No soft launch for Australian Open as Melbourne chokes on smoke

Jonathan Howcroft at Melbourne Park

The year’s grand slam action got under way on Tuesday at a Melbourne Park wreathed in noxious fog. Organisers of the Australian Open delayed the start of play by an hour but that was still not enough to avoid the nightmare scenario of a player on their knees hacking in agony and short of breath. This is an event that sells itself to the world as the happy slam.

Qualifying rounds should provide a grand slam with a soft launch. Not this year.

Related: Smoke plays havoc as Australian Open qualifier suffers coughing fit

Abruptly, Craig Tiley was wheeled in front of the press and asked to explain why athletes should expect to push themselves to their limits on a day when the state’s Environment Protection Authority warned the air quality would be hazardous as a consequence of the bushfires raging across Victoria and New South Wales. The answers were sound, evidence-based, and predicated on medical advice. And they were undermined within four hours when Slovenian Dalila Jakupović retired in distress.

For players like Jakupović – ranked consistently outside the top-100 – grand slam qualifiers can be season changing, life altering even. Had she reached the main draw the Slovenian would have been in line for $90,000 in prize money, even for a first round defeat. For context, Serena Williams earned just $43,000 for winning the recent Auckland Open. Jakupović’s career earnings average out to around $90,000 per year on the professional circuit.

Tennis leaders are belatedly turning their attention to the lower reaches of the professional game in a bid to increase the number of athletes for whom the sport is a viable career choice. The Australian Open is a case in point, increasing its overall prize pool by 13.6% this year but raising the bar for first round casualties by 20%.

For all players, costs are high. Coaches, physiotherapists, equipment, intercontinental flights and accommodation don’t come cheap, and there is no guarantee of a payday to cover all expenses. There’s an argument to be made that the concentration of grand slams into so few hands on the men’s circuit can be attributed in part to the wealth disparity between the best and the rest.

A view of the city skyline shrouded by smoke haze.
A view of the city skyline shrouded by smoke haze. Photograph: Stringer/Reuters

Max Purcell is one player still daring to dream. The 21-year-old Sydneysider is a former doubles partner of Alex de Minaur and in 2016 became the second lowest-ranked player to win a second-tier ATP Challenger title in 16 years.

He was a popular winner on Tuesday, battling beyond Argentinian Andrea Collarini in three sets on Court 5, a venue offering just one bank of seats with most views interrupted by a row of stately pink-hued ghost gums. “Qualies money is great” Purcell said afterwards. “It’s $32,500 just winning that match and it sets me up for the rest of the year in terms of affording a coach, and hopefully a physio”.

Purcell is now just two wins away from the main draw and the chance of a dream evening under lights on one of the show courts. If he does, he will capture the public’s imagination. He has a square-jaw, shoulders like a wire coathanger and he sports a thick brush of blonde surfer’s hair that’s vulpinely for his baseball cap to handle. He wields a Dunlop racket, just like Rod Laver did. He is fair dinkum.

Max Purcell
Max Purcell made his way through the smoke and into the second round of qualifying. Photograph: Daniel Pockett/Getty Images

Qualifiers also offer space to move around the precinct before the lawns are colonised by empty Pimm’s glasses and crowds jostle for a perch to spy a household name. The rewards can be unexpected, like slipping into the flock of Colombian supporters sparkling in Los Cafeteros yellow while they cheer teenage hope Maria Camilla Osorio Serrano to victory.

Eugenie Bouchard has arrived in previous years with her own army in tow, but this year she was forced to slum it on Show Court Two in front of a couple of hundred hardy souls sheltering from the midday heat. Bouchard eventually battled her way beyond You Xiaodi but the lasting image is of the former Wimbledon finalist doubled-over in pain complaining of a sore chest. It wasn’t supposed to be like this.

But perhaps that will be the catchcry of Australian Open 2020. An event synonymous with bold primary colours, in the sky and on the court, at risk of being stifled by a pea-souper. It wasn’t supposed to be like this, especially not on day one, not before the rest of the world had even woken up.