MELBOURNE—It’s tough to be rational when you are struggling to breathe or choking on court. So one can sympathize with those qualifiers at the Australian Open who were caught up in the worst of the contaminated air at Melbourne Park last Tuesday and Wednesday.
After Dalila Jakupovic of Slovenia had collapsed on court and several other players, including Germany’s Dustin Brown, Britain’s Liam Broady and the Canadians Genie Bouchard and Brayden Schnur had felt the air catching in their throats, anger grew in the locker rooms, and tournament director Craig Tiley came in for harsh criticism.
Apart from having to deal with a situation created by the unprecedented severity of fires in Victoria—an annual occurrence, but never this bad—the prime culprit was misunderstanding and lack of communication. Tiley and his staff had done the only logical thing: consult medical authorities and follow their guidelines.
Under the auspices of the Australian Institute of Sport, the Environmental Protection Agency had made a barrier of atmospheric particulate matter (PM2.5) concentration—let’s call it 200 for simplicity—above which play would become dangerous. For comparison, the Olympic Committee set a far higher level of 300. Tiley is adamant the 200 barrier was not breached and had delayed some matches until the level came down.
“Some of the problem lies in the fact that people go on apps and get contradicting information,” Tiley said. “We just take the best advice we can and go with it.”
That there was a lack of communication between Tiley, the players and media is strange. Tiley, one of the most proactive and prominent figures in world tennis, sits in an office with glass walls and an open door in the heart of the Players Area. Any player can walk in, so too any reporter with a credential. Tiley does not hide.
“Obviously heat and bad air affects different players in different ways,” he told me. “We take players’ health very seriously and always have done. No names, but there are some tournaments in big cities that take no air quality readings at all.”
The other target for the lower-ranked players’ ire were the game’s superstars. Schnur called Roger Federer and Rafael Nadal “a little bit selfish in thinking about themselves and their careers,” while not paying enough attention to the plight of the qualifiers.
Broady had this to say: “The more I think about the conditions we played in a few days ago, the more it boils my blood. All players need protection, not just a select few.”
Again, it is understandable that those affected in a serious way wanted to find a culprit. But in attacking today’s top players, they were way off target. All players should understand that they are blessed to be playing in an era when the top stars spend hours of their life before major tournaments debating the concerns of colleagues ranked way below them.
Novak Djokovic is President of the Players Council; Federer and Nadal have recently re-joined it; Andy Murray served on it for years. None of them have to do this. None of them were required several years ago to sit down with each of the Grand Slam chairmen in turn at Indian Wells to address the question of prize money allocation. But they did. Not to make themselves richer, but to make sure qualifiers and early round losers got a bigger piece of the pie. On the WTA tour, Venus Williams did likewise.
Everyone knows it is a struggle for players ranked below 100, but the movers and shakers in the tennis world make a considerable effort to turn more money in their direction. Since 2011, prize money at the Australian Open has increased 183.9%, much of it concentrated on early rounds. Schnur and others might like to re-consider whether Federer and Nadal deserve to be called selfish.
Many of the younger players may not know that this was not always the case. Professionalization of the sport only came about with the advent of Open tennis in 1968, and was cemented with the ATP boycott of Wimbledon in 1973—a contentious act that finally wrested control away from amateur officials. It would not have happened so quickly but for the leadership and political bravery of players like Cliff Drysdale (the ATP’s first President), Arthur Ashe, Mark Cox, Jim McManus and Stan Smith—all board members who were fully backed by Charlie Pasarell and John Newcombe.
But that kind of superstar support waned in the era of Bjorn Borg and Guillermo Vilas. Other players like Raymond Moore and Harold Solomon stepped forward, offering hours of their time in committee rooms, but others were less interested. The same could be said for the era of Pete Sampras, Andre Agassi and Jim Courier, all of whom took time to realize that responsibility came with the privilege of success.
Players grow and mature, few more so than Agassi, who has admitted to me that he does not recognize the person he was as a teenager. The creation of the Andre Agassi Prep School in Las Vegas stands as testament to how much his focus has changed.
Today, the Big Four have become responsible citizens to a remarkable degree. All of them give hours and days of their time to raise money for causes such as the fires now ravaging Australia. And whatever one may think of Nick Kyrgios, no one can accuse him of not getting his priorities right.
Having set the ball rolling on the charity event which ended up raising half a million dollars last week, Kyrgios said in press, “The fires, yeah, if you get down to it, people are losing their families, homes. It’s not easy to just completely switch your concentration on the Australian Open when you put in perspective what is actually going on. ‘How is your forehand going today’…..?”
Earlier, Federer had faced questions concerning the attack from Schnur and others.
“So what can I do? I can go to the office, speak to them (Tily and referees). I went to them the first day when it was bad on Tuesday, the next day on Wednesday when it was still bad. I told them, look, I just think communication is key for all of us, for everybody. We just need to do more because I feel I hadn’t got enough information.“
So the flow of information could have been better. But to suggest that those in positions of power and influence don’t care is way off the mark.