Tournament director Craig Tiley insisted poor air quality in Melbourne is not a threat to the Australian Open being completed on schedule and defended organisers’ handling of the situation.
A number of players were furious at being asked to compete in smoky conditions for the first round of qualifying on Tuesday as the bush fires that have devastated parts of the country made their presence felt.
Slovenia’s Dalila Jakupovic retired from her match after having a coughing fit on court, saying afterwards that she was worried about her health, and several other players needed treatment.
Britain’s Liam Broady lost his first-round match against Ilya Ivashka on Tuesday and, in a message on Twitter on Thursday, reiterated his unhappiness with the position in which players were put.
— Liam Broady (@Liambroady) January 15, 2020
The 26-year-old from Stockport wrote: “The more I think about the conditions we played in a few days ago, the more it boils my blood. We can’t let this slide.
“The email we received yesterday from the ATP and AO was a slap in the face. Conditions were ‘playable’. Were they healthy? Citizens of Melbourne were warned to keep their animals indoors the day I played qualifying, and yet we were expected to go outside for high intensity physical competition?
“What do we have to do to create a players’ union? Where is the protection for players, both male and female? When multiple players need asthma spray on court and they don’t even have asthma? When a player collapses and has to retire due to respiratory issues?
“On tour we let so many things go that aren’t right but at some point we have to make a stand. ALL players need protection not just a select few.”
The tournament’s response had been limited to a brief statement on Wednesday morning but Tiley spoke to reporters at Melbourne Park following Thursday’s draw.
He stressed the decisions that have been made have been based on advice from medical experts and the Environment Protection Authority and following consultation with other sports.
Tiley insisted the threshold the tournament has settled on beyond which play is deemed too hazardous is lower than at other events, including the Olympics and WTA tournaments.
Organisers have installed a monitoring device that records air quality every four minutes, while Tiley said players have received two emails with information about the situation.
He said: “We’ve said all along, and I’ll repeat it again, their safety, their well-being, their health, is of priority to us, as it is with our staff and our fans.
“We’ve done the best we can in communicating with the tours. One thing I can say is this is about trusting the medical advice and the scientific advice.
“We care deeply about the players. I met with Dalila the same day, we’re going to have a follow-up catch-up tomorrow and just reiterate if there’s anything we can do and making sure she’s seeing the medical team and making sure she’s being taken care of.
“Absolutely we understand the anger. A lot of it comes in the confusion and the complexity of understanding what goes on. We’ve invited the players to come in at any time and have a conversation.”
A change in the wind direction on Thursday led to much cooler, clearer conditions but there is every possibility of the smoke returning at some point during the main tournament, which begins on Monday.
Tiley said officials would not stick rigidly to their policy if the evidence suggested conditions were not safe but maintained that had not been the case on Tuesday.
He said: “Our medical team were satisfied with the condition in which the players were competing at per all the research and the data and the science they have, but they also make an assessment.
“You could have been two hours into those matches and 25 people presenting themselves with a medical condition that may be related to the pollutants. If that’s the case, inform me, we stop.”
There had been speculation the tournament may even be cancelled because of the issue, but Tiley maintained that, as far as possible, it will be business as usual.
“There is a lot of speculation about the Australian Open not happening or starting later,” he said. “The Australian Open is happening.”