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At this year’s US Open, it’s advantage heat

Russia's Daniil Medvedev resting and cooling down after his gruelling US Open battle with compatriot Andrey Rublev in the heat of the New York sun. PHOTO: AFP

NEW YORK – In most years, there is a very specific climate pattern at the US Open.

The tournament starts at the end of August, in the lingering heat and humidity of a New York summer. By the final matches, at the end of the first week of September, it may be a good idea to bring a light sweater to the Billie Jean King National Tennis Centre.

Not this year. Not even close.

A first week filled with cool, breezy afternoons and crisp nights has given way to some of the hottest days – and nights – of the summer, with conditions that have brought some of the fittest athletes in the world nearly to their knees.

It is heat and humidity so oppressive that it parks itself in the brain and makes it difficult to focus on anything else, and the first thing that Daniil Medvedev has been thinking of when taking the court for his warm-ups this week.

“I was like, ‘Oh, my God’,” he said the other day.

Medvedev is from Russia and, like many Eastern European players, can become awfully cranky in extreme heat.

In his quarter-final match on Wednesday, he struggled to see the ball and relied on instinct to survive a grinding battle with his countryman and close friend, Andrey Rublev.

For the second consecutive day, organisers partially closed the roof of Arthur Ashe Stadium to shade the court as the temperature hit 35 deg C.

“One player gonna die, and they gonna see,” Medvedev muttered in the middle of the match to a nearby camera.

After he prevailed 6-4, 6-3, 6-4 in 2hr 47min, he slumped on his chair, draping a towel packed with ice around his neck, his head between his knees, begging for water.

Had the match stretched to a fourth set, he said he would have used the 10-minute break to take a cold shower.

“I didn’t care, I was going for the shower,” said the Russian, whose skin on his face had visible red blotches from rubbing it with a towel too much.

“The conditions were brutal. Because we are sweating so much and use a lot of towels, I have no skin left on my nose. That tells everything, we left everything out there.”

As the planet warms, officials in every warm-weather sport are searching for a balance between safety and maintaining the belief that elite sports demand elite ability to win in challenging conditions.

Football has incorporated water breaks, track and field has started scheduling marathons at dawn or at night.

Tennis is navigating the issue as well, although tennis players are not strangers to extreme temperatures.

Their seasons begin in the Australian summer in January, where hot winds can make the tournament feel as though it is taking place inside an oven.

After Australia, the sport essentially spends the next 10 months chasing the sun. There are steamy stops, such as Doha, Dubai, Florida and Mexico, and even August events in Atlanta, Washington and Cincinnati before the US Open in New York’s “big heat”, as Novak Djokovic refers to it.

This week, organisers had to keep a close eye on the WetBulb Globe Temperature, a measure of the heat stress in direct sunlight, which also takes into account temperature, humidity, wind speed, sun angle and cloud cover.

When it rises above 30 deg C, mitigation measures kick in, including the 10-minute break between the second and third sets of the women’s matches and the third and fourth sets of men’s matches.

When the index hits 32 deg C, organisers would consider whether to partially close the roofs at its two main stadiums, Louis Armstrong and Arthur Ashe.

It crossed that threshold during Medvedev’s match and also on Tuesday, during Coco Gauff’s quarter-final win over Jelena Ostapenko.

Medvedev has at least one more match in which he has to brave the heat, his semi-final clash against Carlos Alcaraz, who clinched a 6-3, 6-2, 6-4 win over Alexander Zverev.

The Spaniard mentioned little about the weather, saying: “I’m feeling really comfortable playing on this court, in New York. I’m feeling strong. I think I’m ready for a great battle against Medvedev.”

Perhaps the one who can keep the coolest head, quite literally, will prevail. NYTIMES, AFP