Wildfires play a spoilsport at Australian Open in 2020

Wildfires play a spoilsport at Australian Open in 2020

Suvadeep Chakravarty

Moist eyes and stony silence thickened the steamy air at the Melbourne Stadium on February 2, the day of the final match between Australian thunder Dominic Thiem and Serbian power-machine Novak Djokovic at the Australian Open. Massive wildfires that swept the continent made the weather uneasy. Both the climax and the sun hung above the blue turf until the winning stroke came off the Serb’s racquet.

Showers of joy cut through the clouds of anxiety as the war marched toward its end. Champagne came drizzling off the gallery and cheers began screaming out of the flashy smartphone screens. Amidst all the merry-making was the devil lurking: red dust, giant gushes of smoke and unexpected pounding of the dirty rain.

While Novak Djokovic confessed to his fans, “Grand Slams are one of the main reasons why I am still competing and still playing a full season, trying to get the historic No.1”, several weather experts said multiple players complained the air quality affected their play or caused medical issues. Slovenian player “Dalila Jakupovic has abandoned her #AusOpen qualifying match after suffering a coughing fit while playing in thick smoke caused by the #AustralianFires,” tweeted ESPN Australian and NZ.

A report released by Monash Climate Change Communication Research Hub observed: “That climate change and extreme heat are already having an impact on the Australian Open and without effective climate mitigation [those impacts] are likely to increase.”  Bearing the threat in mind, the Australian Conservation Foundation-commissioned report also thought of ways for players to adapt to the changing conditions.

One option, the body said, was to avoid scheduling matches during the hottest time of the day. This meant the trophy would need to be stretched by at least a week. The other way was to shift the event to March or November when the weather was conducive.

In decades to come, the disproportionately increased temperature will not only affect the Melbourne locals, but also the people of the continent. This could also lead to a smaller number of fans turning up for the tournament. The summer is naturally hot and the extreme temperature may continue to prevail even in the next season. Plainly, the experts feel, the health risk will be higher when people are exposed to the heat. People, who turn up for great events like the Australian Open events, need to avoid too much of physical activity, drink lots of water and seek shade or air-conditioning.

“Currently, there are considerable economic and logistical implications with some of these suggestions. However, this is the unfortunate nature of playing outdoor sport in a changing climate,” a weather expert said.

Anguished about the rain and dust covering the turf, another expert said, the Melbourne Park staff had to use high-pressure hoses to clean the surfaces. An ATP Challenger event that was scheduled for early January in Canberra also had to be moved about 400 miles west to Bendigo. While hordes of international fans asked on social media if it was safe to attend the event, experts said the heat is always a factor Down Under. This year, the toxic air raised a heavy concern; the smoke forced people to wear masks. Medical experts also advised people with lung or heart conditions to be extra vigilant. Many people relaxing at the front gallery were also seen hiding behind small respirators.

The Air Quality Rating (AQI), according to ESPN, comprises five bands – from one to five. The result is “determined by analyzing concentrations of air pollutants at Melbourne Park and, in particular, the fine particulate matter rating (PM2.5),” the report stated. Matches could be played if the AQI is under the first three bands, i.e. ‘good’ (below 27), ‘moderate’ (27-62) and ‘air may affect sensitive groups’ (62-97).

While the question remains about what’s going to happen in the next season, a health expert says that air quality might improve. About the sport, while defending champion Djokovic, also the president of the ATP Player Council, suggested that delaying the tournament might have been considered, Dominic Thiem on the Big Three (Djokovic, Rafael Nadal, and Roger Federer) said, “I’m happy I can compete with these guys on the best level. I really hope also that I win my maiden Slam when they’re still around because it just counts more.”

 

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