Recriminations continue to rumble over Tennis Australia’s decision to send lesser-ranked players out on Tuesday to perform in thick smoke from Victoria’s bushfires, which resulted in the oxygen-depleted withdrawal of Slovenia’s Dalila Jakupovic.
Although TA chief executive Craig Tiley declined to comment on Wednesday, his team showed greater consideration by delaying the start of play until 1pm. Even so, players, coaches and public health officials have all been questioning why clearer, more transparent guidelines have not been put in place to protect the athletes.
One of the most significant interventions came from Victoria’s chief health officer Brett Sutton. Describing Tuesday’s scenes as “awful”, Sutton told reporters “Tennis Australia needs to work up an air quality policy … 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."
Thus far, the only guidance we have had from the tournament organisers is that they are aggregating information from on-site testing equipment, medical experts, and meteorologists before making their decisions.
But the lack of a specific air-quality cut-off score is opening TA up to claims that they are putting their own scheduling needs ahead of the players’ health. It is not just smoke that threatens to derail the tournament but rain as well, including the massive thunderstorm that brought play to an end on Wednesday soon after 4.30pm local time, with only 16 of the day’s 64 scheduled matches completed.
At least Wednesday's three-hour delay to the start time suggested that some lessons have been learned. By the time players went on court, the air-quality index was under 200 and falling (lower is better in this instance). Only one retired – Slovakia’s Jana Cepelova – and she cited a foot injury as the explanation.
“All of the players [on Tuesday] suffered more than the ones playing [on Wednesday],” Jakupovic told the BBC. “[On Tuesday] all the players had headaches, were feeling chest pain, had problems breathing, so it was horrible really.”
But Brayden Schnur – the world No 103 from Canada – still questioned the quality of the air on Wednesday, arguing that conditions remained “100 per cent not normal”. Having won a lengthy three-setter, Schnur explained that he felt "super dryness" in his throat adding that: “They're just trying to shove us on the court because we're qualifiers."
Schnur also criticised the leading players for their neutrality. “It's got to come from the top guys,” he said. “Roger [Federer] and Rafa [Nadal] are a little bit selfish in thinking about themselves and their careers. Because they're near the end and all they're thinking about is their legacy. They're not thinking about the sport itself and trying to do what's good for the sport – so those guys need to step up.”
The same issue was raised on Wednesday by the 23-year-old American player Noah Rubin, whose role as the founder of the “Behind the Racquet” website has made him a figurehead for tennis’s left-behind. “To have some of the top players get involved would be really helpful,” Rubin said. “We just didn’t have that this past couple of weeks.
“I’m going up to some [administrators] face to face,” added Rubin, whose website chronicles the struggles of lower-ranked players. “That’s when the ATP or Tennis Australia take a step back and they’re like, ‘We didn’t want to have this conversation with somebody who’s not No 5 in the world. Who are you?’. There is an ongoing joke that qualifying and Challenger players don’t get the respect. We have guys from the ATP who are getting upset with me for getting upset at them.”
Rubin also complained of a lack of communication on the part of Tennis Australia. “They say they have scientists, all these people getting these numbers, and we don’t see them. I don’t know what they are trying to hide from us. Why is it a secret, why can’t we be a part of it?
“I understand they have a lot of pressure and this is the first time this took place. But you have to keep us involved. They are the ones in offices with air-conditioning. We are the ones playing three hours outside. I think this is where the problems come that we don’t have a union. My Dad is a businessman and he asks ‘How are you protected by the people that employ you?’”
Meanwhile a collection of star names – including Federer, Nadal, Serena Williams and Nick Kyrgios – performed in front of a sell-out crowd on Wednesday night at the Rod Laver Arena in the AO Rally for Ralief, an exhibition in aid of the bushfire crisis. By the time of writing, the event had raised almost A$5m.
And Juan Sebastian Cabal – the world No 1 doubles player and reigning Wimbledon champion – pulled out of the Australian Open on Wednesday night, citing illness. On Tuesday night, Cabal’s partner and Colombian compatriot Robert Farah was revealed to have tested positive for a banned steroid in October. Farah claims that he was a victim of cross-contamination from steroid-fed beef.
There were more critical comments from players on Wednesday morning, too, with the French being particularly outspoken. Nicolas Mahut posted a picture of himself wearing a pollution-blocking facemask, accompanied by the caption “Ready for my first match!”
Elsewhere, Mahut’s compatriot Lucas Pouille tweeted that “You don't have to wait for a terrible incident to come to realise that it's dangerous … If the city of Melbourne asks its inhabitants to stay inside with the doors closed and keep animals inside, there is a reason.”
Canada’s Vasek Pospisil, an influential figure on the ATP player council, raised a broader issue. "It is time for a players' union,” he tweeted. “This is becoming absurd."