For a very brief moment, I was glad to walk out of the hotel this morning and find myself in a furnace, because it finally felt like I was getting the full Australian Open experience. Before I came to Melbourne, everyone had been telling me that the Australian Open was the most physically-demanding Grand Slam, with never-ending days and brutal temperatures. Up until this point, I’d only felt the brunt of the night sessions. While those are undoubtedly my favourite sessions to watch, the reality is that they’re relentlessly challenging to cover, particularly in the first week when play starts again at 11am the next day.
Despite all the pre-tournament chatter about the new heat stress scale at this year’s Australian Open, today was actually the first time it became necessary to fully understand the workings of it. It really was an incredibly hot day. Scorching, sweltering, scalding, sizzling; none of these words can really do justice to the experience of spending any amount of time outside today, where the heat was claustrophobic, headache-inducing and inescapable, the kind to bring human life to a standstill. Once the novelty of it all wore off, I began to realise that I much preferred the cooler conditions of the last ten days. Forget the ‘full Australian Open experience’ nonsense. My coping mechanism was simply to spend as little time as possible outside.
In common meteorological terms, the temperature reached 40.4C at 4pm in central Melbourne today, considerably higher than the 36C that was forecast. In Australian Open terms, it reached 5.9 on the new heat stress scale, considerably higher than the maximum 5.0 threshold, meaning play was suspended on the outside courts and the roofs came over Rod Laver Arena and Margaret Court Arena. I wondered what might happen if we reached 6.0. Free ice creams all round in the media centre would have been my preference.
Anyway, the 5.0 reading aligned with my own judgement: it was too hot to play tennis outdoors. I arrived at that conclusion in a far less scientific manner than the Thermal Ergonomics Laboratory (the brainboxes behind the heat stress scale). My opinion was based purely on observations. When it’s impossible to walk down the street because everyone is squeezed into the shady third of the pavement, desperate to avoid the sun, it’s too hot to play tennis outdoors. When the people scanning your accreditation pass are also tasked with spraying you with water as you enter, it’s too hot to play tennis outdoors. When kneeling ball kids can’t put their hands down on the court without flinching, it’s too hot to play tennis outdoors. When Garden Square is deserted because even hardcore tennis fans can’t face watching tennis in the conditions, it’s too hot to play tennis outdoors.
Ominously, the Bureau of Meteorology is forecasting temperatures up to 44C for tomorrow in Melbourne, as mercury continues to soar throughout Australia. Adelaide broke its 80-year-old heat record with 46.6C today, and a place called Port Augusta in South Australia hit 49C. There’s something fascinating about extreme heat – it gets people talking, it’s kind of exciting to see just how hot it can get, and it’s an intriguing personal challenge to know how well you can survive it. But there’s a serious side too: bushfires in Tasmania, animal culling in Central Australia. At the tennis, we saw the danger last year when Simona Halep ended up in hospital after the final.
Tennis is not the hunger games, it doesn’t need to be a pure survival of the fittest. In conditions like today, sense should prevail.
Here’s a nice story:
Pierre Hugues Herbert is renting a flat in Melbourne for the duration of this year’s Australian Open. When his neighbours realised who he was, they began to check his results and started to stick posters on his front door – French flags, good luck messages, notes of congratulations. Herbert took notice, saying thanks via his Instagram story. And then he bumped into them outside the flat. After chatting for a few minutes, Herbert took the opportunity to invite them along to today’s semi-final. Four of them braved the heat and took their place on Margaret Court Arena to see Herbert and Mahut beat Harrison and Querrey. At the end of the match, Herbert gave them a shoutout in the post-match interview. Now he’s going to try to source them some Rod Laver Arena tickets for Sunday’s final.