Seething temperatures wreaking havoc

1/29/2009 - Tennis

MELBOURNE, Australia -- You can pick any of the dozens of adjectives available to describe how hot it is in Melbourne these days: blistering, broiling, fiery, parching, roasting, scalding, scorching, searing, etc.

They'd all work just fine.

Let's just say when you walk out your front door and the blast of hot air hits you, one imagines that someone flipped a switch and encapsulated the whole city in a furnace.

Temperatures on Thursday skyrocketed high enough to flirt with topping out at 110 degrees, so there were no chances taken -- the Australian Open roof was shut closed from the elements to provide a more suitable environment.

"There's very, very hot air over us and it has the potential to be seething," said Bob Leighton, the Australian Open's official meteorologist. Leighton says there was a severe heat wave in 1959, when the Open had three days in a row at temperatures of 105-plus. "But for a very long heat wave of five days, you have to go back 100 years, to 1908."

As predictions for potentially record-breaking successive days of sweltering heat became the talk of the town by last weekend, interest in the safety and well-being of the players became its own hot topic.

Dr. Tim Wood, the tournament physician, told ESPN.com that the Australian Open's extreme-heat policy is predicated on sound medical judgment to prevent serious incidents. And he said players were being advised to take precautions, including pre-cooling before a match by dunking for 15-20 minutes in water of about 68 degrees in the locker room spa bath or just taking a cool shower to lower their body temperature.

"After working at eight Opens, I feel comfortable that we have a heat policy that really stands scrutiny, and I am very happy to stand up and defend it," said Wood, who marveled at the remarkable ability of human beings to self-cool: "For many years we had a history of hunting the wildebeest on the plains of Africa and survived in the scorching, baking temperatures while the animals couldn't because of our ability to sweat."

Medically speaking, players who prepare properly (through fluids, salt tablets, proper eating) are not considered to be in danger of catastrophic heat stroke, it might be a hard sell to tell someone draped with a huge, icy towel around their neck during changeovers that they're not really feeling the heat.

Take for instance defending champion Novak Djokovic, who deserted his quarterfinal match Tuesday against Andy Roddick in the fourth set in temperatures that didn't soar as high as initially forecast.

"Really, [I] tried my best, but sometimes you can't fight against your own body," Djokovic explained afterward.

Former player Jason Stoltenberg, a native Melbournian who found it harder to deal with the humid American summer hard-court circuit than the drier Australian heat, thought Djokovic looked out of the match even while winning the first set: "Mentally, it didn't look like he was quite prepared to take it on like Andy was. I think in Andy's mind there was no chance he wasn't going to finish the match. In Novak's mind, I don't know him, but in my opinion, I think he always looked like he had a doubt whether he was going to make it."

ESPN announcer Mary Joe Fernandez believes warnings of extremely wicked temperatures probably unnerved Djokovic before he even went out to the court. "They talked about that it was going to be so hot, it gets in your head. I think psychologically you worry about it."

Fernandez, who credits her tolerance for the heat to growing up playing in the Miami humidity, remembers the worst of her Melbourne weather experiences occurring in two matches.

In a 1991 semifinal loss to Monica Seles, she was so drenched in sweat that she left pools of water behind with each step she took. Her coach, Dean Goldfine, sat in the stands bemoaning her negligence to take extra sneakers and socks on the court.

Facing Patty Schnyder in a 1997 fourth round match was also a challenge.

"I remember before I went out there to play Schnyder, Conchita Martinez had just played a match and walked in the locker room and said, 'If you don't win the first set, just say goodbye,'" Fernandez said. "We were playing on Margaret Court Arena, and it was so hot that there were no fans watching. I lost the first set and I said, 'Oh my God, she told me if I didn't win the first set, I didn't have a chance.' And a couple of games into the second set, the sun hit Schnyder, and that was it. I don't think I lost many more points and they had to wheel her out and she needed IVs after that. It was pretty bad."

Many players actually like playing in the heat. Case in point: Svetlana Kuznetsova balked when the roof was closed after she won the first set of her quarterfinal match against Serena Williams on a well-baked Rod Laver Arena on Wednesday.

Gil Reyes, the strength and conditioning guru who helped Andre Agassi weather the conditions in Melbourne to win four titles, told ESPN's Bonnie D. Ford by phone on Thursday that Agassi prayed for hot weather at the Australian Open.

"Andre used to request playing during the day," Reyes said. "He loved it. When they closed the roof, he would say that it just meant it would take him longer to break down the other guy.''

Of course, Agassi played with the benefit of Reyes' extensive knowledge guiding him.

"There's a difference between being in shape and being prepared,'' said Reyes. "You're walking into a thermostatic buzz saw. The key is your consumption of liquids, the right liquids, and replenishment of essential nutrients. You lose so many minerals through perspiration."

In his years as the medical adviser to the tournament, Wood said he was only once truly medically concerned for an athlete's well-being on the court. The player was Dutchwoman Michaella Krajicek, who pulled the plug on her third-round match against eventual 2006 champion Amelie Mauresmo after losing the first set 6-2.

"[She] felt very distressed 25-30 minutes into the match, toward the end of first set," Wood said of Krajicek. "She had had a bad experience in her junior days, and I think the combination of a big crowd on Centre Court, the heat and her past experience got to her. Ultimately, she fortunately made the decision to retire without us having to make the decision for her."

Although weather conditions were expected to stay uncomfortably above normal for the next couple of days, by early evening on Thursday the temperatures had dropped sufficiently enough that tournament officials suspended the extreme-heat policy rule and opened the roof for the highly anticipated men's semifinal between Roger Federer and Roddick.

And fans could safely bet that too-hot-to-trot around a court or not, neither Federer nor Roddick would walk off court before a winner was declared.

Sandra Harwitt is a freelance tennis writer for ESPN.com.