Unless you happen to be a troglodyte – and even in multi-cultural Melbourne, there are precious few of them around – you might have noticed that it has been a tad hot of late. A touch toasty. And, unless you happen to be completely daft, you ought not to be surprised: this is the height of the Australian summer. It gets warm round these parts at this time of year.
Admittedly, playing in 40-degree heat is not pleasant. Simply sitting in the shade in the stands is bad enough, but running around a tennis court must be pretty grim. Andy Murray describes it as “horrible”, a pronouncement made with slightly knitted brows and a serious look. Then again, he comes from Dunblane, a place where the people are pale and taking your vest off, even in summer, is regarded a life-threatening move.
The Muzz, though, knows what to expect when he comes here. He has had a base in Miami for the past few years and takes himself off there every December to run himself ragged in the heat and the humidity. It is not the same heat as in Melbourne, but it provides a good foundation for his Australian Open reparations.
“Even in Miami it’s hot and it’s humid but it’s just different here,” Murray said. “A five, six degree difference can be huge - if you're training in 32 (degrees) and then going out in 40, it’s a huge difference. You really feel it. The court surface gets roasting, your feet get really hot, your legs start to get tired early and burn, and then obviously with sun in your face, it’s so strong here that your skin’s burning. It’s not easy.
“But the thing is with the heat, all the players are going to struggle with it, and it comes down to whether you’ve put the work in or not. And I hope that I have.”
Roger Federer tends to agree with Scotland’s finest. He, too, grew up in northern Europe and while his tan is a little deeper than the Muzz’s, he still comes from a country that spends half the year covered in snow. In theory, Fed should resemble a cheese fondue after a couple of hours on Rod Laver Arena but in all of his four titles here, he has looked cool, calm and collected. As the old saying goes: horses sweat, gentlemen perspire, but Roger Federer merely glows.
“It's just a mental thing,” Federer explained. “If you've trained hard enough your entire life or the last few weeks and you believe you can do it and come through it, there's no reason. If you can't deal with it, you throw in the towel.”
Just to prove his point – and make the whiners look a little silly – 64 men and 64 women got through the first round this week. It is possible to play and win here, no matter how hot it is.
And it is not as if the Australian Open has not had its heat waves before. Back in the 90s, Amanda Coetzer used to prepare herself for the extreme conditions by training in the heart of the veld in her native South Africa. After weeks spent sweating in the scrubland in the off-season, she was ready for anything the climate could throw at her in Melbourne. So when Henri Leconte keeled over and was carted off in 1994, she had absolutely no sympathy: everyone knows it is going to be hot in Australia so you train for it. Simple.
But it does seem that tennis players are delicate flowers. Yes, their matches can go on a bit, but they do get to sit down every few minutes and there are battalions of ball kids and helpers on hand to feed them cold drinks, fetch them ice towels and hold a shade over their heads. Multi-millionaires to a man (and woman), they have the wherewithal to hire fitness experts, nutritionists and masseurs to prepare them for the worst. It may be hard work out there in the midday sun, but it not exactly a 12-hour shift at the coalface.
Compared to many other sports, the tennis players actually have it easy. The poor lads who bust a gut every year on the Tour de France have to cover 3404 kilometres in 21 stages held over 23 days. The route takes in five of what the organisers gently describe as “hilly” stages and six mountain stages. So that is an average of 162km a day, and six of those days are spent puffing up the side of a mountain while wearing unfeasibly tight shorts and sitting on a saddle that resembles a razor blade. The chafing doesn’t bear thinking about.
The summer will not go away and the Australian Open will not stop. By the end of the final Sunday, all the champions will have been crowned, a just reward for all their hard work over the off-season, and all those who lost and whinged in the first week will have been forgotten. Like the Muzz says: “it comes down to whether you’ve put the work in or not.” The hardest workers will win, and the slackers will still be moaning about the heat on the flight home.
*The views expressed here are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the opinions of the tournament organisers.