Organizers of the Australian Open have been slammed publicly after several tennis players — Genie Bouchard, Maria Sharapova — struggled to complete their matches in the severe heat and stifling air quality, with one player collapsing mid-game from breathing difficulties.
Slovenia player Dalila Jakupovic was leading in her match against Switzerland’s Stefanie Vogele on Monday at Melbourne Park, but was forced to quit after falling to the ground in a coughing fit. Australian Bernard Tomic and Canadian Eugenie Bouchard had to call medical timeouts due to issues from the smoke inhalation.
“I’m never one to want to stop playing, but I definitely started feeling unwell and I had to call the trainer because it was tough to breather and I felt a bit nauseous,” said Bouchard.
Bouchard’s opponent Xiaodi You was also affected by the poor air quality and succumbed to cramps in the third set. She could barely move and was forced to serve underarms at times.
Bouchard continued the match post-treatment and defeated Xiaodi, moving on to the second round of qualifiers, days before the tournament is set to begin. However, other players did not fare as well.
Jakupovic told ABC News that it was unfair of the officials to ask players to compete in the court under current conditions. “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.”
“I don’t have asthma and never had breathing problems. I actually like heat.”
An exhibition match between top tennis player Maria Sharapova and Germany’s Laura Siegemund was also called off early due to the excessive heat. Sharapova told ABC News that she felt a “little cough coming out” to the end of the game but assumed it was due to an earlier illness.
However, she later heard her competitor telling the umpire that she was struggling too. “I thought thankfully I’m not the only one,” she said. “I think it was the right call by officials.”
Most other matches were completed without any need for medical assistance. However, qualifiers were delayed for an hour on Tuesday due to concerns that the smoke could affect players’ health.
Players woke to a pea-soup haze blanketing Melbourne, prompting Ukraine’s world number five Elina Svitolina to post a graphic of Melbourne’s “very unhealthy” air measured by the World Air Quality Index, a global monitor, on Twitter.
Australian Open tournament director and Tennis Australia chief executive Craif Tiley said that air-quality testing experts as well as those in the medical, environmental, scientific and meteorological fields would continue to be consulted about the conditions for the tournament.
“When it is too hot or when raining, play will be suspended should the above measures deem that necessary,” he said. He explained that the Women’s Tennis Association and Association of Tennis Professionals supported the decisions to carry out the matches Tuesday morning.
“This is a new experience for us all, how we manage air quality and therefore we have got to rely on those experts that advise us how best to continue,” he added.
The bushfires in Australia have reportedly decimated an area the size of South Korea, killing 28 people and a billion animals. In the New South Wales alone, more than 3,000 homes have been destroyed.
The smoke from the fires, according to NASA has travelled to other parts of the globe, affecting air quality and “visibly darkening mountaintop snow” in New Zealand, and creating colourful sunsets in South America.
As of January 8, the smoke had already traversed half the globe. The plumes entered the stratosphere thanks to pathways from fire-induced thunderstorms, created by the dry weather in Australia. Scientists expect the smoke to be able to complete “one full circuit” around the Earth before returning to Australia skies.
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