Grand Slam tournaments are getting hotter. US Open players and fans may feel that this week

by Ryan Lee
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The intensity of Grand Slam tournaments is on the rise, and this week, players and enthusiasts at the US Open might find themselves contending with scorching conditions. Andy Murray, the 36-year-old British tennis sensation, has taken a proactive approach to cope with the sweltering New York climate that often characterizes the U.S. Open. In order to simulate the “harsh heat and humidity” synonymous with this time of year, he converted a steam room in his home into an environment that mirrors the conditions. With humidity levels set at 70%, he spent extensive periods pedaling away on a stationary bike, while the thermostat was cranked up to a sweltering 95 degrees Fahrenheit (35 Celsius). This endeavor aimed to mimic the muggy atmosphere that envelops Flushing Meadows every summer, where the final Grand Slam event of the year is currently underway.

Murray, who previously secured the New York title in 2012 but experienced an early exit this year due to milder conditions, explained that this unconventional training approach was aimed at aiding his adaptation to the challenging heat. As the competition commenced at the 2023 U.S. Open, there was a slight relief for participants, ball handlers, and spectators alike, as the temperature mostly hovered in the 70s Fahrenheit (20s Celsius). Belgian player Elise Mertens noted the relatively cooler conditions and expressed that such conditions facilitated more comfortable play. However, this reprieve was short-lived, as temperatures escalated to 90 degrees Fahrenheit (32 Celsius) on Sunday, with forecasts indicating a further increase in the coming days.

This trajectory should not come as a surprise. According to an analysis by Big Big News, the average high temperatures during the U.S. Open and the three other major tennis tournaments have shown a consistent upward trend over recent decades. This trend reflects the wider impact of climate change, which has fueled record-breaking heatwaves across the globe this summer. Beyond its immediate discomfort, this escalating heat can compromise athletes’ performance and, more alarmingly, elevate the risk of heat-related illnesses.

The thermal comfort index, which considers variables such as air temperature, humidity, radiation, and wind, was employed by the Associated Press (AP) to track changes in the tournament conditions. Reviewing data from 1988 onwards, the AP analyzed the four Grand Slam tournaments, encompassing both men’s and women’s 128-player fields. Remarkably, the collective maximum temperatures at these events have surged by nearly 5 degrees Fahrenheit (nearly 3 Celsius).

Though a seemingly minor temperature shift, this change can have profound consequences. The seemingly modest 3- or 4-degree alteration can lead to a substantial increase in the number of sweltering days experienced. Climate scientist Daniel Bader from Columbia University elucidates that while the numerical shift might not appear daunting, its implications can be significant. The trends seen in rising temperatures in New York City are predicted to persist.

Further examination of the data reveals intriguing findings:

  • Between 1988 and 1992, the thermal comfort index recorded strong heat stress exceeding 90 degrees Fahrenheit (32 Celsius) on 7% of days featuring Grand Slam matches. This figure surged to 16% from 2018 to 2022.
  • Despite a rise of nearly 3 degrees Fahrenheit (1.5 Celsius) since 1988, the U.S. Open’s temperature increase is not the most rapid among the Grand Slam venues. The Australian Open holds that distinction, witnessing an average high temperature escalation of more than 6 degrees Fahrenheit (approximately 3.5 Celsius).
  • Nevertheless, the U.S. Open consistently remains one of the hottest Grand Slam events each year.

Players on the court are attuned to these temperature changes. Stan Wawrinka, the 2016 U.S. Open champion from Switzerland, recalls the grueling conditions during his victory year, characterized by extreme heat and humidity. He acknowledges that the U.S. Open is one of the most physically demanding tournaments due to its taxing fitness requirements. The demanding conditions, compounded by the accumulation of fatigue in the latter stages of the tennis season, contribute to a significant number of in-match retirements at Flushing Meadows.

Since 1988, there have been 17 instances in which over 10 players at a single Slam event had to cease play during matches. A considerable portion of these occurrences took place at the U.S. Open, with notable instances in 2015, 2011, and 2018. The latter year saw six players retire on the second day due to heat-related issues. This trend is not exclusive to tennis; sports medicine physician Elan Goldwaser from Columbia University Medical Center points out the rising prevalence of heat-related illnesses across various sports.

The distinctive blue hard courts at the U.S. Open intensify the heat absorption compared to the grass at Wimbledon or the clay at the French Open. The U.S. Tennis Association underscores that this distinction can lead to the courts feeling up to 15 degrees Fahrenheit (approximately 8 Celsius) hotter than the ambient air temperature. Athletes, effectively playing on what resembles a “hot plate,” experience reduced abilities to strike the ball forcefully and slower reaction times. This observation is reaffirmed by Jon Femling, clinical vice chair of emergency medicine at the University of New Mexico, who notes the physiological response to heat involves increased heart rate and reduced performance.

Even the spectators need to exercise caution, particularly when alcohol consumption is involved. On a day that was relatively cooler than usual but sunny during the qualifying rounds leading up to the main draw, attendees availed themselves of free sunscreen samples and sought respite near misting fans. Despite the nostalgic allure of tennis, the challenging conditions can dampen the enthusiasm of both players and onlookers.

While players are afforded limited breaks between games and sets, it proves inadequate for significant core temperature reduction. Physiotherapists are vigilant for signs of heat illness, such as dizziness and cramping, and might advise against continuing play. However, the ultimate decision rests with the players themselves. As athletes confront these conditions, some like Murray adopt unconventional training methods, while others believe that sustained exposure to heat and humidity over the years will confer acclimatization benefits.

For recreational players observing the tournament, the prospect of engaging in a tennis match amidst 92-degree Fahrenheit (33-degree Celsius) weather and 95% humidity may seem implausible. Yet, professional tennis players navigate such conditions throughout the year, as ATP vice president Todd Ellenbecker emphasizes. Despite the challenges posed by escalating heat, players persevere and compete in these demanding environments.

As the U.S. Open unfolds against the backdrop of heightened temperatures, players and spectators alike are reminded of the tangible effects of climate change on the world of sports. The relentless pursuit of excellence on the court must now also contend with the shifting dynamics of a warming world.


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