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The 2020 Australian Open • Where There’s Still Questions About Playing Conditions…

By Alix Ramsay

The good news is that the smoke haze has lifted from Melbourne. It was blown away a few days ago by a whopping thunder storm and some serious breeze. The bad news is that it could be back at any moment depending on the direction of that breeze and the general weather conditions. And more bad news:  it is going to rain for the first couple of days of the tournament. Oh, well, you can’t have everything.

In a country that loves a rule and a regulation, the Australian Open is desperately patriotic: they have rules for absolutely everything. If they could find a way to regulate the colour of your underwear and the frequency of your tea breaks, they would do it in a heartbeat. Give a person of any gender (and we are going beyond binary here, this is a catch-all complaint as all these people are as bad as each other) an official polo shirt, a walkie talkie and a clip board and they will try to take over the world, starting with you. And whatever you are doing, it is wrong. And if it isn’t actually illegal, you still shouldn’t be doing it here.

But then we get to the air quality debate and while the AO does have rules, it is ever-so coy about them. At first, Craig Tiley thought it best not to tell the players exactly how the air quality measurements were taken, how they would be used and what the possible outcomes would be – he thought it might confuse them. Ah, bless.

Craig is the CEO of Tennis Australia and “the players’ friend”, the most popular tournament director on the planet. The Aussie Open is his baby, the players are his pals and everything goes swimmingly. But the lack of information coming from his office on this issue was the final straw: the players were revolting (insert own joke here).

You would think that with a lifetime in tennis behind him, Tiley would know that players are not like normal people. Ask players to jump and they do not ask ‘how high’, they want to know what sort of take-off and landing is required, the risk factors involved, the possible rewards that could accrue – they are obsessive about pretty much everything. Keeping them in the dark was never going to be a good idea.

So, shock horror, when TA finally released its air quality rules and policies on Saturday, most players shrugged, said ‘oh, OK’ and went back to what they were doing. Denis Shapovalov still had a pop, claiming that he was not willing to “risk my life” if he felt the air quality was too smoky but his was a lone voice by that point.

So, to the technical bit. The measurement being taken is the “concentration levels of fine particulate matter” – that’s bits in the air to you and me – and when that measurement reaches critical mass, play is suspended. There is a bit of wiggle room: once the level of bits gets to 97, the reading will “trigger discussion between medical staff and officials about the advisability or otherwise of proceeding with match play”.

If the level reaches 200, play will be suspended either immediately or once the score has reached an even number of games – that detail is at the discretion of the umpire.

By way of a comparison, the Olympic standard for air quality is 300 – if there is a concentration of fine particulate matter of 300, no event will take place. Tennis has set a far more exacting standard and, for the most part, the players are now willing to do the best they can. There will be good days and bad days but this is a unique situation. Stay calm and play on.

Or, as Roger Federer put it: “From what we were told yesterday in the player meeting, the Olympic Games and other competitions have the numbers set at 300. Ours is set at 200.

“From that standpoint, I think we’re moving in a very safe range. We’re not here for six months straight at over 200, 300, you know. That’s when maybe effects really become bad.

“I don’t worry too much, to be honest, [about us]. I worry more for everybody else who is in the fire, in the smoke. We can stay indoors all day, quickly go out and play, go back in again. It’s not like we’re stuck outside at all times.”

And, by way of a wee side bet, anyone fancy a fiver on no one saying a word about it (unprompted, that is…I know my journalistic colleagues) during the opening day? With Roger, Serena, Naomi, Novak, Venus, Coco, Steph and Ash all on show and with the forecast unlikely to bring the smog anywhere near us, particulate matter is the least of anyone’s worries.


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