AUSTRALIAN Open officials have been criticised for turning the tournament into a "perverse" debacle that goes against the spirit of tennis as unbearable conditions descended on Melbourne.
Temperatures nudged the 40C mark on Thursday afternoon and it was even hotter on court. Because of radiated heat from the stands, the temperature reportedly reached 69C in the middle of Rod Laver Arena during Novak Djokovic's four-set win over Gael Monfils.
The torturous conditions were having a serious effect on both players, but particularly Monfils. The Frenchman was pushed to breaking point as he tried to find shade at every opportunity and take longer breaks between points, telling the chair umpire he needed more than the allotted 25 seconds.
He received medical attention and at one stage left the court, such was his distress.
"I'm sick to the stomach," Monfils said. "I'm tired and dizzy.
"I'm going to collapse."
But he was forced to play on under the blazing sun as the roof remained open on Rod Laver Arena.
Dr Kathryn Bowen, a senior research fellow at the Australian National University (ANU) specialising in climate and health, was watching the match and said common sense should have prevailed, at least closing the roof to shield the players somewhat from the heat.
"When you can see the impacts (of the weather) on a person are as acute as they are that's when you need to look at this more subjectively and respond in a humane fashion," Dr Bowen told news.com.au.
"We don't need to bring out our thermometers. It's clear they're both suffering.
"It becomes a perverse game if it doesn't respond to their stress. They're under significant heat stress now and the officials really need to be able to make these calls quickly and with full autonomy."
A tennis fan, Dr Bowen said watching the match made her "uncomfortable" because of how much pain Monfils was in. She also said tennis lost its essence when it became less about skill and more about surviving extreme conditions.
"I've been watching with dread," she said. "I don't want to watch it.
"He looks ill, he looks sick, they're both suffering.
"It loses the gist of the game and it loses the spirit of the game when all they're doing is trying to survive in these sorts of conditions. It's not enjoyable at all.
"It becomes less about athletic skill and more about extreme heat survival.
"Clearly they (tournament organisers) need to put player health first and it appears they are not."
The extreme heat policy that would see play cancelled is brought into effect at the Referee's discretion when the temperature reaches 40C away from the heat of a court surface and the wet bulb globe temperature (which takes into account humidity) exceeds 32.5C.
The Australian Open's official Twitter account said the match was not halted because play "needed to be consistent with the outside courts so some don't get an unfair advantage".
Djokovic played some horrendous tennis to start the first set as Monfils took it 6-4. But as his health deteriorated the Serbian worked his way back into the contest and emerged with a 4-6 6-3 6-1 6-3 victory.
"It was obvious we both suffered on the court today," Djokovic told Channel Seven's Jim Courier in his on-court interview after the match. "Really tough conditions. Brutal."
On Wednesday Dr Liz Hanna of the Climate Change Institute at ANU and the Climate and Health Alliance said forcing players to put their bodies through hell came with "potentially lethal" consequences.
"They're at very high risk of overheating and that is potentially lethal. The worst case scenario is that somebody would succumb to severe injury," Dr Hanna told news.com.au.
"If we don't (put player safety above all else), we run the risk of people forfeiting matches or indeed people suffering potentially long term health problems and of course the worst case scenario is someone could die.
"Your total body performance - which would include your cognitive performance as well as your physical performance - is impacted and that's catastrophic for an elite athlete."
Tennis Australia has been contacted for comment.