‘I couldn’t breathe,’ says tennis player as Australian Open qualifying hit by bushfire smoke

Data pix.

A tennis player was forced to retire from Australian Open qualifying in Melbourne after collapsing with a coughing fit caused by brushfire smoke.

Slovenia's Dalila Jakupovic was leading 6-4 5-6 against Switzerland's Stefanie Vogele, but was unable to finish her service game at the end of the second set.

"It was very hard for me to breathe for the whole match. After 20 minutes I already had difficulties," Jakupovic told CNN's Amanda Davies.

"I wasn't able to make more than three shots running left and right because I was already getting like an asthma attack. I don't have asthma normally."

'Panic attack'

Jakupovic said that she was given a breathing apparatus by a physio in the first set, but began to feel worse at the end of the second.

"I just couldn't breathe," she said. "I couldn't walk so I just went down (onto the floor) because I couldn't stand up straight.

"After that I had a panic attack because I couldn't get air. It was very hard, I have to say. It was one of my hardest matches."

Practice for players already qualified for the Australian Open was temporarily suspended in Melbourne Tuesday as smoke from the fires, which have been blazing throughout the country for months, affected most of the state of Victoria.

The air quality in Melbourne was rated "moderate to hazardous" because of the smoke, according to Victoria's Environmental Protection Authority, which recommended people stay indoors.

At least 28 people have died as a result of fires this season. More than 3,000 homes have been destroyed or damaged in the state of New South Wales as authorities have struggled to contain the widespread blazes.

Jakupovic wasn't the only player to comment on the hazardous conditions ahead of the year's first grand slam.

"Why do we need to wait for something bad to happen to do an action (sic)," tweeted world No. 5 Elina Svitolina.

Frenchman Gilles Simon was also critical of tournament organizers.

"When we have doctors who state that playing in 45 degrees isn't dangerous at the Australian Open and referees who state that wet grass isn't slippery at Wimbledon, we must be able to find an expert who can certify that the air quality is sufficient, no?" he tweeted Tuesday.

Australian Open organizers said conditions were improving and "constantly being monitored."

"As always the health and safety of our players, our staff and our fans is our priority," said a statement, which added that further decisions would be made using on-site data, consultation with the medical team, the Bureau of Meteorology and scientists from EPA Victoria.

The Kooyong Classic in Melbourne's suburbs, one of a number of warmup tournaments ahead of the Australian Open, was also affected by the smoke.

Maria Sharapova's match against Germany's Laura Siegemund was cut short with the players tied at 5-5 in the second set.

"After two-and-a-half hours that was the right call for me. I think both of us felt it," Sharapova told reporters.

In a series of Twitter posts last week, Australian Open organizers indicated the tournament would likely go ahead as planned, even though defending men's champion Novak Djokovic had said that delaying the start of tournament had to be considered given the extreme nature of the fires.

"In the unlikely case of extreme smoke conditions, the roofs will be closed on the three stadium courts and play will continue in their air-conditioned, air-filtered environment," the official account tweeted.

"If smoke infiltrates the three stadium courts the air conditioning system will filter it out."

Three of the Australian Open's show courts at Melbourne Park -- Rod Laver Arena, Margaret Court Arena and Melbourne Arena -- have retractable roofs that are closed in the case of rain or extreme heat, and the site also hosts the National Tennis Center, which has eight further indoor courts.

Players and organizations across the sport have committed to supporting bushfire relief efforts.

Australian Nick Kyrgios pledged to donate $140 ($200 AUSD) for every ace he hits at upcoming tournaments -- an offer which has sparked similar gestures from fellow players.

Sharapova agreed to donate $17,400 (25,000 AUSD), a sum that was matched by Djokovic.

The Australian Open is also set to host a rally for relief exhibition in Melbourne Park on Wednesday, which will feature Serena Williams, Roger Federer and Rafael Nadal.

The grand slam gets under way next week and runs from January 20 to February 2.

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