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Aussie Open considers potential alternatives as air quality drops

Aussie Open considers potential alternatives as air quality drops

Tennis Australia chief Craig Tiley indicated that organizers "have no other plans to move events" but will be giving significant attention to the issue.

Concerns about the playing conditions at the Australian Open have increased as air quality drops in Melbourne, though there is still a week before qualifying begins at the event.

According to Australia's ABC, national bushfires have dropped air quality from below 140 to above 200, considered "very unhealthy" and placing Melbourne fourth among cities with the worst air quality. Anything above 300 is considered "hazardous." Conditions are expected to be similar for the next couple of days, and then appear likely to improve. 

But tournament officials are still looking at contingency plans in case the start of the event is affected. An ATP challenger and women's ITF event in Canberra this week has been moved because of air quality concerns.

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Tennis Australia chief Craig Tiley indicated that organizers "have no other plans to move events" but will be giving significant attention to the issue.

"We have committed substantial extra resources to analysis, monitoring and logistics to ensure the health and safety of all players, staff and fans," Tiley said in a statement.

"Assessing the likelihood of smoke-induced interruptions is a bit like we treat heat and rain.

"We have access to real-time monitoring of air quality at all of our venues, and are working closely with medical personnel and local experts onsite to ensure we have the best possible information.

"The health of players, fans and staff is a priority at all times."

The tournament has three courts with a roof that could be used for indoor competition, along with eight indoor courts at its adjacent national tennis center, according to British press. While the three retractable roof courts have the largest seating capacity on the grounds, the indoor courts would not allow significant public access. 

Tennis Australia has not specified the air quality levels that would prompt them to suspend or move play.

The start of the tournament could also be delayed if required. World No. 2 Novak Djokovic said while such changes should be avoided, they had to be considered if conditions are poor.

"It is tough for them because the schedule has to be respected, the Australian Open starts at a certain time so there are a lot of things involved. But a health concern is a health concern for anybody," he said at the ATP Cup location in Brisbane. 

"I know in China the playing conditions are very tough in terms of quality of air but this is something different—I have never had this kind of experience before. 

"I hope it is going to dissipate but if it stays like that, we have a council meeting in a week or 10 days and we will discuss for sure."

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While players have generally not complained so far, the Australian Open would pose a bigger challenge as a two-week event with best-of-five sets for the men's field.

"But if the smoke gets worse, I couldn't imagine potentially playing a four, five-hour match and not coughing like crazy post-match trying to recover," Denis Kudla, who is playing the relocated Canberra challenger this week, told NYT. "You could play, but who knows what damage we’re actually causing to ourselves."

Australian and world No. 1 Ashleigh Barty said any disruption was minor compared to the effects of the bushfires on the country.

"If it meant that we were delayed by a day or two... it really doesn't matter. What matters is that Australians stay safe," she said. 

Tennis Australia is also organizing a 'Rally for Relief' exhibition to help collect funds for those affected, following a public call from Australian Nick Kyrgios to get involved. Several players have also pledged donations for each ace they hit or other amounts, like Barty giving the prize money she gets from this week at Brisbane.

"Our aim is for tennis to play a significant role where we can to help that recovery," said Tiley.

Tennis Australia will also provide a million Australian dollars to rebuild tennis infrastructure.