17 January 2020

The most challenging Slam ever

With qualifying underway in Melbourne, the Australian Open has started, but it is the continuing bush fire emergency that is foremost in everybody's mind. Local Tennis Leagues' Simon Wood, who is there to see the action, gives us his impression of what must be one of the strangest and most poignant build ups to a Grand Slam in the history of tennis

Having been to the AO a couple of times before, I was intrigued to see if the build up to this one would be any different given the bush fire state of emergency in Australia.  

Arriving in Melbourne the day before the qualifying was due to start, the omens weren’t great. My plane was prevented from landing on time as the smoke surrounding Melbourne had reduced visibility so much. After circling in the air for what felt like an eternity, we eventually touched down 90 minutes behind schedule. 

Once I left the airport terminal, I was greeted by what looked like a blanket of  light fog but it wasn’t. It was smoke. 

Unfortunately as I woke up the next day, the smoke was very much still in the air and from where I was staying in South Yarra (approximately 4kms from the centre of Melbourne), you could barely see the tall buildings in the CBD (Central Business District) rising up North of the River Yarra.

As I was travelling with my non-tennis playing partner, we didn’t really plan to spend much time at the qualifying event, however we did pay a quick visit in the afternoon (the start of play was pushed back to 12pm due to the smoky conditions) to see British number six Liam Broady in action. The atmosphere felt slightly subdued as you could see tennis fans trying to make out the famous backdrop of the Melbourne skyline which was still covered in smoke. As well as being hazy, the temperatures exceeded 30 degrees making the playing conditions very tough indeed.

There was a lot of chat locally and on social media about whether or note the conditions were safe to play. What struck me the most was that AO were being quite tight-lipped about it when they finally released an official statement on 15th January saying that the air quality was fine and was not above dangerous levels. They said they were closely monitoring conditions and advice from science and environmental agencies. This seemed to rile many players who suggested air quality information was being held back.

The following day, the beginning of play was pushed back by three hours to 1pm as conditions worsened; maybe given all the negative press the previous day, AO were being extra cautious. Then at 5pm the heavens opened and heavy rain began to fall, suspending play for the day. After raining most of that night and into the morning, the smoke cleared and Thursday was all blue skies and sunshine.

Beyond the tennis community, the city itself definitely feels subdued compared to the times I have visited before. You hear many a conversation in bars and restaurants about the bushfires and most people seem to know someone who has been directly affected. Every news channel has wall to wall coverage on the causes, the relief efforts and the day to day impact it is having on people’s lives. On the worst days, people were advised to avoid exercising outside and workers to down tools and wait for the conditions to improve. This seemed very contradictory given the fact that tennis players were expected to carry on competing.

So what will happen when the main event starts? Will the AO continue uninterrupted and without damage to its reputation? It's no exaggeration to say that Melborne, and the world, is holding its breath.

The Australian Open runs from 20 Jan to 2 Feb 2020. See too our Roundup story on how the players are helping to raise funds for those affected by the Bush Fire Crisis