The Australian Open next week is in crisis after a player collapsed in qualifying due to the "unhealthy" air in Melbourne from ongoing bushfires, while Maria Sharapova has cut short an exhibition match.
Play in qualifying has been suspended on Wednesday as outrage grows about the organisers' decision to press ahead.
The unfortunate player – Slovenia’s Delila Jakupovic – later spoke of her fear as she found herself unable to breathe during her first-round qualifying match, saying she was “angry and sad” that she had been asked to go on court despite an air-quality reading rated as “hazardous”.
On a chaotic day in air conditions rated "the worst in the world", Maria Sharapova called off her exhibition match after less than two sets.
Eugenie Bouchard left the court after struggling to breathe and world number five Elina Svitolina asked the authorities "why do we have to wait for something bad to happen" before they take action.
And with just five days to go until the start of the main event it has emerged that Tennis Australia's contingency plan for dealing with more bushfire smoke over the next three weeks is also being called into question.
Play in qualifying was suspended for a second time on Wednesday: this time for rain.
The eight indoor courts in the National Tennis Centre at the south-east corner of the site have been seen as a potential escape route in the case of consistently polluted conditions. But when Great Britain’s Jay Clarke tried to warm up for his match in the NTC, he found the courts unusable after smoke found its way in through the ventilation system.
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“There was talk of it [the qualifying matches] moving indoors,” said Clarke, who later suffered a hip injury and lost in three sets. “But we actually went over to the NTC and it was worse. They have got permanent vents open so when it [the smoke] got in it wasn't able to get out. No players were practising indoors over there, and I ended up warming up outdoors.”
Air quality has declined over the last week and an an easterly wind change on Tuesday morning brought a fresh wave of smoke in from the many fires burning in East Gippsland, some 200 miles away. Brett Sutton, Victoria’s chief health officer, said that Melbourne’s air quality had dropped to "the worst in the world" overnight as cooler temperatures brought particles in the air closer to the ground.
Davila Jakupovic retires after suffering a horrendous coughing fit and breathing difficulties in the heavy, polluted air in Melbourne. Awful scenes pic.twitter.com/EPQUlf9DpF— Simon Briggs (@simonrbriggs) January 14, 2020
The City of Melbourne issued warnings to its citizens and their pets to stay inside wherever possible, while the day’s horse-racing was cancelled and local Australian Rules football teams postponed practice. Builders were also recommended to down tools, but Tennis Australia’s main response to was to delay play for an hour on the first day of qualifying, so that it started at 11am rather than 10.
Although conditions seemed to improve a little in that period, they worsened again around lunchtime, and it was at 2.30pm that Jakupovic – a 28-year-old ranked No 180 in the world – fell to her knees while leading her match 6-4, 5-6. She retired almost immediately, too concerned about her health to remember that she stood only a few points from victory.
“I think it was not fair because it's not healthy for us,” Jakupovic explained, when she felt well enough to speak to reporters almost two hours later. “I thought we would not be playing today. We don't have much choice. If we don't go on the court, maybe we get fined. It would maybe have been better to wait to see if tomorrow is better.”
Asked to describe how she had felt on the court, Jakupovic replied “It was really bad. I never experienced something like this and I was really scared. When I was on the ground it was easier to get some air.”
At around the same time, Sharapova brought an early end to her exhibition match with Laura Siegemund in nearby Kooyong, later explaining that “I think both of us felt it. This is obviously maybe more extreme than some of the other conditions we’ve had.”
Back at Melbourne Park, a ballboy was taken ill during Clarke’s match, while Bouchard left the court for around ten minutes before the start of her third set, and Bernard Tomic asked for an inhaler. Spectators were also seen wearing masks to protect themselves from hazardous air.
“It’s definitely a tricky call for the tournament director,” said Bouchard later. “I started feeling unwell and nauseous so I called the trainer. The air was heavy and it was tough to breathe. We are all here and we all want to play so it’s a tough balance. With what is going on, our issues are at the bottom of the list compared to everyone who is really suffering with the fires but as athletes it’s not the most ideal conditions.”
Tennis Australia have stuck to their policy of weighing up evidence from on-site testing equipment, medical experts and meteorologists. But Liam Broady, the British No five, accused them of double standards. The lower-ranked players in the qualifying draw were asked to play outside while the top performers were able to practise under a roof in the three big air-conditioned stadia: Rod Laver Arena, Margaret Court Arena and Melbourne Arena.
“I don't think qualifiers are treated the same way as the main-draw players,” said Broady, who won only three games and later suggested that his high fitness levels had been neutralised by the appalling air quality. “I think that is the same at every tournament. Maybe we have to earn the right to be treated like the main-draw players do, but at the same time we are all human beings and there is no doubt that this is pretty bad for you to be running around in these conditions.”
Several players of both genders expressed their concern on social media. "It is time for a players' union," said the Canadian player Vasek Pospisil. "This is becoming absurd."
Mandy Minella, who was due to take the court today, said “Shocked to see that qualifying matches have started. What about the health of all the people that have to work out there, especially the ballkids? Where are the limits?"