By Amy Tennery
(Reuters) - Tennis great Chris Evert said player health is a serious concern heading into this year's Australian Open where poor air quality could hit competitors hard in longer matches amid the devastating bushfires that have engulfed the country.
With the year's first tennis major starting on Monday in Melbourne, Evert -- along with John McEnroe -- told reporters that air quality should be paramount in tournament organisers' minds.
Australia is experiencing one of its worst bushfire seasons on record, with fires burning for months and killing 28 people, destroying more than 2,500 homes and razing forests and farmland the size of Bulgaria.
While the tournament regularly subjects competitors to blistering heat, 18-times Grand Slam singles winner Evert said the poor breathing conditions demanded increased precautions.
"It is a health issue, and especially when it gets on to three out of five sets and you’re out there for a long time. You want to be able to breathe some clean air," said Evert, a twice Australian Open champion. "I think that they really have to keep a close eye on it."
Australian Open organisers faced fierce criticism this week for going ahead with the qualifying rounds, amid smoky conditions and poor air quality that forced one player to retire after a coughing fit.
Yet given the challenges of putting on one of tennis's biggest events, seven times Grand Slam singles champion McEnroe said it "would be extremely difficult to envision" that competitors would not play or that the dates of the competition would be moved.
"This is something that hasn’t been experienced. Listen, they have fires all the time in Australia. That’s an issue. But this is the worst it’s ever been," said McEnroe, who is working as an analyst for ESPN with Evert during the tournament.
"I’m sure people, players included, and I can’t speak from having spoken to these players because I haven’t, (are) scrambling to figure out what is best for everybody."
The devastation from the fires has loomed large over the Australian Open, with Rafa Nadal and Roger Federer among the players who have financially supported bushfire relief efforts, each donating A$250,000 ($172,000).
Australian Nick Kyrgios has pledged A$200 for every ace he hits this month.
"The tournament seems to be such a small sort of thing compared to what’s happening in the country, but I would put the players’ health first for sure, and even if they had to play at a different time. It doesn’t matter," said Evert. "It’s really -- we’re talking about lives."
(Reporting By Amy Tennery in New York; Editing by Toby Davis)