The Australian Open’s heat-based rules for closing its retractable-roof stadiums are not good. They are not wise. Anyone should be able to see that. It’s time for an intervention.
This tournament cannot handle the heat metaphorically — in the sense of dealing with the pressure which accompanies making tough decisions under adjusted circumstances.
The Australian Open also can’t handle the heat LITERALLY. It can’t handle extreme heat. It doesn’t know what to do when temperatures reach 97 degrees (36 Celsius) — and much higher on the actual playing surface of Rod Laver Arena — as they did at the start of the first women’s semifinal on Thursday between Petra Kvitova and Danielle Collins.
Two tweets from longtime tennis observers very neatly put the situation in its proper focus:
Much like when you know rain is coming, if you know the heat is going to get worse in the next two hours, just close the roof @AustralianOpen. It’s not even about the tennis at this point. Common sense for the players, the fans, and the tv audience that all want great tennis.
— Darren Cahill (@darren_cahill) January 24, 2019
The thing about the roof closing (which is good), is that they've only done it because the Heat Stress Rule reached 5. They didn't do it because they thought it was too hot or dangerous for the players/fans, just because their rule said it.
— Simon Cambers (@scambers73) January 24, 2019
Those two matches were handled in different ways — for men and women — in nasty weather conditions. I said something along the lines of what Mr. Cambers noted above: The Australian Open has a rule just so it can politically cover itself, not so it can meaningfully protect players. The rule, as enforced, is a crutch and a limitation, not a proactive and robust attempt to get on top of the issue and minimize exposure for players in brutal conditions. (Read my column in the hyperlink. You’ll get the full explanation.)
Very simply, then, tennis — not just the Australian Open, but everywhere, at all tournaments — needs a consistently strong and enlightened extreme-heat policy.
You can argue about the specific numbers or thresholds — that’s fine. I will emphasize the structure and implementation of a plan.
First: There should be an automatic cutoff point where roofs are used or (if roofs are unavailable) play is suspended. I think 90 degrees (32.2 Celsius) is a good threshold, but again, your mileage might vary. The main point is to have that auto-cutoff point at the top of the policy structure.
This next part is just as essential if not more:
As we saw at the 2018 U.S. Open, where conditions were not just hot as a measurement of the heat index, but witheringly oppressive and stifling due to humidity and limited air circulation inside Arthur Ashe Stadium (due to the massive overhanging roof structure which traps air instead of allowing it to circulate), the temperature might not have been 90 degrees, but the environment was suffocating. Roger Federer had trouble functioning, and he hardly EVER has trouble functioning at a basic level.
What then? There should be a temperature cutoff at the top of the policy structure, but then a second level of “in-between” conditions in which the actual temperature might not hit the automatic cutoff point, but the heat index and/or the humidity reading create very uncomfortable conditions. Within this second layer of conditions, the players and their coaches should be able to have a consultation before a match begins. If one player or one coach say they don’t want to play, then they won’t be forced to play on an outdoor court until conditions improve. If both players and both coaches agree to play, the match gets played.
Recall the Wimbledon semifinal last year between Rafael Nadal and Novak Djokovic. Both players had to agree to remove the roof for the resumption on Saturday after the curfew halted the match in progress Friday night. A good heat policy would not require BOTH players (or coaches) to agree to postpone a match or — if a roof was available — use a roof. It would require only one player to request it. That naturally follows if we are valuing player interests and player safety. That should be a central policy item in any new heat-related plan or procedure: one player can request the change, without needing both to approve it.
In many ways, the hardest part of this plan would be to ascertain the BOTTOM END — not the top — of when conditions are too rough for players, at least to the point that players and coaches would need to be consulted. Is it a heat index composite reading? Is it a straight reading of temperature, such as 85 degrees? Is it a combination of temperature and humidity, such as 80 degrees with 50 percent humidity? I am not sure. Those numbers could be negotiated. Let’s say 85 degrees with 50 percent humidity or 80 degrees with 70 percent humidity are the “lower-end” thresholds. If the numbers dropped below those readings, play would proceed without consultation… but a 10-minute rest break after two sets could apply if one of the two numbers (temperature or humidity) remained above the threshold.
Automatic cutoff at the high end of the temperature scale.
A lower-end cutoff to establish minimum conditions under which players and coaches would be consulted about continuing play or asking for a roof.
In the middle — between those two thresholds, whenever they would apply — only one player or coach would need to request a change or postponement to make it happen.
Would other rules and policies need to accompany this central policy? Sure… but this is where and how you start to build a newer and better heat policy.
It is time for tennis to show that it truly can handle the heat.