It’s always really hot in Melbourne, so deal with it
Fans pay good money and are right to expect 100% effort from tennis players
Tennis fans cool off during a heat wave at the tennis on day two of the Australian Open tennis tournament in Melbourne. Photograph: Joe Castro/EPA
“Quit” is the ugliest word in sport. And quite rightly.
Okay, it’s hot. Okay, I’m sitting in the shade with a bottle of water handy, and you’re probably sitting in front of the television with the air-conditioning on full blast (or are fast asleep back in the wet and cold). But tennis players, like builders and labourers, do most of their work outdoors in the summer. It’s where they get their suntans. When they go to work in Melbourne in January, they are always going to get really hot. Deal with it, as Roger Federer says.
Nobody wants to see someone collapse from heat exhaustion, or, as Andy Murray put it rather more dramatically, die. But there are perfectly adequate regulations in place to give players the best chance of performing in safety. If they genuinely feel they are risking their health – and not just “doing it tough”, as the Aussies say – there should be no shame in quitting. It’s only sport.
But there are other issues. 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, especially if they are behind in a match against a top player and have little prospect of going deep in the tournament anyway.
They tank it
So, some of them turn up, collect their $30,000 cheque for just making it to the first round and they tank it – they may not necessarily withdraw but may not play to their fullest potential (and it should be emphasised that a lack of effort is very different from fixing a match).
There is no other way to put it, however harsh it sounds. They give up mentally if not physically, denying the crowd a proper contest and their opponent a satisfying victory.
Note how many retirements arrive early; there will be very few in this tournament from now on, however hot it gets. But nine players quit on day one, eight of them men – equalling the one-day record set at the 2011 US Open and Wimbledon last year. The most for a tournament is 17, also at that US Open.
And the heat was not really the deciding factor in most cases. Bernard Tomic brought a groin strain into the tournament; Tommy Haas and Alex Bogomolov Jr hurt shoulders; John Isner turned his ankle; Frank Dancevic, fainted but finished, lost and complained of “inhumane” conditions. And if Mr Dancevic was going to win this tournament, I’m a Canadian.
The real casualties of the heat were a ballgirl who was treated for heat stress, and a ballboy who was allowed to leave the court. Their shifts were quickly cut from an hour to 45 minutes. Some people in the crowd, too, felt the beating strength of the sun. They either retreated to the shade, gulped litres of cold drink or went home.
At the Brisbane Open last week, the women had a collective nightmare: In the space of 24 hours, Australian teenager Ashleigh Barty pulled out with a left adductor injury; Sabine Lisicki withdrew with gastrointestinal illness; and Anastasia Pavlyuchenkova retired with an injured leg.
Working in a shop
And the season is not a month old. So, a few questions: did all these ailing athletes have the time and resources to rest their stressed bodies properly at the end of last season? If not, why are they playing injured – then complaining? 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. Modern tennis is a tough sport, one of the most demanding – mainly because of longer matches on slower courts with slower balls and racquets which allow even ordinary players to keep the ball in play for longer than ever before. For those who make it, the money is huge; for those not good enough to make it, it is lousy. That’s the deal, as Federer again would say.
But some players have found extraordinary ways to leave the battlefield. In the first round of the 2012 French Open, Bogomolov trailed Arnaud Clement 6-2, 3-6, 4-6, 7-6 (2), 5-4. Serving at a match point down, he put his racquet down and quit. “I got cramps and I retired,” he said.
Clement was as angry as the Parisian crowd.
Okay, a parting shot to get you mad: in the old days, players got on with it. They rarely wore hats, they had not heard of sun-screen, they did not wipe down after each shot – or even in rest periods between games, because there were no rests. And yes, it was a different game then, and, yes, players now put it all on the line. But some don’t.
It is sobering to reflect on this: Andy Murray won two Opens and an Olympic gold medal while enduring back pain serious enough to require surgery, and had been taking pain-killers in every match at least since he had to withdraw from the 2011 ATP World Tour Finals in London.