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Thursday, January 29, 2009

Australian Open heat

The Australian Open burns up, on and off the court

Well, just two days after we did our post on the Australian Open and Novak Djokovic's troubles in his quarter-final against Andy Roddick, and Melbourne enjoyed its hottest day in about 60 years, and third hottest ever! The mercury hit 44 degrees celsius (at least, that's what it was reported as on the TV coverage I saw of the games), and even at 8pm, it was in the mid-30s, which is incredibly hot for tennis.

Both Jonathan and I studied the heat during our PhD's - Jonathan looked at fluid needs and I looked at fatigue and performance, but they were both during running or cycling exercise. However, it's a topic that we enjoy, and it's interesting, so I thought I'd devote another discussion to it.

The roof issue - should we even bother about the heat?

In my post a couple of days ago, I wrote that they'd need to have stadia with retractable roofs, which it turns out they do have - two of them. I knew that the main arena (Rod Laver Arena) had a closable roof, but during Djokovic's match, the roof was open and that led me to overlook that the HiSense Arena also has a closable roof (which has since been closed for matches, I gather).

What is interesting to me, apart from what I mentioned last time, is that the only "cooling" method the players are using is a towel, presumably filled with ice, around the neck during changeovers. Verdasco, Nadal, Tsonga, and Simon have all used the same method, and I'm still not clear on why they don't have other forms of cooling when they can. The air-conditioner idea still seems reasonable.

The question, philosophically, is whether tournament organizers should worry about trying to manage the climate for the players by closing the roof and providing other cooling options? I have heard a number of commentators in the last few days debate the merits of closing the roof vs. keeping it open, and also whether the tournament should be moved later in the year.

On the latter issue, I think the decision to move the tournament, as Campbell noted in his comments to our last post, is one that should be made for a number of reasons, one of which is the weather. But I think the need for a longer off-season trumps even this, so it's not directly relevant to the debate.

As for closing the roof, the tournament has a policy, which you can read here (thanks to Campbell for the link). It's an interesting read, not least of all because it includes reference to the debate between organizers and sports scientists. It turns out that the scientists have strongly recommended that the roof be closed DURING matches, whereas the policy is that all matches in progress must be completed before this happens. Interestingly enough, during Serena Williams' quarterfinal win against Svetlana Kuzentsova, the roof was closed after the first set, so it seems the policy is bending...

The heat and health - how dangerous, how important

I guess the real issue in answer the question is to understand what happens to the players in the heat. I came across this really interesting article from the New York Times which describes the reaction of a number of players to the heat in New York in 2005.

The main protagonist was Djokovic (a man who has had a few run-ins with the "law" as pertaining to medical timeouts), who took numerous breaks during a 4-hour marathon against Gael Monfils.

Heat syncope

It speaks also of Michael Lodra, a Frenchman who fainted just after retiring from his match and had to be revived. Physiologically, what is happening here is that the body is trying to lose heat by sending blood to the skin. While exercise continues, the blood pressure is defended, because contracting muscles help to keep the circulation in balance. The problem is, as soon as exercise stops, the so called "muscle pump" stops working, and all of a sudden, all the blood "pools" in the skin circulation and with the active muscles. The result is that the blood pressure falls and the player or athlete will faint.

This is actually the same thing that happens to long distance runners who finish an event and promptly collapse. It's not that they have overheated - it's just that their bodies are trying really hard to correct the blood pressure, and given no other choice, it causes them to collapse so that they don't have gravity to work against. It's a protective mechanism.

The trouble for tennis is that it's a stop start activity, and so the chances of such a blood pressure disturbance would be increased. I suspect this is behind much of what affects tennis players in the heat - they get dizzy, "delusional" (in the words of Sharapova from the policy article).

Heat-induced fatigue

The other symptoms, like weak legs, shaking, exhaustion, are symptoms of what the brain is doing to try to regulate the physiology by controlling performance. The heat will cause a gradual rise in body temperature, which will cause the athlete or player to pace themselves differently to prevent themselves from becoming hotter. That's why a match in the heat will be slower, have shorter points, from the outset, because the entire dynamic of the game changes.

Now, for the philosophical question: Should we worry about controlling the climate for the players? Or is the heat part of the challenge and the strongest survive? Personally, I believe that if one can cool the court by closing the roof and having court-side air-conditioning, and if the quality of tennis improves as a result, then do it.

I appreciate the importance of fitness and conditioning and that a great player should spend time acclimatizing to the conditions, but this only goes so far. Acclimation to the heat, incidentally, takes place in about 10 days, but never cmopletely corrects the performance impairment. So we can talk about spending two weeks getting used to it, but the quality of tennis will still be impaired. And I for one would like to watch matches where the best player wins and you don't have controversy about players taking medical time-outs, retiring and generally introducing what might be an uncontrollable variable into the outcome (because we don't really understand why athletes respond to the heat as they do). So, like those other sports scientists, I am with the players on this one...

Speaking of performance...

Speaking of performance, the action has reached a climax with the women's final line-up confirmed (Serena W vs. Dinara Safina), and the men's final a matchup between Switzerland and Spain. Switzerland, predictably, will be represented by Roger Federer. For Spain, however, we must wait until tomorrow to know whether it will be Nadal or Verdasco.

I'm rooting for Nadal, if only so that we can see a matchup between these two again. The last one was classic, maybe the highlight of 2008 (in all sports, even better than Bolt in Beijing), and I'm being greedy.

Nadal was brilliant against Haas and in his other early matches. Federer has been brilliant in his last two. Nadal struggled a little against Simon. I still think he's vulnerable to heavy-weighted shots with depth (who isn't?), and his heavy top-spun forehand often tends to land short. Against Gilles Simon (who really is great to watch - he covers more court than anyone I've ever seen and he's so attacking), Nadal was very much on the backfoot. Yet he still won in straight sets. If he plays that way against Federer, he'll lose. If he produces a performance like that against Haas, he wins.

Should be a great game!



JM said...

On the one hand I think it is neat to have some events in extreme heat or cold to see if some players can better handle those conditions than others. It adds some variety.

But then it is also somewhat mad for a bad tennis player to win a tournament simply because he has the most heat resistance and is the only one who doesn't pass out.

Anonymous said...

This is sure to 'ignite' the debate again on Sydney trying to pinch the tournament away from Melbourne (http://news.smh.com.au/sport/sydney-chasing-australian-tennis-open-20081010-4yhc.html) ...and with a steady 29 in the city (35 out western suburbs) with a sea breeze coming over the beautiful harbour to the designated harbourside venue...it makes very good sense.
We did put on the best OG ever.

Ironically Melbourne is actually regarded the bleakest city in Australia, with miserable winters...albeit the usual hot spell in summer, without forgetting of course the freezing conditions for the Boxing Day Test in 1993 (v SA)...the standing joke is that they experience four seasons in one day (http://www.theage.com.au/national/grand-final-weather-pack-for-four-seasons-20080926-4or9.html), though former Prime Minister Keating called it the "arse end of the earth" :(http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Keating!)

The hot spell is caused by the hot northerlies coming off the land mass, with Melbourne at the southern tip, whereas Sydney (city)benefits from being on the east coast and usually has a 6 deg negative differential to outer western suburbs.

Enough Melbourne bagging...perhaps Campbell can come up to Sydney to do one of our races, we may even turn the heat up for him.

...tongue back out of cheek