“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.”
- Tim Wood, Tournament Doctor at the Australian Open
In the second set of his first round match against Frenchman Benoit Paire, Canadian Frank Dancevic collapsed in Melbourne. He was unconscious by the time his shoulder blades splashed down upon the faded blue Plexicushion that has affixed itself to the Australian Open marketing image. Dancevic stayed that way for an entire minute. Later he would recall the kiln-like conditions having crafted a myriad of hallucinations – one including the cartoon character Snoopy – that accompanied him on his way out of the tournament. He lost after three sets, but it might as well have been when he left the locker room.
Coming into this year’s Australian Open, Dancevic said endurance was the least of his worries. However, before he took the court Tuesday, Dancevic could hear the stands crackling as if stationed beneath hundreds of firecrackers and looked for a tournament official. When he said individual about the heat policy before the match he was told, “It wasn’t an issue.”
The Australian Open is the first of the four Grand Slam tennis events of the year, offering men’s and women’s singles; men’s, women’s and mixed doubles and junior championships. It’s also the first Grand Slam tournament to feature an indoor playing option for wet weather or extreme heat; two courts quipped with retractable roofs. The tournament is a dream for countless tennis players as its history dates back over a century. Roy Emerson, Boris Becker, Serena Williams, Roger Federer, Andre Agassi, Billie Jean King, and Maria Sharapova are just a few of those who have won it. The Australian Open is one of the most storied tournaments in the sport of tennis and last week it experienced the worst stretch of torrid weather since 1908.
To witness someone whose income is practically generated by an ability to endure, fold like a tablecloth in one of the four major events of the year should be atypical. Unfortunately it’s not. A day before Dancevic took the court, China’s Peng Shuai vomited in the first round of her match against Kurumi Nara of Japan; the heat was pushing 40 degrees Celsius (106F). Earlier, Carolina Wozniacki placed her water bottle on the ground, the bottom of it melted. Record temperatures came and went and still the retractable roofs remained open, letting the sun baste players and spectators alike.
“My first match, I almost passed out on the court and almost threw up on the court. I had a headache [and] my skin was burning. It just felt really hot out there. You get frustrated because you can’t play your good tennis,” said Anastasia Pavlyuchenkova of Russia.
When a multitude of players are calling for ice towels between changeovers and ice baths subsequent to matches, halting play would appear discernable. On Thursday it was; days after Jo-Wilfed Tsonga’s shoes has liquefied and a ball boy had collapsed, long after Dancevic hallucinated through one of the greatest opportunities of his career. The No. 4 player in the world, Andy Murray (who you’d expect to be as well-conditioned as they come), feared the heat could induce a heart attack for players.
High profile sites covered the quick headline. But after it simmered and became second-rate news just as Andy Roddick and Rafael Nadal called to shorten the excruciating 11-month professional season, just as SI’s Jon Wertheim implored the ITP and WTA to unionize in order to provide proper working conditions in 2011, the amount who cared dissipated and the days passed.
Tournament doctor Tim Wood commented before the start of the two-week competition that, “Tennis, as a sport, is relatively low risk for major heat problems compared to… continuous running events. The amount of heat they produce from muscles exercising is relatively small in terms of what someone continuously exercising will do.” As someone who has played tennis competitively, I can ascertain that while this was meant in good taste, Wood is virtually comparing the sport to a game of chess indoors. Tennis, like many sports, is a game of steps. And like many of those sports, getting to a position on the court, screeching across the 27-foot wide singles parameters only to then hurl your body toward the net to play a looping drop shot in fractions of a second in the swiftest means possible is key. Tennis is not equivocal to the Self-Transcendence 3100 Mile Race, but John Isner and Nicolas Mahut’s 11-hour match was no leisurely stroll. Wood’s comment would’ve been considered fractious in a playground; would’ve been apparent fallacy had I never held a racquet.
“My legs, my arms started to get heavier. I couldn’t focus at one point and started feeling dizzier and dizzier. I couldn’t see the ball… Towards the middle of the second set, I started feeling more and more dizzy and … everything started going so fast… And then just at one point, I completely lost it. I just laid down in the locker room for the past hour because I just couldn’t physically get up,” said Varvara Lepchenko of the United States.
Three consecutive days of tennis ensued, player after player wilted. Triple-digit temperatures with no wind or cloud cover will do that to you. But hey, if Tim Wood says your profession is comprised of just a handful of steps and his subjective judgment alongside fellow bonehead Wayne McKewen (Tournament Director) is the only thing between your trajectory and heatstroke…well, I guess you’re screwed.
It’s worth reiterating Wood’s comment made to BBC Radio this year, which formed the epigraph. Not only is Wood comparing tennis on a professional level in 2014 to chasing antelope in Africa thousands of years ago, his grandiose history lesson only helps further reaffirm the non-existent threshold that the tournament currently has in place. The current policy is a veil, nothing more, but that’s not breaking news either. It’s actually been up for debate for a while. As a result of the non-existent union between mensand women’s tennis, the ATP’s “extreme heat rule” is virtually calibrated by tournaments on an individual level. And since Tim Wood and Wayne McKewen hold that power, well…that’s why matches played on as scheduled.
I think it’s fucked up that we expect professional athletes to suit up for games where frostbite is viable. I don’t like that we tell athletes to push their bodies in two-a-days over the summer while the number of heat-related fatalities in sports have more than doubled since 1975. I don’t think that because the Ice Bowl was the NFL Championship Game in 1967, the Green Bay Packers and Dallas Cowboys should’ve taken the field in -36F – a game where a spectator died and referee Norm Schachter’s mouth filled with blood after his whistle froze to his lips. And I certainly don’t think we should ask tennis players to serve, volley, and smash overheads when they’re afraid they could literally die in the next step.
“When I woke up people were all around me. It’s inhumane and I don’t think it’s fair to anybody when you see players pulling out of matches and passing out. Until somebody dies, they’re going to keep playing matches in this heat … and personally I don’t think it’s fair,” Dancevic said.
Sports demands of the body what writing demands of the hand and word – lest we forget there is humanity in both. Thankfully, the ATP will review the current policy on heat procedures in March, but for those who suffered the burning in Melbourne, this news will come soured. It’s truly harrowing to consider that the 2014 Australian Open was grounded more on survival than it was about playing tennis.