After cool first week, heat about to become a real factor at the US Open

NEW YORK — Something important, something tangible and defining, was missing from the first week of the US Open.

Yes, there was plenty of good tennis, and just the right number of upsets (too few, and it’s boring; too many, and the later rounds lose their shine). Yes, there were controversies (you can’t stick the fourth seed, Holger Rune, on Court 5 just because he’s not American).

The subway trains rumbled by, on cue, as John Isner prepared to serve inside Armstrong Stadium. Caroline Wozniacki and Elina Svitolina provided warm-and-fuzzy tales of mothers on the comeback trail, and some obligatory feel-good features for ESPN. The USTA packed in plenty of spectators, more than ever, transforming the National Tennis Center again into an overcrowded cash register.

A lot was familiar in Queens. But veteran fans attending the first-week sessions surely sensed that the climate, quite literally, was very different. They weren’t sweating profusely between trips to the ice cream stand. Players rarely cramped, and didn’t need to change their shirts on every changeover. Nobody puked on the court. Nobody fainted in the stands.

That is all about to change.

An overwhelming, New York-style heat wave is about to ambush Flushing Meadows, turning this event into a survival contest for anybody who enters the grounds. There will be no more of those cushy temperatures in the 70s. The forecast beginning Sunday is for highs in the 90s, and then even higher 90s, peaking on Wednesday. During that brutal session, the forecast is for a high around 95, with humidity rising close to 80%.

Finally, the tournament begins!

Searing heat has always been a big part of what makes the US Open such an outrageous challenge, particularly for the men who face four-hour, best-of-five-set matches. When the hardcourts sizzle, when their surfaces can fry eggs and sneakers, the whole dynamic changes. Players who trained hard for this tournament suddenly discover they are not as fit as they thought. Balls travel faster. Legs struggle to keep pace.

Players wish to be scheduled for the night, not in mid-afternoon, but only the marquee names are pampered in that way. All the athletes would like to play under a closed roof. That doesn’t happen, however, unless there is rain. Ever since the retractable dome over Ashe Stadium debuted in 2016, US Open organizers made it clear: “The roof will not be used to protect ticket holders [or athletes] from heat or direct sunlight.”

Everyone must deal with the heat in their own way, even the very best players. All eyes will be on Carlos Alcaraz, the No. 1 seed and top draw, as he navigates these extreme conditions. Alcaraz expends more calories than anyone during matches, chasing down balls from corner to corner in order to produce his impossible shots. Unfortunately, that has taken its toll on him twice in the recent past.

At the French Open in June, during an unusual hot spell in Paris, Alcaraz wilted against Novak Djokovic, cramping desperately, dropping the last two sets of their semifinal, 6-1, 6-1.

“The first set and the second set were really, really intense and I started to cramp in my arm,” Alcaraz said. “At the beginning of the third set I started to cramp every part of my body, not only the legs. The arms, as well, every part of the legs.”

Then it happened to Alcaraz again last month in even worse, withering heat. That final in Cincinnati produced some of the best tennis ever witnessed on the planet, until the younger player’s hand began cramping late in the four-hour final against Djokovic.

“Let’s give some fair context,” said Andy Roddick, the former U.S. star now commentating for Tennis Channel. “Novak didn’t have his body figured out when he was 20 years old, either, right? Diet can make a huge difference, but it’s trial and error. Carlos is already an hour and a half better in extreme conditions.

“The French Open, it was about the 2:20 mark,” Roddick said. “Now we’re talking about the 3:50 mark, same problem but it’s getting better. That’s progress.”

It isn’t just Alcaraz, of course. Recently, players like Jannik Sinner and Cam Norrie have also suffered from cramping. The sport is relatively heartless when it comes to such things. While medical timeouts are available for injuries such as sprains and blisters, there is no such break afforded specifically for cramping or fatigue. It is hard to forget poor Pete Sampras receiving a warning for a time violation back in 1996, while he vomited at the back of the court during a four-hour torture session against Alex Corretja.

The US Open does have an Extreme Heat Policy, rarely invoked, which allows men a 10-minute break between the third and fourth sets, and women between the second and third sets. But even then, it can get tricky. In 2018, during an agonizing spell that forced several retirements, Andrea Petkovic took a verified heat break in an air-conditioned room under Armstrong Stadium.

“When I came back out, it felt like five billion degrees,” the German player said. “Next time, I would stay out there, chill on the bench.”

Over the years, as the sciences of physiology and nutrition have evolved dramatically, players have amassed more weapons to fight against cramping and heat exhaustion. They have been taught to carbo load, eating early and often before matches. Maria Sharapova’s father and coach, Yuri, famously would remind his daughter during matches, through silly gestures, to eat as many bananas as possible.

Hydration is obviously key. Competitors consume liters of water and electrolytes, before they take the court. It is not enough to drink when thirsty.

And then there is the ultimate weapon in the battle against cramping: pickle juice. Once considered an eccentric elixir, this concoction is now universally recognized as a cramp inhibitor.

Dr. Jordan Metzl, a sports doctor at Hospital for Special Surgery, told TODAY.com that the juice “definitely works” as an anti-cramping agent. It has nothing to do with electrolytes or hydration, he said, but rather a triggering mechanism that stops cramps from reoccurring, after they have developed.

“When the acid enters the mouth and it splashes the back of the throat, there is a nerve receptor there that is sensitive to acid,” Dr. Metzl said. “When that receptor fires, it communicates down the spinal cord where the cramp is happening. It’s just a nerve firing in a loop. And then that signal says, ‘Stop.’ ”

Alcaraz was seen gulping the briny stuff in Cincinnati, during changeovers. Maybe it helped, maybe it didn’t. He lost to Djokovic, as he had in Paris. In lower temperatures at Wimbledon, Alcaraz emerged triumphant. By the time Alcaraz would face Djokovic again in a final next Sunday, the weather is supposed to cool down a bit. Alcaraz just has to survive until then.

While players carefully balance their nutrients this week, spectators at the Open are less likely to do so. That may become a real problem. It is one thing to know what is good for you. It is quite another to resist the many, dehydrating alcoholic beverages available for consumption at exorbitant prices. Open officials are not about to hand out free, bottled water, or stop serving beer and wine in weather that feels like 100-plus degrees. That would cost money, which is very important to the USTA.

Given such circumstances, chair umpires will be scanning the crowd for health crises, prepared to halt play if necessary. EMT workers will be on high alert. Summer heat is coming, making a last stand. Tempers will flare. Players will cramp.

The US Open — the one we know, love, and sort-of dread — is about to start in earnest.

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Filip Bondy is a special correspondent.

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