MELBOURNE, Australia — Dalila Jakupovic had just struck a glorious backhand winner down the line when she let go of her racket and dropped to her knees.
It was Jan. 13, 2020, and the then-28-year-old Slovenian hadn’t fallen down onto the blue hard court at the Australian Open in celebration. Instead, she was gasping for air and experiencing an uncontrollable coughing fit as smoke from bushfires hung dangerously low over the city.
“It was really scary,” Jakupovic later said after retiring while up one set. “I just couldn’t breathe. I really didn’t know what to do. I had never experienced something like this.”
Thirteen months ago, Australia was in the midst of one of the nation’s worst bushfire seasons on record. Blazes around the country began in September 2019; by January, as tennis season was in full swing, the fires had grown out of control.
Players stepped up to contribute to various relief efforts, using their platforms during and after the Australian Open to draw much-needed aid to the country. Now, a little more than a year later, with temperatures much milder and the air quality in Melbourne consistently in the “good” category, according to the World Air Quality Index, Australia is still rebuilding. But those efforts from the tennis world are still paying off.
BUSHFIRES ARE A part of life in rural Australia, but the destruction seen 12 months ago was more horrific than most had ever witnessed.
Thirty-five people and an estimated 1 billion animals were killed during the bushfires. The fires damaged 45 million acres of land — more than half the size of California — and destroyed more than 3,500 homes.
“Climate change delivered a fire season in Australia that was never imagined, and never could have been imagined,” said David Bowman, professor of fire science at the University of Tasmania.
The near-toxic haze that blanketed Melbourne for weeks made playing conditions during the 2020 Australian Open qualifiers almost impossible. The low-hanging smoke was so dangerous that there were serious discussions taking place at Tennis Australia headquarters about rescheduling the first Grand Slam of the year.
A postponement didn’t occur, but the bushfires and devastation caused were the talk of the tournament, particularly early on. Australian Nick Kyrgios kick-started the contributions, pledging AU$200 (about $155US) for every ace he served during the summer.
“My home town is Canberra and we’ve got the most toxic air in the world at the moment — that’s pretty sad,” Kyrgios said during the tournament. “It’s tough to go out there and concentrate on tennis, to be honest [but] we’ve got the ability and the platform to do something.”
Kyrgios’ generosity was quickly matched by a plethora of his peers. Roger Federer, Rafael Nadal, Serena Williams and Novak Djokovic, among many others, all made sizable donations and helped raise global awareness about what was happening Down Under. Tennis Australia organized a “Rally for Relief,” which saw a number of the world’s top players compete in an exhibition-like event, while the ATP and WTA tours both made donations of their own.
Former players helped out, too. Australian icon Rod Laver auctioned off his 1969 Dunlop Maxply wooden racket, while seven-time major champion and ESPN analyst John McEnroe pledged AU$10,000 for each set Kyrgios won through the tournament.
“Getting ready to come to Australia [in 2020], a lot of people were saying, ‘Are you really going to Australia? It looks so bad,'” McEnroe told ESPN. “We had been struggling with fires in California and they came really close to my home. I was lucky, but I can definitely relate. Still, it’s so much more catastrophic here.”
By the conclusion of the Australian Open in late January, the tennis fraternity had come together to raise a staggering AU$6.09 million. Most of these funds were sent directly to the Australian Red Cross, helping take the charity’s donation haul to AU$240 million.
The majority of the funds were then split into seven different grants, covering everything from a AU$40,000 re-establishment grant, which assists in rebuilding homes and farms, to a AU$15,000 injury grant. Almost 6,000 Australians, across four states, were recipients, while another 43,000 people were able to be supported by the charity at various relief and evacuation centers around the country.
“Over the past 12 months, we’ve been working around the clock to get the money out to people who need it most,” said Kate Siebert, Victorian state manager for emergency services at the Australian Red Cross. “Firstly, it’s going to the people who are bereaved and lost loved ones, then it’s the people who have lost everything or have medical expenses and might be in hospital.
“Once we establish they are in need and that the money is going to the right people, the funds are transferred into their bank accounts. It’s as simple as that and it can be turned around within days.
“We want to minimize them having to go through bureaucratic processes and make things as easy as possible for people to access these funds.”
One of those to benefit from the funds the tennis community donated to was Marilyn Bussani. She and her family were living on their 200-acre property just outside of Mogo, southeast of New South Wales, when they received the dreaded 3 a.m. wake-up call from a friend alerting them that the fires were rapidly closing in.
“It was harrowing,” Bussani told ESPN. “Even though we had a fire plan, it was pretty terrifying having to pull kids out of the bed and put dogs in the car in the middle of the night.
“We then had a long and anxious wait to see if our house was still standing. [My partner] Tim made his way back three or four days later, when we knew the fire had passed, and he had to chainsaw his way to the property because of all the fallen trees. That’s when he discovered the fires had destroyed everything on the property. We were devastated.
“To be offered the financial assistance and not have to worry about how we were going to survive was just a huge relief. We were insured but like most people, probably underinsured and there’s a long wait to get your insurance money.”
While covering medical expenses and rebuilding homes was a priority for the Australian Red Cross, the donated funds from the tennis world were also used in other areas of importance.
“We had a lady whose husband had just had a stroke and they were living right on the fringe of the fires,” Siebert said. “They lost everything and were trying to navigate what assistance was available to them. We ended up organizing a weekend away for the couple to get a break from the land and get away from the black. Having that respite is so important.”
BY MID-MARCH, the Australian bushfires were under control, but the nation, and the rest of the world, was facing a fresh challenge: COVID-19. The pandemic, which continues to wreak havoc around the globe, has meant bushfire relief efforts have been put on the back burner.
Many of those who were impacted are still no closer to knowing when their homes will be rebuilt. Bussani and her family have already had to shift accommodations on three occasions and are now living inside a shipping container on their original property outside of Mogo. The rebuild of their home has not yet started.
But perhaps the toughest part for these communities is the isolation caused by the coronavirus. The past 12 months has been full of lockdowns and border closures, leaving thousands lonely and lacking the support needed to get through the devastation.
“From a recovery point of view, our normal strategy is about bringing people in these communities together, because we know how important it is for people’s mental health and wellbeing,” Seibert said. “The desire to connect is so powerful in helping process trauma and loss. We weren’t able to do that because of COVID-19, but now, with easing of restrictions, it’s something we are able to start.”
For many, the road to recovery will take years but the funds raised — including the efforts from the ATP, WTA, Tennis Australia and the players last year — shows recovery is possible.
“It really was the generosity which kept us standing and smiling and helped us get back on our feet,” Bussani said.