By Simon Jennings
NEWYORK (Reuters) – The heat-wave engulfing New York during this year’s U.S. Open has left players gasping in distress and organisers faced with burning questions about the suffocating conditions on the tournament’s main showcourt.
Arthur Ashe Stadium was given a retractable roof, built at a cost of about $150 million in 2016, which has now turned into a public relations disaster for the United States Tennis Association (USTA) on the tournament’s 50th anniversary, with the game’s top players criticising the conditions.
The problem is the roof and its underlying superstructure has reduced air circulation, which has combined with the soaring heat and humidity to create a perfect storm of discomfort.
“In addition to it being pretty hot temperature-wise and high humidity, there’s not much natural air circulation,” USTA spokesman Chris Widmaier told Reuters.
“The way that the system is built in Arthur Ashe Stadium, we really can’t operate our (air management) system unless the roof is closed and that’s just because of the engineering.
“We didn’t envision needing it or using it except when the roof is closed.”
The players have made their feelings abundantly clear at what appears to be a lack of foresight by the USTA.
“I personally have never sweated as much as I have here,” sixth seed Novak Djokovic said after winning his quarter-final against Australian John Millman on Wednesday.
“I asked the chair umpire whether they are using some form of ventilation or air conditioning… he said only what comes through the hallway, (that) type of thing.
“Obviously it’s fantastic to have the roof… (but with) so many players struggling to breathe, especially on the centre court… there’s no circulation at all, especially court level, that’s something to really think about, consider and address.”
The uncomfortable truth facing the USTA is the lack of circulation has made playing conditions inside Arthur Ashe more stifling than at any of the other courts.
“I do believe since the roof is on that there is no air circulation in the stadium,” second seed Roger Federer said after losing to Millman on Arthur Ashe in the fourth round on Monday.
“That makes it a totally different U.S. Open … You have soaking wet pants, soaking wet everything.”
With the biggest names playing almost all their games on the court, the question is whether the likes of Federer, Serena Williams, Djokovic and Rafa Nadal have been more disadvantaged than their less-feted rivals.
“Look that’s a fair question,” Widmaier said.
“Obviously all singles matches are being played in Arthur Ashe Stadium right now so there isn’t that type of imbalance. That being said, if you said that on day three, it’s a legitimate question.
“After every U.S. Open we look back and see where we were strong, see where we can improve.
“Will there be another means of looking to see if you can create on the court level… some way to promote air circulation on these very still days? I think we’ll discuss that as well.”
On Wednesday, organisers decided to run the air management system during Djokovic’s match while the roof was open, hoping it would provide some relief.
Judging by Djokovic’s comments, the experiment failed.
“It feels like sauna,” he said.
(Editing by Greg Stutchbury)