The safety of players at this year's Australian Open has been brought into sharp focus after a day of poor air quality in Melbourne forced the abandonment of former world No 1 Maria Sharapova's match in a warm-up event at Kooyong while another player, Dalila Jakupovic, collapsed on court at Melbourne Park amid genuine concern for her health.
In jarring scenes at the venue for the year’s first grand slam, Australian Open hopeful Jakupovic was forced to retire from her qualifying match midway through when she suffered a coughing fit. The match had been given the green light to go ahead by tournament organisers after the day’s play had initially been delayed for an hour due to the blanket of bushfire smoke enveloping Melbourne on Tuesday.
Jakupovic, who was looking to qualify for the main draw of the tournament which is slated to start on Monday, was a set up in her match against Switzerland's Stefanie Voegele when she fell to her knees on court. Suffering breathing difficulties, the world No 180 withdrew.
Awful scenes in Melbourne.— ESPN Australia & NZ (@ESPNAusNZ) January 14, 2020
Dalila Jakupovic has abandoned her #AusOpen qualifying match after suffering a coughing fit while playing in thick smoke caused by the #AustralianFires. pic.twitter.com/WAJv6TzTjW
She later said she had no previous respiratory issues and had never suffered from asthma. “I was really scared that I would collapse. That’s why I went onto the floor because I couldn’t walk any more,” she said. “I don’t have asthma and never had breathing problems. I actually like heat. The physio came again and I thought it would be better. But the points were a bit longer and I just couldn’t breathe any more and I just fell on the floor.”
Jakupovic took aim at officials for allowing the match to go ahead in the first place, saying it was “not fair”. “It’s not healthy for us,” she said. “I was surprised, I thought we would not be playing today, but we don’t have much choice.”
Eugenie Bouchard, the former Wimbledon finalist, also struggled in her opening match and called several medical timeouts during the eventual win over China's Xiaodi You. "I felt like it was tough to breathe and a bit nauseous," Bouchard said. "I felt like the conditions got worse as the match went on...but I was out there for a long time. As an athlete we want to be very careful, our physical health is one of the most important things. It's not ideal to play in these conditions. Just like the heat rule, there should be an air quality rule."
At Kooyong, Sharapova said smoke from the bushfires still raging in Victoria and New South Wales was behind the decision to call time on her match late in the second set against Germany's Laura Siegemund. Organisers of the tournament in the inner Melbourne suburb pulled the plug on play with Siegemund a set up and the score locked at 5-5 in the second, as the city stifled in a smoke haze and was rated in the morning as having the worst air quality in the world.
“I started feeling a cough coming toward the end of the second set but I’ve been sick for a few weeks so I thought that had something to do with it,” Sharapova told SBS after the match. “But then I heard Laura speak to the umpire and she said she was struggling with it as well. We were out there for over two hours, so from a health standpoint it’s the right call from officials.”
Earlier, practice at Melbourne Park had been suspended and the start of the first round of qualifying delayed by an hour due to the poor air quality. But tournament organisers deemed it safe enough to start at 11am local time, once they said the air quality had sufficiently improved.
"This morning the smoke haze was significant," said the tournament director, Craig Tiley. "And based on advice we made the decision to suspend practice and as a result to start the qualifying matches an hour later than originally scheduled. At any time we're not going to put them [players and staff] in harm's way or make any decision that's going to negatively impact their health and wellbeing."
Tom Larner, Tennis Australia's chief operating officer, indicated the situation was comparable to other delays caused by atmospheric conditions, such as extreme heat, or rain. "We're treating any suspension of play like a rain delay or a heat delay, in that we will stop if conditions become unsafe based on medical advice, and once those conditions are safe to play, players will get back on court."
Tuesday’s delay lasted just one hour, as, according to Tiley, “during the period in which we suspended practice there was an improvement in conditions”. The suspension, and subsequent resumption of play was based on air quality measurements taken on-site using devices sourced specifically for this eventually, as well as advice from tournament medical staff.
Victoria’s Environment Protection Authority issued a warning on Monday evening that conditions in Melbourne on Tuesday would be poor to hazardous as a consequence of the bushfires raging across the state and neighbouring New South Wales. The Victorian government’s advice is for residents to “minimise the time spent in smoky conditions whenever practical to do so,” and “avoid exercise”. Both are considerable challenges for a major outdoor sporting event.
There has been no official response from the players about the circumstances at one of the most popular events on the circuit, but Tiley indicated the WTA and ATP Tours were supportive of the decision. "This is new for all of us," Tiley said. Novak Djokovic, president of the ATP Player Council, has already indicated competitors would have to consider their options, with delaying their participation among them, should Melbourne's air quality continue to prove hazardous.
Tiley would not be drawn on radical contingency plans, such as the steps taken earlier this month to relocate the Canberra International Challenger event from the ACT to Bendigo in Victoria to avoid hazardous playing conditions. “The expectation, because the long-term forecast, and even the short-term forecast is good. We’ll just take it a day at a time.”