Competitive tennis in the time of climate change

Australia’s bushfires have dramatically affected the quality of play at this year’s Australian Open. What does the future hold?

Climate change will warp human life in diverse ways: mass migration, drought, agricultural failure, rising seas. Besides these brazen, urgent threats to life itself, there are also lesser, subtler threats to ways of life, as global culture is deformed by the changing planet. What will sports, for one, look like in the end times? This past week at tennis’s Australian Open offered one of the clearest, grimmest visions yet of that future.

Bushfires, a product of severe drought and triple-digit temperatures, continue to tear through the continent. They cast off plumes of smoke so large that they’re visible from space; they form lightning-prone weather systems unto themselves. The smoke migrates with the wind, and, according to NASA, is expected to make one full circuit around the globe. As it is blown across Australia, it sporadically smothers cities like Melbourne, host of the Open.

On Monday, January 13, the air in Melbourne was described by a state health official as “worst in the world”; its Air Quality Index qualifed as “hazardous” for all people, and those under 14 and over 65 were advised to stay indoors. Meanwhile, dozens of players seeking spots in the tournament’s main draw were told it was safe to venture outdoors and compete in tennis matches that often last several hours. Morning practices were suspended but then matches proceeded as usual after tournament organizers claimed to have taken input from medical, environmental, and meteorological authorities. The eyeball too is an authority, though, and here’s a doomy vision of Melbourne, just hours before the first matches of the qualifying rounds:

The qualifying tournament, in which lower-ranked players vie for a few open slots in the main event, is played on unshaded outdoor courts that offer little respite from the Australian summer sun. The big stadium courts with retractable roofs are reserved for marquee players during the real deal. (Moving the qualifiers indoors to the National Tennis Centre was reportedly considered, but smoke had infiltrated those courts, too.)

Going to work in these conditions was, for some players, brutal.

World No. 180, Slovenia’s Davila Jakupovic, was up a set on her opponent in the first round of qualifying on January 13, when she was leveled by a coughing fit. Within seconds, she was kneeling on the court. Within a minute, she had forfeited the match through tears. “It was very hard for me to breathe for the whole match. After 20 minutes I already had difficulties,” Jakupovic told CNN after the match. “I wasn’t able to make more than three shots running left and right because I was already getting an asthma attack. I don’t have asthma normally.”

“We are all pissed and a bit disappointed because we thought they would take better care of us,” she said of the tournament’s organizers.

Bernard Tomic, a wayward, once-promising Aussie, is not exactly an exemplar of fitness or perseverance even on the clearest, coolest of days. But on that same day, he was offering a sincere effort in his first-round qualifying match, only to be undone by the hazy conditions. At 1-2 in the second set, the world No. 185 called for medical assistance. “No air is going in. I’m getting tired so easy,” Tomic told medical staff during the match, which he went on to lose in straight sets.

But the day’s most surreally dysfunctional game play came courtesy of former Grand Slam finalist Eugenie Bouchard of Canada and China’s Xiaodi You. Bouchard called for medical timeouts several times over the course of their first-round qualifying match as she struggled with breathing. Meanwhile, You also called on a trainer as she appeared to suffer from cramps. Taken together, this made for a match barely recognizable as professional tennis. One baffling, representative moment: a foot fault called on an underarm second serve, after a failed underarm first serve, because an overhead serve was physically out of the question. After three hours slogging in the heat and smoke, Bouchard won in three sets. “I’m never one to want to stop playing, but I definitely started feeling unwell and I had to call the trainer because it was tough to breathe and I felt a bit nauseous,” she told the National Post after the match.

World No. 250 American player Noah Rubin, who was frustrated by his experience in qualifying, felt that the tournament neither prioritized player health nor acted with any transparency. “Here we are, the ones playing outside, putting our health at risk potentially. We’re playing two, three hours outside in these conditions. And they’re not telling us the numbers they’re seeing, they’re not telling us the people they’re talking to, they’re just saying they have people in science and medicine that are finding that it’s okay to play,” Rubin told The Outline from the airport. “But here we are as players just kind of looking at that and saying, hey, we want to be a little more informed than that. So that was really, really disappointing: Practicing, going outside, and feeling it on the insides of your throat.”

According to Rubin, conditions were so unfamiliar and forbidding that they sabotaged his approach to the game. “I’m not a tall guy, I’m 5’9. A lot of my game is about fitness and me being able to run back and forth. And we’re talking about the middle of the first set — you go for a long point and I just can’t catch my breath like I feel like I normally can. And it only gets worse and worse,” Rubin said. He had recently spoken to world No. 190 Darian King, who also struggled in the first round of qualifying. “He’s another one who’s playing eight, nine, 10 balls a rally, and in the middle of the first set he’s feeling like he just can’t play his style of tennis. So if you’re saying we have to literally change how we play tennis to adapt to the environment, there’s going to be some issues.”

“Citizens of Melbourne were warned to keep their animals indoors the day I played qualifying, and yet we were expected to go outside for high-intensity physical competition?”
Liam Broady, world no. 234

A cramped style of play might be visible enough on court. Far less visible are the fine particles in the air smaller than 2.5 micrometers — small enough to travel deeply through the respiratory tract, all the way into the lungs. Last Tuesday, Melbourne’s 24-hour average concentration of these particles was 233.6 micrograms per cubic meter, a level that is “unhealthy for everyone,” according to Dr. John Balmes of the University of California, Berkeley, who studies the public health impacts of various air pollutants. The workload of a tennis player only ratchets up the risk.

“The dose matters, and dose is determined by the concentration of the fine particulate, and the duration of exposure,” Balmes told The Outline. “And athletes like competitive tennis players are having a greater exposure — a higher effective dose — because their minute ventilation, how much they breathe per minute, increases as they have to supply oxygen to their active muscles.”

Aside from short-term effects like irritation, coughing, sneezing, runny nose and shortness of breath, these particles can trigger underlying heart and lung conditions, Dr. Balmes said. This tracks with Jakupovic’s report of first-time asthma-like symptoms. Rubin, who had hay fever, suffered nosebleeds on the court.

Anger is welling up among the players. “The more I think about the conditions we played in a few days ago, the more it boils my blood,” wrote world No. 234 U.K. player Liam Broady in a comprehensive Notes screenshot. “Citizens of Melbourne were warned to keep their animals indoors the day I played qualifying, and yet we were expected to go outside for high-intensity physical competition?” World No. 5, Ukraine’s Elina Svitolina, has wondered, reasonably, “Why do we need to wait for something bad to happen to do an action,” alongside a screengrab of a dismal air quality measure.

It does seem that climate change and its attendant catastrophes have outpaced the regulations intended to keep athletes safe. Tennis already has some protocols in place to address heat, which gets particularly rowdy at the Australian Open and at the U.S. Open, which takes place in late-summer New York City. But city-engulfing smoke is something new. The world is coming apart in novel ways that tennis functionaries — to say nothing of global leaders — have yet to grapple with.

Craig Tiley, the tournament director, has been trying to catch up to the new reality and assure players that the conditions are safe. “Air quality is a very complex and confusing issue,” Tiley told The Guardian Thursday. “It’s made more complex and is more confusing by going on an app, because there are different apps and websites that will give you different readings.” He also restated his confidence in the medical team’s assessment of safe conditions.

“We’ve been through the journey on extreme heat and we know when players respond to extreme heat, it’s in many different ways. We’ve had conditions where players have pulled out of matches. I do think air quality for sport and for tennis is a conversation we’re going to have more of in the future. It is potentially the new normal,” he said.

There is something constructive about the fact that air quality concerns are flaring up at the Australian Open, a prestige event that is broadcast all over the world, inviting international scrutiny.

Even limiting the scope to sports, Earth’s “new normal” has implications well beyond air quality, and well outside tennis. Big-wave surfing is perhaps the only sport that stands to “benefit” from climate change, which will roil the oceans and increase wave height. Baseball diamonds could be submerged under flood waters. Golf courses, too — Donald Trump hopes to build sea walls to protect his courses in Scotland, though he’s unsure if New York City deserves the same treatment. Soccer pitches worldwide may become inhospitably hot for players, which should finally capture the attention of anyone able to overlook the migrant laborers being worked to death for the 2022 World Cup in Qatar. A 2016 study in the medical journal Lancet suggests that within a century, the Summer Olympics will be impossible to host anywhere in the Northern Hemisphere outside a handful of cities. The ski season will likely contract and demand more manmade snow. Maybe the country’s last hope for meaningful climate change legislation is for extreme weather to impinge on the NFL, the last American religion.

As with so many existential risks, the thinking only seems to begin once attention and money are at stake. There is something constructive about the fact that air quality concerns are flaring up at the Australian Open, a prestige event that is broadcast all over the world, inviting international scrutiny. Not all athletes are lucky enough to get that kind of oversight, as Noah Rubin reminded me.

Take an event a few rungs lower on the pro tour, like the 2017 Challenger tournament in Fairfield, California, where Rubin went three sets in a first-round victory. The Tubbs Fire, which would eventually burn nearly 37,000 acres and kill 22 people, raged on all week, not so far away.

“A little different circumstances, but we actually had ash coming down from the sky. You’d go outside to your car and it looked like it was snowing,” he told me. “We’re looking at the fires, playing tennis, they’re giving out masks. And they’re just saying, well, there’s no rules, so we’re just going to play. And we’re like, ‘How is this a thing? How is there nobody protecting us?’”

Correction: A previous version of this story mistakenly attributed the pull quote.

Giri Nathan was most recently a staff writer at Deadspin.