Survival of the fittest: How US Open 2018 became most brutal grand slam in living memory

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When Roger Federer – who was last seen perspiring in around 1997 – is drenched in sweat, you suspect something  strange is going on. 

Federer was in fact so suffocated by the stifling humidity inside the Arthur Ashe Stadium on Tuesday morning that he said afterwards that he was relieved when his match ended – even though he had just been beaten by John Millman

Elsewhere at this year’s US Open, Novak Djokovic and Marton Fucsovics shared a naked ice bath mid-match, Millman had to leave the court against Djokovic because his wet clothes were drenching the court, while junior matches were suspended to protect young players from the searing heat and crushing humidity. 

Last Tuesday, no fewer than six men retired, with five citing heat-related ailments. 

Former world No. 1 Jim Courier said on Amazon Prime that he had never seen a US Open with such extreme conditions in the 30-plus years he’s been at the tournament. 

There are a number of reasons why this year’s US Open has been such a physical and mental ordeal.  

It’s the weather, stupid

Starting with the most obvious, the weather conditions at this year’s US Open have been exceptionally demanding.  

As anyone who’s ever been to New York in the summer knows, walking anywhere – let alone exercising – feels like a brutal endeavour.  

The last couple of weeks have been particularly vicious, with the humidity climbing above 70 per cent at Flushing Meadows. This had made conditions even harder to play in than the dry heat of Melbourne where Australian Open temperatures often top 40 degrees celsius. 

“Everyone always talks about how hot Melbourne is but the US Open’s way worse,” said former champion Sam Stosur after her first-round loss to Caroline Wozniacki.

Why? Because finding oxygen in the airless, wet heat becomes almost impossible.  As Federer said after his defeat to Millman: “It was very hot tonight…one of those nights where I felt I couldn’t get air.”

John Millman, top, of Australia, talks to Novak Djokovic, of Serbia, during the quarterfinals of the U.S. Open tennis tournament Wednesday, Sept. 5, 2018, in New York

Millman had to leave the court against Djokovic because his sweaty clothes were drenching the court

Credit:
AP

Djokovic added this morning: “It feels like a sauna. This has been definitely the toughest US Open in the last 10 years that I have played in in terms of conditions.”

The US Open responded to the testing weather conditions by implementing a heat rule when the wet bulb reading – which factors in air temperature, humidity, wind speed, sun angle and cloud cover – exceeds 30.1 degrees on. The heat rule allows male players to leave the court for 10 minutes at the end of the third set.  

On the women’s side, players are permitted a 10-minute break at the end of the second set. Lesia Tsurenko was one of the players to take advantage of this, having fallen to her knees in the first set of her fourth-round match against Marketa Vondrousova, and called a doctor on to check her pulse and blood pressure. 

She said afterwards that: “I was really dizzy. I was just asking nature, the God, to move the shade faster. I was two love down in the second set, and I saw the shade, and I thought that I need another five minutes to keep fighting.

Lesia Tsurenko, of Ukraine, pauses during her match against Marketa Vondrousova, of the Czech Republic, in the fourth round of the U.S. Open tennis tournament, Monday, Sept. 3, 2018, in New York

Lesia Tsurenko and Marketa Vondrousova (not pictured) had to deal with horrendous conditions for their fourth-round match

Credit:
AP

“I have to say that I’ve never felt so bad on court.”

On Tuesday, junior matches had to be suspended because the wet bulb reading exceeded 32.2 degrees celsius. A day earlier Caty McNally, a 16-year-old American, vomited five times on the side of the court during her match against France’s Loudmilla Bencheikh. 

McNally ended up winning in three sets, but two other girls were not so lucky and had to pull out with heat exhaustion mid-match. 

Tougher than usual on Ashe

The introduction of a roof on the Arthur Ashe Stadium two years ago was intended to modernise the US Open and put an end to the tournament being dominated by rainstorms and adverse weather conditions. 

But in so doing, the new design has had the unintended consequence of letting less air onto the court, even when the roof is open. 

“I do believe since the roof is on that there is no air circulation in the stadium,” said Federer on Tuesday. “I think that makes it a totally different US Open. You have soaking wet pants, soaking wet everything.”

During his match against Millman, Djokovic frantically asked for pills to fight his growing nausea and was seen frantically asking the umpire whether the court conditions could be cooled down. 

“I asked the chair umpire whether they are using some form of ventilation or air conditioning down at the court-level side,” he explained afterwards.  “And then he says that he’s not aware of it, only what comes through the hallways.”

Roger Federer of Switzerland during the men's singles match against John Millman (not seen) of Australia on US Open 2018 tournament in New York, United States on September 3, 2018

Even the normally sweatless Roger Federer struggled

Credit:
Getty Images

Slower courts

America’s Davis Cup captain Courier revealed on Amazon Prime yesterday that the USTA deliberately made the courts slower for this year’s tournament. 

US Open tournament director David Brewer later confirmed that the courts had been slowed down “a touch” in response to players noting that the surface seemed to be speeding up. He denied Courier’s claim that the change had been made to try and help American players. 

Either way, the alterations have made conditions even tougher this year. 

Slower courts generally mean longer rallies and more gruelling matches – adding to the sense that this year’s US Open is more a test of endurance than forehands and backhands. 

Just watching – let along playing in – Tuesday night/Wednesday morning’s marathon match between Rafael Nadal and Dominic Thiem was exhausting, as the pair contested arduous 20+ shot rallies normally seen on the clay of Roland Garros. Nadal’s victory in four hours and 49 minutes was his longest match at the US Open, and may leave him physically spent against Juan Martin del Potro in Friday’s semi-final. 

Spain's Rafael Nadal embrace Austria's Dominic Thiem after defeating him during their Men's Singles Quarter-Finals match at the 2018 US Open at the USTA Billie Jean King National Tennis Center in New York on September 5, 2018. - Defending champion Rafael Nadal survived an epic US Open quarter-final confrontation to defeat battling ninth seed Dominic Thiem 0-6, 6-4, 7-5, 6-7 (4/7), 7-6 (7/5) and reach the semi-finals for the seventh time

Rafael Nadal and Dominic Thiem’s epic encounter was partly made possible by the slower courts this year

Credit:
AFP

Bear-pit Louis Armstrong

The new Louis Armstrong Stadium (the second biggest court at Flushing Meadows) encompasses the best and worst of the US Open. 

It’s brash, boisterous and even more noisy than before its renovation. The atmosphere is excellent, but the noisy spectators during points can be a distraction for the players. 

Last year’s champion Sloane Stephens grew increasingly exasperated during her first-round win over Evgeniya Rodina, by the end looking like a train passenger in the quiet carriage while businessmen speak loudly on their phones. 

“Obviously playing on a court that’s very loud, there’s a lot going on,” she said. “I think it makes it a little tough to kind of settle down. It’s unorganized out there.”

Stephens also said she could hear airplanes and subways behind the court and spectators walking around.

“There was a lot going on…the concessions being in the lower bowl, and people walking in the games at two-all, three-all,” she said. “I got so much going on on the court, I’m trying to manage like eight different things.”

The future

The weather conditions are thankfully expected to be less extreme on Friday and the weekend. But over the next few years, New York’s heat and humidity is expected to become even more savage. 

Despite what a certain Mr Trump might think. 

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