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At the US Open, the sweltering heat makes some players lose their temper


Most years there is a very specific climate model for the US Open.

The tournament begins at the end of the August heatwaves, in the persistent heat and humidity of a New York summer. Before the final matches, at the end of the first full week of September, it’s a good idea to bring a light sweater or windbreaker to the Billie Jean King National Tennis Center.

Not this year. Not even close.

A first week filled with cool, breezy afternoons and chilly nights gave way to some of the hottest days (and nights) of summer, with conditions that put some of the fittest athletes in the world almost on their knees, even when playing at dusk and after sunset. The heat and humidity is so oppressive it settles in the brain, instilling fear and making it difficult to focus on anything else, especially returning serves at 130 miles per hour and chasing forehands and setbacks in the field for up to five hours.

That’s the first thing Daniil Medvedev thought of as he stepped onto the pitch for his warm-ups this week, sessions which take place hours before his matches.

“I was like, ‘Oh my God,'” Medvedev said the other day as he prepared to face Australian Alex de Minaur. Medvedev hails from Russia and, like many Eastern European players, can get terribly grumpy in extreme heat.

In a quarter-final game on Wednesday, he struggled to see the ball and relied on his instincts to survive a fierce battle with compatriot and close friend Andrey Rublev. For the second day in a row, organizers resorted to a new measure to bring relief: partially closing the roof of Arthur Ashe Stadium to shade the pitch.

“A player is going to die and they will see,” Medvedev mumbled mid-game.

Even after Medvedev triumphed in straight sets in two hours and 47 minutes, he slumped in his chair, draping an ice-filled towel around his neck, his head between his knees, begging for water. Had the match gone to the fourth set, Medvedev said he would have used the 10-minute break to take a cold shower, even though he knew it could make his body stiff like a board.

“I didn’t care, I was going to take a shower,” Medvedev said, the skin on his face raw hours later after rubbing it too much with a towel.

“Brutal,” is how longtime ESPN tennis commentator Cliff Drysdale described the afternoon.

As the planet heats up, those responsible for all warm weather sports are seeking a balance between safety and maintaining the belief that elite sports require elite physical fitness and the ability to win in harsh conditions. . International football has incorporated water breaks in the event of extreme heat. Athletics began scheduling marathons at dawn or at night.

Tennis, which has become more physical and demanding over the past 20 years due to improvements in racquet and string technology and court conditions, is also tackling the problem.

“It’s part of the sport,” US Open tournament director Stacey Allaster said of the heat.

Tennis players are no strangers to extreme temperatures. Their seasons begin during the Australian summer in January, where hot winds from the arid plains can send temperatures soaring into the triple digits and make the tournament feel like an oven. At the Australian Open in Melbourne, shifting winds and temperature swings of 20-30 degrees within hours are not uncommon.

After Australia – although there are a handful of indoor tournaments – the sport essentially spends the next 10 months chasing after the sun. There are hot ports of call, like Doha, Dubai, Florida and Mexico; and even events in August in Atlanta, Washington, DC and outside Cincinnati ahead of the US Open in the “big heat” of New York, as Novak Djokovic calls it.

This week, the heat has been very strong, requiring Allaster; Jake Garner, tournament referee; and their team of advisors to closely monitor the temperature of the WetBulb globe, a measure of heat stress in direct sunlight, which also takes into account temperature, humidity, wind speed, sun angle and cloud cover .

When it exceeds 86 degrees, mitigation measures come into effect, including a 10-minute break between the second and third sets of women’s matches and the third and fourth sets of men’s matches.

Garner said in an interview Wednesday that officials decided this summer that when the index reaches 90 degrees, he and his team would meet to determine whether to partially close the roofs of his two main stadiums, Louis Armstrong and Arthur Ashe. .

He crossed that threshold on Tuesday, brushing 92 degrees on the pitch in Coco Gauff’s quarter-final win over Jelena Ostapenko. Had this match gone to a third set, the roof would have been partially closed, but Gauff won in straight sets. Officials therefore shaded the pitch for the next match, with Novak Djokovic’s straight sets winning over Taylor Fritz.

“We both struggled,” Djokovic said. “A lot.”

Later in the afternoon, on one of the courts, Stéphane Houdet, who is participating in the tournament in a wheelchair, hid a bottle of water in the box near the end line where the players store their towels, which they sip between the points.

“A great idea,” said Brian Hainline, president of the United States Tennis Association, physician and NCAA chief medical officer. The problem for the USTA – and, ultimately, the players – is that even with the roofs closed, both stadiums are designed as open-air venues that cannot be sealed off. They have air circulation systems that prevent moisture from settling on the pitch when the roof is closed, rather than fully operational air conditioning systems. On the bright side, the resort is a short walk from Flushing Bay, and when the wind blows water, it can be cooler there than many places in New York City. Unfortunately, the wind has remained morose for the past few days.

As the players booked their places for the semi-finals scheduled for Thursday and Friday, one clear trend seemed to be emerging: Florida. Two of the three women who made it to the last four on Wednesday afternoon, Gauff and Aryna Sabalenka, have made it their home. A third, Madison Keys, who lives in Orlando, claimed the last spot on Wednesday night with a 6-1, 6-4 win over Czech Marketa Vondrousova. Ben Shelton, the 20-year-old hot serve who will face Djokovic in the semifinals on Friday, lives in Gainesville, Florida.

Sabalenka, who grew up in far from tropical Belarus, credited her summer training near her home in Miami with weathering the heat on Wednesday in her win over China’s Zheng Qinwen.

“What’s worse than Florida? said Sabalenka.

For Gauff, the 19-year-old from Delray Beach, Fla., who has become a tournament darling, the heat represents an opportunity to thrive rather than just a way to survive.

“The hotter the better,” said Gauff, who will face the rarely hot Czech Republic’s Karolina Muchova on Thursday.

This could be especially true against Muchova. She battled Gauff in the Ohio Heat last month in the Western & Southern Open final. She walked onto the court for the warm-up that day and said, “Oh, Jesus. »

“Ouch,” she said when it was over.

On Wednesday, one of Muchova’s coaches, Jaroslav Blazek, said he would ask him to focus on keeping his body cool. Many players have stuck black pipes that blow cold air under their shirts during game changes. But he anticipated that the challenge would be as much a mental battle as it was a physical one.

“You should be prepared for it to be like hell,” he said.