Australian Open qualifier Dalila Jakupovic fell to the ground from a coughing fit during a game on Monday, forcing her to forfeit the match. The incident comes as air levels in Melbourne, where the tournament is being held, have reached hazardous levels due to the country's.
Slovenia's Jakupovic, who is ranked number 180 in the world for singles, said she started having chest pain during her morning warm-up, but the discomfort became worse after playing for about 25 minutes in the match, Eurosport reports. She said she began to experience a coughing fit that felt "like an asthma attack," though she does not have asthma.
"I couldn't breathe out on the court. I couldn't stand up," she said. "I'm angry and sad. I'm more sad because I had the win (in my grasp) and I just couldn't finish it."
Jakupovic was winning the Round One Open qualifying match against Stefanie Voegele from Switzerland when she fell to her knees.
"I never experienced something like this. I was really scared," she said. "I was scared that I would collapse, so that's why I went on the floor, because I couldn't walk any more."
Tournament officials made the controversial decision to continue with qualifying matches despite the poor air quality and complaints from athletes. Before Jakupovic's coughing fit, tournament director Craig Tiley said they continued because "there was an improvement in conditions."
The level of pollution, however, prompted warnings from the state of Victoria, where Melbourne is located, for people to stay indoors, bring pets inside and shut windows. The state's Chief Health Officer, Brett Sutton, said that air levels in Melbourne became "the worst in world" between Monday and Tuesday, local time.
Jakupovic told reporters the decision to continue play was "not fair," because it is unhealthy for players. "I was surprised. I thought we would not be playing today, but we really don't have much choice," she said, according to the Associated Press.
Matches and practice were delayed on Tuesday, but recommenced about an hour behind schedule.
According to Victoria's Environment Protection Authority, Melbourne's air quality improved by Wednesday morning, but remains "very poor," while the air quality in some other parts of the state is still listed as "hazardous."
Moving forward, Tiley said the tournament will work with its medical team, the Bureau of Meteorology, and the Victoria EPA when making decisions about play time, ESPN reports. According to Tiley, they have installed air-quality measuring devices at the tournament in order to collect "real-time data."
If the medical team says conditions are unsafe, play will stop, according to Tennis Australia Chief Operating Officer Tom Larner. He said that any stoppages due to smoke will be treated the same as extreme heat or rain.
"This is a new experience for all of us in how we manage air quality, so we have to listen to the experts," Tiley said.
The official two-week-long championship is set to begin next Monday, after qualifying rounds finish up this week.