Abu Dhabi, UAETuesday 7 July 2020

Rain raises hopes for Australian Open after bushfire smoke hits Melbourne qualifying again

Play resumed Wednesday as pollution levels improved slightly in the afternoon, although still under hazy conditions

A general view as storm clouds form during an Australian Open practise session at Melbourne Park on Wednesday. EPA
A general view as storm clouds form during an Australian Open practise session at Melbourne Park on Wednesday. EPA

Smoke from bushfires that have devastated much of the country continued to disrupt the Australian Open build up for a second straight day Wednesday, although a cool change in the weather late in the day raised hopes of rain soaking the blazes.

The toxic haze that descended on Melbourne, where the Australian Open is due to begin next week, drifted down from out-of-control fires that have endured for months in eastern and southern Australia.

The bushfires, unprecedented in their duration and intensity, have claimed 28 lives and left thousands homeless as huge fires across the country have scorched 11.2 million hectares (27.7 million acres), nearly half the area of the United Kingdom.

Melbourne, a picturesque bayside city regularly voted as one of the most liveable destinations on the planet, a blanket of hazy fog continued to blanket the city.

The bushfire smoke raised pollution levels to "hazardous" at the start of the week, prompting several players to criticise organisers for forcing players to play in "very unhealthy" conditions.

Australian Open organisers pushed ahead with qualifying rounds on Tuesday, but dramatic scenes of players dropping to their knees and choking, and one - Dalila Jakupovic - retiring due to the smoke, led to complaints about them being forced to stay out on court.

The bleak conditions continued on Wednesday, with residents donning face masks while dozens of flights were cancelled at Melbourne airport because of poor visibility.

With the air still tasting and smelling of smoke on Wednesday morning, organisers suspended qualifying rounds until 1pm on Wednesday.

Play resumed as pollution levels improved slightly in the afternoon, although still under hazy conditions.

Thundery weather then swept in late on Wednesday afternoon, bringing heavy rain that forced play to be cancelled for the day but raised expectations of clearer air for Thursday. The first Grand Slam of the year gets under way next Monday.

There were also hopes that the rain would extend to other parts of southern and eastern Australia where dozens of fires are still raging out of control and threatening to devastate many more rural towns.

Some bushfire and drought-hit areas could see 50-100 millimetres (2-4 inches) of rain, the Bureau of Meteorology said.

However it said the "hit and miss" nature of thunderstorms meant it was difficult to predict exactly where the heaviest rain would fall.

The fires have dominated headlines around the world and led to an international outpouring of aid for victims, as well as animals that have been injured in the blazes.

About one billion animals may have died in the fires and driven many species closer to extinction, according to environmental groups.

Australia's koala population has taken an "extraordinary hit" and could be listed as endangered for the first time, according to Australia's environment minister.

In Melbourne, the smoke has raised the prospect of interruptions and delays for the two-week Australian Open, which is due to begin on Monday.

Meanwhile, Angelique Kerber's preparations for the opening Grand Slam of the year were dealt a blow Wednesday when she was forced to retire from the Adelaide International with back pain.

The German, a former world No 1 who won the Australian Open in 2016, pulled out when behind 6-3, 2-0 in her second-round clash with Ukraine's Dayana Yastremska.

The ninth seed began showing serious signs of the back problem early in the second set then stopped after two points in the third game on her own serve, calling for the trainer.

A medical evaluation on court ended with the 31-year-old world number 18 calling it quits against her teenaged opponent.

Yastremska kept calm during the delay, reading what she called "secret" notes.

"I didn't want to lose focus," said the world No 24, who has won three titles over the past two seasons.

Updated: January 15, 2020 11:51 AM

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