Hot topic: USTA needs common-sense heat policy at the US Open

NEW YORK -- It's time for the United States Tennis Association to adopt a coherent, transparent heat policy to manage the kind of conditions that are threatening to ruin both the player and fan experiences early in this US Open.

Simply, it could be modeled on the extreme heat policy already used by the Australian Open.

On Tuesday, afternoon temperatures at the National Tennis Center reached 98 degrees and the heat index touched 107, leading to retirements, numerous complaints of heat-related illness among players and fans -- and an on-the-fly revision of the actual rules governing US Open play.

Leonardo Mayer, who retired in the fourth set of his match with Laslo Djere because of heat-related issues, said after he left the court:

"I think we should no longer play five sets," Mayer said in Spanish. "That's my opinion, I think that's the past. They won't stop until someone dies. It's incredible -- matches become ugly. The only way [to solve this] is to shorten them."

Worse yet, conditions are expected to be as bad, if not worse, on Wednesday.

The solution embraced at the Australian Open is the official extreme heat policy, which combines air temperature and humidity to produce something called a wet bulb globe temperature. A WBGT reading of 32.5 with the temperature above 104 degrees Fahrenheit triggers a suspension in play and the closure of the roofed stadia, where matches continue under the air-conditioning.

The only concession to the predicted heat at the US Open on Tuesday was the tournament's approval of the WTA's own heat policy -- the ATP has none -- which allows for a 10-minute break after the second set in the event that either player requests it.

But by midday, concerned officials realized something had to be done. At 1 p.m. the USTA officially announced that the men would be allowed a 10-minute break in singles matches between the third and fourth sets. During the break, players could do pretty much anything they wanted, with the exception of conferring with their coaches.

The USTA has experienced heat-related controversies in the past, owing to New York's typical late August conditions of high heat and humidity. In 2014, semifinalist Peng Shuai received treatment for heat-related discomfort in the second set of her match against Caroline Wozniacki. Eager to resume, Peng was allowed by tournament officials to return. A few points later, she collapsed and ultimately had to be removed from the court in a wheelchair.

But heat policies are difficult to design and subject to vagaries in the ambient conditions. Officials tend to set a fairly high bar, not just to protect the tournament but to avoid disappointing fans or disrupting typically tight tournament schedules.

Temperatures at the Australian Open early this year hit 104 degrees Fahrenheit during a two-day heat wave. But the WBGT never hit 32.5; thus, play was never interrupted, leading to an outcry from some players. Novak Djokovic, Gael Monfils and Alize Cornet were among the players who harshly criticized the tournament for not implementing the heat mitigation rules.

An extreme heat policy is no surefire solution to the problems posed by intense heat and humidity. But it's better than no policy at all.