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    Jan Abaza holds a water bottle to her face Wednesday at the FSP Gold River Women's Challenger event. Players are expected to go through 200 cases of bottled water, about 50 cases more than last year.


    So-Ra Lee ices her head and wipes off sweat at the FSP Gold River Women's Challenger tournament Wednesday. Triple-digit temperatures were magnified as the tennis hard court radiated heat. Special breaks between sets helped players cool off.

Tennis pros at Gold River tournament find heat poses tough challenge

Published: Thursday, Jul. 4, 2013 - 12:00 am | Page 1B
Last Modified: Monday, Jul. 7, 2014 - 12:08 pm

Beside two clay pots full of wilting flowers and surrounded by sweating spectators, two women tennis pros at Gold River continued their hours-long match on a hard court where temperatures hit 118 degrees.

Each volley and point on the searing court was punctuated by pouring sweat, shouts, groans and the racket-on-ball whock of a powerful ground stroke.

Both players bounced on their feet continuously as they waited to receive shots or lunged to save a point.

By the time the match was finished, more than three hours had passed. At least 11 bottles of water were consumed. And the players, who retreated from the court to the relative cool of the clubhouse, were on their way to recovery.

"I thought my skin was burning toward the end," said Heidi El Tabakh, who beat her opponent, Asia Muhammed, in three sets. "Feet, too."

El Tabakh and Muhammed, two professional players who battled Tuesday for a share of the $50,000 prize at the FSP Gold River Women's Challenger, were not immune to the heat wave that swept through Sacramento this week, taking a toll on anyone caught outside.

Jennifer Branchcomb, a trainer for the U.S. Tennis Association, said she measured Tuesday's heat and humidity index at 118 degrees on the court, and 111 degrees next to the court at 1 p.m.

The hard court absorbs and reflects the heat like a sidewalk. "It's like sticking a brick into the fireplace," said Clint Swett, a media aide for the tournament at Gold River Racquet Club.

The temperatures at the tournament got so high that officials instituted a heat rule allowing players who split sets to take 10-minute breaks.

During those breaks, they could guzzle water, take cold showers and change out of sweat-drenched clothes.

Branchcomb said players constantly rehydrate, going through several water bottles and sports drinks before the end of a match. "As quickly as they're putting it in, they're sweating it out," she said.

Before the tournament ends Saturday, officials expect players will go through about 200 cases of bottled water, a 50-case increase over the previous year. Although there haven't been any heat-related injuries so far, it's up to the players to keep it that way.

"It's not about what you do on the court, it's what you do before," Branchcomb said. "My rule of thumb is, if you're thirsty, you're dehydrated."

The players at the tournament, who sometimes endure hours of play on the blistering hard court, aren't just in it for the prize money.

Many of them are also grinding it out for ranking points, which allow them to enter more prestigious tournaments with bigger prizes and more exposure.

One such player, 17-year-old Mayo Hibi, beat her opponent, eighth-seeded Victoria Duval, after a three-hour match Monday in triple-digit temperatures. Hibi went through three 16-ounce bottles of water during the match. "It's really hard to keep your focus when it's that hot," Hibi said.

She came out strong during the first set, which she won 7-5, and went into the 10-minute heat break after losing the second set 5-7. She tried to rehydrate and came out for the third set feeling focused. "I was just feeling really comfortable out there," she said.

Another player used to battling in the heat, Jacqueline Cako, played college tennis at Arizona State University. On bad days, she's been known to crouch down behind the water cooler to avoid the sun's rays. "When I first got here, I thought I was going to die," Cako said.

To stay focused, Cako drinks Gatorade and water and makes sure she has enough food in her stomach to keep going.

While on the court, she tries to give the impression that the heat doesn't bother her. "I don't really show it if I struggle with the heat," Cako said.

With temperatures threatening to climb into the triple-digits and high 90s during the remainder of the tournament, officials are keeping a close eye on the players, the line judges and the camera men sitting courtside. And the players are keeping one eye on the temperature.

Before she played her first match, El Tabakh saw a TV warning advising people not to participate in strenuous activity outdoors.

"My friend and I were like, 'Oh, great,' " El Tabakh said.

Call The Bee's Ben Mullin, (916) 321-1034.

© Copyright The Sacramento Bee. All rights reserved.

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