Many of the world’s travelling tennis media are already in Melbourne and reacted with utter shock that play was allowed in hazardous smoke conditions on the first day of Australian Open qualifying.
Melbourne’s air quality was rated the worst in the world on Tuesday with people warned to stay inside, but Tennis Australia deemed conditions were still safe enough to play in.
The ensuing drama, including the mid-match retirement of Slovenia’s Dalila Jakupovic after a coughing fit a a host of player complaints, made headlines right across the world as debate rages ahead of the main draw, starting on Monday.
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Stuart Fraser, writing for the Times, blasted the “cavalier approach” of officials, calling for common sense going forward.
“With players visibly gasping for air on court yesterday, it is unfathomable that organisers — no doubt sitting in the comfort of an airconditioned office behind the scenes — allowed play to continue,” Fraser wrote.
“Another alarming oversight was the failure to arrange P2 face masks — which can filter out fine particles in smoke — for the ball kids, umpires and line judges who were standing outside for hours.
“This was a shameful day for tennis but one which had been brewing because of the incompetence of the sport’s officials to fully grasp the health issues that bushfire smoke can cause.
“Let us hope that the same mistake is not repeated in the coming weeks.”
Simon Briggs, writing for the UK Daily Telegraph, described the effect of the smoke even for spectators and said it was remarkable so many matches were concluded.
“Within a few minutes of leaving your room, it has coated your lungs with grit, and abraded your windpipe. Your eyes sting and water, making you wonder what kind of hell it must be to actually live in a fire zone, rather than receiving the diluted product some 400 miles away,” he wrote.
“This is not weather for sport, nor for watching sport.
“You only have to be out in it for a few minutes before the airways tighten up. The remarkable thing about Tuesday was not that one player was forced to stop because she felt unable to breathe, but that everyone else managed to struggle through to the end.”
The conditions raise the discussion of delays, changes or even the possible cancellation of the Open main draw but Briggs said that was unlikely.
“Melbourne Park boasts three large stadia with roofs and filtered air-conditioning systems. And there are eight indoor courts at the National Tennis Centre on the south-eastern side of the site. If the conditions turn truly apocalyptic, Plan B is to host matches inside, with supplementary events such as the juniors, legends and wheelchairs moved off-site.”
Jonathan Howcroft, writing for the Guardian UK, said it was a sad time for the event that sells itself to the world as the “happy slam”.
“It wasn’t supposed to be like this … perhaps that will be the catchcry of Australian Open 2020. An event synonymous with bold primary colours, in the sky and on the court, at risk of being stifled by a pea-souper.
“It wasn’t supposed to be like this, especially not on day one, not before the rest of the world had even woken up.”
English player Liam Broady even accused organisers of double standards after bowing out with a 6-3 6-0 loss, telling the Daily Mail: “I don’t think qualifiers are treated the same way.
“Maybe we have to earn the right to be treated like the main draw players but we are all human beings.”
Conditions for the qualifying aren’t expected to improve until late Wednesday with players set to again battle through smoke at Melbourne Park. Start of play on day two has been delayed until at least 1pm AEDT.
Health authorities expect the air quality to bounce between the “very poor to hazardous range” until at least Wednesday afternoon, with a top temperature of 34 before a late change that’s set to bring rain.
Tennis Australia says it will continue to work with their medical team, the Bureau of Meteorology and Environment Protection Authority Victoria scientists when making decisions about whether it’s safe to play.