‘Like five billion degrees’: Players struggle at sweltering US Open

With temperatures reaching a real feel of 49C on court, some players weren’t happy

Oppressive weather conditions in New York continued to make excessive demands of players as day three of the US Open unfolded on Wednesday afternoon.

The extreme heat policy – which had been enacted by the United States Tennis Association on Tuesday for the first time ever at the tournament – was in effect for a second straight day. On Wednesday temperatures soared to 96F (35.5C) with 47 per cent humidity, which made it feel like 105F (40.5C) on the grounds at the Billie Jean King National Tennis Center and as high as 120F (49C) on the unforgiving hard courts.

The policy, a rule that has existed on the women’s tour in various forms since 1992, allows a 10-minute break for men’s players between the third and fourth sets if either player requests it. Women’s players can elect for a 10-minute break after the second set.

Still, no fewer than six men retired from first-round matches on Tuesday, with five citing heat-related ailments. Among them was Argentina's Leonardo Mayer, who threw in the towel during the fourth set against Laslo Ðere on the exposed Court 8.


“Ten minutes? I would have needed an hour and a half,” said Mayer, who called for an end to five-set matches at major tournaments.

Novak Djokovic, one of the fittest players on the tour, appeared to struggle badly with the sweltering humidity early in Tuesday's match with Hungary's Marton Fucsovics in Arthur Ashe Stadium, where the retractable roof cannot be closed due to heat in a gesture of equity toward the players on the outer courts – a rule a USTA spokesperson said on Tuesday could be re-evaluated as the tournament progresses.

The break could not have come at a more opportune time for the Wimbledon champion, who found himself feet away from his opponent “naked in the ice baths” in the bowels of the stadium during the break, before coming back rejuvenated to win six games on the trot and advance 6-3, 3-6, 6-4, 6-0.

“I thought it was a much-needed break for both of us after playing two-and-a-half hours, struggling,” Djokovic said. “To be able to go back in the locker room and change clothes, take a shower, grab something to eat, whatever, and just refresh, be in the shade, be in a cooler room, and then go out, it’s quite different. You feel refreshed.”

He added: “Obviously all the pollution and everything that this world is doing at the moment to nature doesn’t help. At the same time it is an outdoor sport that we are a part of. You have to just accept it and deal with it.”

Marin Cilic, the 2014 US Open champion, described the conditions as "very brutal" after advancing when his Romanian opponent Marius Copil retired. "You've got to be prepared for that," Cilic said. "You've got to be ready. And, I mean, mentally, physically, we all know that US Open can be like that. There can be some difficult days like this. There can be some windy days. Even a little bit cooler days. So you have to be ready."

Others were less diplomatic, rejecting the Darwinian premise. "They should have canceled the matches. It was not healthy," said Richard Berankis, who retired early in the fourth set of a loss to South Korea's Hyeon Chung on Tuesday. "We are fit, but this was too much. It is dangerous out there. The ATP doesn't have a heat rule but they should stop the matches. They will not make a change until someone dies."

The weather also helped stir up controversy after French player Alizé Cornet was penalised for briefly removing her shirt after a break for the heat. The USTA later apologised for the penalty.

Andrea Petkovic believed the heat break had an adverse effect after her defeat to Jelena Ostapenko, saying "it felt like five billion degrees" after she emerged from an air-conditioned room under Louis Armstrong Stadium for the deciding set. But Ostapenko, last year's French Open champion, thought the opposite.

“Actually, I think it helped me a lot. I went, actually, to the bathroom and changed the outfit for the new one to be more fresh and just stayed in air conditioning for, like, 10 minutes. I think it helped me, because then I went back on court and I broke her serve straightaway.”

The National Weather Service issued a heat advisory for New York City starting Tuesday at 11am through Wednesday at 9pm, when the conditions are expected to break – but the agency notes that temperatures are projected to soar again next week as the tournament moves toward the business end. – Guardian service