Feeling the Heat? How Temperature Impacts Grand Slams

Guest post by @_Noops

There are a lot of things to remember about the 2018 US Open. Novak Djokovic was fantastic for 2 solid weeks, playing beautiful tennis in an impressive win in the final over Juan Martin Del Potro. Hopefully we reminisce about Naomi Osaka’s impressive first grand slam and not the behavior of another player or official.

What will the players remember? It was hot! One fan even passed out during a match in the early rounds. After retiring in the 4th set of a match with Laslo Djere, Leonardo Mayer explained, “I had heat stroke. I was not going to die on the court, tennis is not for that…. In the locker room I saw several people lying there, just like me, it’s very hard. I could not do it anymore.” Indeed, it was so hot that under medical advice the USTA implemented heat breaks for all matches.

Surely this intense heat must have impacted matches. We saw several retirements, but there must also have been some players who gave up on sets they were losing to save energy in exhausting conditions. There had to be plenty of players too tired and sick of the heat to stay competitive in later sets of long matches. Right?

It’d be crazy to think that humans in those conditions who were losing matches wouldn’t just give up in order to be done with it all or punt a set to save energy for a comeback. Why would someone submit themselves to such brutality? I can only assume that I missed a great chance to hammer lots of unders, but in the hopes of being prepared for next time, let’s take a look at how match totals performed in the 2018 US Open versus previous years.

Here are 2 tables. The first looks at average historical totals in men’s US Open matches. The second, average totals in the 2018 men’s US Open.

Well, this is very confusing. It seems that matches were actually longer this year. Compare the “All Rounds” lines of each chart. At almost every point the 2018 rates are higher. We do see shorter matches when comparing the first round (R128), but look at the 2nd (R64) & 3rd (R32) rounds. Matches went much longer in those rounds even though conditions were similar to round 1.

Let’s see if things look different when comparing the women’s US Open 2018 results to past women’s US Opens, as well as your average women’s hard court tournament. Here are 3 tables. The first shows historical average totals of women’s US Opens. The second shows historical average totals of women’s hard court tournaments in general. (Women’s grand slams are 3 set matches just like all other tournaments so looking at the average hard court match is relevant.) The third table shows totals in the 2018 women’s US Open.

This looks familiar, doesn’t it? The 2018 women’s US Open had longer matches than the average women’s US Open AND the average women’s hard court. Even more perplexing, when you compare the “All Rounds” line from tables 1 & 2 you can see that your average women’s US Open matches are usually shorter than your average hard court tournament. 2018 bucked this trend, featuring longer matches than your average hard court tournament despite the awful heat.

Ok, well maybe this was just an odd year. Let’s take a look at another tournament that featured seemingly unbearable heat. The 2014 Australian Open was also notable for its extreme conditions. For the first week temperatures peaked at more than 100 degrees Fahrenheit. 243 people in the city of Melbourne went to the hospital for heat exhaustion, according to the Herald Sun. Canadian player Frank Dancevic was quoted as saying, “I was dizzy from the middle of the first set, and then I saw Snoopy and I thought, ‘Wow, Snoopy, that’s weird.’ ” That can’t be good right? I assume Snoopy, a cartoon beagle, wasn’t there. "It looks terrible for the whole sport when people are collapsing, ball kids are collapsing, people in the stands are collapsing. That's obviously not great,” said Andy Murray. These conditions must have led to shorter matches. Let’s review 2 tables, one with historical averages for the men’s Australian Open and one that shows the 2014 men’s Australian Open.

When comparing the “All Rounds” lines of both tables one can see some rates are higher and some rates are lower. The round of 128 for the 2014 Australian Open, like the 2018 men’s US Open, featured shorter matches, but the round of 64 featured longer matches. In my opinion, there doesn’t seem to be much of a difference in rates between the 2014 Australian Open and your average Australian Open.

Now let’s compare the women’s 2014 Australian Open to the average women’s Australian Open and the average women’s hard court match. Here are tables showing the rates for all 3.

Comparing 2014 to your average women’s Australian Open shows little difference in match length. The same can be said for the difference between 2014 and your average women’s hard court tournament. We’ve now seen in both tournaments for the men & women that the heat in 2014 and 2018 may have actually made matches longer if it had any impact at all.

So, what can we learn from this? As always tends to be true, simple thoughts based on the experiences of a non-athletes do not apply to the finely tuned professionals we are so lucky to enjoy. When I started this research, I was positive I would find that extremely hot matches were shorter. Imagine having just lost 1 or 2 sets in blistering heat, knowing you would have to win 2 to 3 sets in a row in that same heat to win your match. Call me what you will, but if that 2nd or 3rd set doesn’t start in my favor I’m not fighting through the suffering and risk of injury for the tiny chance that I could come back to win.

Obviously, I am not made to be a professional tennis player. These are top athletes, laser focused on making sure their bodies are prepared anything. There is also a lot of money at stake. In the 2018 US Open players earned $93,000 for winning their first round match and $156,000 for winning their 2nd round match. That’s more than most people make in an entire year, let alone in a few days. Never assume that what seems logical for you or I makes any earthly sense for professional athletes.

The next time we see intense heat, the kind that would keep you or I inside tied to our air conditioners, don’t assume it will impact tennis players the same way. Now, there are exceptions for every rule. Maybe a player suffers from asthma, has a preexisting injury, or is so fatigued that the heat may lead to dangerous cramping. Tennis handicapping is always about the two specific people on the court that day. But those two people have both trained their entire lives for these moments and are much more prepared than your or I ever will be. Be careful if you’re going to weight temperature heavily in your handicapping.

Well? What did you think? Any questions? Any thoughts? Is there another tournament that had harsh weather that I should investigate? Did you not understand a number you saw? Do you think I’m full of crap? I would love to know. Leave a comment below, send me a DM or a tweet, and I will be sure to get back to you. The only way we can learn and grow is to engage with other thoughts and perspectives, whether they be positive or negative. Just please be polite. Best of luck and thanks for reading!