Matches at the Australian Open have been delayed for three hours today due to toxic air quality caused by the bushfires raging across the country.
The news comes a day after Slovenia’s Dalila Jakupovic retired during her first-round match after collapsing on court. World number two Novak Djokovic, who is competing today in a charity event, has also called on the competition to be postponed.
Players and fans took to social media to voice their worries about the smoke sitting heavy over the Melbourne stadium. Frenchman Nicolas Mahut made his feelings clear in an Instagram post earlier today, saying that he is ‘ready for my first round’ after having put a breathing mask on. Whether he plans to compete with his mouth covered is unknown.
The qualifying round was delayed today for the second day in a row, with heavy criticism fired at event organisers for playing through the day yesterday despite the obvious health risks. They were also unhappy that yesterday’s postponement only lasted an hour.
Men’s world No 2 Novak Djokovic, who sits on the ATP Player Council, has already voiced his concerns for player safety and has suggested the tournament should be cancelled if smoke levels remain ‘hazardous’.
‘If it comes down to those conditions affecting the health of players, I think we should definitely consider it,’ Djokovic said on January 6, with what happened on Tuesday across multiple events unlikely to ease pressures on organisers.
Novak Djokovic, pictured today in Melbourne, has said that the tournament might have to be pulled completely in order to protect players
Slovenian Dalila Jakupovic, pictured, collapsed yesterday and had to abandon her match when she could take no more, despite being close to victory as the first round of the qualifying event got underway
Frenchman Nicolas Mahut made his feelings clear in an Instagram post earlier today
A general view is seen of smoke haze from bushfires at Melbourne Park, venue of the Australian Open practice sessions, in Melbourne today
Today organisers pushed back the start by three hours to 1pm when, although the air quality index continued to show conditions as ‘unhealthy’, the sky was noticeably clearer.
The main challenge for the players was stifling heat, although that was broken by a fierce thunderstorm that hit Melbourne Park late in the afternoon and sent players scurrying for the locker rooms.
The Australian Open has a scale for determining when play should be suspended because of heat but has not announced what parameters it is working to regarding air quality.
A man puts on his face mask as he enters Melbourne Park in Melbourne today ahead of the Australian Open tennis tournament
Jakupovic, pictured being escorted from the court yesterday, said the toxic smoke made her unable to go on competing
The chief health officer for the state of Victoria, Dr Brett Sutton, called for that to change on Wednesday, telling local media: ‘Tennis Australia needs to work up an air quality policy.
‘I can’t make a call on what individual thresholds might be, it really does depend on what it might mean to enclose a space and what filtration systems they might have as alternatives.
‘But I think they need to consider through all those thresholds, from poor to hazardous air quality, what their alternatives might be with a view to protecting as many players as possible.’
In the lead-up to the event, tournament director Craig Tiley said strategies were being considered, including playing matches indoors, with three roofed stadia at Melbourne Park and eight indoor courts at Melbourne Park National Tennis Centre to call upon if required.
Maria Sharapova saw her match on Tuesday abandoned due to health concerns over smoke inhalation having seen the former world No 1 become unwell in the smoky conditions
A statement on Wednesday read: ‘Conditions at Melbourne Park are being constantly monitored and further decisions will be made using the onsite data and in close consultation with our medical team, the Bureau of Meteorology and scientists from EPA Victoria.
‘The onsite data and measurements early this morning were similar to yesterday, when practice and play were suspended and delayed. Conditions yesterday were forecast to improve throughout the day, which is what occurred.’
Meanwhile, players including Serena Williams, Caroline Wozniacki, Rafael Nadal, Novak Djokovic and Roger Federer were due to take part in a special exhibition on Wednesday evening titled ‘Rally for Relief’.
World number two Djokovic has said that organisers will ‘have to consider’ rescheduling the Melbourne tournament, which is due to start on January 20.
Spectators wear face masks to combat smoke haze during an Australian Open practise session at Melbourne Park in Melbourne, Australia today
The Dunns Road Fire crowns the tops of a trees close near Maragle, Australia on Friday, Jan. 10. The relentlessness of the blazes is increasingly pushing Australia beyond crisis mode into anger and fatigue
Eugenie Bouchard was forced into taking a medical time-out during Australian Open qualifiers due to the poor conditions caused by the smoke. The Canadian complained of a headache before she sat down and was seen by a tournament medic
The toxic haze has drifted from out-of-control bushfires which have been ravaging Australia for months, and pollution levels in Melbourne dropped to the ‘worst in the world’ overnight.
Russian star Maria Sharapova struggled in the smoke during an exhibition match, which was eventually called off, while Australian player Bernard Tomic needed medical treatment during a qualifying match yesterday.
IMPACT OF THE SMOKE ON OTHER EVENTS
November 12: The Australian leg of the World Rally Championship is axed over concerns around smoke from nearby bushfires
December 19: A race meet at Tamworth was axed as organisers blame poor air quality from the New South Wales bushfires
December 22: Canberra’s smoke-filled air forces players off the ground in a Big Bash League match between Sydney Thunder and Adelaide Strikers. The game is eventually abandoned.
January 3: Events in Canberra continue to be impacted by the poor air quality from the fires as the city’s air quality is ranked the worst in the world. Tennis Australia decides to move the Canberra International to Bendigo.
A W-League football match between Canberra and Newcastle is also postponed, while a game between the Canberra Capitals and the Perth Lynx at the indoor AIS Arena is also scrapped due to air quality concerns.
January 4: The Karkarook Parkrun, an annual event in Melbourne’s south-east, is cancelled due to air quality concerns. Meanwhile, the Bridport triathlon in Tasmania is abandoned after smoke from nearby fires
Former semi-finalist Eugenie Bouchard also had problems on Tuesday and needed a medical time-out after complaining of a sore chest.
Organisers have so far resisted calls to postpone the tournament, with thundery conditions today expected to clear the air, but have come under increasing pressure from players who say the conditions are ‘not healthy’.
Qualifying rounds were suspended until lunchtime today with the air still smelling of smoke, before resuming at 1pm local time with conditions slightly better but still hazy.
Thundery weather then swept in late on Wednesday afternoon, bringing heavy rain that forced play to be cancelled for the day but raised expectations of clearer air for Thursday.
Air quality in Melbourne reached ‘hazardous’ levels for a time yesterday while Victoria state’s chief health officer, Brett Sutton, said ‘overnight for Melbourne it did reach the worst in the world.’
Melbourne Airport is operating with one runway as bushfire smoke continues to choke the city and horse races in the city have also been cancelled.
The worsening conditions are the result of bushfires which have ravaged much of Australia in the build-up to the tournament, with 27 people dead, more than 2,000 homes destroyed and millions of animals under threat.
Players reported that they had been feeling sick while training and the first matches on court on Wednesday were delayed by at least three hours because of the smoke.
The majority of Australian Open practice sessions are schedule for outdoor courts throughout the day, with just a handful being on indoor courts.
Organisers have long had policies in place to deal with rain and extreme heat, but air quality is a new problem.
Rafael Nadal of Spain meets fans during a handing over of Australian Open tennis tournament fleet vehicles at Federation Square in Melbourne today
A spectator wears a mask as smoke haze shrouds Melbourne during an Australian Open practice session at Melbourne Park in Australia, Tuesday, Jan 14
A man wears a mask as poor air quality from Australia’s bushfires hamper qualifying for the upcoming Australian Open tennis tournament in Melbourne today
A woman clasps her breathing mask to her face during today’s practice session of the Australian Open tennis tournament in Melbourne
Former semi-finalist Eugenie Bouchard left the court complaining of a sore chest during a qualifying match against China’s You Xiaodi yesterday, which she eventually recovered to win.
Bouchard said she found it ‘tough to breathe’ during the second set and said she was ‘definitely feeling unwell’ because of the conditions.
‘No cough, just heavy air, a bit tough to breathe and when you’re out of breath after a long, tough point I felt I couldn’t breathe well and that feeling made me a bit nauseous,’ she said.
‘Like the heat rule, there should be an air quality rule,’ the Canadian told reporters, referring to rules which allow the roof to be closed in extreme conditions.
Slovenian player Dalila Jakupovic was forced to retire while leading in her qualifying match on Tuesday because of the smoke.
‘I was really scared that I would collapse,’ she said after suffering a coughing fit.
She added: ‘Why do we need to wait for something bad to happen to do an action?’
Frenchman Lucas Pouille, who is preparing to appear in the main draw, condemned organisers on social media for putting players in a dangerous position.
A man wearing a face mask fills his bottle with water at a water fountain in Melbourne today, ahead of the Australian Open tennis tournament
‘I keep reading that it’s dangerous to play, to read messages from players saying it’s outrageous to play,’ he said. ‘I can’t judge I’m not there. but my question is this. Why are you going on the court?’
Sharapova and her German opponent Laura Siegemund agreed to call an early halt to their match at the Kooyong Classic warm-up tournament after more than two hours because of the conditions.
‘Over two hours play and I actually started to feel a cough coming on at the end of the second set,’ Sharapova said after her match was abandoned.
‘But I thought maybe because I have been feeling sick for the last couple of weeks it was something to do with that.
‘Then, when I heard Laura (Siegmund) speak to the umpire about it saying she was struggling as well, I was like ‘OK, thankfully I am not the only one’.
‘The umpire came down and said to play one more game but we were out there for over two hours and I think for my health stand-point it was the right call from the officials.’
A man wears a mask while others brave the toxic smoke without today in Melbourne
Australian Open tournament director Craig Tiley has insisted that precautions are being taken and that smoke delays will be treated like rain or heat.
‘Like when it is too hot or when raining, play will be suspended should the above measures deem that necessary,’ Tiley said.
‘We are also consulting closely with the WTA and the ATP and the decision we made this morning, both tours supported those and recommended those,’ Tiley said.
‘This is a new experience for all of us, how we manage air quality, and therefore we have got to rely on those experts that advise us how best to continue.’
Bernard Tomic of Australia receives medical attention in his match against Denis Kudla of the USA during 2020 Australian Open Qualifying at Melbourne Park yesterday
The Environment Protection Authority in Victoria is working with a dedicated team on site to establish the air quality and whether it is safe to put players out on court.
The EPA use five categories ranging from good to hazardous to determine the air quality, with Melbourne reaching the worst level for several hours yesterday before improving today.
The Australian Open medical team and the Bureau of Meteorology are also conducting their own checks to
Government advice to citizens in Melbourne and surrounding areas is to ‘minimise the time spent in smoky conditions whenever practical to do so,’ and it goes further to suggest they ‘avoid exercise’.
Tennis Australia was already forced to move a tournament in Canberra due to the damaging levels of smoke making the facility unusable for players and spectators.
A cricket match between Sydney Thunder and Adelaide Strikers on December 22 was stopped and eventually abandoned due to smoke levels.
Formula One organisers are said to be closely monitoring the air quality in the coming days as fears grow over the the season opening race in Melbourne on March 15.
Non-sporting events including Day on the Green music festival in Victoria’s north-east has been forced into cancellation at the last minute due to the hazardous air quality and pressure is building on the Australian Open to delay the start of the tournament.
Organisers were expecting to raise hundreds of thousands of dollars to help communities affected by the bush fire disaster.
The sport has so far raised around £1.5million for the cause.