Australian Open heat: are tennis stars warriors or wimps?
Players in revolt over 42C heat, as temperature sorts the men from the boys
CONTROVERSY over conditions at the Australian Open tennis continues to rage, as more players express concerns over the scorching heat at Melbourne.
Andy Murray was among those to take a stand as he accused the organisers of putting players' health, and even lives, at risk by refusing to stop play even though temperatures have touched 42C.
Talking after his match on Tuesday the Wimbledon champion said the decision to allow play to go on made the sport seem "terrible". He was particularly worried for those players involved in long matches and the less celebrated competitors performing in direct sunlight on outside courts.
The conditions certainly appear to have taken their toll. The Daily Telegraph reports that the tally of nine first-round retirements equals a record set at the 2011 US Open.
That is not the only parallel with the 2011 tournament in New York. Coincidentally, Flushing Meadow three years ago was the scene of the last significant revolt by players, when the likes of Murray, Rafa Nadal and Andy Roddick complained that they were being forced to play in dangerous conditions.
On that occasion the issue was slippery courts, with players doing battle in rain and on wet surfaces as organisers sought to make up time lost to the weather.
The circumstances may have been different, but Nadal's comments three years ago could equally apply to the current situation. "We are not protected. There is a lot of money at the Grand Slams but we are part of the show. They are just working for that and not for us," said Nadal. "I know the fans are there but the health of the players is important."
But are modern tennis stars being forced to risk life and limb, or are they acting like prima donnas?
"While it easy to think that extremes of temperature can lead to life-threatening situations," writes Michael Davison, a sports medical officer, in the Telegraph. "It seems inconceivable that experienced organising and medical teams in Melbourne would allow this to happen."
The core temperatures of players could reach "danger levels where cramping, fainting and vomiting occur" he warns, and heat stress can highlight other fitness issues. But the "long-term effects of these symptoms are often minimal, as long as the core temperature is lowered quickly and effectively".
The players should stop complaining, says Kevin Mitchell in The Guardian, who suggests that the heat may be sorting the men from the boys, metaphorically. "A lot of people pay good money to watch these elite athletes and they are right to expect 100 per cent effort from them. And, it has to be said, some players are not slow to look for a way out."
Those who pull out always seem to be the ones with little chance of getting far in the competition, he adds. "Would they rather be working in a shop – or picking up a rather large loser's cheque on day one of a slam? You can't have it all ways."
Not everyone agrees. The Australian Open Champion of 1978, Chris O'Neil, recalls, also in the Guardian, the effects of playing in extreme heat that lasted "long after the match was over, with severe vomiting, delirium and disorientation lasting into the night". He agrees with complaints that the conditions have been "inhumane".
He points out that modern hard courts, unlike grass, reflect the heat, and takes on those who hark back to the "old days" when heat risk was unheard of.
"The game was not the same, the surface was not the same, and the level of physicality was not the same," he argues. "It's like saying smoking isn't a danger to your health because everyone used to do that too."
And the stakes are high. "The day that someone perishes on court... we shall wonder if the officials have erred on the side of devil-may-care," notes Neil Harman of The Times.