Australian Bushfires Create Hazardous Playing Conditions at the Australian Open

A large bushfire, burning in Queensland, Australia. Over 12 million acres of land have burned this year in Australia. Photo via Wikimedia Commons.

A tournament, worth tens of millions of dollars, is being brought to its knees by climate change. The Australian Open is one of the largest tennis events in the world, and yet the bushfires raging across the continent threaten to postpone matches, or even to cancel the tournament altogether. The Australian bushfires have been wreaking havoc in Australia for the past few months; these fires have caused the Air Quality Index (AQI) to skyrocket. The AQI measures the amount of particulate matter in the air. Recently, according to this index, Melbourne had the worst air in the world. On January 13, Melbourne hit a value of almost 400 micrograms of particulate per cubic meter. The Center for Disease Control (CDC) indicates that any value over 300 is considered hazardous to everyone.

The consequences of this air quality have caused outrage: on January 13, a tennis player named Dalila Jakupović fell into a coughing fit, which forced her to withdraw. Rising tennis star Denis Shapovalov also stated, “I don’t want to risk my life,” as well as saying that he didn’t want the air quality to affect his career years down the road. During his first-round match, Australian Bernard Tomic also sought medical help, due to trouble breathing. David Sherden, the Sports Medicine teacher at Franklin, says hazardous air quality can, “speed up hardening and narrowing in the lungs” and “essentially age lungs faster than normal.” Hazardous air quality actually can affect people years down the road. Sherden says, “Athletes with asthma, Chronic Obstructive Pulmonary Disease (COPD), or other respiratory conditions may find that their conditions are made worse by the smoke.”

 Despite these concerns, tournament director, Craig Tiley has said, “The tournament will start regularly and end on time. We also have courts with retractable roofs, so even in case of emergencies we can ensure the regularity of games.” The Australian Open released a statement saying that referees will have a decision on whether or not to delay matches, but only “at his or her absolute discretion.” Their new policy states that play will be suspended if an AQI of 200 or higher is present. Fans may also be affected by poor air quality. Sherden says that, “fans, as well as players, should stay hydrated,” and that matches could be earlier in the morning “when smoke levels tend to be lowest.” He also said, “fans with respiratory conditions should consider staying indoors.”

However, there is still cause for concern as Melbourne Park has only six indoor tennis courts. In the worst-case scenario, the Australian Open could see its outdoor courts delayed, or shut down. There would be a major cause for concern if this ever happened to the Australian Open or any Grand Slam event, due to its large size. Every Grand Slam event has 208 first-round events alone: any delay would drastically affect the schedule. This also needs to be taken into account for other large tournaments, as climate change may lead to schedule changes in the future.

The hardest part of this situation is the decision of player safety or logistical stability. Last year the Australian Open broke its attendance record with 796,435 people visiting Melbourne Park over the tournament’s two weeks. Many of these people were international tourists, who may be forced to adjust their travel plans if the matches are delayed. All tournaments at some point experience game delays, mainly due to rain, but longer delays can affect the tournament’s image. Delays force players, fans, and coaches to reschedule hours, sometimes days into the future. Sherden pointed out that in 2017 a University of Oregon cross country meet was canceled due to wildfire smoke. The football season opener was soon, and due to air quality, they were at risk of having to cancel, losing the millions they had already spent in preparation. The wind shifted the last minute, but it shows how much of a financial investment these events have.

Rain delays at the Citi Open, in Washington D.C, forced several players to play their matches as late as one in the morning, with tennis star Andy Murray breaking down in tears after winning his match at three AM. These delays have a large psychological and physical effect on players, with many having to play a second match just hours later. With this new policy on continuing play, the Australian Open is attempting to help players mentally and physically. Other natural causes besides smoke have also caused delays, as on January 22 matches were delayed, due to a layer of dust and ash, from the nearby fires. This is something that has never been seen before at a tournament of this size.

After all of this, the community is doing as much as they can to help. On January 15, the Australian Open held the Rally for Relief at Melbourne Park. Rally for Relief was a charity exhibition match held to raise money and awareness for the bushfires. This event had nearly ten tennis stars, including Roger Federer, Serena Williams, Rafael Nadal, Novak Djokovic, and Caroline Wozniacki. The featured match was Roger Feder vs local star and fan-favorite, Nick Kyrgios. With all of these high profile names, the event gained over 3.5 million US dollars in support. The Australian Open also started Aces for Bushfires, where people can choose a player and pledge money for every ace that player hits. An ace is awarded to the server when the receiver does not make contact with the serve. Players like John Isner can hit over thirty aces in a match. Aces for bushfires raised over 3.9 million USD over the two-week tournament. Several players have made large donations to bushfire relief, as well as participating in relief efforts. Earlier this January, Nadal, and Djokovic pledged massive donations of 450,000 euros each (495,000 dollars), while Roger Federer pledged 250,000 dollars. One player, Alexander Zverev, even pledged the entirety of his prize money to bushfire relief, that is, if he won the tournament. He entered the tournament with low chances, but broke his record and made it to the semifinals. Even after his loss, he still pledged to donate 50,000 dollars to bushfire relief.

With increases in fires and extreme weather in the past several years, large sporting events that depend on stable weather must plan for delays. Luckily, the tennis community, and people all over the world, have donated to bushfire relief. Millions of acres have already been burned, devastating the natural ecosystem and community of Australia. To donate to the relief effort, charities such as World Wildlife Fund Australia, Australian Red Cross, and UNICEF are making a positive impact in Australia amid an unforgettable environmental tragedy.

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