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Wildfires Mar First Day of Play at Australian Open Qualifiers

Wildfires Mar First Day of Play at Australian Open Qualifiers

Hazardous air enveloping Melbourne, Australia, delayed play on the first day of Australian Open qualifying matches on Tuesday, causing one player to double over in coughing fits during a match as the country’s wildfires marred the famed tournament.

Citing “hazardous” air conditions caused by smoke from nearby wildfires blowing toward the city, the City of Melbourne advised residents Tuesday morning to “stay indoors, keep windows and doors shut, and stay inside.”

The city also closed the North Melbourne Recreation Centre and the Melbourne City Baths in the interest of safety. But after an hourlong delay, the Australian Open played on, despite the air quality index remaining in an unhealthy range, with temperatures in the low 90s adding to difficult conditions.

Dalila Jakupovic, a Slovenian player ranked 180th, was winning her match against Stefanie Vögele in the midafternoon when she sunk to her knees in a fit of coughing. Struggling to breathe, she was forced to abandon the match she was leading 6-4, 5-6.

Jakupovic, who has not previously had breathing issues, said she was having difficulties “like an asthma attack” while warming up for her match.

“I think it was not fair because it’s not healthy for us,” Jakupovic told reporters. “I was surprised. I thought we would not be playing today but we really don’t have much choice.”

Eugenie Bouchard, the 2014 Wimbledon runner-up, complained to medical staff that she also experienced chest pains, feeling “spikes in her lungs.” Her opponent, You Xiaodi, also struggled with the conditions, and hit only underarm serves for much of the third set of Bouchard’s victory.

Bernard Tomic also sought medical assistance for breathing difficulties in his match, and was treated with an inhaler.

Liam Broady, who prides himself on his conditioning, described himself as “gasping for air” after just 12 games. He said he thought qualifying players may be treated more roughly than the star competitors whose matches begin in the main draw next Monday.

“Maybe we have to earn the right to be treated like the main draw players do,” Broady told The Daily Mail. “But at the same time, we are all human beings and there is no doubt that this is pretty bad for you to be running around in these conditions.”

The normally clear views of the city skyline from Melbourne Park were obscured by the dusty air. A sepia tinge hung in the air, and coughing could frequently be heard around the courts.

Many players expressed anger that matches were played in such conditions, and at the lack of clarity or communication from the tournament.

“Shocked to see that qualifying matches have started @AustralianOpen,” tweeted player Mandy Minella from Luxembourg. “What about the health of all the people that have to work out there, especially the ballkids?”

Fifth-ranked Elina Svitolina tweeted: “why do we need to wait for something bad to happen to do an action?”

Across town at the Kooyong Classic exhibition event in Melbourne, a match between Maria Sharapova and Laura Siegemund was halted at 5-5 in the second set because of the poor air quality.

“We were out there for over two hours, so I think from a health standpoint, it was the right call from the officials” to end the play, said Sharapova, who said she “started feeling a cough coming on” toward the end of the match.

Sharapova had struggled with illness in recent weeks, and initially thought that might be the cause of her symptoms.

“When I heard Laura speak to the umpire and say she was struggling with it as well, I was like, thankfully I’m not the only one,” she said. “And then the umpire came down and said let’s just play one more game.”


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