By Alana Mitchelson
(January 16, 2014) MELBOURNE – With players being treated for the heat throughout the morning and early afternoon at the Australian Open, the Extreme Heat Policy came into effect at about 2.50pm on Thursday. According to official statements, the conditions were not considered dangerous until this stage, but Maria Sharapova thinks the threshold point could be better explained to the tennis players.
The Extreme Heat Policy, in short, ensures that when humidity, temperature and wind speed reach a certain point, no new matches are to commence until further notice and that all sets already in progress must be completed in the same conditions in which they started. Thereafter, matches on outdoor courts will be suspended and the roof may be closed on major arenas.
On Thursday, Maria Sharapova and Karin Knapp had already begun their third, deciding set in the blistering heat when the policy was implemented. This meant the roof could not be closed until the conclusion of that set, however, in their case this would mean the end of the match.
Some of the players expressed their thoughts on the policy and made suggestions as to how they believed it could better serve the best interests of the athletes who carry the sport.
A light-headed Varvara Lepchenko had spent a full hour after her match lying down, trying to recover from the ordeal.
“The first thing I did was have an ice bath and I also drank a lot of water with salt. I just lay down in the locker room for the past hour and I just physically couldn’t get up,” Varvara said shakily.
“I’m feeling still a little bit weak and I just feel like I wanna sit down all the time and lay down.
“I think they definitely should have just not started the matches in the first place and the same goes a couple of days ago… I think they should’ve started the matches after the temperature cooled down a little bit because this is just too much.
“When the game kept going, I had many things in my mind. First of all, that I had a good chance and then I started feeling like that and I didn’t know how my body could recover from it during the match. The other thing I started thinking was, what if I’m just gonna drop right now. Then it’s going to take me even longer to recover from something like that.
“Obviously it’s very dangerous if somebody has a condition to the heart or anything like that. Being in this temperature’s almost like going to (a) sauna and it’s not good.
“It happened to me, for the first time in my life, that I was playing under these conditions… at first, I didn’t understand what was going on. But then my legs and my arms just started to get heavier and I couldn’t focus. And at one point I started feeling dizzier and dizzier.
“At 5-1, I started feeling a little bit weak but I thought that I was just feeling tired and I tried to push myself.. In the second set I couldn’t focus on my returns, I couldn’t see the ball… everything started going so fast like I felt like the time in between the points. I started feeling really hot on the top of my head and then at one point I completely lost it.
“I just couldn’t focus on the point. I felt like my arms weighed a ton and I started feeling dizzy and this one last point on her serve, I don’t remember what was the score, I started feeling really dizzy and I just didn’t know how to handle that.
Having experienced the hot, heavy air on court herself, Lepchenko had a lot of admiration for Sharapova’s ability to at last claim victory in her brutal three-setter under the scorching Melbourne sun, open roof in the Rod Laver Arena.
“Just watching Maria, I thought ‘wow’. She played under the same conditions.
“The temperature was rising every minute and every second of the hour.”
Sharapova acknowledged the fact that it would be difficult for anyone to pinpoint the exact limit for when conditions should be considered ‘extreme’.
“It’s a tough call,” Sharapova said.
“I mean, I think the question I have is that no one really knows what the limit is, not the players. Even the trainers themselves, when you ask them, ‘when will the roof be closed?’ No one actually knows what that number is in comparison to humidity or the actual heat. Sometimes you wish you know, because it just depends on, I’m not sure who, a referee or the meteorologist and there are just a lot of questions in the air that maybe should be solved.
“I would love to know a bit more detail before, not even before I get on the court but just in general, it’s good to know. I didn’t even know there was no play when I left the court. I mean, I had no idea. But it seems a little strange that the WTA Tour trainers don’t know what that threshold is.
“We have never received any emails or, you know, warnings about the weather or what to do.”
The world No. 3 suddenly paused in recollection, with a bittersweet smile.
“Actually, I did receive one, I think, while I was in the ice bath a few minutes ago,” Sharapova laughed, “and I was like, that’s a little too late. It was a little late. It was probably when they were stopping the matches like, oh, maybe it’s about time we sent out a warning.”
She also thinks time violations handed down for lengthier water breaks, given the circumstances are a tad harsh and that breaks should either be extended or altogether suspended.
“I think it should be. For the safety of the players, definitely.
“On one hand you’re trying to get as much rest in between points as you can, but then you have an umpire who is giving you a time violation. Then you’re asking yourself whether that’s fair in whatever degree weather that was. So there is that mixed emotion of, okay, I need to get in the shade but then I need to be there when the time is up to be able to serve or return or whatever it is. There is a bit of pressure on the line as well in those conditions. Anywhere else it’s fine, if that’s the speed of the game, that’s absolutely fine. But in these conditions, let it go.”
Her main concern was that for a final set decider, in both the men’s and women’s draw, there should be special consideration given when there is no tie-break to put a quick, definitive end to the set.
“Everyone knows there is no tiebreaker in the third set. So once you start that set, you’re going to be out there until you’re done. That’s the question I have.
“I think in the third set for the women and the fifth set for the men, if you know that there is no tiebreaker, officials can’t just rely on maybe that the set will go fast, the set will be over and we will be off court because we have no tiebreaker in that last set. So that’s what you have to consider.”
Agnieszka Radwanska also made a comment about her thoughts on the heat rule after her match and offered insight into what the word of consensus was going around in the locker rooms at the moment.
“Today was really, really hard. Even (playing) indoors was ridiculous.
“I think everybody’s saying that sometimes it’s even too hot. Some of the girls can’t even talk after the match or practice.”
Friday is forecast to be another scorcher, with an expected high of 111 degrees F.
Alana Mitchelson is a Melbourne-based freelance journalist covering the Australian Open for Tennis Panorama News. Follow her tournament updates on Twitter @TennisNewsTPN and read her personal website.