Roger Federer says Australian Open officials handled air issue poorly

MELBOURNE, Australia -- Roger Federer led a chorus of criticism of tournament organizers for their handling of events at the Australian Open earlier this week, when smoke from bushfires across Australia caused problems in Melbourne.

A number of players, including Stefanos Tsitsipas, suffered breathing problems on Tuesday and Wednesday, when smoke blew into the city, also affecting the qualifying event.

Both Federer and Rafael Nadal said they had made a point of going to see tournament officials when conditions were at their worst, to try to find out what the rules were.

With conditions improving ahead of the start of the tournament on Monday, Federer said he was not worried about his health but said the tournament's communication had been lacking, with the official air quality rules officially published only late on Friday.

"Maybe that message [came] a bit late after the ATP Cup is over, after qualifying is over," Federer said at Melbourne Park on Saturday.

"I think communication is key from the tournament to the people, to the media, to the fans, to the players, because [as happened on Tuesday] you do hear it's not safe to be outside, keep your pets inside, close your windows. You have court calls, then you look at the haze and everything, it doesn't look good."

The Air Quality Rating (AQI) consists of five bands from one to five, "determined by analyzing concentrations of air pollutants at Melbourne Park and in particular, the fine particulate matter rating (PM2.5)."

Play is allowed under the first three bands -- "good" (less than 27), "moderate" (27-62) and "air may affect sensitive groups" (62-97) -- but if the level is between 97 and 200, match play might be suspended, though that will be up to the tournament referee. If the rating is in the fifth band, over 200, then play will automatically be suspended.

Federer said he had told tournament officials that the players needed to be given better guidance.

"I said, 'I think we're all confused. Is it super unsafe or is it totally safe to play?' I told them, 'Look, I just think communication is key for all of us, for everybody.' We just need to do more because I feel like I hadn't gotten enough information."

Nadal said he also consulted tournament officials and was content with their explanation, but other players were more forthright in their criticism.

Canadian Denis Shapovalov said the players had been "left in the dark," that it was "scary," and he said he would refuse to play if he felt the conditions were unsafe, regardless what the tournament says.

"I wouldn't play," he told reporters. "I'm 20 years old. Obviously it's a Grand Slam, it's a big opportunity, but I'm 20 years old, I don't want to risk my life, risk my health, being out there playing out there in these conditions, when I can for the next 10, 15 years. For my own health, if it gets bad, I just don't see what the point is.

"I think everyone's kind of on the same page. I don't think I've seen anyone happy with the way things are being dealt with."

Shapovalov said he barely understood the air quality rules.

"They send some email and say they have professionals looking at it and they use the term 'playable,'" he said. "For me it's just like, it's not great. You get warnings from the news telling people to stay inside, that it's not good to be outside, breathing this stuff in and then you get an email from the tournament saying it's playable and you guys have to go out there and put your life in jeopardy, put your health in jeopardy.

"You see the effects on players it has right now, the last couple of days, but also you don't know what it's going to do later in our lives and how it could affect us if we're breathing this air in for two weeks."

Tsitsipas said he had struggled in practice earlier in the week.

"I went to practice for around one, one and a half hours," he said. "After I practiced indoors, I felt really bad with my lungs. I'm feeling OK now but I was a bit concerned. I was coughing a lot, had troubles breathing for a couple of hours. Now it has gotten better."

Petra Kvitova, the runner-up in Melbourne last year who has struggled with her breathing at times in Australia, said she had been concerned when she arrived in the city.

"Actually I've been a bit worried about it," she said. "Now I'm very happy that [conditions have improved]. Of course everybody knows that I do have asthma problems, which I wasn't really happy about that if the air is still bad. I do have my medicines here, as well. I'm going to use it if it's important."