NEWS
15/01/2020 7:12 AM AEDT

Dalila Jakupovic Quits Australia Open Qualifier As Bushfires Choke Melbourne

The tennis player slumped to her knees, struggling to breathe, and said she had "never experienced something like this before".

A tennis player was forced to quit her match in the Australian Open qualifiers after poor air quality caused by huge bushfires left her “scared I would collapse”. 

Slovenia’s Dalila Jakupovic was leading Stefanie Vogele 6-4 5-6 at Melbourne Park on Tuesday when she slumped to her knees suffering breathing difficulties.

Huge fires have swept across Australia in recent months, killing 28 people, making thousands homeless and scorching 27.7m acres of land – almost half the area of the UK.

Jakupovic told reporters she was fighting for breath. “I never experienced something like this and I was really scared,” the 28-year-old said.

SIPA USA/PA Images
Slovenian tennis player Dalila Jakupovic at a match in China in 2019

“I was scared that I would collapse. That’s why I went on the floor because I couldn’t walk anymore. When I was on the ground it was easier to get some air.”

Her decision to quit the match came just hours after tournament organisers defended the decision to go ahead with the qualifiers, which were initially delayed because of the poor air. 

One Melbourne resident tweeted a photo of the smoky air in the city on Tuesday, writing: “I can see the #AusOpen from my office window. 

“It’s hard to believe that players are even attempting to compete in these conditions.”

A warmup match between former world number one Maria Sharapova and Germany’s Laura Siegemund at the Kooyong Classic in Melbourne was also abandoned on Tuesday after both players complained about the air. 

Five-times Grand Slam champion Sharapova said she felt a cough coming on in the second set.

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

The pollution prompted warnings from Victoria state’s environment watchdog for people to stay indoors, bring pets inside and shut windows.

Meanwhile, a horse-racing event was cancelled and construction workers downed tools for the day. However, governing body Tennis Australia said early on Tuesday that “conditions onsite [were] improving” at Melbourne Park.

Authorities expect the smoke to linger until Wednesday, when afternoon showers are forecast.

Bushfire smoke has affected a number of elite sporting competitions involving football, rugby league and cricket, and the pollution has raised safety fears at tennis’s first Grand Slam of the year.