves. But, even if a union existed, would it actually help player safety in extreme conditions? Especially if some players, feeling confident in their preparation simply said, “The show must go on.”
While others have suggested moving up the event a month to help counter the country’s now yearly intense summer heat wave, it doesn’t seem likely that the tournament will shift its spot on the calendar again. As much welcomed lower temperatures return this weekend, cooler heads (literally) may postpone the argument that the tournament needs to do a better job in scheduling matches during a heat wave. But to keep its badge of honor as “the happy Slam”, the tournament will have to find a way to satisfy both sides of a very sticky dilemma.