Worries over Australian Open as bushfire smoke endangers players

Jessica Murray

Worries over the health of players at the Australian Open have intensified after bushfire smoke forced one player to retire with breathing problems and another match to be abandoned, with air quality in Melbourne dropping to the worst in the world overnight.

Winds blew smoke from the fires in east Victoria and New South Wales into the city, with air quality in the centre since categorised as very poor by the Environmental Protection Authority.

Defending men’s tennis champion, Novak Djokovic, who is also the president of the ATP Player Council, has suggested delaying the tournament might have to be considered.

“You have to consider it because of some extreme weather or conditions,” he said on Saturday. “That’s probably the very, very last option. [But] if it comes down to ...the conditions affecting the health of players, you have to consider it.”

Slovenia’s Dalila Jakupovic suffered a coughing fit halfway through her qualifying match against Switzerland’s Stefanie Vögele at Melbourne Park, the venue for the tournament’s first grand slam, forcing her to retire.

“I was really scared that I would collapse. That’s why I went on to the floor because I couldn’t walk any more,” she said. “I don’t have asthma and never had breathing problems.”

She said the match should never have been allowed to take place in the first place. “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.”

At Kooyong, the former world No 1 Maria Sharapova’s match against Germany’s Laura Siegemund was called off after officials decided the smoke was creating unsafe playing conditions.

“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.”

Smoke haze above Melbourne Park during an Australian Open practice session. Photograph: STRINGER/Reuters

The former Wimbledon finalist Eugenie Bouchard also called several medical time-outs in her opening match against China’s Xiaodi You.

The state’s chief health officer said although air quality would improve with warmer temperatures throughout the day, the situation remained hazardous with vulnerable groups such as children aged under 14, over-65s, pregnant women and those with pre-existing medical conditions, particularly at risk.

Overnight, firefighters were called to 200 false fire alarms triggered by the smoke haze. There are still 16 fires burning in Victoria, which have claimed four lives and destroyed 353 homes across 1.4m hectares (3.5m acres). Fires have been burning in the state since November, mainly caused by dry lightning from thunderstorms, some of which were brought on by the fires themselves.

The Victorian government, which on Tuesday announced a $2.55m inquiry into the fires, advised residents to “minimise the time spent in smoky conditions whenever practical to do so” and “avoid exercise”. This could pose problems for the Australian Open tournament, due to start on Monday.

Tom Larner, Tennis Australia’s chief operating officer, said: “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.”

At last year’s Australian Open, organisers were forced to change the rules on suspensions and breaks during extreme heat following complaints from players in 2019.

Does climate change cause bushfires?


The link between rising greenhouse gas emissions and increased bushfire risk is complex but, according to major science agencies, clear. Climate change does not create bushfires, but it can and does make them worse. A number of factors contribute to bushfire risk, including temperature, fuel load, dryness, wind speed and humidity. 


What is the evidence on rising temperatures?


The Bureau of Meteorology and the CSIRO say Australia has warmed by 1C since 1910 and temperatures will increase in the future. The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change says it is extremely likely increased atmospheric concentrations of greenhouse gases since the mid-20th century is the main reason it is getting hotter. The Bushfire and Natural Hazards research centre says the variability of normal events sits on top of that. Warmer weather increases the number of days each year on which there is high or extreme bushfire risk.


What other effects do carbon emissions have?


Dry fuel load - the amount of forest and scrub available to burn - has been linked to rising emissions. Under the right conditions, carbon dioxide acts as a kind of fertiliser that increases plant growth. 


So is climate change making everything dryer?


Dryness is more complicated. Complex computer models have not found a consistent climate change signal linked to rising CO2 in the decline in rain that has produced the current eastern Australian drought. But higher temperatures accelerate evaporation. They also extend the growing season for vegetation in many regions, leading to greater transpiration (the process by which water is drawn from the soil and evaporated from plant leaves and flowers). The result is that soils, vegetation and the air may be drier than they would have been with the same amount of rainfall in the past.


What do recent weather patterns show?


The year coming into the 2019-20 summer has been unusually warm and dry for large parts of Australia. Above average temperatures now occur most years and 2019 has been the fifth driest start to the year on record, and the driest since 1970.


Is arson a factor in this year's extreme bushfires?


Not a significant one. Two pieces of disinformation, that an “arson emergency”, rather than climate change, is behind the bushfires, and that “greenies” are preventing firefighters from reducing fuel loads in the Australian bush have spread across social media. They have found their way into major news outlets, the mouths of government MPs, and across the globe to Donald Trump Jr and prominent right-wing conspiracy theorists.

NSW’s Rural Fire Service has said the major cause of ignition during the crisis has been dry lightning. Victoria police say they do not believe arson had a role in any of the destructive fires this summer. The RFS has also contradicted claims that environmentalists have been holding up hazard reduction work.


The country’s tourism industry has also been affected by the crisis, with Tourism Australia forced to withdraw an ad campaign featuring Kylie Minogue. Speaking to radio station 2GB, the tourism minister, Simon Birmingham, said: “I have anecdotal evidence from right across the country of cancellations and that’s disappointing, annoying, frustrating.”

According to Dean Stewart, senior forecaster for the Bureau of Meteorology, south-west winds on Wednesday should start lifting the smoke haze but would also bring sporadic thunderstorms.