When Roger Federer eventually abdicates as the king of tennis, a career in diplomacy beckons. On the eve of the Australian Open, the former six-time champion again tip-toed around tough questions about the impact of the climate crisis on this smoke-haunted tournament.
“Whew, I don’t know,” he said, puffing out his cheeks. “Could be any kind of answer, to be honest. What can we do about it? Not that much. What a situation. It’s big right here now. We can talk to the tournament and see what the situation is.”
Federer was similarly careful with his words two weeks ago when it was revealed his sponsor, Credit Suisse, had invested heavily in fossil fuels. Switching to the degradation of air quality from bushfires and the effect that might have on players in the first slam tournament of the season, he said: “[Tennis Australia] gave its information back to us now when it’s safe to play. I don’t think it’s going to be throughout the entire tournament, bad air quality and all that. I think we should be fine.
“But the problem is the animals, the forest, the bushes, the people, the firefighters. That’s the difficult part. Every country has problems of their own. You need to tackle them differently. Raising awareness, raising money is one thing. Preventing is another. There’s a lot of different ways to figure these problems out.”
Federer rejected the notion of moving the tournament out of the country. “Go in the streets, ask the people if they want it to move it from Melbourne or from Australia. From what we were told in the player meeting, the Olympic Games and other competitions have the [air quality index] numbers set at 300. Ours is set at 200. From that standpoint, we’re moving in a very safe range. We’re not here for six months straight at over 200 or 300. That’s when maybe effects really become bad.”
Asked what he thought about TA recognising but not celebrating Margaret Court’s 50th anniversary of winning a slam, Federer again struck a neutral pose. “It’s a tricky one. I don’t know what to tell you. She’s obviously an incredible champion, one of the most successful ever. I know this subject also tears apart a lot of opinions and minds. Tennis Australia, they’ve got to do what they got to do.”
After fielding a couple of gentle lobs from two invited youngsters about his own children, he reminded the gathering: “I’m playing Steve Johnson, by the way, for those who care. I figured that’s why I’m in Australia, but that’s OK.”
Johnson, the world No 81, will struggle, too, finding solutions to difficult questions when he faces the Swiss phenomenon – who, at 38, might add to his 20 slams – in the last afternoon match on Rod Laver Arena on Monday.
More engaging on a range of issues was the second biggest draw in tennis, Nick Kyrgios, who begins his charge at the title on Tuesday against Lorenzo Sonego, and finds himself in Rafael Nadal’s quarter of the draw. “The last couple weeks have been pretty emotional,” he said, referring to the devastating pollution that enveloped his native Canberra and inspired him to launch fund-raising for to help combat the bushfires. “But it’s good to be back. I feel at home here. I lived here for two years. I played juniors here from a young age.”
Kyrgios put the responsibility for handling whatever arises from possible haze and pollution squarely back on the administrators. “It’s not up to the players or up to anyone else. If the air quality gets to that point, we can’t do much. [They have] got to call it off. Until then, we have to play.”
As for Sonego, Kyrgios said: “He’s a tough competitor. I played him in Cincinnati last year. It was a tough match. Very capable player. Big serve. Loves to hit his forehand.”
The Canadians have been the most outspoken critics of the tournament’s sluggish response to the problem while Denis Shapovalov said he would refuse to play if he felt the conditions were unsafe, regardless what the tournament says. “It’s a grand slam, it’s a big opportunity. But I’m 20 years old, I don’t want to risk my life, risk my health, being out there playing out there in these conditions, when I can for the next 10, 15 years. For my own health, if it gets bad, I just don’t see what the point is.”
Kyrgios would seem to have gained a detractor in Alexander Zverev after doing push-ups every time he double-faulted during the ATP Cup in Sydney last week. Zverev – another violet who refuses to shrink, and who might meet Kyrgios in the semi-finals – said on Friday: “There’s a lot of young guys that are right now, no offence, just better than him. Stefanos [Tsitsipas] is better than him, simply because he is better over five sets and that’s what you need. This is not a three-set match where you can win in an hour-and-20 [minutes] and get off the court.”
Unamused, Kyrgios replied: “I’m not going to entertain that too much. With everything going on, that’s the least of my worries. He’s a great player. I’m not quite sure where those comments come from. I’m sure he didn’t mean them in a bad way. But, if he did, then I’m sorry for whatever I’ve done to you.” Dan Evans, meanwhile, handled with more equanimity Tim Henman’s throwaway line that he could “miss a few meals”. Evans, who plays Mackenzie McDonald on Monday, laughed and said: “It’s difficult to be a rake like him. Not a muscle on him. I think I’m in decent shape. Tim finds it pretty hard to give a compliment, I tell you that. But everything he did in the two weeks before [the ATP Cup], for me, was great.”
At least somebody was smiling in Melbourne.