Extreme Heat Policy

The tournament has, for some time now, had what is called the Extreme Heat Policy. "In addition to the Wet Bulb Globe Temperature (WBGT) being equal to or above 28, if the Absolute Temperature exceeds 35C (95F), the Tournament Referee may suspend the commencement of any further matches on the outside courts,'' reads the policy.

NIRMAL SHEKAR

Day One. Monday. January 13. It was a mistake not to have remembered to pull down the window curtain the previous night. Very early in the morning, a harsh sun filters through the glass and beats down on your face in the hotel room.

Welcome to Melbourne in the summer, you tell yourself. The first day of the 2003 Australian Open tennis championship is going to be a scorcher. Or so you think at 6.30 a.m.

The tournament has, for some time now, had what is called the Extreme Heat Policy. "In addition to the Wet Bulb Globe Temperature (WBGT) being equal to or above 28, if the Absolute Temperature exceeds 35C (95F), the Tournament Referee may suspend the commencement of any further matches on the outside courts,'' reads the policy. It also makes way for the closing of the roof in the two main courts, the Rod Laver Arena and the Vodofone Arena, in case of extreme heat.

Given the warm start to the day, it is not surprising that there is a lot of talk in Melbourne Park about what might happen today in case of extreme heat.

Strangely enough, I find myself talking about the heat and its effects to the most famous Tournament Referee in the Grand Slam circuit, but one who has never had to contend with anything like this!

Alan Mills, the Chief Referee at Wimbledon, has had his share of problems with the weather over the years. But they have seldom had anything to do with extreme heat. No sports official anywhere in the world might have prayed as much for the rains to stay away as has Mills.

``It is hot right now. But it is only 28 or something in the air. On court it may be a lot more. Still not too bad, not something that would stop play,'' says Mills, a little past noon.

``But it is nice to be away from London this time of the year. It is bloody cold out there,'' says Mills, who has been away from home for more than a month, visiting his son in Texas and then his daughter in Sydney before coming in here.

Meanwhile, the temperature in show court No.1, named after Australia's greatest women's tennis player of all time — Margaret Court — is already soaring, and not merely because of the sun. It has to do with the presence of a sizzler called Anna Kournikova.

The most downloaded woman in the history of sport is trying to win her first Grand Slam singles match in two years. And she is doing a good job of it too in front of 6000 seated spectators and hundreds of others craning their necks at one or other of the 16 entrance points to the court.

``Actually it never crossed my mind that I have lost four times in a row in the first round (in Grand Slam events),'' says Kournikova. ''

So I think that helped me pretty much,'' she says after beating Harieta Nagyova 6-1, 6-2.

So, what was her goal now? A chunky role in the next Bond movie? Or perhaps something to do on the Parisian catwalk? Maybe talk to her sponsors for a raise now that she has won her first match in two years?

Surprise, surprise. Anna wants to play even better and make the top 10.

``My goal is to get back to the top 10. I think I am getting better mentally and better in my understanding of the game,'' says the woman who has made 20 times as much on endorsements as she has in terms of prize money (little over $3 million).

That, by Anna's standards, is rather too much of tennis... the talk that is. In the event, soon we move on to other, rather more interesting (!) subjects.

``There seems to be a lot of interest in your body art. Can you tell us whether or not the tattoo that's been spoken of so much is a new one, or an existing one that has been touched up'' asks a reporter.

``You actually saw a tattoo on my body'' Anna seems surprised. But only mildly.

``I don't think I have anything on my body. I just have a heat patch. I have chronic back pain. It just happens that my skirt is pretty low right now and everybody sees the patch.''

Not one of the 6000-odd spectators was complaining though... about how low the skirt was!

Later at night, the defending champion and third seed Jennifer Capriati loses her way after a good start (up a set and 3-0) to go down in three sets to Marlene Weingartner of Germany.

Capriati is clearly bothered by the lights and is a half step slower on the court. She had a cloudy vision problem late last year and had something called pterygium removed from both her eyes surgically. Obviously, she has not recovered fully.

Match of the day: Marlene Weingartner beat Jennifer Capriati 2-6, 7-6, 6-4.

Quote of the day: ''I surprise myself quite often, even away from the tennis court, and not always in a good way.''— Andre Agassi.

Weather: Hot but not the scorcher that was expected.

Day Two, Tuesday, January 14. There is a lot of talk about the revolution that is taking place in Asian tennis in a tournament that calls itself the Grand Slam of the Asia Pacific. The local and visiting media are obviously excited about the strides made in recent times by a pair of Asian players, Paradorn Srichaphan and the Korean Hyung-Taik Lee.

Srichaphan has climbed to a career high No.14 following his triumph in Chennai and Lee was a surprise winner of the Sydney tournament last week when he beat Juan Carlos Ferrero in the final.

There is no doubt that countries such as Thailand, South Korea and Japan are making waves in the sport that was largely unknown in Thailand and Korea in particular for a long time.

Yet, as an Indian, what rankles is the lack of historical perspective in the media. It is almost as if Asia has come on the world tennis map only now, thanks to Srichaphan and Lee.

In this very tournament, in only the second year after it moved to this modern venue from the grass courts of Kooyong, Ramesh Krishnan outplayed the top seed and defending champion Mats Wilander in 1989.

That Ramesh was ranked in the top 25 and Vijay Amritraj in the top 20 at their respective career peaks is conveniently forgotten. And these are Open Era (post-1968) players.

In the event, when players of the last quarter of a century are forgotten, I am not at all surprised that the extraordinary achievements of the man who is, arguably, the greatest Asian player of all time is not mentioned at all.

Ramanathan Krishnan was once ranked as high as No.2 in the world and was consistently a top 10 player in his peak at a time when ranking were not computer generated. Twice a semifinalist at Wimbledon, he beat every top player of his time.

Ah, those were the days my readers, those were the days. Today, the country that was once the giant of Asian tennis, one that dismissed Asian opposition almost disdainfully in Davis Cup — India — does not have a single player in the top 300!

Indeed, the so-called new Asian revolution has bypassed India. When Thais and Koreans are winning ATP events, we do not have a player good enough to make the main draw of any Grand Slam event.

And the only singles player of any merit we have had in recent times — Leander Paes — has now become a full fledged doubles specialist who only plays singles in Davis Cup.

``It is tough. It has been a tough juggling act. You know I love playing singles. That is where my heart is. But doubles is bread and butter and at this stage in my career, the choice is clear,'' says Paes, standing outside the dressing room at the Rod Laver Arena today.

He plays his first round doubles match in the company of David Rikl tomorrow and is on the way to the practice court. He talks about the ''tough'' Davis Cup tie against Japan in Delhi three weeks from now.

``I would love to see more Indian youngsters making their way into the Tour. We need singles players,'' says Paes. Meanwhile, on the courts today, Serena Williams and Lleyton Hewitt, the top seeds, are both forced to dig deep by resourceful opponents. Serena gets past the gifted, confident Emilie Loit of France 3-6, 7-6, 7-5 while Hewitt comes through a marathon against Magnus Larsson of Sweden.

Match of the day: Hewitt beat Larsson 6-3, 3-6, 6-1, 6-7, 6-2.

Quote of the day: ''I just said, `Wow, that was a nice shot.''' — Serena Williams when asked what she said to her opponent after Loit played a drop shot to save a matchpoint.

Actually Serena had uttered what the officials call an ''audible obscenity''.

Weather: Cool, overcast, sun comes out late in the afternoon.

Day Three, Wednesday, January 15. ''There are so many Koreans and Chinese in there,'' says my good friend Michael Baz, one of the finest tennis photographers, pointing to the media work room in the Rod Laver Arena.

It is amazing how the mix of nationalities keeps changing when it comes to the media contingent at the major championships. There was a time when almost half the European press was made up of Swedes.

But the wave triggered by the great Bjorn Borg and sustained by the likes of Mats Wilander and Stefan Edberg has died down. Well, almost. Last year, during Thomas Johansson's unlikley march to the final here, there was not a single Swedish journalist.

On the eve of the final, one flew in and Johansson was thrilled. He promptly won the title!

The rise of the Spanish Armada also set off a huge influx of Spanish media people at the Grand Slams just as the success of Japanese women brought in dozens of press and television reporters from Tokyo and elsehwere.

Now it is the turn of the Koreans and the Thais and the Chinese, thanks largely to Paradorn Srichaphan and Hyung-Taik Lee.

Today, Lee is playing the biggest match of his life, taking on Andre Agassi in the Rod Laver Arena. My friend from the Tennis Korea magazine says it is a big event back home.

``After our football team in the World Cup, this is the biggest. All of Korea is excited. This match is going live,'' he says.

And Lee promises much too at the start as he holds his opening service game confidently and then runs up a 40-0 lead on Agassi's serve in the next game. The Korean support group in the arena is ecstatic.

Then comes the fall, and what a fall it turns out to be. Pulling up his socks, Agassi plays point perfect tennis to win 18 games in a row.

``He did not miss anything. What can you do when he plays like that'' says a forlorn Lee through an interpreter.

Not much, really. And to think Andre will be 33 in three months' time!

Later in the day, Carlos Moya, the fifth seed, is beaten in five sets by Mardy Fish of the United States even as Mark Philippoussis, whose hopes of making an impact in his latest comeback looked bleak when he lost in the second round in Chennai last fortnight, raises his game wonderfully well to beat the 11th seeded Srichaphan in five sets.

As the doubles competition begins, India's Mahesh Bhupathi and Australia's Joshua Eagle, seeded three, are surprised in the first round by a pair of Czechs. Tomas Cibulec and David Skoch win 6-4, 4-6, 6-4.

But Leander Paes and his Czech partner David Rikl taste success with a 6-4, 6-3 defeat of John Hanley and Mark Kratzmann of Australia.

Match of the day: Mark Philippoussis beat Paradorn Srichaphan 3-6, 6-1, 1-6, 7-5, 6-3.

Quote of the day: ''I just do things my way. I am my own person.''— Philippoussis when asked why he has been cast as an Outsider in Australian tennis.

Weather: Overcast but clearing.

Day Four, Thursday, January 16. There is a buzz in the media workroom this morning. Is she really quitting? Everybody is talking about a woman who is not here this year. Martina Hingis, who featured in every one of the last six women's finals here, winning the first three, has obviously hinted during a television interview in Switzerland that she may not come back to the game she once dominated.

``I don't even think about that (coming back) right now,'' Hingis has said. ''I will only come back to competitive tennis if I can practice without hurting.''

Hingis, who was women's tennis' finest while still in her teens, has not played since October and is on her second long break from the game with an ankle injury.

It appears that Hingis is happily pursuing her other passions — skiing and riding — right now.

I ask a Swiss tennis reporter if it is true that the young woman was considering retirement.

``I don't think so. All this is speculation. I think she will come back. She is too young to retire,'' he says.

For God's sake, the woman is all of 22 years old!

And even as you ponder the heavy toll that modern tennis, played predominantly on hard courts, takes on young players, out marches a 46-year old woman to play a doubles match on a court named after an opponent — Margaret Court — she once played and beat here.

Martina Navratilova. Is there anyone quite like this remarkable woman in any other sport? Unlikely.Martina's partner is a Russian called Svetlana Kuznetsova, born the very year (1985) that Martina won her third and last Australian Open singles title!

``Not having played her for a long time, it is odd to be back again,'' says the great lady after she and her partner beat Myriam Casanova and Nicole Pratt in three sets.

She recalls playing Margaret Court in 1974, when Steffi Graf was five years old. ''Yes, it was before the New Year. The match before I had a crick in my neck. Then I played Margaret. Thank God it was this way. I could still serve and see the ball and actually hit my backhand better. Maybe that helped me win the match.''

She is asked about today's young players, many of whom suffer from a series of injuries.

``I think players burn themselves out because they play too much on hard courts at a young age. If I had a player that I was coaching or working with, I would make her play on clay a lot more and get on hardcourts once a week. The joints can't do it. The body can take only so much punishment. Most of the injuries you see are in the legs,'' says the nine-time Wimbledon champion.

She says it was bad for the women's game if Hingis chose to quit. ''I hope she will come back and play because she is a lot of fun to watch, she adds a new dimension to the game.''

Match of the day: Radek Stepanek beat Gustavo Kuerten 5-7, 6-3, 7-5, 4-6, 6-3.

Quote of the day: ''It is always tough playing Aussies, anyone from the same country I guess.'' — Lleyton Hewitt after beating Todd Larkham 6-1, 6-0, 6-1 in 74 minutes.

Weather: Sunny, mild.

Day Five, Friday, January 17. Paes ends up spending a lot of time with the racquet stringer today. He has had a problem here this week. The Prince racquets he uses are not upto his expectations. And he has been playing with racquets borrowed from his doubles partner Rikl.

``You know how tough it is to change,'' asks Paes, ''I have struggled to get used to the new ones but I am going to stick to them for this tournament. They (Prince) have sent me a new consignment but it is not advisable to change midway.''

However tough it is, the Indian Davis Cup hero has played some of his best tennis in recent times this week. Today he wins two matches, one in the company of Rikl — beating the very good Moroccan pair of Hicham Arazi and Younes El Anaiyou in men's doubles — and then teaming up with the legendary Martina Navratilova for a first round mixed doubles victory over the Aussies Scott Draper and Lisa McShea.

Martina, at age 46, is a revelation. She starts slowly but in the second set makes some great shots.

``It is such a privilege to play with someone like her. She has accomplished so much in the game and is still very fit and enjoys playing,'' says Paes.

For Paes's former doubles partner Mahesh Bhupathi, there is the first taste of victory today. Bhupathi and Iroda Tulyaganova of Uzbekistan beat Brian MacPhie of the United States and Rika Fujiwara of Japan handily in the first round.

The day's most absorbing contest features Andre Agassi and Nicolas Escude. Agassi wins in four sets and talks about how much he is enjoying the game a few months shy of his 33rd birthday.

``I think everything sort of gets exaggerated as you get older. You realise there is less of everything out there to experience. That includes the disappointments. I definitely enjoy it more now,'' he says.

The three-time Australian champion talks about his greatest rival and Sampras's decision to continue playing.

``He has earned the right to play this game on his terms. He has done enough to earn that respect. Whatever he decides, he will be clear minded in it,'' says Agassi who admits that he never believed Sampras would turn out to be as good as he was in the early days.

``I am glad nobody asked me then. I played Pete in 1989 in Rome and said to myself, `The poor guy can't keep a ball in the court. He never should have got rid of his two handed backhand. I don't see a good future for him.'''

Match of the day: Agassi beat Escude 6-2, 3-6, 6-3, 6-4.

Quote of the day: ''I know what path I am on. Serena is figuring out exactly what she wants off the court.''— Venus Williams.

Weather: Warm, but not unbearably hot.

Day Six, Saturday, January 18. There is good news for Hewitt fans today long before the 21-year old world champion goes out on court. Marat Safin withdraws because of an injury to his left wrist.

The Russian who loomed as the Australian top seed's biggest threat in the top half of the draw is scheduled to play Rainer Schuettler of Germany in the third round today. But he announces his decision rather early in the morning.

And Safin does not really seem to be shattered that he has to pull out. ''I have a few weeks off now. It is good for me. Vacation,'' says the Russian.

He says he injured his left wrist during a fall in his first round match and played the second round with pain killing injections. ''It's a cut in the ligament,'' he says.

Later in the afternoon, the focus is on the fast rising young American James Blake who beats Alberto Martin in four sets. Also an easy winner in the third round his his Davis Cup team-mate Andy Roddick.

With the Agassi-Sampras era almost coming to an end — funny we've been saying this for a few years now — Blake and Roddick are the future of American tennis.

Blake turns out in a sleeveless shirt — remember the controversy at the U. S. Open where Tommy Haas of Germany was told that he would not be allowed to play in a sleeveless shirt? — and, predictably, he is questioned about his choice of clothes at the press conference later.

Obviously, the ITF and the ATP had decided in the last few months to permit players to wear sleeveless shirts. ''I feel very comfortable in it. It is not constricting,'' says Blake.

A genial man who has spent time at Harvard and wants to go back there to complete his degree, Blake is not your run of the mill pro. He does nothing to hurt the great Arthur Ashe's legacy and is as good an advertisement for the African American community as they might have dreamed of.

Serena Williams, who knows Blake well, says that the young man has all the right credentials to make his way into politics in the future.

Describing him as ''an epitome of a gentleman'', Serena says ''He could definitely run for State governor and then President eventually because he says all the right things.''

When queried about his ambitions, Blake says, ''Politics? I don't know. At first I'd probably have to finish my degree at Havard. But then you never know. I mean definitely it is something interesting to me.'' Certainly it should be more interesting than having to explain why he is wearing a sleeveless shirt!

As for Roddick, he is content wearing shirts with sleeves. ''If I wore sleeveless people will try to feed me after the match. If you got the guns go for it. I got two breadsticks sticking out of my sleeve,'' he says.

Match of the day: Mikhail Youzhny beat Jiri Novak 6-1, 3-6, 6-3, 6-2.

Quote of the day: ''I didn't even see the draw. I don't care.''— Safin when asked who he thought might win the title.

Weather: Brilliant sunshine. Top of 23 degrees.

Day Seven, Sunday, January 19. As popular as the New and Improved Australian Open has been over the last 15 years since it moved to the new facility from Kooyong in 1988, there have been debates from time to time over a variety of issues vis a vis the tournament, not the least the January dates and the heat.

The Rebound Ace surface becomes rather sticky when it is hot and ankle injuries are common when players try to change direction during rallies. As early as in 1990, Gabriela Sabatini twisted her ankle and had to withdraw.

From time to time, several other players have been injured or have suffered in the heat.

This apart, there are many players who feel that the tournament takes place too soon in the new season and they have little time to prepare after coming out of the off-season. This is especially true of ones that have Davis Cup final commitments.

In the event, this year, there is a lot of talk here about whether it would be wiser to move the tournament from January to late February or March.

Of course, that is the last thing the organisers want. For one thing, the tournament has been very successful in its January dates because it is the holiday season here and the schools are closed.

For another, moving it to March will mean a clash of dates with the Formula One Grand Prix at Albert Park.

Anyway, Martina Navratilova hits out at the tennis calendar and this adds spice to the debate.

The great lady also says that the summer grass court season in England should be longer.

``I think it needs to be longer than two weeks,'' says Navratilova, who won 19 titles (singles, doubles, mixed doubles) on the lawns of Wimbledon. ''Variety is the spice of life and the spice of tennis, and if you standardise the surfaces, then you won't see the variety of the game.''

Meanwhile, on court today, Justine Henin-Hardenne, the fifth seed, fights blisters, cramps and exhaustion to overcome Lindsay Davenport in three sets in a match lasting three hours and 13 minutes.

Match of the day: Justine Henin-Hardenne beat Lindsay Davenport 7-5, 5-7, 9-7.

Quote of the day: ''No.1, No.2, N.3, No.4, there is no difference between us. We all play at the same level.''— Juan Carlos Ferrero.

Weather: Top of 27, sunshine all day.