Scorching temperatures during the first three days at the Australian Open have made nearly as many headlines as Novak Djokovic's title defense or Rafael Nadal's return to Melbourne Park.
Athletes and fans know that mid-January in Australia will be anywhere from warm to red hot. It is the middle of the summer Down Under, after all. But the current heatwave tormenting the east coast of the country—highs of 42 degrees Celsius were reported Tuesday—is bringing temperatures far above even what is considered 'normal' for this time of year.
These temperatures alone are good enough reason to rethink how tournaments are scheduled and carried out.
Roger Federer described the battle against the heat as "a mental thing" that needed to be overcome. Defending champion Victoria Azarenka said it felt like "dancing in a frying pan," and former World No. 1 Caroline Wozniacki said her plastic water bottle started to melt on the court.
Andy Murray is concerned that "something bad could happen to one of the players" if matches aren't suspended at #AusOpen due to extreme heat— BBC Sport (@BBCSport) January 14, 2014
Just 24 hours after the BBC tweeted that Olympic gold medal winner and reigning Wimbledon champion Andy Murray thought the temperatures were dangerous, New York Times tennis beat writer Ben Rothenberg quoted Ivan Dodig as saying he thought it was more than just a hazard.
"I thought I could die here." -Ivan Dodig, who retired due to cramps today. He insisted he thinks a player could die in this heat. #AusOpen— Ben Rothenberg (@BenRothenberg) January 15, 2014
Ivan Dodig suggests play should halt from 1-4 pm during heat, play under lights. "It's not acceptable to play on these conditions." #AusOpen— Ben Rothenberg (@BenRothenberg) January 15, 2014
There comes a point when it isn't as simple as a training regiment, physical conditioning or mental fortitude. Sometimes too hot is just too hot, in the same way that too wet is too wet. Heat is manageable up to a point, just like rain is. Once it becomes too wet to ensure safe play, play is halted.
Yes, many players in the main draw of the tournament have been in Australia or New Zealand for the past month to prepare their bodies for the heat. Several competed in Brisbane, Sydney, Doha, Chennai, Auckland, Shenzhen or Hobart in the two weeks before the first Grand Slam of the year.
A group of 28 players made it into the first round after outlasting 196 other hopefuls in the three-round, four-day qualifying tournament which finished two days before the main draw began.
But while the Australian Open has a solid "extreme heat" policy, it is at the referee's discretion and essentially requires a combination of heat and humidity. Even when players were physically sick or forced to retire or when ballboys fainted on Monday and Tuesday, the roof remained open. Ice towels are good for the players and extra shaded areas and water fountains are helpful for patrons, but it's not enough.
Dr Tim Wood, who said the heat is not cumulative for the players, is completely clueless. No doubt to me that today it is too hot to play...— Martina Navratilova (@Martina) January 14, 2014
Players should not have to compete in extreme, potentially harmful conditions. It really is as simple as that. Umpires, ballboys, ballgirls, photographers, vendors and fans should not have to risk these same conditions, either.
Dodig made a valid suggestion about not playing during the hottest part of the day. While I believe his premise is logical, the execution is flawed. More importantly, I think his suggestion poses a much greater question about the scheduling of Grand Slam events in general.
Logistically, cutting three hours of play out of the middle of the day is tough. Either three or four matches are typically scheduled on each of the outside 11 courts, with four more on Show Court 2, Show Court 3, Hisense Arena and Margaret Court Arena and three on Rod Laver Arena. Typically there are only three scheduled night matches during the first week—two on Rod Laver Arena and one on Margaret Court Arena.
By eliminating three hours of play, you're potentially axing around one quarter of the 60-plus day matches around the grounds. Sure, you could start an hour earlier—10 a.m. instead of 11 a.m.—and push other matches later into the night, but it might be better to reschedule the tournament completely. And not just the Australian Open, but Wimbledon, Roland Garros and the US Open, too.
Wimbledon and the US Open, in particular, have seen schedules thrown into turmoil because of inclement weather in the past. The roof on Center Court at Wimbledon has helped with rain showers and playing into the evening and, by 2018, roofs on Arthur Ashe Stadium and Louis Armstrong Stadium at the US Open will have the same effect.
Similarly, the 2012 final at Roland Garros was halted because of rain, leading to some heavy criticism about the way the delay was handled. As in Flushing Meadows, a roof will not be in place until 2018.
So instead of cramming matches into an already overcrowded schedule or risking the unpredictability of Mother Nature, why not extend the length of the Grand Slam tournaments from 14 days to, say, 16?
Instead of starting on a Monday morning, start on the previous Saturday. Instead of getting the qualifying tournament underway on a Wednesday, begin on a Monday.
The advantages of this idea is that you build in an extra weekend—arguably the most popular and best-attended days—into the main tournament, finish on the same Saturday (for women) and Sunday (for men) and have two extra days to work around potential issues with rain or, in the case of the Australian Open, extreme heat.
Start with three matches on each of the outside courts and go from there. If you need to move a fourth match there during the first week, that would not pose a scheduling problem. It's unlikely you'd need to use all of the courts in the second week, even with the junior tournament underway.
There would need to be some shuffling of the ATP and WTA Tour schedules to accommodate a Saturday start, as Saturday is typically the day reserved for the final of other tour-level events.
In the case of the Australian Open, that would mean the Heineken Open in New Zealand (ATP), the Hobart International (WTA) and the Apia International in Sydney (both ATP and WTA).
For the men, the tournaments at the start of the season are ATP World Tour 250 events.
Sure, points earned here could count to their final ranking, but a semifinal appearance here only awards 90 points. That's the same amount as a quarterfinal spot in an ATP 500 event like Dubai, a run to the round of 16 at a World Tour Masters 1000 event like Miami, or a third-round loss at a Major.
Those events are not mandatory and they would not affect their commitment to at least four 500 events.
For the women, the warmup events are all either Premier Events or International Events, none of which are mandatory point-scoring events for Top 20 players.
There are three possible solutions to this.
- Remove some lower-level events from the calendar entirely, especially at the start and of the year. Nadal, for one, has advocated to shorten the tour schedule and move more of the hard-court tournaments to clay.
- Consolidate some of the pre-slam tournaments (like Sydney and Brisbane) into one bigger event. Have a main field of 56 or 64 (no first-round bye) players instead of 32 and a bigger prize pot. Make Brisbane three rounds before the quarterfinals instead of two and extend the length of the tournament by either one or two days. Players get more rest and, because you're eliminating the tournament in Sydney (which would begin the following week), players would be more fresh entering a Major. Alternate between the two venues each year, while maintaining the start date of the earlier one on the year.
- Move several low-level tournaments to late November and early December. Players who missed out on points at the start of the year can compete here instead. You can move the end-of-year championships back two weeks, if necessary.
Personally, I like the second option. It increases competition at the events that stay on the calendar, keeps players fresher and allows flexibility in scheduling Grand Slam events. It's great that Delray Beach, Umag and Seoul can host tournaments each year, but looking at the bigger picture it's the globally televised Majors that draw the main interest and really push the sport forward.
Sometimes things need to be sacrificed for the greater good. In this case, I'd rather pull the ripcord on a tournament in Tashkent or Sydney to allow the athletes to shine brightest on the biggest stage.
Follow me on Twitter @MarshallATennis.