What do public health officials and local government leaders always say? Be prepared. Don’t wait until the last minute. Know what to do. Have a plan. This applies to the upcoming U.S. Open in New York.
Will the U.S. Open be ready for a possible heat nightmare, akin to what occurred last year, suffocating Roger Federer, Novak Djokovic, and others in the first week and a half of the tournament?
This past weekend gave us a preview of what could be in store for the 2019 U.S. Open, but it also recalled last year, when Djokovic almost succumbed to the heat and humidity in New York, and Federer did succumb.
Over the past 72 hours, New York was merely one of several communities in the United States to experience extreme heat, with a heat index close to 110 degrees. Several people around the country died as a result of the extreme heat. For every death, dozens more people were hospitalized for heat exhaustion or other heat-related health problems.
A heat index at or near 110 is, by any reasonable standard, extreme weather unfit for playing tennis and, frankly, most outdoor sports. Baseball games — which were played in New York this past weekend — can manage to endure. Golf tournaments are sometimes played in searing heat. They can be completed without incident, given the breaks between shots, but even then, golf and baseball shouldn’t be played in extreme heat. No sports should be.
Extreme heat in tennis is going to be MORE of a constant in the future, not less. Even though the Australian Open, located in Melbourne, doesn’t generally have the humidity of New York, it hasn’t responded well to heat-related problems in recent years.
This is not something tennis can claim it doesn’t know about. Not now. Maybe a few years ago, but not anymore. Everyone in a tennis leadership position knows this is a big deal. No one can continue to plead ignorance.
So, what will the U.S. Open do about all this?
A heat break after the second set of a women’s match or the third set in a men’s match is a minimum standard. It’s good that some standards exist, but it is hardly a fully satisfactory response to this situation.
When Roger Federer and John Millman played a night match at last year’s U.S. Open, it didn’t matter that the punishing sun wasn’t involved. The big overhang at Arthur Ashe Stadium — the outer sides of what represents the lid on top of the stadium when the roof is used — trapped the humid air and created a stagnant environment in which it was not easy for Federer to breathe. He is one of the fittest athletes around, and yet even he was smothered by the heat and humidity. Djokovic, an equally phenomenal athlete, was severely depleted by the conditions.
Between-set heat breaks are certainly good, but they are nowhere good enough.
For all courts, not just the show courts, there should be large fans available to players, much as NFL and college football teams make large fans and cooling devices available to players in late-summer games involving intense heat.
Let’s not limit this to players, either: Large fans should be positioned in the seats so that spectators can also receive relief and aren’t forced to deal with the heat by themselves.
Beyond the provision of cooling devices on the court and in the stands, let’s also say this: Restrictions on the availability of electrolyte drinks should be relaxed to the point that they are much more available and accessible. Mini-refrigerators on all courts is one possibility.
(If the U.S. Open is going to pay the singles champion $3.8 million, it can certainly spare the added expense of more cooling devices, refrigeration units, and other relevant items.)
On these and other fronts, allowances should be made for the extreme conditions.
We haven’t even touched on scheduling decisions, either.
If the heat index is at or near 110 at noon local time, for example, and the forecast says that the heat index won’t drop below 100 until 6:30 p.m., the tournament should suspend play until 6:30 p.m. The USTA National Tennis Center can facilitate nighttime tennis in abundant quantities. The tournament should be up front and clear in saying that it will be prepared to play more night sessions throughout the grounds in order to shield players from heat. Spectators, if given advance notice, can adjust accordingly.
Are these decisions easy? No — I don’t want you to walk away from this piece thinking that they are. The specific details of these decisions will be hard to hash out.
However: I will say that tennis needs to be a lot more cognizant of the reality of climate volatility, chiefly extreme heat. A mindset and culture surrounding this larger topic needs to begin to change. More proactive solutions, and more allowance for player safety and comfort, ought to define the sport’s responses.
The U.S. Open, located in the sometimes-broiling city of New York, is in many ways the epicenter of this issue. It can choose to lead, or fail to act.
More will be written on this story in the coming weeks. Of that, you can be assured. This issue will not be ignored at Tennis With An Accent.
Stay tuned… and stay hydrated and in a shaded place this summer.