THE first tennis grand slam of the year begins on Monday in quite extraordinary circumstances.

While Australia burns, Rafa Nadal, Roger Federer, Serena Williams et al will be battling it out for the opening major of the year.

The state of New South Wales is in the midst of the worst bushfires ever recorded yet in the neighbouring state of Victoria, which has also been affected by the devastating fires, the Australian Open will begin as normal.

The fires have turned parts of the south east coast of Australia into such a heavily polluted area that air quality levels have been the worst in the world at some points.

And so close is Melbourne Park, where the Australian Open is held, to these fires, the smoke and pollution is engulfing the courts, to such an extent that the qualifying rounds have been severely affected this week.


The first question that has to be answered is whether a sporting event should be continuing while the country is being so badly affected by this horrific natural disaster?

To date, at least 28 people have lost their lives, it is estimated that up to a billion animals have died and thousands of people have had their homes destroyed.

Australian footballer Mark Bosnich called last week for all sporting events in Australia to be cancelled while the bushfires are raging and it is easy to see why he has come to this conclusion.

Is it not a tad disrespectful for the sporting world to continue on as normal while just a few miles away, so many people are having their lives destroyed? In the current circumstances, sport is utterly irrelevant and while, of course, life goes on despite the most horrific things happening around the world, the proximity of the tennis to the fires surely makes this case exceptional?

Yet there has not been any suggestion from the tournament’s organisers that the Australian Open would not go ahead over the next fortnight.

The decision to go ahead with the event, though, has been really shown up this week during the qualifying rounds.

The grounds of Melbourne Park have been engulfed in noxious fog and as the qualifying rounds prepared to start, tournament director Craig Tiley was asked to justify the decision to proceed as normal.

Surely asking athletes to perform to their limit while breathing in such polluted air was beyond the pale? But no, Tiley reeled off justification for the decision to go ahead with the qualifying rounds which were, he said, based on medical advice.


However, within just a few hours of Tiley’s appearance in front of the media, everything he had said was undermined as Slovakian women’s singles player, Dalila Jakupovic, retired in distress after suffering a coughing fit during her match against Switzerland’s Stefanie Vogele, in which she was a set up, saying she was “really scared she would collapse” because she couldn’t walk anymore.

The pictures of Jakupovic on her knees, coughing incessantly, was not pleasant to watch. It is hardly the advert the Australian Open organisers want for their tournament, which is dubbed ‘the happy slam’.

Yet by asking the players to take to the court in these conditions, they are prioritising their tournament well ahead of players’ welfare.

In the aftermath of her retirement, Jakupovic said “I think it was not fair because it’s not healthy for us”, and that she was surprised they were asked to take to the court on Tuesday, with her expectation being that play would be suspended until the air quality improved.

Tournament organisers have said that they are monitoring the situation, but there are few signs that much action is likely to be forthcoming, other than perhaps delaying the start of play by an hour or two as happened on Tuesday and yesterday in qualifying.

But comments from the chief health officer for the state of Victoria, Dr Brett Sutton, called for a more definitive stance from the tournament organisers, telling local media: “Tennis Australia needs to work up an air quality policy.

“I can’t make a call on what individual thresholds might be, it really does depend on what it might mean to enclose a space and what filtration systems they might have as alternatives.

“But I think they need to consider through all those thresholds, from poor to hazardous air quality, what their alternatives might be with a view to protecting as many players as possible.”

The real test will come when the big guns such as Federer, Nadal and Williams turn up and are asked to play in such testing conditions. They are unlikely to be thrilled to be put in such an unpleasant position and so will their voice hold more sway than that of the relative small-fry who battle it out in qualifying. It is perhaps unsurprising that the players in qualifying do not have enough weight to influence decisions about postponing the first major of the year.

No one is disputing that sport is important. Of course every disaster cannot result in the sporting world, grinding to a halt. No one is suggesting that everything comes to a stop every time something bad happens.

But the severity of these bushfires, combined with the proximity to the tennis and the related health risks to the players, surely calls for some drastic action.

The Australian Open looks like it will go ahead as normal. Let’s just hope that doesn’t end up being a decision to be regretted.