Kangaroos are sprinting from encroaching flames. Stunned koalas are at a loss. People are seeking refuge in the sea. It seems like an armageddon. Distant Oz is burning.
Midday skies darken, the air is poisoned. This is not the fire next time – this is now. Flames rise like tornadoes. The massive bushfires create their own weather systems. Experts tell us Melbourne has the worst air quality in the world. A huge stretch of the beloved continent, the size of Austria, is in peril. Massive smoke clouds engulf the globe.
It’s frightening. Questions loom. Will the Australian Open, the leading annual event in the southern hemisphere, go on?
Will sports (that some dismiss as just silly games) again show us the way, just as Jackie Robinson, Althea Gibson, Arthur Ashe and the Williams sisters did in race relations and Billie Jean King and Martina Navratilova did in gender issues?
Will the Australian Open, the beloved “Happy Slam” teach us an unhappy lesson? In the civil rights movement we were stirred when angry dogs bit protestors or bombs killed children. Our hearts were moved.
On modern battlefields from Viet Nam to Iraq, the horrors of war have long been clear. Climate change is different. It’s nuanced and complicated. Oceans rise and glaciers shrink, but oh, so gradually. When there are shock moments – heat waves, hurricanes and typhoons – we tend to dismiss them. At times it’s not easy to connect the dots.
Plus, it’s all very scientific, cerebral and sometimes even seems contradictory. First, there’s a drought, then there’s a flood. It’s freezing outside, so how can there be global warming? Rains may soon come to Australia, but they might even make matters worse, as they create additional ash and lightning storms.
Tennis has had its own relationship with fire. It’s not just that Hall of Famer Stefan Edberg was said to have “fire in his belly,” and Jo-Willie Tsonga recently claimed that the game’s rising stars “have fire in their arms.” In 2004 Andy Roddick clambered down the side of his Italian hotel to save a couple from a fire that took three lives. In 2014 in Tampa, four people died in a fire in the rented home of James Blake. Recently in California, the Lafayette Tennis Club burned to the ground.
In the old days in Melbourne, when Aussie Open champions leaped into the nearby Yarra River, we all laughed at its pollution. Australia’s mass shipments of coal to China were seen as vital to a thriving Down Under economy. Now they’re being questioned. The bushfires have surfaced issues of inequality. Why should top stars be able to practice in indoor stadiums while lower ranked players are forced to play their qualifying matches outdoors? Is the players’ health being risked for the sake of sport and profit? In one qualifying match, a coughing Slovenian, Dalila Jakupovic struggled to get her breath, fell to her knees and had to retire. A Maria Sharapova match was called off after it was decided the smoke was creating unsafe playing conditions. ATP Council member Vasek Pospisil said the situation, more than ever, showed the need for a player’s union.
A while ago when Roger Federer was asked why he plays on, he said, “I need the fire, the excitement, the whole roller coaster.” Now the beloved icon has become involved in another roller coaster. Canada’s Brayden Schnur said that Roger and Rafa are “selfish” because they haven’t protested against playing conditions during the qualifying matches on Melbourne’s outdoor courts. And due to his connection with his sponsor, Credit Suisse, a big European bank that has traditionally invested heavily in the fossil fuel industry, protesters in 2018, in Lausanne, Switzerland, carried signs proclaiming, “Credit Suisse is destroying the planet. Roger, do you support them?”
After climate activist Greta Thunberg, Time Magazine’s “Person of the Year,” got involved via Twitter, Federer issued a statement that said, “I take the impacts and threat of climate change very seriously, particularly as my family and I arrive in Australia…As the father of four young children and a fervent supporter of universal education, I have a great deal of respect and admiration for the youth climate movement, and I am grateful to young climate activists for pushing us all to examine our behaviors and act on innovative solutions. We owe it to them and ourselves to listen. I appreciate reminders of my responsibility…and I’m committed to using this privileged position to dialogue on important issues with my sponsors.”
Last year an English caller to Australian Open Radio asked if tennis in the future would need to be played indoors. Climate change has been gradual. Icebergs melt slowly. Now, we wonder if Aussie Open play will have to be suspended. Or, God forbid, could the fabulous event that brings such joy be canceled? And, in the long run, could the competition as we know it be endangered? Never mind the fire next time, the fire is now. Reportedly, a total of a billion animals, including 25,000 koalas, have died. The darling but endangered koalas inform us. They are a kind of canary in a coal mine – the crisis is now. The Happy Slam is in trouble. Our wondrous, irreplaceable planet is in trouble. To a degree, tennis has mobilized. Over $4.8 million was raised for bushfire relief Wednesday night at Melbourne’s Laver Arena. Now it’s time, at last, for the world to mobilize.