Australian Open Heat Puts Weatherman, Chief Medic at Forefront

With temperatures at the Australian Open forecast to get close to 40 degrees Celsius (104 Fahrenheit) today, the tennis players won’t be the only ones sweating at the Grand Slam tournament.

The event’s meteorologist and chief medical officer need to work together to ensure the safety of the players and fans at the year’s first major. Sensitive to the vagaries of Melbourne’s weather, described locally as “four seasons in one day,” organizers have measures in place for when the mercury rises. Knowing when extreme heat is coming helps them better prepare.

“Every summer you learn something different about the Melbourne weather,” Bob Leighton, the tournament’s on-site meteorologist, said in an interview at Melbourne Park. “You have to, because it has to be precise. They want things to the minute here so you really have to notice everything.”

After three days below 30 degrees Celsius, the high temperatures that have engulfed Australia this month and caused hundreds of bushfires are set to return to Melbourne, with the forecast calling for a high of 39 Celsius. The continent registered a national average of 40.33 on Jan. 7, the hottest day in more than 100 years of records.

Five decades of working for the Bureau of Meteorology help Leighton, 72, stay on top of the shifting weather patterns, enabling him to update the tournament’s referee and director. Melbourne gets hot when northerly winds blow down from the country’s arid center, he said.

Heat Policy

Armed with a computer and charts in the bowels of Rod Laver Arena, Leighton also monitors the Wet Bulb Globe Temperature, which factors heat, humidity, the strength of the sun and wind speed. Organizers use the measurement to determine when to apply their extreme heat policy and suspend play. Matches at the two main stadiums are able to continue under a roof once the set in progress has been completed outdoors.

Relying on the absolute temperature to assess the level of heat stress on players and public ignores the role humidity plays in humans’ ability to get cool by evaporating sweat, according to Tim Wood, the tournament’s chief medical officer.

“We can really take a commonsense approach,” Wood said in an interview. “People are always taking temperatures near the court surface and saying ‘It’s 54 degrees or something like that,’ but it’s not the true reflection of what the players are experiencing. As far as I’m aware, in professional tennis, we’ve never had a confirmed case of heatstroke.”

Player Preparation

The Australian Open sends out a notice informing players that Melbourne’s weather can be “quite fickle” and the onus is on them to prepare as best they can, Wood said. While playing in the heat may affect performance, there’s no significant medical risk, he added.

The sport’s governing bodies will begin research into heat illness once the project details are finished, according to Stuart Miller, the International Tennis Federation’s executive director, science and technical.

“The hope is that data collection will begin later this year,” Miller said in an e-mail. “The primary aim is to develop an evidence base of the effects of playing tennis in extreme weather conditions.”

Conditioning can help players cope better. Four-time Australian Open champion Andre Agassi of the U.S. would run up hills in the Nevada desert to get ready for the tournament, while most competitors are now arriving well before the event begins, said Darren Cahill, an Australian tennis coach and ESPN analyst who guided Agassi to the No. 1 ranking.

Early Arrivals

“So many players get down here much earlier than they used to,” Cahill said on a Jan. 8 conference call. “It’s to get used to the climate. Most of the players are either doing their preseason in Australia or they’re coming out before Christmas to make sure they hit the ground running.”

At last week’s Sydney International tournament, some got a taste of the heat-wave conditions when they played through temperatures as high as 41.4 Celsius. Agnieszka Radwanska of Poland, the fourth-ranked women’s player and the tournament’s eventual champion, said it was “too hot to play tennis” and Li Na of China said she could feel her feet burning through her shoes after one set.

At Melbourne Park, sausage-shaped ice packs are available on all courts, while organizers put out ice vests at a Wet Bulb Globe reading of 26. Wood said he and the regular tour trainers often use soaked towels to draw the heat out of players.

For Leighton, today will be one of about a half-dozen in his 19 days at the tournament when he has to watch the temperature and Wet Bulb Globe index “like a hawk.”

“I’m there for a point of contact,” he said. “They don’t have to go ringing around and trying to get sense out of somebody. I’ll be giving them a temperature on the hour so they know how the day will progress and how perhaps they’ll run their day on what I’ve given them.”

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