Rethinking the Professional Tennis Calendar in an Overheating World

By James Steel

The UK and most of Western Europe is currently going through an unprecedented heatwave, with temperature on the continent well over 40 degrees Celsius. In the UK, there is an expectation that we will see the hottest day on record within the next 48hrs. Climate change is intensifying, and this provides reasoning for the tennis world to ask the question: are the tours fit for a world where the temperatures are increasing year after year and if not, what can be done to make it so?

First, we need to look at the effects of very high temperatures have on athletes. Dr Miguel Enrique del Valle Soto, Professor of Sports Medicine at the University of Oviedo, went into this when asked about the expected high of 30 degrees Celsius and 70% humidity at the Tokyo Olympic Games last year. He noted that athletes who competed in endurance sports where the most affected and at risk in high temperatures and humidity, with tennis players being categorised as endurance athletes.

It was found that sporting performance can drop by 10 to 15% in extreme temperatures, with male athletes being more affected than female athletes. The main effect that comes from these extreme temperatures leads to excessive sweating to cool the body down. However, with excessive sweating this can cause dehydration, and this leads to a dropping of blood pressure and greater strain on the hearts of athletes.

We have already seen tennis players being affected by the heat. There was a move a couple days into the Tokyo Olympics to push the start times back to a cooler part of the day as players complained about the extreme heat. The most notable of these players was Daniil Medvedev who said, ‘If I die, who’s responsible?’ midway through an early round match. At the Australian Open in 2014, temperatures exceeded 43 degrees Celsius and play was suspended on all outside uncovered courts during the heat of the day for safety concerns. Extreme heat has also been seen at the lower levels. At an ITF W100 event in August last year in Landisville, Pennsylvania, five players were forced to retired mid match due to heat exhaustion (most notable of them was Emma Raducanu) and there where long periods of no play due to the extreme heat during the middle of the day.

All this considered, the tennis calendar is probably not suited to the world we live in. Here’s a list of potentially workable suggestions to address the problem.

  1. A forced break after Wimbledon of about a month, events starting back up in early August. American tournaments be moved from late July to late August for a start date and European clay tournaments would move from early July to early August. This would move all tournaments to a cooler part of the year and reduce the risk of tournaments occurring in extreme heat months. All tournaments past the US Open would get pushed back in the calendar and we’d have a shorter window from the end of one season and the start of the other, but it might be worth the trade-off.
  2. Moving the Australian tournaments to March, the small, scattered February tournaments to January and moving Indian Wells and Miami to February. This is mainly designed to move the Australian tournaments out of the hottest summer months for them into a cooler month. The South American tournaments would then be played in a hotter month, but this at least takes care of Australia.
  3. Earlier starts for day matches and increased scheduling of night matches. Most tennis tournaments during the day tend to have a 11:00 a.m. start time, and this is great when you have stable and pleasant temperatures. However, during extreme heat, it would be wiser to have an 8:00 a.m. start time where matches can be completed before midday and avoid the extreme heat of the afternoon. Regarding night sessions, we would need to see tournaments either embrace night matches as a concept for player safety or those that already have night session extending that to as many courts as possible to allow more players to complete the matches during the event and in safer conditions.

There are plenty of other options out there for addressing extreme heat, but this will be an issue that will occur more and more as the planet heats up due to climate change. So, alongside the current plans to increase the size and scale of Masters 1000/WTA 1000 events, I hope the tours have one eye on the climate emergency and its effects on the players and the tour.

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