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Extreme heat halts play in Melbourne

- Conditions have been very tough, says Sharapova
Maria Sharapova uses an ice towel to beat the heat, on Thursday

Melbourne: Organisers lost more than four hours of play on the outer courts when a third day of high temperature at the Australian Open forced them to enact their “Extreme Heat Policy” on Thursday.

The policy was put into force at 1.50 pm (local time), as the mercury headed towards a peak of 43.4 degrees Celsius and no play was possible until 6 pm.

In a bizarre turn of events, less than two hours after the resumption, the players were forced off the courts again by lightning and rain. Play continued on the Rod Laver Arena and Hisense Arena through both stoppages, after the retractable roofs over the main showcourts were closed.

Organisers had been slammed for forcing players to play on in searing temperatures on Tuesday and Wednesday, and the decision to stop play was largely welcomed.

“I think it’s everybody saying that sometimes it’s too hot,” said Agnieszka Radwanska, who beat Olga Govortsova 6-0, 7-5 under the closed roof on Hisense Arena. “Some of the girls can’t even talk after the match or practise. You can see who played a match, you know. Just so red. Today was really, really hard. Even indoors was ridiculous,” she said.

Under a change to the rules for this year, the decision on whether to stop matches at the tournament is now at the discretion of tournament referee Wayne McKewen. Rather than use the raw Celsius readings to assess the heat, organisers prefer to use the Wet Bulb Global Temperature composite, which also gauges humidity and wind to identify the perceived conditions.

The Extreme Heat Policy, introduced in 1998, has only occasionally been invoked, with play halted and the roof on the main stadiums closed. The last time it was used was in 2009, the hottest Australian Open on record.

“Today (Thursday) the key parameters to determine whether play should be suspended were reached,” said the tournament’s chief medical officer Dr Tim Wood. “The ongoing forecast was for even warmer conditions and therefore the decision was made to suspend play on the outside courts until weather conditions improved.”

With players having to finish the ongoing set before play ceased or the roofs were closed, however, Maria Sharapova’s match at the Rod Laver Arena continued in the full glare of the sun for 50 minutes after the policy was enacted. The third seed eventually finished off Italian Karin Knapp 6-3, 4-6, 10-8 to reach the third round.

“There is no way getting around the fact that the conditions have been extremely difficult for the last few days,” Sharapova told reporters. “It’s a tough call. I mean, I think the question I have is no one really knows what the limit is. Not the players (nor) the trainers themselves know when will the roof be closed.”

American Varvara Lepchenko clearly struggled in the heat in the first match on court eight, which she lost 6-4, 0-6, 1-6 to Romanian Simona Halep. “I think they definitely should have not started the matches in the first place,” Lepchenko, who had to be iced down during one changeover, said.

“I think they should have started the matches after the temperature cooled down a little bit because this is just too much. Obviously it is very dangerous if someone has conditions with their heart or anything like that. Just being in this temperature, it’s almost like going to (the) sauna.” (agencies)