The entire world has seen the awful devastation of the Australian fires. Tennis is far from the biggest concern with the loss of life of both human, and the hundreds of millions of wild animals. However, the Australian Open qualifying that started today is creating a massive risk to the many involved. The smoke from the fires is strongly in the air, affecting the breathing of players, especially when playing a sport involving intense cardiovascular activity. These matches are a danger to all involved, and action should be taken if possible to mitigate these effects.
Players in Action
Weather has always been an issue in Australia. Extreme heat has been problematic year after year, with the temperature on court feeling like up to 140 F (60 C) when factoring in the effects of the hard court. This year, athletes competing in three-hour tennis matches breathing heavily must breathe in the toxins in the air. They are susceptible to potential lung damage, not to mention short-term effects of difficulty playing and winning matches in what is one of the largest paydays of the year for many fringe players. It is simply dangerous and outdoor tennis should be avoided at all costs.
Earlier in the first round of qualifying Slovenian Dalila Jakupovic was forced to withdraw from a competitive match after collapsing on court with breathing difficulties and a coughing attack. Canadian Eugenie Bouchard also complained of a sore chest during her qualifying match, also likely due to the air quality. This is only day one of qualifying and these problems may continue all week, and even into the main draw. It is impossible to know what will happen with the fires and with the winds blowing the toxic air. Regardless, it remains a significant possibility this will continue to the tournament.
Awful scenes in Melbourne.
— ESPN Australia & NZ (@ESPNAusNZ) January 14, 2020
These problems are far from limited to the players competing. Spectators often will spend 10-12 hours at these tournaments and are stuck breathing in the air while outdoors for the entire day. Umpires and other officials will also have the same issues. Most significantly, ballkids are at a very high risk. They spend hours running and breathing hard chasing down balls throughout a match. In previous years, ballkids have fainted on court due to the heat and exhaustion. These exact issues will come into play this year, with potential long-term effects being concerns as well as the short-term. There are thousands of people at risk by continuing to play tennis with this air.
What Can be Done?
Even with the aforementioned problems, the solution is not necessarily a simple one. Matches were played on 13 different courts this weekend, and only three at the complex are indoors, with the two stadium courts not utilized for qualifying. Canceling matches would potentially be a logistical nightmare.
Tennis has seen similar issues before, especially with rain making courts unplayable. Often times in ATP Challenger Tour events, matches are moved indoors when rain renders courts unplayable. Often, the host venue has indoor courts, and although this creates better tennis conditions, moving matches indoors is better than the alternative of players playing multiple matches a day, potentially more than once. Melbourne Park has eight indoor courts which can be used for these matches. It is not perfect but changing the conditions will surely cause less complaints than forcing the players to play in the current outdoor conditions.
This is only a temporary fix until the main draw begins, but it buys organizers time to either find a solution for the main draw, or at least hope and pray that the air quality improves over the next week. It’s expected to get better tomorrow, but with the fires still raging, any change in wind can change that.
Main Photo from Getty.