Heat and The 2014 Australian Open

7th February 2014

By Empirica Research

One of the first global sporting events of the year, the Australian Open heralds itself as being the players’ favourite grand slam. However, in 2014, one could be mistaken for thinking otherwise. Indeed, rather than the scores making the front page this year, another kind of number stole the headlines – the searing temperatures. During four consecutive days during the fist week of the tournament, the outside temperature exceeded 40oC, a record not beaten in Melbourne for over 100 years.

Despite Tennis Australia having an Extreme Heat Policy in place, the matches continued on, with many players suffering heat-related illnesses. In the first several days of the tournament, Peng Shuai of China vomited at the side of the court, Canada’s Frank Dancevic hallucinated Snoopy right before fainting during his second set, Jo-Wilfried Tsonga thought his shoes were sticking to the ground, Jelena Jankovic burned her bottom on a seat, and drink bottles were literally melting. Not to mention the ball boy who collapsed, plus over a thousand spectators who were treated for heat stroke in the first week. It was not until the barometer surpassed 43oC on Day 4 of the Championship that the Extreme Heat Policy was enforced, with the temporary suspension of outdoor games, and the closing of the roof on the two main stadiums.

So why did it take so long for the Extreme Heat Policy to be enacted?

According to the policy, which is enacted at the discretion of the tournament referee, the cessation of play is based on a quotient of temperature, humidity and wind speed. As tournament referee Wayne McKewen commented on Day Two of the tournament, when the temperature reached 41 oC, while the conditions at this stage were hot and uncomfortable, the humidity was low, thus not requiring the policy to be enacted. The tournament’s long-time medical officer, Dr. Tim Wood, also agreed with this decision, insisting that the health of players was not being compromised. He argued that tennis was relatively low risk for major heat problems compared to other sports, and that regardless, humans were well adapted to exercising in the heat. Some players spoke out during the tournament that they were in support of the referee’s decision to keep play going. Roger Federer argued that adequate preparation and training should be enough to cope with the hot conditions. Likewise, the injured Gilles Simon believed that the heat actually improved his game.

The majority of players, however, thought otherwise. Eight-time Australian Open champion Martina Navratilova called Wood ‘completely clueless’. Andy Murray echoed these sentiments, accusing the tournament organisers of putting players’ lives at risk, and in doing so, projecting a terrible image of the sport. After his first round loss to Benoit Paire, Snoopy hallucinator Frank Dancevic called the conditions inhumane, and Ivan Dodig went so far as to say he feared he might die on court. Viewers of the tournament were also critical of the policy. According to a Sydney Morning Herald poll of over 2,000 Australians, 89% believed that the organisers should have implemented the policy prior to the Thursday afternoon.

Given the controversy and media attention that has resulted from the Extreme Heat Policy at this year’s Open, the Association of Tennis Professionals is set to review the policy before the 2015 Australian Open. Further, as part of the Melbourne Park redevelopment, a retractable roof over Margaret Court Arena is set to be built, in addition to more shaded seating.

Nevertheless, if you do find yourself playing in hot conditions, keep in mind these suggestions, offered by exercise researcher Dr. Michael Bergeron:

  • Acclimatize yourself to playing in the heat by practicing regularly in hot conditions. This will lead to much more effective heat loss.
  • Drink regularly, even if you’re not thirsty. In temperatures such as those at the Australian Open, adult tennis players can lose up to 3.5 litres of water per hour.
  • Try to consume a carbohydrate-electrolyte beverage during play. Not only does it enhance fluid absorption, it will help you maintain your blood glucose levels, which can delay fatigue.
  • Avoid drinks that contain caffeine or alcohol prior to playing – they will accelerate fluid loss.
  • If you are prone to heat-muscle cramps during hot weather, consider increasing your salt intake.
  • Or take up a sport that is in the upcoming Winter Olympics!!

Empirica Research is a social and consumer research firm based in Melbourne and Miami. For more info check out empiricaresearch.com.au

Twitter: @empirica_update