Australian tennis tournament relocated due to bushfire threat

By Nick Mulvenney

SYDNEY, Jan 3 (Reuters) - A professional tennis tournament scheduled to take place in Canberra next week has been moved to the city of Bendigo because of the likelihood of disruption caused by smoke from the bushfires raging around southeast Australia.

Hundreds of wildfires have scorched more than 4 million hectares (10 million acres) of bushland and destroyed over 1,000 homes over the last few months, including 381 homes destroyed on the south coast just this week.

Hazardous smoke from the fires forced the abandonment of a Big Bash Twenty20 cricket match in the nation's capital on Dec. 21 and organisers, anticipating similar disruption, have decided to move the Canberra Tennis International.

"The health of players, fans, volunteers, staff and stakeholders is our biggest priority at all times," Tennis ACT chief executive Kim Kachel said in a statement.

"Unfortunately, the best advice from the weather and fire experts is that the conditions over the next few days mean it is unlikely there would be any play. With conditions too unpredictable the decision was made to relocate at the earliest available opportunity."

The tournament, which is a stop on both the men's ATP Challenger tour and the women's ITF Futures tour, will form part of the preparations for lowly ranked players competing at the Australian Open, which takes place in Melbourne from Jan. 20.

The inaugural edition of a higher profile team tennis event, the A$22 million ($15.36 million) ATP Cup, begins on Friday in Brisbane, Perth and Sydney.

There looked to be little chance of disruption from the bushfires in Sydney on Friday with no sign of the thick layer of smoke that has shrouded the city on several occasions over the last few months.

The third cricket test between Australia and New Zealand at the Sydney Cricket Ground was also unaffected when it got underway in front of a big crowd under cloudy but largely smoke-free skies on Friday.

Organisers have prepared for smoke delays during the match with all eyes on Saturday when temperatures are set to soar above 40 degrees Celsius (104 degrees Fahrenheit).

Both teams were wearing black armbands in memory of those who have lost their lives in the conflagrations and lined up before the match to unite with the crowd in a minute of applause for the emergency services fighting the fires.

($1 = 1.4325 Australian dollars)

(Editing by Sam Holmes)

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