Quite fittingly for a tournament mired in controversy, the Australian Open finished with a firestorm. The men’s final between Roger Federer and Marin Cilic was marred by the contentious decision from tournament officials to close the roof.
After losing the tight five-set finale, Cilic believed the decision influenced the outcome of the match because it was cooler than expected and made it “very, very difficult” to adjust after practising outdoors all tournament. Federer, who normally has retorts for all queries, was unaware of a heat rule for night matches at the Australian Open.
Amid a heatwave — it was 38 degrees outside when the final started and the air-conditioning was turned on inside — former Wimbledon champion Pat Cash believed the outdoor tournament should not be decided under a closed roof unless there was the threat of precipitation.
The decision was made by the chief medical officer of the Australian Open and the tournament referee under the extreme-heat policy where the wet bulb reading exceeds 32.5 degrees.
A farcical ending
It was a farcical ending to the year’s first major, souring Federer’s historic night and an epic final. Apart from Federer’s wondrous deeds, the tournament will be remembered infamously for Melbourne’s stifling heat creating havoc.
Controversy also abounded after the women’s final with runner-up Simona Halep admitted to hospital for four hours for dehydration after losing to Caroline Wozniacki.
During the famed Boxing Day Test, inclement conditions often tarnish cricket’s showpiece match, but Melbourne’s notoriously fickle weather almost always rears a month later during the Australian Open. When Melbourne is scorching, it is oppressive; like being in a sauna bath. On the other side of the country, Perth is renowned for being baking hot but its welcoming sea breeze — called the ‘Fremantle Doctor’ — often waves a cooling wand in the afternoon ensuring there is some relief.
Unfortunately for Melbourne, there is no respite marked by interminable nights — as all involved at the Australian Open can testify to. Even fans suffered, with one reported instance of a woman collapsing near the main entrance early in the tournament. Spectators resorted to finding cover and any shade they could find.
This year’s Australian Open was blighted by several heat waves, the first rearing in the opening week. Almost every press conference was hijacked by journalists peppering frustrated players over the red-hot talking point. Things boiled over in the second round when 12-time major winner Novak Djokovic and French veteran Gael Monfils endured punishing conditions that saw both players almost at breaking point. The match lasted only two hours and 45 minutes — relatively pedestrian for men’s matches in majors — but both players almost wilted in the cauldron.
After the match, Monfils said it felt as if he had survived “a small heat stroke for 40 minutes,” while Djokovic — a legendary warrior — said he was “right at the limit.”
Heat takes its toll on players
As one of the legends of the game, Djokovic’s pointed comments carried considerable weight and ensured the issue made international headlines and became a talking point. Right there and then, tournament officials had a nightmare — one that had surfaced occasionally through the years but not to this extent.
Players fell like flies as the tournament spiralled farcically towards the business end. World No. 1 Rafael Nadal added considerable punch to Djokovic’s earlier criticisms after he was forced to retire from his quarterfinal match against Cilic — it was only the second time in his legendary career that the Spaniard was forced to withdraw during a match in a major.
Earlier in the tournament, Nadal made an impassioned plea for a review of the heat policy. The tournament’s current heat policy calls for the roofs to be closed on the main show courts and play to be suspended on outer courts when the temperature exceeds 40 degrees and the wet-bulb globe temperature, which takes into account humidity and wind speed, reaches 32.5 degrees.
“Yeah, sometimes it is too much and can become little bit dangerous for health,” Nadal said. “That’s the real thing. It’s not nice to see players suffering that much on court.”
After retiring from his quarterfinal match, Nadal took a dig at the ATP for the packed scheduling contributing to overload for weary players, exacerbated by having to endure the abominable temperatures in Melbourne.
Even Hyeon Chung, the Korean who shocked Djokovic in the Round of 16, had his fairytale tournament sabotaged by a nasty foot blister which forced him to retire from his semifinal match against Federer. Perhaps only Chung knows how much the extreme conditions contributed to his ailment, but undoubtedly it was some type of factor.
Of course, the indefatigable Federer, 36, defied his advancing age and the elements to motor to another major victory. The Swiss master spent less than 11 hours on court, while Cilic endured 17 hours — which may have been the difference, as the Croatian appeared to run out of gas in the fifth set of the final.
Throughout the tournament, Federer played down the heat factor although he undoubtedly benefited from being scheduled primarily at night and admitted to receiving some favouritism from tournament organisers with the scheduling of matches.
What’s the solution?
Right now, the heat issue has become thorny for the tournament with few solutions evident. Just a few decades ago, the Australian Open was deemed an afterthought for many top stars who often skipped travelling Down Under. It was quite clearly perceived as the inferior slam among the four majors.
These days, as a testament to Federer’s overwhelming endorsement of the tournament after winning the trophy, the Australian Open has become a showpiece spectacle and perfectly scheduled at the start of the year to kick off the tennis calendar.
Unfortunately, truth be told, it coincides with the peak of the Australian summer which presents health hazards. One potential option would be to move the tournament to March or April but that would severely disrupt the scheduling of the season with high-profile events, particularly, in the USA earmarked for that time of the year.
The Australian Open has captured the imagination of fans worldwide, especially in the lucrative Asian market after being successfully re-branded as the ‘Asia-Pacific Slam’, but the major caveat remains the occasional Melbourne meltdown.
With a change of date unrealistic, safety measures need to be perused. The situation is magnified by players, particularly those coming from cold climates, having the arduous challenge of quickly acclimatising to the fierce spike in temperatures.
Acutely aware of the stress from tournament organisers to keep matches rolling, with lucrative television revenue at stake, the Australian Medical Association New South Wales president, Brad Frankum, suggested that doctors should assess players away from the live-rolling TV cameras.
“So maybe there could be some consideration to having a private area where doctors could do an assessment away from the cameras,” he said.
With the tournament scheduled during the highpoint of the Australian summer, the heat issue — with temperatures expected to continue rising in Australia — will be a perennial headache. It will be up to the tournament organisers to ensure they find solutions, not just band-aid measures. Otherwise they face the risk of players and spectators shunning the Australian Open once again.
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