MELBOURNE, Australia — Novak Djokovic is 2-0 on the comeback trail with his compression sleeve and revamped serve.
He has won in humane conditions. He has won in inhumane conditions, and they don’t get much more extreme in tennis than on Thursday afternoon at the Australian Open, which is back to being the griddle of Grand Slam tournaments.
The temperature of 39 degrees Celsius (102 Fahrenheit) at Melbourne Park combined with low humidity was not quite enough to trigger the tournament’s extreme heat policy, which would have generated delays on the outside courts and closed roofs on the main courts.
But it certainly looked like Djokovic and Gaël Monfils were playing an extreme version of the game in Rod Laver Arena as Monfils staggered about and leaned on his racket as if it were a cane. The temperature on the court hit 68 degrees Celsius (154 Fahrenheit), according to Australian television.
“The conditions were brutal, that’s for sure,” Djokovic said.
The odds of both players completing the match looked as long as Monfils’s face as he sat in his chair on changeovers, an ice towel draped around his neck, which seemed rather like wearing a scarf over one’s T-shirt in the midst of a blizzard.
“For sure, you know, we took risk,” Monfils said, talking about health risks, not forehands down the line.
But Monfils, like so many others around the grounds on Thursday, managed to reach the finish even if Djokovic ended up the winner for the 15th time in their 15 matches, 4-6, 6-3, 6-1, 6-3.
There was a time, increasingly long ago, when Djokovic might have been the more vulnerable man on such a scorcher. Early in his career, before he changed his diet and underwent sinus surgery, he was the one who frequently wilted in the heat.
Djokovic acknowledged the school of thought that tennis players train to be able to sustain these kinds of conditions and should be rewarded. Jim Courier, when he won the 1993 Australian Open over Stefan Edberg on a torrid afternoon before there was an official heat policy, said he actually threatened not to play if officials closed the roof.
“I was never a big fan of playing in the heat, but I knew that it was advantageous for me versus some opponents,” Courier said on Thursday. “It was a matter of hating it less than my opponent.”
But Courier likes that the tournament referee has an official policy to work with now along with some latitude if common sense becomes a better guide. Djokovic made it clear that there was a limit to what players should be asked to suffer — a balance between needing to be fit and avoiding health risks.
Was that limit reached on Thursday?
“It was right at the limit,” he said before alluding to the business decisions made to guarantee that the show goes on. “Our sport has become an industry, like most of the other global sports. It’s more business than a sport. At times I mind that.”
Australian Open officials would argue that competitive fairness is also a factor. Close the roofs and the stars on the show courts get to play under cover while hoi polloi have to wait or play in the heat when play is again authorized.
But there should be no debate that Djokovic’s victory on Thursday was a tribute to his fitness in his first tournament after an extended injury break. It also was a tribute to his will, which was in question for the second half of 2016 and the first half of 2017. That was before his still-unspecified right elbow injury forced him to spend four months without a racket in his hand and six months off the tour.
“Novak looks good to me,” Roger Federer said after beating Jan-Lennard Struff, 6-4, 6-4, 7-6 (4), in the comparative chill of the evening session to set up a third-round match with Richard Gasquet. “It was more a battle of the weather today, so it’s difficult to judge exactly because it was not normal conditions; not easy to see if Novak’s changed something tactically.
“But what I see is a strong Novak who knew how to manage the weather and find solutions in the toughest second round of the tournament, in my view. There were others, but Gaël, with his abilities and having just won Doha, it was a real test, and Novak passed it after starting poorly, very poorly, to be honest.”
It is hard to remember a shakier start for Djokovic, who double-faulted on the first two points and twice more in his second service game, spraying backhands and forehands into all the wrong places as he fell behind, 0-3.
“Nervous start,” said Djokovic, whose revamped serve is designed to protect his elbow. “I wasn’t really comfortable at the very beginning. I can’t blame conditions for my double faults. I mean, it’s still that motion I’m kind of getting used to. Being rusty at the beginning is something that you can also expect. I just have to accept it, embrace it.”
It was soon back to 3-3, however, and though Monfils, taking uncharacteristic risks to shorten the points and the suffering, managed to win the set, he was soon just trying to manage. He pleaded to have more than 25 seconds between points and poured water over his head without bothering to drink it.
At least there were no hallucinations of the sort the Canadian player Frank Dancevic experienced in the extreme heat waveat the 2014 Australian Open. He had visions of Snoopy shortly before fainting midmatch in the first round and then going on to defeat.
“Until somebody dies, they’re going to keep playing matches in this heat,” Dancevic said then.
The heat policy here was designed with considerable medical input, and as much as Melbourne Park felt like a Finnish sauna on Thursday, there were no retirements in any singles match.
It can certainly get hotter, and it may on Friday with temperatures forecast to rise above 40 degrees Celsius (104 Fahrenheit).
“Good luck for the guys,” Monfils said. “Honestly, good luck for the guys.”
The men have been talking about much more than the weather here this year. With his return to the circuit, Djokovic, the president of the ATP Player Council, has also been initiating discussions on prize money hikes and the merits of unionization.
Federer, a former president of the council, played a pivotal role in persuading the Grand Slam tournaments to raise prize money in the early 2010s. He was in attendance at the mandatory players meeting last Friday in Melbourne where Djokovic broached some of these topics.
Federer was asked very late on Thursday night whether he believed the Grand Slams were devoting a sufficient percentage of their revenue to prize money.
He looked a touch world-weary as he answered.
“They could definitely pay more, no doubt about it,” he said. “They know that. We’re not partners. We’re just players. It’s always hard to rally. We had a good agreement, in my opinion. That made the Grand Slams happy, the players pretty happy. Seems like that has run its course.”
He added: “The moment that happens, there’s not the same increases anymore, so players have to rally, get back together again, put in the effort. The Grand Slams know that. They will only react when we do so. We’re ready to do it. It’s going to be the same process over and over again. It’s a bit boring, to be honest, always having to ask for stuff. If you look at the revenue, the sharing process, it’s not quite where it’s supposed to be.”
He also said he was encouraged that the players were communicating with one another again. “When the players don’t talk, nothing gets done,” he said.
It was a day for cold water at Melbourne Park, but if ATP or Grand Slam officials had hoped that Federer, the elder statesman, would throw plenty of it on Djokovic’s activism, they were disappointed.
Boring does not quite seem the best word to describe the situation. Or this tournament.
Bring on the heat.
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