In most years, there is a very specific weather pattern at the US Open.
The tournament begins at the end of the dog days in August, amidst the relentless heat and humidity of a New York summer. By the final matches, the first full weekend of September, it’s a good idea to bring a light jacket or windbreaker to the Billie Jean King National Tennis Center.
Not this year. Not even close.
A first week filled with cool, breezy afternoons and calm nights has given way to some of the hottest days and nights of the summer, with conditions that brought some of the fittest athletes in the world almost to their knees, even when they were playing in the twilight and after sunset. The heat and humidity are so exhausting that they lodge in the brain, instilling fear and making it difficult to focus on anything else, especially returning serves at 130 mph and chasing forehands and backhands around the court for up to five hours.
That’s the first thing Daniil Medvedev thinks about when he takes to the court for warm-ups this week, sessions that take place hours before his matches.
“I said: ‘Oh my God,'” Medvedev said one day as he prepared to face Australian Alex de Minaur. Medvedev is from Russia and, like many Eastern European players, can become terribly cranky in extreme heat.
In the quarter-final match on Wednesday, he struggled to see the ball and relied on his instinct to survive a fierce battle with his compatriot and close friend Andrey Rublev. For the second day in a row, organizers used a new measure to bring relief, partially closing the roof of Arthur Ashe Stadium to shade the field.
“One of the players will die, and they will see,” Medvedev muttered in the middle of the match.
Even so, after Medvedev won in straight sets in two hours and 47 minutes, he collapsed into his chair, wrapped an ice-filled towel around his neck, his head between his knees, begging for water. Medvedev said that if the match had extended to the fourth set, he would have taken advantage of a ten-minute break to take a cold shower, even though he knew that this might make his body as stiff as a board.
“I didn’t care, I was going to take a shower,” Medvedev said hours after rubbing him too much with a towel.
“Brutal,” is how Cliff Drysdale, a longtime ESPN tennis commentator, described the afternoon.
As the planet warms, officials in every warm-weather sport are searching for a balance between safety and maintaining the belief that elite sports require extreme physical fitness and the ability to win in difficult conditions. International football has incorporated water breaks in extreme heat. Track and field began scheduling marathons at dawn or at night.
Tennis, which has become more physical and stressful over the past 20 years thanks to improving racket and string technology and court conditions, also deals with this issue.
“It’s part of the sport,” US Open tournament director Stacy Allaster said of the heat.
Tennis players are no strangers to temperature extremes. Their seasons begin in the Australian summer in January, when hot winds from the arid plains can raise temperatures into the triple digits and make the tournament feel as if it is being held inside an oven. At the Australian Open in Melbourne, it is not uncommon for winds to change and temperatures to fluctuate from 20 to 30 degrees within a few hours.
After Australia – although there are a few more indoor tournaments – the sport spends the next 10 months chasing the sun. There are steamy stops like Doha, Dubai, Florida and Mexico; And even the August events in Atlanta, Washington, D.C., and outside Cincinnati, ahead of the US Open, in the “sweltering heat” of New York, notes Novak Djokovic.
This week, that heat was already too great to use Luster; tournament referee Jake Garner; and their team of consultants to closely monitor the WetBulb Globe temperature, a measure of thermal stress in direct sunlight, which also takes into account temperature, humidity, wind speed, sun angle and cloud cover.
When the temperature rises above 86 degrees, mitigation measures begin, including a 10-minute break between the second and third sets of women’s matches and the third and fourth sets of men’s matches.
Garner said in an interview Wednesday that officials decided this summer that when the index reached 90 degrees, he and his team would meet to consider whether to partially close the roofs of the two main stadiums, Louis Armstrong and Arthur Ashe.
She surpassed that threshold on Tuesday, approaching 92 on the court during Coco Gauff’s quarterfinal win over Jelena Ostapenko. Had that match gone to the third set, the ceiling would have been partially closed, but Gauff won in straight sets. So officials shaded the court for the next match, where Novak Djokovic won in straight sets over Taylor Fritz.
“We were struggling,” Djokovic said. “a lot.”
Later in the afternoon, on one of the field courts, Stephane Houdet, who competes in a wheelchair tournament, stored a water bottle in the box near the baseline where players keep their towels, sipping from it between points.
“It’s a great idea,” said Brian Heinlein, president of the US Tennis Association, a physician and the NCAA’s chief medical officer. The problem for the USTA — and ultimately, for the players — is that even with the surfaces closed, both courts are designed to be outdoor venues that cannot be closed. They have air circulation systems that prevent moisture from settling on the field when the roof is closed, rather than fully operational air conditioning systems. On the bright side, the complex is located a stone’s throw from Flushing Bay, and when the wind blows off the water, it can be cooler there than in many locations in New York City. Unfortunately, the winds have been calm in recent days.
As players booked their places in the semifinals scheduled for Thursday and Friday, there seemed to be a clear pattern emerging – Florida. Two of the three women who had reached the quarterfinals by late Wednesday afternoon, Gauff and Aryna Sabalenka, are staying there. The third, Madison Keys, who lives in Orlando, qualified for last place by defeating Czech Marketa Vondrousova 6-1, 6-4. Ben Shelton, the 20-year-old cannonball serve who will play Djokovic in the semifinals on Friday, lives in Gainesville, Florida.
Sabalenka, who grew up in Belarus, a tropical region, credited her summer training near her home in Miami with being able to resist wilting in the heat on Wednesday during her win over Cheng Qinwen of China.
“What could be worse than Florida?” Sabalenka said.
For Goff, a 19-year-old from Delray Beach, Fla., who has become the tournament’s darling, the heat represents an opportunity to succeed, not just survive.
“The hotter the better,” Gauff, who will face Karolina Muchova, of the rarely hot Czech Republic, on Thursday, said on more than one occasion.
This may be particularly true against Muchova. She struggled against Gauff in the Ohio heat last month during the Western & Southern Open final. She walked into the court to warm up that day, and she said, “Oh, my God.”
“Oh,” she said when it was over.
Jaroslaw Blazek, one of Muchova’s trainers, said on Wednesday that he would focus her attention on trying to keep her cool. Many players had black hoses spraying cold air under their jerseys during substitutions. But he expected the challenge to be a mental battle as much as a physical one.
“You have to be prepared because it’s going to be like hell,” he said.
“Beer enthusiast. Subtly charming alcohol junkie. Wannabe internet buff. Typical pop culture lover.”