TO CLOSE OR NOT TO CLOSE? WHAT WOULD HAMLET HAVE SAID?

”We’re havin’ a heat wave – a tropical heat wave…”

An old Broadway show tune that some deejay here in Melbourne should have draged out.  But probably never heard of.

You expect Australian summer to be toasty.  But we felt like slices of Wonder Bread slipped into the toaster.  It’s was an historic monsoon of Hadean heat according to the Melbourne weather bureau, the temperatures up around 115 on three record breaking days, which has brought about a case of roofinitis afflicting the Australian Open.

To close or not to close?  What would Hamlet have said about the maddening question circulating around Rod Laver Arena that boasts a retractable ceiling.  There is a heat policy regarding several factors including something called the “wet bulb.”  I’ve known a few dim bulbs, but “wet”?  Too much for me.

If the roof is closed, matches on outside courts are suspended.  That happened a couple of times.  Also a controversial closing for the third set of Sister Serena and Svetlana Kuznetsova’s quarter-final.  That gave Serena an edge, she who has won her three titles (1903, 05, 07) with the main court bundled up against rain.

Why wasn’t it shut when the match began, allowing the same ambience all the way? Koozy and the rest of us were puzzled, but she didn’t complain.  She’d had her chance three points from victory, serving at 5-4, 15-30 in the second set of her 5-7, 7-5, 6-1, defeat.

Serena, who likes to hear rain on the roof at the Laver parlor, wasn’t averse to a high heat closure, and beat Elena Dementieva, 6-3, 6-4, entirely indoors in the semis.  But that night it was opened up again to the night air for Roger Federer, impersonating the “Heat Wave” tune (without lyrics) frying an improved, very competitive Andy Roddick, 6-2, 7-5, 7-5.

Closed again Friday afternoon, and there was Serena again, winning the doubles title alongside Sister Venus, over Ai Sugiyama and Daniela Hantuchova, 6-3, 6-3.

The unprecedented sliding roof that raised the Aussie Open’s stature in 1988 has been controversial from the start.  It was first used for the women’s final that year, Steffi Graf launching her Grand Slam by beating Chris Evert, 6-1, 7-6.  Rain appeared after 3 games, and so did the roof.  For 90 minutes the purists (“it must be an outdoor tournament, as always”) debated the practical (“we have a full house and must give the public a match”).  The roof stayed shut.  ”Weirdest match I ever played – outdoor and indoor,” said Evert.

On the matter of stratospheric heat and brutal sun, there are those who say you have to play the conditions, regardless of temperature, and that the roof should defend only against rain.  I’m one of them (easy for me to say in the air-conditioned press room) .

“It’s the same sun that was there in 1912,” said the great old New York Yankee manager Casey Stengel whenever a disgruntled ballplayer complained about fly balls in the sun.

Same with the Australian sun.  They were playing this championship in torrid weather for decades.  My astute ESPN colleague, Darren Cahill, believes the show must go on without resorting to a closed roof and comfort for the fans.  Had a note from Tom Brown, 1947 Wimbledon finalist to Jack Kramer, saying he’d played on hard courts in such temperatures in Texas, suggesting “the players put ice and wet cabbage in their hats.

Rod Laver, the great Aussie champ, who went through numerous such hellfire days, advises the same.

Andy Roddick trained for the worst amd got a TKO from defending champ Novak Djokovic, who quit, drained in their quarter-final.  You have to condition yourself for this tournament, which can be overwhelming, Andy said.

I’ll take his advice and type in Florida sunshine (but not too long) before hanging out in the shade of the Melbourne press box.

You can bet on it.  There’ll be a “to close or not to close” argument every year, but it won’t tarnish  this marvelous major.

Hamlet would have said, “There’s something rottenly cold in Denmark.  Make mine Melbourne in January.”

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