Tennis player Dalila Jakupovic quits Australian Open after coughing fit in smoke-filled air

The air quality in Melbourne was “the worst in the world” overnight, according to Victoria state’s chief health officer.

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By Yuliya Talmazan

A tennis player abandoned an Australian Open qualifying match Tuesday after dropping to her knees in a coughing fit as smoke from the nation's catastrophic wildfires clogged the air.

“I was really scared that I would collapse," Slovenian Dalila Jakupovic told The Associated Press. "I never had breathing problems. I actually like heat. But ... I just couldn't breathe anymore and I just fell on the floor."

Jakupovic said it was "not fair" she'd been asked to play.

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Former Wimbledon finalist Eugenie Bouchard asked for medical assistance during her qualifying match, but pressed on to win. Australia's Bernard Tomic also needed a medical timeout for breathing issues in his match.

A thick haze enveloped Melbourne on the first day of the Australian Open qualifying round Tuesday as the smoke from the raging wildfires drifted over Australia’s southeast.

Victoria state’s chief health officer, Brett Sutton, said in a press conference Tuesday the air quality in Melbourne was in the "very poor" to “hazardous” range, and was “the worst in the world” overnight.

Residents were advised to stay indoors and keep windows closed.

Australian Open said in a statement it will be using onsite data and consulting its medical team, the Bureau of Meteorology and scientists from the state’s Environment Protection Authority to make any further decisions about the matches.

"As always the health and safety of our players, our staff and our fans is our priority," the statement said.

Practice was temporarily suspended Tuesday morning due to the poor air quality, the tournament said. But the qualifying matches went ahead, albeit with a delay.

Tournament organizers faced criticism online, including from some players, for not suspending the matches.

Ukraine's Elina Svitolina, the fifth highest-ranked woman in the world, tweeted, "Why do we need to wait for something bad to happen to do an action [sic]" adding a screenshot of Melbourne's air quality index.

Meanwhile, Russia's Anastasia Pavlyuchenkova reacted to the video of Jakupovic's collapse, saying it was "tough to watch."

"I feel sorry for the players who have to deal with that," she wrote. "Can #AusOpen play all the matches under the roof or indoor in that case?!"

Tournament organizers said last week that play would be confined to Melbourne Park’s three roofed stadiums and eight indoor courts in the “unlikely case of extreme smoke conditions."

"This is a new experience for all of us, how we manage air quality, and therefore we have got to rely on those experts that advise us how best to continue," the Australian Open's tournament director, Craig Tiley, was quoted as saying by Australia’s Sydney Morning Herald.

At the Kooyong Classic exhibition event, also held in Melbourne, Russia's former No. 1, Maria Sharapova, also struggled in the heat and smoke before her match was called off in the second set.

“We were out there for over two hours, so I think from a health standpoint, it was the right call from the officials," Sharapova said in a post-match interview.

Predictions are for air quality to remain poor until Wednesday night.

Main action at the Australian Open starts Jan. 20.

Yuliya Talmazan

Yuliya Talmazan is a London-based journalist.