Australian Open Tennis Players Struggle to Breathe as Climate Crisis Makes Air Hazardous

Bernard Tomic of Australia receives medical attention during his match against Denis Kudla of the U.S. during 2020 Australian Open Qualifying on January 14, 2020 in Melbourne, Australia.
Photo: Getty Images

Tennis players at practice sessions for the Australian Open in Melbourne, Australia today struggled to breathe as smoke from nearby bushfires choked their lungs. Slovenian Dalila Jakupović even collapsed on the court in a coughing fit while simply trying to inhale the smoke-filled air, which had an Air Quality Index (AQI) rating above 200 today.

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The air in Melbourne today was deemed “hazardous” by local health authorities, meaning that even healthy people could suffer problems from simply breathing the air outside. The fires in Australia have been raging since September, driven by climate change, which has created the worst bushfire season in modern history.

“No air is going in. I’m getting tired so easy,” Australian tennis player Bernard Tomic told medical staff, according to Nine News. Tomic reportedly told paramedics that he had no history of asthma, saying, “I just can’t breathe.”

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Jakupović’s collapse is difficult to watch, as she was captured on camera wheezing for breath and dropping to her knees on the court as medical staff rushed to treat her. She had been winning the match before she was forced to forfeit against Swiss player Stefanie Vögele.

At least two people have died from respiratory failure due to bushfire smoke in Australia so far this season—a 19-year-old woman with asthma and an elderly woman whose exact age was not released. At least 25 other people in Australia have died as a direct result of the fires, along with an estimated 1.25 billion animals.

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Canadian player Eugenie Bouchard had to take a medical time-out during her Australian Open qualifying match today and told members of the media that there should be some kind of air quality standard that makes sure players aren’t put in danger.

“I think there has to be some kind of line in the sand, you know, some kind of rule where you measure the air, and if it’s over a certain number, or however they measure it, then you just don’t play,” Bouchard said.

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That number could easily be the Air Quality Index (AQI) which was over 200 in Melbourne today. Any AQI level between 1-33 is considered “very good,” between 34-66 is considered “good,” between 67-99 is considered “fair,” between 100-149 is considered “poor,” between 150-199 is considered “very poor,” and anything over 200 is considered “hazardous.”

Maria Sharapova of Russia reacts during her match with Laura Siegemond of Germany which was abandoned due to the smoke from Australia’s bushfires at the Kooyong Classic tennis tournament, in Melbourne on January 14, 2020
A fan wears a respiratory mask during 2020 Australian Open Qualifying at Melbourne Park on January 14, 2020 in Melbourne, Australia.
Karolina Pliskova of the Czech Republic takes a break during a practice session ahead of the 2020 Australian Open at Melbourne Park on January 14, 2020 in Melbourne, Australia.
Thick smoke is seen across Melbourne ahead of the 2020 Australian Open at Melbourne Park on January 14, 2020 in Melbourne, Australia.
A woman walk past a mural depicting a Koala and firefighters as the city suffers hazardous air quality on January 14, 2020 in Melbourne, Australia.
Melbourne commuters walk wearing a mask as the city suffers hazardous air quality on January 14, 2020 in Melbourne, Australia.
A cyclist rides as smoke haze from unprecendented bushfires hover over the city skyline ahead of the Australian Open in Melbourne on January 14, 2020.
Australian Open Tournament Director Craig Tiley speaks to the media regarding the smoke over Melbourne Park ahead of the 2020 Australian Open at Melbourne Park on January 14, 2020 in Melbourne, Australia.
Bernard Tomic of Australia reacts in his match against Denis Kudla of the USA during 2020 Australian Open Qualifying at Melbourne Park on January 14, 2020 in Melbourne, Australia.
Maria Sharapova of Russia hits a return during her match with Laura Siegemond of Germany which was abandoned due to the smoke from Australia’s bushfires at the Kooyong Classic tennis tournament, in Melbourne on January 14, 2020.

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The Kooyong Classic, an exhibition tournament that precedes the Australian Open, is currently taking place in another part of Melbourne and players over there were struggling as well. Russian player Maria Sharapova’s match against German Laura Siegemund was stopped by the umpire due to the smoke after two hours of play.

It’s not just world class athletes who were struggling to breathe in Melbourne today, as you can imagine. The state of Victoria’s top health officer noted that Melbourne had the worst air in the world overnight, noting that even the healthiest people could suffer.

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Beaches and all public outdoor pools in Melbourne were closed today, according to Australia’s ABC News. The local construction worker’s union had its people stop working outdoors today, and many local stores are sold out of P2 and N95 face masks, which are able to filter out 95 percent of hazardous particles in the air.

Incredibly, there are still some in Australia who believe that climate change has nothing to do with the current crisis and blame arsonists for the fires. But that’s bullshit according to the experts. There are arsonists that start some fires every bushfire season, but that doesn’t explain the extensive damage that has been exacerbated by extreme temperatures and drier conditions across the country.

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The fires have destroyed over 15.6 million acres of land in Australia so far this season, and firefighting officials say roughly 1 percent of the fires can be attributed to arson in the state of New South Wales, about 3 percent of the fires can be attributed to arson in the state of Queensland, while roughly 0.03 percent can be attributed to “suspicious circumstances” in the state of Victoria.

The rural state of Tasmania is the only state where roughly 60 percent—roughly 52,000 acres of 86,500 acres that have burned—can be attributed to arson, according to the experts.

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People who claim that the current crisis facing Australia is solely the work of arsonists are merely conspiracy theorists at this point. Or worse, active agents of disinformation with some kind of interest (financial or otherwise) in keeping humanity tethered to fossil fuels.

The Australian Open officially starts in six days, and it’s not clear what will happen if the air continues to be unbreathable. The tournament organizers are keeping an optimistic posture, claiming that the long term forecast is pretty good, something at odds with the local weather report. The air in Melbourne is supposed to be just as bad tomorrow, with a slight reprieve on Thursday and Friday, only to have the smoke-filled air likely return on Saturday.

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“We’re not going to put them in harm’s way or make any decision that’s going to negatively impact their health and wellbeing,” Australian Open tournament director Craig Tiley said according to Fox Sports Asia.

“We have a track record of that when it comes to extreme heat. I think we’re one of the few major events that has to manage extreme heat like we do.”

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Tiley pointed out that dealing with hazardous air is different from just extreme heat, something that local experts warn is likely the new summertime reality for Australia.

“But this is a new experience for all of us, how we manage air quality and therefore we’ve got to rely on those experts that advise us on how best to continue,” Tiley said.

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Matt Novak is the editor of Gizmodo's Paleofuture blog

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