September 25, 2022

The impending retirements of Roger Federer, Serena Williams and Rafael Nadal – combined winners of 65 major singles titles – have worries about the end of tennis’ glory days. But a bigger existential crisis faces sport: climate change.

All sports, if they haven’t already, are set to suffer in a warming world. Rising sea levels could flood arenas and stadiums. Increased use of artificial snow could lead to more serious injuries for skiers and biathletes. Stronger storms and wildfires could wreak havoc on league schedules. But few sports are likely to fare worse than tennis. The sport follows the sun 10 months of the year, and more than 80% of its tournaments are held outdoors. And there are no substitutions in tennis: players spend hours on the court without teammates ready to take their place while they rest.

In some ways, tennis could suffer as much as endurance events such as the marathon, where athletes are always on the move and constantly exposed to heat, said Debra Stroiney, professor of kinesiology at George Mason University.

“Running a marathon, you’re out there for hours, constantly working,” she said. “But tennis too, they are there sometimes three, four, five hours, depending on the match, and yes, you sit down once in a while, you don’t hit the ball once in a while. But they also run around and are constantly on the move.

To study the future of tennis in a warming world, we used maximum temperature and relative humidity forecasts from five climate models produced as part of the Sixth Assessment Report of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change. United Nations Climate Change. These predictions all assume that we continue on our current fossil fuel-intensive trajectory, which is projected to lead to a warming of about 6 to 10 degrees Fahrenheit above pre-industrial levels through the end of this century. (The planet has already warmed by about 2.2 degrees Fahrenheit since the pre-industrial era, in the mid to late 1800s.)

Using forecasts from multiple climate models that cover a range of expectations, we were able to determine the highest temperature predicted by any of the models for each day. We calculated the average maximum temperature and the extreme maximum temperature, or a “maximum of maximum temperatures”, to give an idea of ​​what we could expect if a heat wave were to occur at a future tournament. For example, what could be the hottest temperature during the Australian Open 2050 in Melbourne?

To be clear, these daily forecasts are not weather forecasts. But they provide a window into how climate change could shift what we now consider normal weather to new extremes.

Tennis in 2050 is likely to be hot – and not just the action

Predicted average and maximum extreme temperatures (in degrees Fahrenheit), heat indices and relative humidity during tennis Grand Slam tournaments in 2050, according to five climate models

TournamentAvg. Max Temp*TempHeat Indexdir. humidity
australian open102.4105.414758.2%
French Open82.590.511377.0
Wimbledon86.487.810273.8
U.S. Open94.798.214577.0

* The average maximum temperature was the maximum value of the average or median maximum temperature across the five models for the month in which each tournament typically takes place.

Source: United Nations Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change Sixth Assessment Report

In the Australian Open 2050 final, it could be up to 147 degrees Fahrenheit, with an air temperature of 105.4 and a relative humidity of 58.2%. When Ash Barty made Australian tennis history earlier this year, the high air temperature in Melbourne Park was more than 30 degrees lower, at 71.

At the 2050 French Open in Paris, players could experience a heat index of 113 degrees, with the temperature reaching 90. The peak when Nadal won his record 14th Roland Garros title earlier this month ? 72 degrees.

At Wimbledon, the grounds maintenance team will have to work very hard to keep lawns lush and tidy as it could feel like 102 degrees in London in 2050. But that could feel like a reprieve from the 2050 US Open in New York, where the heat index could reach 145 degrees.

Tennis has already experienced the perils of a warmer planet. Croatia’s Ivan Dodig wondered if he “might even die” before withdrawing from an Australian Open match in 2014. “Impossible to play in this heat…he it’s just about surviving”, Elena Vesnina from Russia tweeted during the tournament.

Last year at the Tokyo Olympics, Russia’s Daniil Medvedev voiced similar concerns: “I’m a fighter, I’ll finish the match, but I can die,” he told the referee. chair during the game. “If I die, will the ITF [International Tennis Federation] will take responsibility? »

At the 2018 US Open, Roger Federer was upset in the fourth round in some of the wettest conditions he could remember. “I just struggled in the conditions tonight. It’s one of the first times it’s happened to me,” he said. “At one point I was just happy that the game is over.”

Players have already been put at risk by the collateral damage of climate change. Smoke from wildfires which scientists say were more likely to have occurred due to rising global temperatures caused Slovenia’s Dalila Jakupović to withdraw from the Australian Open qualifier 2020 she was leading. “I couldn’t breathe and fell to the ground,” she said.

ATP, WTA and Grand Slam tournaments all have extreme heat policies or ways to give players more breaks in dangerous conditions. But short of more frequent stoppages during matches, how can tennis survive on a warmer planet?

The key factor will be the core body temperature of the players. Our bodies are usually around 98.6 degrees Fahrenheit, of course, but when they heat up between 101 and 104 degrees Fahrenheit, the risk of heat-related illnesses increases, said Ethan Hill, a professor in the School of Kinesiology. and physical therapy from the University of Central Florida. At 104 degrees or more, we are at risk of heat stroke and potential organ failure.

How a person’s body reacts to heat depends on the individual – and especially if the player is well hydrated and acclimatized to the heat. Acclimated players typically sweat earlier, which helps their bodies stay cooler, Hill said. But, generally speaking, Hill and Stroisey said, tennis players can expect to see more heat illness in such extreme weather conditions. “We have this known limit,” Stroiney said. “Our bodies will say ‘no’, or the core temperature will rise to such an extent that our brain will actually say ‘stop’.”

Tennis has ways to mitigate that risk, including holding more indoor tournaments, Stroiney said, and fewer matches during the heat of the day, Hill said.

Tennis could also use innovative ways to cool players down, Hill said. For example, during changes or breaks, cooling vests and fans could be deployed to lower players’ core temperatures. Tournaments often give players ice towels and fans in extreme heat conditions.

Hill is also encouraged by research into the use of sodium and glycerol supplementation to improve electrolyte and hydration levels, although he stressed that more research is needed, especially in health care settings. extreme heat.

“It’s going to be extremely important that we start developing strategies to calm people down,” Hill said. “That will obviously become more important as the planet continues to warm and we continue to compete in these hot climates.”

Tennis officials understand the risks to players and emphasize strategies such as maintaining hydration and encouraging players to acclimatize. “When players regularly train and compete in higher temperatures, the body adapts through acclimatization and [that] allows the body to function at higher levels,” Todd Ellenbecker, ATP vice president of medical services, said through a spokesperson. “Careful planning and preparation, coupled with optimal fitness levels, helps all athletes adapt to athletic performance in the heat.”

Hill and Stroiney agree that acclimatization will be crucial for athletes. Within a week, acclimated athletes can retain an additional 2 to 3 liters of water and maintain a lower heart rate while exercising, Hill said.

But it’s not as simple as applying proven strategies and expecting similar results. In more intense extreme heat, Hill and Stroiney wonder how our typical physiological responses will behave, or whether new solutions might be needed somehow. For example, it usually takes athletes two weeks to fully acclimate, Hill said. “Now that the planet is warming, it could be longer,” he said.

The body also naturally moves warm blood from the core to the skin to help cool the body, he said. “It’s a pretty efficient process that gets better with heat acclimatization,” Hill said. “But…when the planet warms up, will this physiological response still be effective?”

Stroiney has similar doubts, and it’s personal. She played tennis and ran 10 marathons. But she, like some tennis players, doesn’t do well in the heat. How will she and other athletes fare in ever-higher temperatures?

Hill is optimistic that tennis, or the world, will change before waves of heat-related illnesses wear down the sport. “I don’t think it’s all catastrophic,” he said. “We just have to be very aware that it’s going to get hotter.”

So nearly 30 years from now, when Federer, Williams and Nadal share their Grand Slam championship stories, they may also be telling stories of the forgotten days of outdoor tennis.