The heat feels like an invisible wall, it clogs the throat, it invades the lungs, it messes with the mind. And that's just me walking from the taxi drop-off point to the Australian Open stadium on Thursday. Everyone I see is wearing shorts, caps, holding towels, rubbing sun-block. And that's just the fans. On court, in this weather, men and women are playing 20-shot rallies? Must be a mirage.
At least players get paid to play, these hardy spectators paid to get in. They might have wanted a tan, instead they're getting sauteed. But not all. A colleague, who is is here purely as a fan, stayed in the air-conditioned confines of her hotel on Wednesday and pithily noted: "There was no one worth getting fried for". Ouch.
This Open for the past few days has become a test of loyalty. If athletes speak fondly of a "love of the game", then what of the thousands of spectators whose devotion lay in their presence at every court. As reward, Maria Sharapova inadvertently provided them with a three-hour 28-minute sweat-fest, which is how long it took her to tame Karin Knapp 6-3, 4-6, 10-8.
If watching was tedious at times, not to mention sticky, then not watching had to be painful. On Thursday, with everyone saying "44 degrees" with an exhausted awe, the "extreme heat policy" was implemented and matches were halted on outside courts. Now there was nothing to do but drink. Water seemed wiser, beer presumably tasted better.
For those who came early, at least there was Rafa, out there on court 18 at 10am, providing his own heat with a series of practice forehands that made the sound of a circus ringmaster's whip. Practice has an intimacy to it for fans stood 15-20 feet from him; practice is also an education for television disguises speed and only from close up is the acceleration of racket and rapid flight of ball readily evident.
Nadal's shirt clung to him like a second skin, yet he is always a force of concentration. He is not a thrower of rackets, yet one left his hand during a serve and clattered onto the court. Only sweat not temper was to blame. "Marry Me Rafa" cried a poster court-side, but he was faithful only to his craft. But later, after an hour on the court, his support team having left, he trotted across to sign autographs. Always a gent this fellow.
As the courts went silent for a while, I bumped into the Indian doubles player Mahesh Bhupathi, who speaks in clipped, dry phrases. "Dying" was his description of himself during his Wednesday match. "Survival of the fittest" was his grim verdict on the heat. He wasn't complaining and as he turned away, he flatly noted: "But we're here to win".