Maybe the scorching heat at the 2014 Australian Open will turn out to be a major factor for Rafael Nadal, Novak Djokovic and the other competing tennis superstars. Weather often plays a role for Grand Slam championships, and there are many signals that this can occur once again.
There is hot weather and then there is Melbourne. It has always had a hot tennis weather reputation, but temperatures now are reminders of biblical afterlife punishments. Playing conditions have been reported to reach 108F (42C), according to The Weather Channel and Associated Press.
The heat is expected to top 100F through Friday before cooling off to 68F, but there have already been some heated reactions.
World No. 122 Frank Dancevic, who fainted at one point in his first-round loss to Benoit Paire, explained his outrage to the media, reported by CNN.com: "I think it's inhumane, I don't think it's fair to anybody, to the players, to the fans, to the sport, when you see players pulling out of matches, passing out."
How Could This Impact the Superstars?
Depending on where you come from it has a bigger effect on you, this type of heat, than maybe humid heat. So it’s very personal, and it can become just a very mental thing and you just can’t accept that it’s hot.
Unless a superstar is unfortunately stricken by the heat, it might help him win a match quicker over a dispirited opponent who is not expecting to win the tournament. Stars like Federer and Serena Williams know that paying a championship price is a cost beyond terrifying heat. They are more likely to tune out the uncomfortable effects with their mental fortitude.
On the other hand, Juan Martin del Potro is a player with large stature and has shown past tendencies to wilt in the heat. He was exhausted in his 2013 Indian Wells final loss to Nadal and he faded in the fifth set of his 2013 Wimbledon semifinal to Djokovic.
His first round victory over American qualifier Rhyne Williams was a four-set struggle, and he admitted through SI.com that he was not completely focused on tennis:
You are thinking about a lot more things than the tennis match. You are trying to drink a lot and always thinking about your body and not about the game.
Djokovic and Azarenka Want to Defend Their Titles
Djokovic has won three consecutive Australian Open championships, and like any champion, would love to play through conditions that have seen him win championships. He has played through tough heat, which was notable in 2008 with his first title.
He also had to retire in the fourth set of the 2009 Aussie quarterfinals because of heat exhaustion.
Would this memory loom in his mind if he were locked into the kind of duel versus Stanislas Wawrinka one year ago?
On the other hand, Djokovic has gained a reputation for enduring tough five-set matches, especially with his six-hour marathon match versus Nadal in the 2012 Aussie final.
Two-time women’s defending champion Victoria Azarenka said before the tournament that she liked the hot weather. After her first match, she admitted having more respect for the heat saying, "Yeah it was a tough set first. The match was going to be tricky...the weather was not helping. I had to play a little bit and find my rhythm."
While conditions may be the same for both players, it will always affect one player more than the other. Djokovic and Azarenka have been tough players, mentally and physically, but the possibility remains that the extreme heat could somehow hurt them and help an opponent.
Could the Heat Favor Nadal?
Spanish superstar Nadal grew up playing clay-court matches under the sun. If he was not born to endure the heat, he has often shown greater strength than his opponents. It also helps the technicalities to his method of attack.
Nadal likes to hit heavy topspin, which bounces higher in the heat. It also allows the ball to speed along quicker, thereby giving him both more margin of error and power to his shots.
The hot, dry weather helped him more than Djokovic at Roland Garros one year ago, and maybe the mental victory could prove just as important.
Though the temperature may not reach 100F by the final weekend of the championship, hot weather would figure to help Nadal more than Djokovic. It’s a slim edge, but could perhaps be the deciding factor in a rivalry where even an ounce here or there can tip the balance to one player or the other.
Djokovic and Nadal are both endurance kings, but Nadal’s game is more enhanced if the conditions prove to be extreme come January 26, when they could possibly meet to play for the championship.
Of course, it’s possible the heat or an inspired opponent could eliminate either player before their expected final showdown.
The weather gods at Melbourne have time to wreak havoc before things cool down.