Ashleigh Barty to donate Brisbane winnings to wildfire relief

BRISBANE (Agencies): Ash Barty was flying home across Australia following the Fed Cup final when she saw the early signs of devastation from the wildfires that are still raging in large parts of the vast island continent.

So the problem hasn’t just dawned on her, the highest-profile tennis star in Australia, as it might have for some players arriving for the season-opening events. But the scale and gravity of the situation is really hitting home.

Barty went to a nearby animal shelter after she returned from the Fed Cup loss to France in Perth in November and donated money, because at that stage animals were the main casualties of the flames. Now, with Australia in the grip of its worst wildfire season in recorded history and with a human death toll of 24, she’s joining the fundraising for a bigger relief effort.

The No. 1-ranked Barty said she will donate any prize money she wins at the Brisbane International, her home tournament, to the Australian Red Cross for the recovery effort. The winner of the tournament, which starts Monday, will earn more than $250,000.

“It’s been really terrible, it really has. For me this started two or three months ago,” Barty said of the damage caused by what Australians commonly call bush fires. “We have to remember, this has been going on for a long time across our whole country. The first I saw of it was actually flying home … to the east coast and we could see some of the smoke and some of the fires.

“Obviously the worst of it is still out there at the moment. Now it’s not just the wildlife, it’s also affected Australians with their lives and their homes.”

Actors, athletes, entertainers and everyday citizens have committed millions of dollars in pledges to the relief effort, and organizers of sports events are setting up fundraising events. Australian Open organizers will hold a special charity event on Jan. 15, five days before the season’s first major begins in Melbourne.

Nick Kyrgios was among the first tennis players to pledge, promising 200 Australian dollars for every ace he hits this month. He served 20 in Australia’s opening win at the ATP Cup.

Barty, who started her rise to No. 1 with a run to the quarterfinals at last year’s Australian Open and then won her first major title at the French Open, will also be a familiar face in the fundraising campaign.

While the fires have mobilized athletes and sports administrators, conditions have also caused concerns about health and safety for players, particularly in tennis and cricket, which are such a big part of the Australian summer.

Seven-time Australian Open champion Novak Djokovic is among those who’ve talked about the possible effects of the wildfires on the season-opening major, suggesting the start might even have to be delayed if the air quality around Melbourne is poor.

Barty said most players would agree the timing of the tennis was less important than safety.

“First and foremost, the reason that there is smoke in the air is what’s most devastating at the moment for our country,” she said. “It’s just a really tough time. Tennis is a sport, it’s a game that we play, and there are certainly a lot of bigger things going on in Australia right now that we need to take care of.

“So, I mean, if it meant that we were delayed by a day or two … it really doesn’t matter. What matters is that Australians stay safe and we kind of sort out the bigger issues.”

Tennis, she added, “is a game that we love, yes, and we try and be the ultimate professionals and do everything that we can, but it is a game. You need to put things into perspective and worry about the bigger things in life first.”