The Australian Open finally reacted to a near player revolt today by introducing an official air quality policy when the first Grand Slam of the year gets under way on Monday.
Officials have done little to offer an olive branch towards players following their controversial approach to qualifying, where competitors collapsed, suffered chest pains or required treatment with inhalers in the smoky conditions.
And their decision to publish such a policy with just 20 of the remaining qualifying matches still to play will have done little to soften the disquiet among the lower-ranked players, some of whom accused organisers of double standards in their treatment of those in the lower echelons of men’s tennis compared to the big three of Roger Federer, Rafa Nadal and Novak Djokovic.
The row, before a ball has even been struck in anger in the main draw, has merely widened the fault lines in the men’s game and heightened the clamour for a players’ union going forward. But tournament boss Craig Tiley remains unapologetic about the physical reactions some players had to the worst of the conditions on Tuesday. His response, issued more than 48 hours later, said simply that “the tournament will happen”.
The policy will allow match referees to take players off court if air quality goes over a certain level, but with conditions improving, thanks in part to much-needed rain, the tournament looks set to take place as planned.
As for the favourites, Djokovic and Serena Williams look best set for the respective titles.
This week, Djokovic admitted his demolition of Nadal for the loss of just eight games a year ago was the best Grand Slam final performance of his career. He has won the Australian Open seven times and his form in leading Serbia to ATP Cup glory mark him out as overwhelming favourite.
How fit and firing Nadal and Federer are remains to be seen, while the perpetual question of who can finally eclipse the big three remains. As Djokovic put it: “It’s inevitable it’s going to happen — and when it happens it’s going to be great for the sport — but we are hoping that this is not going to be the year.”
Williams, meanwhile, looks in arguably her best ever position to equal Margaret Court’s record of 24 Grand Slam singles titles although, now 38, she has not won one since the 2017 Australian Open, despite reaching four finals since the birth of her daughter.
But the American looks in ominous shape, having trained with former world heavyweight champion Mike Tyson and won a first tournament of any kind since becoming a mother in Auckland last week.
From a British perspective, Dan Evans, seeded for the first time at a Grand Slam, looks the best set, but ominously lying in wait potentially in the third round is Djokovic.
For the tournament itself, organisers are simply desperate for the main draw to get under way and for the controversy to dissipate — much like the smoke above Melbourne.