Questions remain for Australian Open officials as smoke lingers

MELBOURNE, Australia -- As hazardous smoke from Australia's ongoing bushfire crisis -- which has claimed 28 lives and destroyed over a thousand homes -- continues to blanket the city of Melbourne, Australian Open officials are finding new ways to avoid directly answering the question on everyone's mind: How will the Grand Slam of Asia/Pacific be impacted?

On Wednesday morning, just five sleeps out from the scheduled start of this year's tournament, organisers again refused to acknowledge reporters' inquiries around how toxic smoke could impact the most watched annual sporting event in the southern hemisphere, as weather delays and player withdrawals raised more concerns.

World No. 1 Rafael Nadal was joined on Melbourne's Federation Square live stage by Australian Open Tournament director Craig Tiley at a media call promoting the Open's major sponsor Kia.

Before the start of the event, AO media officials informed the press pack that there would be no opportunity for direct questions to Tiley or Nadal, instead that there would be a prearranged Q&A as part of proceedings.

Nadal arrived to a raucous applause, signed a few giant tennis balls and posed for a selfie with a group of ball kids before taking part, alongside Tiley, in that stage-managed interview session hosted by former Aussie doubles legend Todd Woodbridge. There was no mention of smoke or air quality.

Nadal then signed the windscreen of the car he had arrived in before hopping back in and departing -- most likely to his five-star Melbourne hotel room where he could escape the smoke that had left dozens coughing and feeling ill.

At the same time, a news release announcing further disruption to play on Wednesday quietly slid into inboxes, and the Australian Open's social media team got busy on Twitter.

To have the face of the tournament fronting media and the general public some 3km from Melbourne Park while information is being dripped out on Twitter is not a good look. For Tiley to fail to comment on it at all is even weaker.

Tiley might be regarded by many players as one of the best tournament directors in the world, but he and his team have made little public effort to combat the haze issue.

On Tuesday morning, with Melbourne's air quality officially ranked as the third worst in the world, Tiley and chief operating officer Tom Larner, fronted a hastily arranged media opportunity to ensure that the tournament would act in the best interests of the players, fans and staff.

"This is a new experience for all of us in how we manage air quality, so we have to listen to the experts," Tiley said.

Larner added, "We will stop if conditions become unsafe based on medical advice."

By midafternoon, Slovenian world No. 180 Dalila Jakupovic was forced to retire from her Australian Open qualifying match after collapsing to the court in a coughing fit.

"I don't have asthma and never had breathing problems. I actually like the heat," Jakupovic said. "But I just couldn't breathe anymore, and I fell on the floor.

"It's not healthy for us. I was surprised; I thought we would not be playing today, but we don't have much choice."

Polarising Australian player Bernard Tomic was another who felt the effects in qualifying, claiming, "I just can't breathe," during his loss to American Denis Kudla. Tomic even called for an asthma puffer during the second set as the smoke took its toll.

And over at Kooyong, 7km southeast of Melbourne, former world No. 1 Maria Sharapova was explaining to the local commentary team that her match with Germany's Laura Siegemund was abruptly halted as both players were struggling with the effects of smoke.

In the midst of all this, the Australian Open issued a news release, only it wasn't in relation to the smokey conditions and player welfare, but rather the launch of a Harry Potter-themed day on the second Monday of the tournament. But there is no magic wand to solve this problem.

With air quality conditions around Melbourne continuing to worsen as bushfires burn for a third successive month, we've already seen a number of beaches and pools close, sporting events cancelled and construction workers forced to abandon outdoor projects. Ambulance callouts for people struggling to breathe also have risen significantly.

The Australian Open is scheduled to begin on Jan. 20 -- already a later start than in previous years -- but if conditions don't improve dramatically by then, calls to have it postponed or even compressed will grow increasingly louder.

Constant failure to address the pressing issue at hand is showing a lack of care and accountability from Australian Open organisers, not just for players but the hundreds of thousands of fans expected to fill Melbourne Park over the coming weeks.