Will air pollution caused by bushfires cancel Australian Open? Key questions answered as smoke disrupts qualifiers

Simon Briggs
The Melbourne skyline shrouded by haze from bushfires - REUTERS
The Melbourne skyline shrouded by haze from bushfires - REUTERS

Could the tournament be cancelled?

Unlikely, as Melbourne Park boasts three large stadia with roofs and filtered air-conditioning systems. And there are eight indoor courts at the National Tennis Centre on the south-eastern side of the site. If the conditions turn truly apocalyptic, Plan B is to host matches inside, with supplementary events such as the juniors, legends and wheelchairs moved off-site.

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How bad is the air quality?

The air quality index (AQI) – which takes into account factors such as visibility and the concentration of dangerous PM2.5 microparticles – climbed above 200 on Tuesday morning, after an easterly wind change, and stayed there for most of the day. This is listed as “hazardous”. According to some measurements, Melbourne’s pollution level was the highest in the world.

How has it affected qualifying?

The organisers suspended practice on Tuesday morning. They then delayed the start of first-round qualifying matches for an hour, from 10am to 11am. During this delay conditions improved, according to Tennis Australia chief executive Craig Tiley. But they soon worsened again, and play continued anyway, even though the AQI didn’t fall below 200 until after 6pm.

Are conditions set to improve?

There is rain forecast in Victoria, but this could have unpredictable effects. Storms are expected to roll in on Thursday, bringing lightning that could start new fires. Even if there are no substantial new blazes, a limited amount of rainfall in the affected areas could bring extra smoke in its wake. Wind direction is crucial. A westerly would be ideal, as the western part of Victoria has largely escaped the infernos. It is surely a positive that no intensely hot days have been forecast.

Does tennis have a class system?

Qualifying tends to host players ranked between 110 and 250. The lesser lights of the game, in other words. On Tuesday, they were all dumped on the smaller, outdoor courts while practice continued in the roofed stadia for the big names. The difference in attitude is unmistakeable. As the British No 5 Liam Broady put it: “Maybe we have to earn the right to be treated like the main-draw players do, but at the same time we are all human beings.”

Has this ever happened before?

No. This year’s bushfire season has been unprecedented, the result of extreme drought. The bush is built to burn – some eucalypt seeds can’t germinate without fire – but not with the heat, intensity and destructiveness of this summer.

Should play have been stopped?

Dozens of players believe that it should have. Yet the Australian Open has been known to respond sluggishly to these sorts of issues in the past. In 2014, a heatwave carried temperatures above 40 degrees, causing Croatia’s Ivan Dodig to experience a full-body cramp which left him thinking, “I could maybe even die here”. Despite widespread criticism from the locker-room, the Australian Open’s official doctor - Tim Wood - jauntily told the BBC: "We evolved on the high plains of Africa chasing antelope for eight hours under these conditions.”

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