Temperatures at the Australian Open tennis tournament have exceeded 40 degrees Celcius
Canadian Frank Dancevic fainted during his first round defeat on Tuesday
Sports scientist Dr. Ross Tucker says Bikram Yoga is good preparation for high temperatures
Tournament's "extreme weather" contingency plan has been implemented in women's matches
Can’t stand the heat of the first tennis grand slam of 2014? Then you clearly haven’t been doing enough Bikram yoga.
That’s the view of leading sports scientist Dr. Ross Tucker, who suggests any tennis star with designs on success at a sweltering Australian Open in Melbourne should have come already acclimatized to the hot and sweaty conditions.
Canadian Frank Dancevic branded conditions at this year’s tournament “inhumane” after he fainted during his opening match, while other players have complained of burned feet and melted water bottles in temperatures which have lingered above a sweltering 40 degrees Celsius.
“If you go there and you’re not prepared for the heat, it’s not going to be your grand slam,” Dr. Tucker, who has worked with the U.S. Olympic Committee, UK Sport and the South African Olympic Confederation among others , told CNN.
“We know acclimatization makes a massive difference to performance in the heat. You become more efficient. There’s a mental and a physical component to the training. It’s those little nuances in preparation that make the difference.”
World No. 4 Andy Murray has been a finalist in Melbourne in three of the last four years and for the last five years has been a bikram yoga practitioner - a sequence of 26 yoga moves done in a piping hot studio at temperatures of over 40 degrees Celsisus.
While even Murray has questioned the wisdom of staging a tournament in soaring temperatures, world No. 1 Serena Williams revealed Wednesday the fear of dehydration was giving her sleepless nights.
Not that the myriad of player complaints have influenced tournament doctor Tim Wood.
“We look into the health and well being of players, but we know over the years in different parts of the country and world they play under these conditions,” Dr. Wood told a press conference.
“(Players) sit down every five to ten minutes for every 90 seconds at change of ends, so there is chance to lose some heat at that time. Tennis by and large is a low risk sport, and that’s why by and large, like cricket, we can play in these conditions and not be too concerned.
“A lot of people get hot and look distressed and hot and bothered, as we all do. The actually risk to the health is relatively small compared to other sports.”
Dr. Wood was equally bullish on players’ fears surrounding dehydration..
Australian Open retirements
“Dehydration, look, we have never had anybody die from dehydration on a tennis court,” he added. “We have had players almost die from drinking too much. So the danger is overdrinking, not underdrinking and becoming dehydrated.
“Again, given the length of time tennis matches generally go for and the sweat rate of most normal, healthy athletes, they won’t get to a state where they get too critically dehydrated.
“So, no, we have never had to put a drip in someone who has been so dehydrated that their vital signs, blood pressure and heart rate, have been compromised.”
If the weather, in the eyes of the event officials, becomes too extreme for play to continue, tournament referee Wayne McKewen has the power to call a halt to proceedings.
He makes the judgment, in consultation with other parties, using a scale which not only factors in the ambient temperature, but also wind and humidity.
So far, according to McKewen, the relatively low humidity has meant conditions are fine for play to proceed as planned.
In theory, unless humidity increases, play could continue even if the mercury hits 42, 43 or even 44 degrees.
Murray used his press conference to voice concerns over players suffering from heart attacks or other serious health problems as a result of the oppressive weather.
Despite Dancevic’s collapse, and China’s Peng Shuai vomiting and complaining of cramps, Dr. Tucker supported Wood’s assessment that playing in the tournament would prove fatal for any of the players.
Put simply; it’s hot, it’s horrible, but it’s probably not going to kill you.
“I don’t want belittle what the players are experience,” explained Dr. Tucker. “I’m of the opinion that the danger is a little bit overhyped.
“Death is a failure of normal physiology, it’s not a normal situation. Your body temperature is around 37 degrees Celsius, when you hit 40 degrees that’s pretty much lights out but not death.
“Death happens when your body temperature is at 41 or 42 degrees and you have to be there for quite a long time. Your body has a defense mechanism which forces you stop exercising, to fail, to become fatigued, to potentially pass out at around 40 degrees.
“The risk is more about performance. Dancevic is fine, he didn’t die and he wouldn’t have. As soon as you remove yourself from the heat, the risk has gone.”
To try and give the players respite from the blazing sun, organizers implemented an extreme weather contingency plan which allows for extended player breaks between the second and third sets.
But there’s a catch…
It only applies to women’s matches.
It’s a plan which has irked Murray, who called for greater equality between men’s and women’s games.
“You would need the same for the men,” said Tucker. “The men are bigger, being big in the heat is a disadvantage. The smaller you are the better you are in the heat. Big guys generate more heat, that’s why long distance runners are always small.
“The rationale behind the break is good, but I don’t know why they’re only giving it to the women. If it keeps going like this they might need more of those kinds of breaks.”
While he is receptive to the concerns voiced by players like Murray and Dancevic, not to mention Croatia’s Ivan Dodig who was concerned for his life during his match, Dr. Tucker doesn’t think the tournament needs to be relocated or rescheduled.
“It’s a bit fatalistic to say the show must go on,” he concluded. “How many players have played? Only one has collapsed.
“I would argue that the story might be the 259 guys who haven’t collapsed. Yes they’re struggling and it’s really challenging, but it’s going to become one of the distinctive things about the Australian Open.”
If you can’t stand the heat, stay out of the Rod Laver Arena.