If Tennis Players Can't Breathe, Don't Make Them Play
No matter your viewpoint or political motivations, there is no denying the fact Australia is in the grip of an unprecedented disaster.
As the nation's bushfires rage on for a fifth month, scorching every state and territory, it’s like we have been slapped in the face and left (most of us at least) dazed, confused, angry and broken. We weren’t ready for this firestorm and we most certainly weren’t prepared for its scale and ferocity.
It has been a disaster in every sense of the word. Lives have been lost, homes and livelihoods destroyed, and wildlife populations decimated. We have neither the means nor the power to stop its wrath -- not for the foreseeable future anyway. We’re divided as a nation on what we simply do next. Now the broader repercussions are beginning to pile up.
Less than a week out from the first round, one of our prized sporting events -- the Australian Open -- is in jeopardy and it seems officials are balancing a tightrope.
On Tuesday, Melbourne was blanketed in a thick haze of smoke as the fallout from the bushfire crisis, which continues to tear through much of the country’s south east, swallowed the city and its surrounding suburbs.
The World Air Quality Index (AQI), which measures tiny particulate matter in the atmosphere in major cities across the world, recorded extremely hazardous levels across the Victorian capital prompting state-wide health alerts and warnings against any outdoor exertion.
In what could be a sign of things to come over the next two-and-a-half weeks, Aussie Open organisers allowed players to cough and sputter through the opening day of qualifiers while fans resorted to wearing face masks in the stands.
Slovenia’s Dalila Jakupović was forced to retire one set up in her match against Switzerland's Stefanie Voegel due to smoke inhalation. She battled through two-and-a-half hours of play before conditions triggered a coughing fit and intervention from medical staff.
Canadian Eugenie Bouchard complained of a sore chest and breathing problems during her three-hour, two-set win. And just up the road at the usually clean and crisp Kooyong Classic grounds, Russia’s Maria Sharapova and German Laura Siegemund cut their match short because of the toxic mix of smog and 40-degree temperatures.
Speaking to media post match, Jakupović admitted she grew increasingly concerned for her health as the match wore on and urged officials to rethink its policy as a collection of the world’s best tennis players choke on air rated worse than that of Delhi and Beijing.
“After 20 minutes I already had difficulties. I wasn't able to make more than three shots running left and right because I was already getting an asthma attack. I don't have asthma normally,” Jakupović told CNN’s Amanda Davies. “We are all pissed and a bit disappointed because we thought they would take better care of us.”
American Noah Rubin and Frenchman Gilles Simon echoed those concerns via Twitter, flagging an apparent lack of communication from match officials about the levels and dangers of the poor air quality.
The smog caused by bushfires is littered with more than just particles from burnt woodland. According to medical experts, it’s particularly harmful because of added toxins including diesel fumes and other allergens the cloud absorbs as it drifts from across different regions and state lines.
While this lung-piercing presence is expected to clear over the coming days, thanks to a cool change and welcome rain, tournament organisers still have a big decision to make if conditions fail to improve. Something tells me that not even the collective magical powers of a thousand Harry Potters could keep the smoke away from Melbourne Park if the fires intensify again.
Does Tennis Australia ignore man-made phenomenon and play through the pain if this unwelcome guest hovers a little longer or returns with force during the two-week schedule? Or does it take the responsible approach and do whatever is necessary to protect the game’s biggest assets?
I’ll concede, the decision weighs a little heavier down when hundreds of millions in revenue and worldwide exposure are at stake. But for me, when the long-term health and well-being of your greatest assets hang in the balance, the decision should be easy.
Match officials say the smoke and air quality conditions are being "constantly monitored" and matches will be delayed or suspended accordingly, as some were yesterday. This morning, game play was delayed until the afternoon when conditions are predicted to improve.
But Bouchard put it more bluntly after her qualifier yesterday: “There has to be some kind of line in the sand, some kind of rule where you measure the air, and if it’s over a certain number, then you just don’t play.”
When the fire crisis was its most fearsome earlier this month, support came through as hard and fast as a Nick Kyrgios first serve, from your everyday donors to homegrown celebrities. Then the news started to spread and the rest of the world took notice -- international celebrities and sports stars alike. Among those leading the charge was, in fact, Kyrgios. And then the tennis community rallied with the likes of Ash Barty, Serena Williams, Roger Federer and Novak Djokovic giving generously.
There must be some give and take from Tennis Australia. How can you force these sportspeople -- any professional high-performance sportspeople for that matter -- to play in these conditions? The very crisis these athletes are trying to help combat through their generosity could ultimately prove their undoing. We’re talking about serious, long-lasting damage to the lungs and respiratory systems of athletes whose very livelihoods rely on these tools of their trade.
While Tennis Australia is reassuring its players, staff and fans of it’s commitment to monitoring the situation carefully with environmental experts, it must -- must -- err on the side of caution and implement a forgiving policy in case conditions don’t improve.
Or at least -- at the very least -- gift players more concessions or a bigger say on and off the court to ensure the full implications of this unprecedented disaster aren’t felt by anyone at Melbourne Park this summer.
Feature Image: Channel 9