When a new year rolls in, the eyes of the sporting world usually turn to Australia, which hosts the first tennis major of the season.
But this year raging bushfires have put the country in the spotlight, consequently raising questions about player and fan safety ahead of tennis’ grand slam curtain-raiser.
For months, fires have devastated homes and wildlife across Australia, killing 24 people. The air quality in the country has also worsened, with the capital of Canberra now amongst the most polluted in the world.
So what does that mean for the Australian Open, which is scheduled to start on January 20?
Melbourne, which hosts the tournament, is expected to see smoke blow over from fires in the southeastern states of Victoria and New South Wales during the tournament.
In a series of Twitter posts Tuesday, Australian Open organizers indicated the tournament would likely go ahead as planned, even though defending men’s champion Novak Djokovic said earlier this week that delaying the start of tournament had to be considered given the extreme nature of the fires.
“In the unlikely case of extreme smoke conditions, the roofs will be closed on the 3 stadium courts and play will continue in their air-conditioned, air-filtered environment,” the official Australian Open Twitter account said.
“If smoke infiltrates the 3 stadium courts the air conditioning system will filter it out.”
Three of the Australian Open’s show courts at Melbourne Park — Rod Laver Arena, Margaret Court Arena and Melbourne Arena — have retractable roofs that are closed in the case of rain or extreme heat, and the site also hosts the National Tennis Center, which has eight further indoor courts that are thought to be an option for the tournament if the air quality is too poor to play.
Djokovic, who is the president of the ATP Player Council, had said: “I know in China the playing conditions are very tough in terms of quality of air but this is something different — I have never had this kind of experience before.
“(Delaying the tournament) is probably the very, very last option. If it comes down to … the conditions affecting the health of players, you have to consider it.”
The calendar year’s first grand slam is no stranger to severe weather.
Temperatures often soar above 40 degrees Celsius (104F) over the course of the fortnight, and the same is expected this time around as the country nears its hottest point of the year.
An extreme heat policy has been in place for a number of years, and last year a heat stress scale was introduced to help measure hot weather conditions more comprehensively.
“Assessing the likelihood of smoke-induced interruptions is a bit like how we treat heat and rain,” head of Tennis Australia Craig Tiley is widely reported as saying this week.
“We have experts who analyse all available live data as specific to our sites as possible and consult regularly with tournament officials and, in the case of heat and smoke, medical experts.”
As for the players, the resounding response to the bushfires has been a rallying cry for support.
Nick Kyrgios kick-started fundraising efforts last week when he pledged $140 (200 AUSD) to relief efforts for each ace he hits at upcoming tournaments. Numerous other players — Australian or otherwise — have since joined with their own offers of financial support.
Maria Sharapova has donated $17,400, with Djokovic agreeing to match her, and world No. 1 Ashleigh Barty has offered to give up her prize money from the Brisbane International.
“Tennis is a sport, it’s a game that we play, and there are certainly a lot of bigger things going on in Australia right now that we need to take of,” said Barty, who also donated $20,850 ($30,000 AUSD) to the RSPCA to support wildlife affected by the fires at the end of last year.
“It means that if we were delayed by a day or two (at the Australian Open) … it really doesn’t matter. What matters is that Australians stay safe and we kind of sort out the bigger issues.”
The Canberra International, which got underway on Monday, has been relocated 600 kilometers away from the capital to the city of Bendigo because of the air quality, and tennis isn’t the only sport to be affected.
Rugby union side the Brumbies have moved their training base from Canberra to Newcastle because of poor air conditions.
A Big Bash League fixture in the capital was abandoned because of a smoke haze in December and golfers complained of coughing fits and burning eyes while competing at the Australian Open in Sydney, where New Zealander Ryan Chisnall borrowed a mask from a spectator to help his asthma.
The Australian government has advised that individuals can protect themselves from bushfire smoke by staying indoors with windows and doors shut and avoiding physical activity.
For the world’s tennis elite, however, that may not be an option.