by Christopher Clarey
The Australian Open, site of epic jet lag and searing heat, has long been a struggle against the elements as much as a tussle against the opponent across the net.
Scheduled in the Australian summer, the Open is where the former champion Ivan Lendl donned a Legionnaire’s cap to combat the sun and where the ball boys and ball girls still wear them.
During my first visit, in 1993, Jim Courier defeated Stefan Edberg in a torrid men’s final, and when the photographers returned to the press room, there was an acrid smell. That was because for some of them, the soles of their shoes had started to melt on the court.
Through the years, the tournament has adapted. The three main arenas now have retractable roofs, which can be closed when it rains or when temperatures spike. An extreme heat policy allows for play to be stopped on outside courts. The tournament has constructed more shaded areas, installed misting fans for spectators, changed the hardcourt surface in part to make it less sticky in high temperatures and increased the number of night matches.
But this year has brought a different threat: smoke from the bushfires that have devastated some of Australia this summer, destroying property and leaving at least 25 people and millions of animals dead.
“A tragedy for Australia,” Novak Djokovic, the seven-time Australian Open men’s singles champion, said Sunday. “It’s really not pleasant to see this many people suffer the consequences of a big force that is hard to stop. At times, nature shows us how, in a way, insignificant we are towards her.”
Djokovic, Roger Federer, Rafael Nadal, Serena Williams and some of the game’s other leading figures combined forces on Thursday for an exhibition at Melbourne Park that helped raise more than $3.5 million for bushfire relief. Some players have donated prize money. Some are making donations for each ace or, in the case of Swiss star Belinda Bencic, for each double fault (she doesn’t hit many aces).
Players have repeatedly made the point that their tennis problems pale in comparison with the more elemental issues.
After Williams won the singles title in Auckland, New Zealand, this month — her first title in nearly three years — she donated her prize money of about $43,000 to bushfire relief. On Monday, she defeated 18-year-old Anastasia Potapova, 6-0, 6-3, in her opening match at the Australian Open. “It’s important for people like me who have a big platform to raise awareness,” said Williams, who has been coming to Melbourne since 1998. “For me in particular as a player, it was incredibly devastating because I literally know people who have been affected.”
Nick Kyrgios, the Australian men’s star, said: “If you get down to it, people are losing their families and homes. It’s not easy to just completely switch your concentration on the Australian Open — ‘How is your forehand going today?’ — when you put it in perspective.”
But after a number of players complained or suffered because of poor air quality during qualifying last week, there were concerns about a repeat during the tournament itself, which began Monday and will run for two weeks.
“If it does get bad, I can’t imagine going out there and everyone going out there and playing three out of five sets,” said Denis Shapovalov, a Canadian seeded 13th in the tournament. “You get warnings from the news telling people to stay inside, that it’s not good for your health to be outside, to be breathing this stuff, and then you get an email from the tournament saying that it’s playable and you guys have to go out there and put your life in jeopardy, put your health in jeopardy.
“You see the effects on players it has right now, the last couple days, but you don’t know what it’s going to do later in our lives, and how it could affect us if we’re breathing this air in for two weeks,” he said.
The prospect of two such weeks is unlikely. The air quality in Melbourne has improved markedly in recent days, and though it is dependent in part on wind direction, the air quality forecast for the early stages of the tournament is promising. On Monday, the tournament even got some rain, which suspended play on the outside courts less than four hours into Day 1. The roofs were closed in the three main arenas, where play continued.
The Australian Open decided that play would be automatically suspended outdoors if the levels of microscopic particulate pollution, called PM2.5, exceeded a threshold of 200 micrograms per cubic meter. According to the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, the upper limit of the hazardous form of pollution for air quality to be considered “good” is 12 micrograms per cubic meter over 24 hours. In California last year, when thick smoke from the Camp Fire rolled across the Bay Area, the particulate pollution hit nearly 200 micrograms per cubic meter.
The tiny particles are hazardous, and the threshold used by the Australian Open is within what the EPA defines as a “very unhealthy” range, when people are advised to limit outdoor activity.
“They are so small they can get right down into the lungs and into the bloodstream and can cause longer-term effects,” said Kate Charlesworth, a public health physician based in Sydney.
When PM2.5 levels are between 97 and 200, play at the Australian Open may continue but under the tournament referee’s discretion based on medical input. Under 97, play will most likely continue. According to data released by Tennis Australia, the readings during qualifying play on Tuesday peaked at 165 at 11 a.m. and then dropped off. On Monday, shortly after play began, the Australian Open’s on-site reading was a practically perfect 2.
“Many sports have 300 and higher as hazardous, but will continue below 300 and make a judgment call within that range,” Craig Tiley, the Australian Open tournament director, said. “We chose 200.”
Charlesworth said research on the harmful effects of air pollution typically studied cases of long-term exposure in heavily polluted cities. She said the effects of short-term exposure in a city like Melbourne were much less clear.
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