The first week of the Australian Open in Melbourne has seen temperatures of 42ºC, and while the temperatures have caused problems, so has the tournament officials’ attempts to deal with the heat.
A number of players have been put into difficulty by the extreme heat, including Britain’s Jamie Murray, who had to be treated for heatstroke, while Canadian Frank Dancevic fainted during his first round match. And yet the tournament doctor, Dr Tim Wood, has said that since humans evolved chasing antelope, tennis shouldn’t be a problem:
“We evolved on the high plains of Africa chasing antelope for eight hours under these conditions,” he said. “There will be some players who complain and no-one is saying it is terribly comfortable to play out there, but, from a medical perspective, we know that man is well adapted to exercising in the heat. Whether it is humane or not is a whole other issue.”
While there was a suspension in play on Thursday during the highest temperatures, what does the tournament’s approach do to their reputation?
A number of high profile players have criticised the lack of care seemingly given to players, including Maria Sharapova and defending champion Victoria Azarenka. The ball boys and girls have had their shifts cut to 45 minutes, and yet still one needed to be helped from court eight. Is this the image that the tournament’s organisers want to have beamed around the world, of volunteers being carried away from the court?
Is it in the best interest of the sport to have players (who are already in phenomenal shape) collapsing on court and needing urgent medical care? These are people who can play matches that last five hours, but after an hour and a half they are at breaking point, and the response is “we evolved chasing antelope”? It makes the tournament organisers seem uncaring, the doctors callous and plays up to many of the negative stereotypes about modern tennis: that the players aren’t important, as long as the money keeps coming in.
But how long will people pay to come and watch athletes suffer, in temperatures that are hot enough to melt plastic water bottles and the soles of players shoes? Will sponsors really want their branding to be in the background as someone gets treatment? I’d be interested to know what Jacob’s Creek thought of having a bellboy collapse in front of their signage. I’m sure that’s great for business.
The tournament needs to take a more considered approach. While it may not cause long-lasting medical damage to a player to have to play four hours of tennis in 42ºC heat, it can be incredibly uncomfortable in the short term, and the knock-on effects could affect the outcome of the tournament. Make the players as comfortable as possible, so that they can play their best tennis – then you have something that people will pay to watch, advertisers will want to be involved with and the main topic of discussion won’t be how poorly you’ve managed the heat, rather how well you’ve worked to get round it.