A tennis player who overcame cancer last year has spoken of her concerns about competing in poor air quality at the Australian Open.
American Nicole Gibbs played her first-round qualifying match on Tuesday, when a smoky haze from Australia’s bush-fire crisis descended on Melbourne, resulting in several players needing treatment for respiratory issues and one retirement.
Gibbs battled past Cristina Bucsa in three sets but said she had difficulty regaining her breath and felt light-headed.
— Nicole Gibbs (@Gibbsyyyy) January 15, 2020
The 26-year-old missed two months of the season last summer after a visit to the dentist resulted in a diagnosis of cancer of the salivary gland. She needed a feeding tube for several weeks but has since made a full recovery.
“Maybe I’m a little more paranoid than I would have been a year ago,” said Gibbs.
“I do have a macro sense of my health that maybe I didn’t have before. I think we all feel a little bit immortal, we’re all young and professional athletes, take really great care of our bodies, so you don’t really think anything can happen to you.
“But just having that reality check definitely makes me a little bit more sensitive.”
Tournament director Craig Tiley spoke to reporters on Thursday and clarified the Australian Open’s policy on the issue.
After seeking advice from medical and environmental experts as well as other sports, organisers settled on an acceptable level of particulate matter of 200 micrograms per cubic metre of air, which is regarded as unhealthy but, according to Tiley, lower than the threshold in other sports.
Gibbs’ big criticism of organisers was a lack of information, leaving players unsure what the readings were and the associated risks.
Anger appears to have grown rather than dissipated since Tuesday, with British player Liam Broady saying on Twitter that the decision to go ahead with matches “boils my blood”.
— Liam Broady (@Liambroady) January 15, 2020
Asked whether players could have fought harder before going out on court, Gibbs said: “It’s really hard to take on that issue before you’re scheduled to play a match because the probable outcome is you’re just going to end up going on court anyway.
“For a lot of the qualifiers, you have the attitude of, head down, do what needs to be done and kind of assess the damage after, which may or may not be the most responsible thing for our personal health but it’s the attitude of athletes.
“You have to trust the organisation to have your best interests at heart. I hope that’s what happened but the lack of transparency on the first day was a little bit troubling.”
Gibbs echoed Broady’s call for players to establish a union separate to the ATP and WTA to give them a stronger platform to fight for their own rights.
She believes it will happen, with the men and women potentially pulling together in what has traditionally been a fractured sport.
“I think that would be our best negotiating platform if the tours combine and I think there is a lot of energy for that right now,” said Gibbs.
“I don’t know if it’s going to be soon because it’s incredibly difficult to organise with so many individual contractors, the way the tours are set up makes it really difficult for collective action, but I definitely think it’s something worth pushing for.
“I don’t think there’s any limit on what we can accomplish if we all put our heads together.”