The Australian Open is usually a cause for celebration with sunshine, vibrant crowds and eager athletes producing good vibes. But this year a mix of extreme heat and poor air quality may put a dampener on the tournament.
Last year, Australian Open organizers were forced to introduce a new extreme-heat policy to combat oppressive weather conditions, but this year a new danger has emerged for both athletes and spectators – poor air quality.
With bushfires raging across the state of Victoria, and air quality in state capital Melbourne already reaching "very unhealthy" levels, heavy winds and soaring temperatures could cause havoc at the tennis season's first grand slam..
At least 28 people have now died in the devastating Australian bushfires and there is little respite in sight with the country's hottest months still to come.
Despite Melbourne's air quality reaching a score of 213 on Monday (with 200 considered "very unhealthy"), Australian Open organizers said they "don't expect any delays" to the start of the tournament, with qualifying set to begin on January 14. They claim they have introduced "additional measures” to ensure the safety of athletes.
"As always, the health and safety of our players, along with our staff and our fans, is a priority, and we've committed substantial extra resources to analysis, monitoring and logistics to ensure this throughout the tournament,” Australian Open director Craig Tiley said.
"There will be meteorological and air quality experts onsite to analyse all available live data and assess in real-time the air quality at Melbourne Park.
"This information will be used in a similar way to how we deal with extreme weather conditions like heat and rain.”
Indoor tournament possible
What the additional measures exactly are is unclear, but the Australian Open does have the benefit of having three roofed stadiums at Melbourne Park as well as a further eight indoor courts. All singles matches could potentially be played under cover.
The Rod Laver, Margaret Court and Melbourne arenas all have retractable roofs, which are usually utilized in the case of extreme heat. That couldn't prevent matches at last year's tournament being suspended, however, as scorching temperatures reaching 44 degree Celsius (111 Fahrenheit) proved too oppressive for athletes.
A combined heat wave with smoky conditions would no doubt test those arenas to their limits, but with about 800,000 visitors expected across the two-week tournament any kind of relocation of the 108th Australian Open appears to be off the table.
Athletes digging deep
As the athletes get ready to wow spectators on the courts, a number have already impressed outside the arenas by announcing fundraising efforts for emergency services battling the fires.
Locals Nick Kyrgios and Ash Barty have led the way, with Kygrios pledging $200 for each ace he serves across the Australian summer and Barty promising to donate her entire earnings from the Brisbane International played earlier this month.
Last year's Australian Open champion Novak Djokovic, along with Maria Sharapova, also donated a whopping $25,000 AUD, while Tennis Australia announced a "Rally for Relief” exhibition match on Rod Laver Arena for January 15.