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.

Players treated worse than animals – qualifier

  • AO qualifier forced to retire after coughing fit

  • Smoke stops Sharapova’s match at Kooyong

  • 2 Related

    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.