Australia bushfires: Will wildfires affect the first Grand Slam of the tennis calendar?

11 January 2020, 09:38 | Updated: 11 January 2020, 10:55

With the first Grand Slam of the tennis calendar - the Australian Open - starting next week there is concern about the air quality in Melbourne.

How hard will it be to play a five-set match in the summer heat with possible pollution from the bushfires smoke?

The tournament's director Craig Tiley said: "There will be meteorological and air quality experts onsite to analyse all available live data and assess in real time the air quality at Melbourne Park".

"While the conditions we are currently facing are unusual they are nothing compared to the suffering so many across Australia are experiencing at the moment."

The affinity the world's best tennis players have with Australia is probably over and above what it would be for any other sporting event.

It's where they make their home for the first month of the year at the start of the tennis calendar.

Their response to the bushfires has been to try and raise as much money as possible for the relief effort - and they've got creative - with money for aces being the most popular pledge.

Former Wimbledon junior champion and two-time Australian open junior finalist Laura Robson, whose family live there, says it's no surprise the bushfires have dominated the build-up to the first slam of the year and that players want to reach into their own pockets to do whatever they can.

"The Australian Open has always been known as the happy slam - it's so casual and welcoming for the players," she said.

"Everyone gets there just after Christmas and for years and years they've all spent New Year there. You get to know all the tournament staff you just develop a relationship with these tournaments and everyone has been so desperate to help it's been amazing."

Robson has been urging her 366,000 Twitter followers to help the wildlife: "I've adopted 27 koalas, it's so worth it but you can't just limit it to the koalas you've got to get in with the kangaroos, the possums the wombats. There are so many animals that need to be saved."

The world's top players have all been pictured with Australia's indigenous wildlife since arriving in Oz as they publicise what is needed in the current crisis.

Australia's Nick Kyrgios got the ball rolling with a promise to donate $200 for every ace he serves in January, which given the number of aces he serves in a match you'd expect that to be a tidy sum.

He broke down in tears on court when asked about the bushfires.

Maria Sharapova signed 10 pairs of shoes and left them in her hotel reception asking for a $300 donation from anyone who wanted to collect a pair, she also pledged $25,000 and urged the men's defending champion Novak Djokovic to match her - which he did.

The women's world number one Ashleigh Barty is an ambassador for the RSPCA and gave her winnings from the Brisbane International, with Tennis Australia donating £100 for every ace served in the new ATP Cup.

And on Wednesday the world's top players will come together for a special fundraising event in Melbourne.

The former British number one would love to be there helping the cause but once again her tennis career has been derailed by injury.

When she turned professional aged 15, Robson had the tennis world at her feet. Some impressive results on the biggest stages saw her reach the world's top 30, but then a serious wrist injury cruelly interrupted everything.

Her comeback was a struggle with form and yet more injury, until a hip operation before Christmas to correct a chronic problem which means that for now even getting around is a challenge.

It's been a while since her last meaningful result, but at 25 Robson is determined that her tennis career isn't over.

Her expectations for the next few months however are modest: "I would honestly be happy to stand on the baseline and hit a few balls with my mum, that would be more than enough, anything after that would be a massive bonus.

"I got a message from Andy Murray the day after my operation asking how it went and what the rehab's going to be like. Everyone wants to help. I feel I've still got stuff left in the tank but it's been a long process."

Having competed at the Australian Open many times herself, Robson knows first hand how difficult it can be to play there because of the extreme heat.

She says the air quality this time will add "another layer of challenge" for the players.

The Canberra International event had to be relocated last week because of the hazardous air quality, but with qualifying for the first Grand Slam of the year starting in Melbourne on Tuesday, the tournament organisers are happy that their contingency plans mean there will be no disruption to the schedule.

"It's tough anyway with the heat and everyone conditions themselves in December to get used to that," said Robson.

"It just adds another layer of difficulty because you don't know how it's going to be on any given day..

"In Sydney at the ATP cup they've struggled a little bit with smoke but they have managed to get matches on court. Everyone has to be very prepared, they need to stay indoors a lot of the time."