MELBOURNE • Toxic smoke from raging bush fires yesterday cast a shadow over the Australian Open build-up after a qualifier retired with breathing difficulties, while other players needed medical attention amid soaring pollution.
Air quality in Melbourne, habitually ranked as one of the world's most liveable cities, was measured to be the "worst on the planet" and described as "hazardous" by the Environment Protection Authority for the state of Victoria. The city government urged residents to "stay indoors, keep windows and doors shut, and keep pets inside" as the air quality index (AQI) hit 655 in the suburb of Brighton.
The situation is expected to remain dire today, before easing in the next two days. Qualifying for the year's first Grand Slam, beginning next Monday, started late owing to the hazy weather.
Slovenian Dalila Jakupovic did not cope well with the conditions, bringing an early end to her qualifying match against Switzerland's Stefanie Vogele after a coughing fit.
"I don't have asthma and never had breathing problems. I actually like heat," she told reporters. "I was really scared that I would collapse.
"That's why I went onto the floor because I couldn't walk anymore. It's not healthy for us."
Eugenie Bouchard, the 2014 Wimbledon finalist, also had breathing problems during her qualifier and required a medical time-out after complaining of a sore chest.
While she recovered to move on to the next round of qualifiers by beating China's You Xiaodi, the Canadian likened the conditions to "having spikes in my lungs".
Bouchard said: "I felt like it was tough to breathe and (I was) a bit nauseous. As an athlete, we want to be very careful, our physical health is one of the most important things.
"Just like the heat rule (players can take a 10-minute break), there should be an air quality rule."
Elsewhere in Melbourne, former world No. 1 Maria Sharapova and her German opponent Laura Siegemund agreed to halt their contest at at the Kooyong Classic exhibition.
The Russian said she could feel "a bit of a cough coming out through the end of the second set", leading world No. 5 Elina Svitolina to voice her unhappiness with the lack of protection for players.
The Ukrainian posted a picture of the AQI in Melbourne and tweeted: "Why do we need to wait for something bad to happen to do an action?" American qualifier Noah Rubin echoed those comments, tweeting that players were not being kept up to date and the "lack of information on how to proceed is scary".
Tennis Australia chief Craig Tiley, also director of the Australian Open, however, rejected the criticism, insisting "an e-mail" was sent.
The deteriorating weather is a result of months of deadly bush fires that have engulfed huge swathes of the country's hinterland, leaving 27 people dead and more than 2,000 homes destroyed.
While Tiley has continued to insist the Australian Open is unlikely to be delayed, regardless of the conditions, yesterday he conceded that "this is a new experience for all of us in how we manage air quality".
His chief operating officer Tom Larner also said smoke stoppages would be treated in the same way as an extreme heat or rain delay, adding, "we will stop if conditions become unsafe based on medical advice".