Almost 1000 tennis fans have been treated for heat exhaustion at the Australian Open as soaring temperatures forced the suspension of nearly all matches on day four.
Tournament referee Wayne McEwen applied the extreme heat policy at Melbourne Park about 1.52pm on Thursday, suspending all play on outdoor courts. Not long after 6pm play was resuming on the outside courts.
Temperatures hit 43.3 degrees on day four of the grand slam and Mr McEwen deemed the conditions unsafe for players.
Maria Sharapova attempts to cool down during her marathon second-round match against Karin Knapp. Photo: Reuters
It is the first time the extreme heat policy has been applied at the Australian Open since 2009, when the tournament was suspended on consecutive days with temperatures reaching as high as 45 degrees.
Victorian Emergency Services Minister Kim Wells said St John’s Ambulance staff had treated 970 people for heat exhaustion at the tournament so far.
While players on the outside courts retreated to the shade once they had finished the sets under way, matches on Rod Laver Arena and Hisense Arena continued once the roofs on both courts had been closed.
Heat is on: Kei Nishikori cools down with an ice pack. Photo: AP
This year the extreme heat policy was modified to give the tournament referee more discretion about stopping play when the temperature has exceeded a predetermined threshold.
At the time the suspension was announced, No.3 seed Maria Sharapova and Italian Karin Knapp were locked in a tense final-set decider, having been on court for nearly three hours. They played for a further 50 minutes after the announcement before Sharapova eventually triumphed 10-8 in the third set.
The extreme heat policy is applied when the Wet Bulb Globe Temperature exceeds a predetermined threshold, allowing the tournament referee to suspend play at his discretion.
Given the extreme heat in Melbourne, women in the singles draw have already been allowed a 10-minute break between the second and third sets and ice vests are being provided on all courts.
Matches interrupted because of the extreme heat policy included Jo-Wilfried Tsonga's match against Thomaz Bellucci and Andreas Seppi's match again Donald Young. The Tsonga-Bellucci match restarted when the roof was closed on Hisense Arena.
Earlier, Mr McKewen had said that while conditions so far had not warranted the extreme heat policy to be implemented, “today may be a different story based on forecasts”.
Speaking to Melbourne radio station 3AW, Mr McKewen said weather conditions were being “continually re-assessed” and that he was in regular contact with the tournament's chief medical doctor and the Bureau of Meteorology, which has set up a temporary base at Melbourne Park.
The forecast top for Melbourne on Thursday is 44 degrees. Friday is expected to reach 42 ahead of a gusty change.
“We've got staff in the tournament control who are continually monitoring the weather conditions,” he said, adding that ambient air temperature, humidity and wind variation were all considered.
Mr McKewen said he was confident the regulations protected players' health and safety, despite the phrase “predetermined threshold” being removed from the tournament's heat policy earlier in the week.
“I've got guidelines which I follow,” he said. “We don't want to have a hard mark as to, OK if it hits this we stop play.
"Because we all know in Melbourne temperatures can fluctuate very quickly, and if we know it's going to cool down in the next half an hour or so we'll push through that period and then continue on into the cooler period. But if I know the temperatures will spike I would rather bring everyone in earlier rather than later.
“We want to have that little bit of flexibility for the players.”
Nine players retired in the first round, some due to heat.
With Scott Spits