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How Will The Heat Wave Affect The Australian Open?

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Today’s title is pretty self-explanatory. As temperatures soar throughout southern Australia, the on-court temperatures will be even higher. Earlier today Brad Gilbert tweeted about the possibility of the roof being closed on Rod Laver Arena in response to the heat. However there are no roofs for the other courts, which leaves us with two lingering questions:

1) How will the extreme heat change the dynamic on matches outside Laver Arena?
2) If the later rounds are played indoors due to heat, how does that affect things?

Playing In The Heat

Today temperatures are supposed to hit 39C (102F). It’s hard to explain to people who have never experienced it what heat like that feels like simply standing on a tennis court (especially in a humid place like Melbourne) let alone running around hitting balls for 2-5 hours. When conditions become this hot any advantages in conditioning become magnified. You are no longer simply playing the opponent across the net, you are in a very real sense fighting against your own body – trying to win before it begins to shut down from dehydration and overheating. Your opponent is of course doing the same. The fitter man (or woman) enjoys a huge advantage in this regard – improved strength and conditioning means the body is operating more efficiently, which in turn means it is less susceptible to overheating.

Of course it isn’t just about the off-season conditioning the players have done – where they put in the hard yards over December will also have a huge impact. Players typically try to do their off-season training in warmer locales because the body adapts to the heat over time in a hundred small ways that accumulate into a rather large effect. Federer famously trains in Dubai in part due to the heat it brings on a daily basis. Other players retreat to training bases in semi-tropical locations like Miami in southern Florida. Not all players have the financial means to set up training camps in exotic or warmer locales however, so look potentially for those lower ranked players who have their normal base in colder climes to potentially suffer more than most.

That said the style of play one brings to the court also will have an impact today. Big hitting attackers like Raonic can conserve energy on their own serve, and then take a puncher’s chance on their opponent’s serve, picking and choosing when to expend themselves. Swinging freely at returns early in games, if they get lucky and connect on a few they can opt to fight hard to get the break – if not then it’s back to the baseline to bomb a few more serves before trying again. Meanwhile Ferrer is thanking his lucky stars that today is his off day. Ferrer cannot risk shortening the points – to do so contrasts strongly with his normal playing style and lessens his chances. His elite fitness is a weapon in the heat, and he would look simply to make his opponent work as hard as he does, confident in the fact he can outlast almost anyone. The downside is it is still early days, and if he expends too much energy to get a win in the current round, he could have nothing left in the tank for later.

The last factor is cognitive. As the temperature becomes extreme and the body begins to overheat, cognitive function is impaired. Concentration becomes difficult. Players become more irritable than usual (perhaps Jerzy Janowicz was feeling the heat during his epic tantrum yesterday). The ability to remain calm, keep thinking and stay focused will separate the wheat from the chaff.

Playing Indoors

The second option is for them to close the roof and essentially turn the Aussie Open into an indoor tournament. This also changes the dynamic in several ways. The first is that indoor conditions tend to be faster than outdoors, and favor attacking players more. Players serve better without the sun, they can time the ball better without the wind. This increases their margins and lets them be more aggressive. If the later rounds of the tournament do end up being played with the roof over Rod Laver Arena, any big hitters in the draw will be thanking their lucky stars.

But one more person will be thanking his lucky stars: Roger Federer. Federer may not be the greatest indoor player of all time (that honor probably goes to McEnroe, who posted a career 419-72 record inside) but he is certainly the greatest of his generation. Of his 76 career titles, a shockingly large 20 of them are from indoor tournaments. Given the scarcity of indoor events these days, that’s a disproportionate percentage. It also doesn’t count last years Wimbledon, when Federer stepped up his game once the roof closed to win his 17th grand slam title. Indoors Federer’s serve is just a shade more deadly, his forehand a touch more clean. And for the Swiss Maestro that makes all the difference in the world if he’s not having one of his better days.

The Order of Play

Let’s not get ahead of ourselves – the temperature is supposed to cool off some after today’s scorcher so talk of the finals being played effectively indoors is somewhat premature. Let’s take a quick glance at the matches that will be played under the extremely hot conditions on the men’s side for day 4. There isn’t enough time to do any true break-downs before play begins, but at a glance there aren’t any matchups that stand out as being highly likely to be affected by the heat. The big ones to watch will be:

Brands vs Tomic

Brands comes in through qualifying and a first round win over #27 seed Klizan. He also had a strong showing, qualifying at Doha where he lost in a tough match to world #9 Gasquet. He’s an interesting matchup for Tomic, featuring a respectable serve and a formidable forehand. If Tomic is smart he can work Brand’s one-handed backhand to good effect but this has the makings of an upset.

Raonic vs Rosol

Rosol is no stranger to upsets, and although this would not be near as shocking as his defeat of Nadal at last year’s Wimbledon it has a very real chance of happening. Raonic’s return is the weakest part of his game and Rosol can bring the heat. Raonic also doesn’t like to be rushed, and Rosol’s pace of shot will cause the big man some troubles. Expect lots of tie-breakers, especially in the heat with a coin toss to decide the winner.

Enjoy the tennis!

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