By John Pye
MELBOURNE, Australia: Maria Sharapova was already soaking in ice by the time the extreme weather warning arrived.
It seemed bafflingly late to the four-time major winner, who felt fried after playing for 3½ hours in searing heat to reach the third round of the Australian Open. She didn’t know it when she was out on Rod Laver Arena tangling with Karin Knapp on Thursday, but tournament organizers had finally conceded it was unsafe to keep players on court on the third consecutive day of what is shaping as a once-in-a-century heat wave.
Matches were suspended for four hours as temperatures topped 109 degrees Fahrenheit before subsiding, but that didn’t apply to Sharapova and Knapp, because they were already into the third set and the extreme heat policy only kicks in at the end of sets in progress. Sharapova, a former world No. 1 ranked player currently No. 3, thinks it absurd that a vague formula for measuring ambient temperature, wind and humidity leaves the tournament referee as the sole arbiter of extreme heat — without input from the players.
“We have never received any emails or, you know, warnings about the weather or what to do,” she told a news conference an hour or so after her 6-3, 4-6, 10-8 win over Knapp. Then she recalled: “Actually, I did receive one, I think, while I was in the ice bath a few minutes ago — I was like, ‘That’s a little too late.’ ”
Not long after tournament director Craig Tiley appeared outdoors in a TV interview, dressed in jacket and tie, to explain how the decisions are reached, Sharapova said organizers should be telling the tour trainers, medical staff, officials and players so that everyone is in the loop.
The only matches that continued in the afternoon were on the two main show courts under closed roofs, which in hindsight was a good thing when the lightning and rain arrived later in the evening to again delay matches on outside courts. It is Melbourne, after all.
Top-ranked Rafael Nadal was pleased to avoid the heat, and the lightning, and the temperatures had dropped when two-time defending champion Victoria Azarenka and Wimbledon champion Andy Murray won the featured women’s and men’s night matches on the center court.
Roger Federer was content to find his way out to a secondary court at Melbourne Park for the first time in a decade so that he could play under the roof on Hisense Arena. He and Nadal played at roughly the same time, also a rarity here, and won in three sets.
Others advancing on the men’s side included 2008 finalist Jo-Wilfried Tsonga, No. 11 Milos Raonic, No. 22 Grigor Dimitrov and American Donald Young, who beat No. 24 Andreas Seppi of Italy 6-4, 2-6, 6-3, 4-6, 7-5.
No. 5-ranked Juan Martin del Potro, the 2009 U.S. Open champion, didn’t like the late finish. His run as an outside contender to the ‘‘Big Four’’ ended in a shocking 4-6, 6-3, 5-7, 6-4, 7-5 loss to Spain’s Roberto Bautista Agut at 1:20 a.m. today.
The women playing the early matches experienced the worst of the heat Thursday, with No. 11 Simona Halep winning all but one game in the last two sets against American Varvara Lepchenko, who needed treatment and said she was almost delirious. No. 5 Agnieszka Radwanska, No. 8 Jelena Jankovic and No. 13 Sloane Stephens advanced in the relative cool of the evening.
The temperatures were forecast to reach 111 on the fifth day. No. 1-ranked Serena Williams was playing on Rod Laver Arena today against Daniella Hantuchova, and three-time defending champion Novak Djokovic was playing a night match, when temperatures were expected to drastically drop ahead of the weekend.
The scorching heat has been the talking point all week in Melbourne. Others have described the decision not to suspend matches earlier in temperatures regularly topping 108 degrees Fahrenheit as inhumane.
No. 25-seeded Alize Cornet, who plays Sharapova next, sobbed on court after her second-round win, saying: “It was an oven. It was burning.”
Murray said it was difficult for everyone involved.
“It’s not a good place to be in because the heat is bearable — just,” he said, adding that the stakeholders needed to discuss the heat rules and make them easier to understand.
“But let’s also remember this is the first time it’s ever been like this,” he said. “I heard it was 100 years they’ve never had weather like this four days in a row. So you’ve got to expect that’s probably not going to happen again for a while.”