Slam Pandemic Planning Tournament Director: “Relentless”
MELBOURNE, Australia (AP) – This could have been canceled at any time. It’s still possible.
Australian Open tournament director Craig Tiley was still working on the assumption that there would be a huge financial blow to hosting the first major tennis tournament of the year during the COVID pandemic. 19.
Organizers spent A $ 80 million ($ 62 million) on cash reserves, accumulated over 10 years, and took out a loan to kick off the first major tournament of the season.
Whatever the obstacles, Tiley always stayed focused on a sweet spot, an angle that made him different.
Tiley told The Associated Press he wasn’t just determined to host the tournament for his usual time of year (it was pushed back three weeks due to scheduling issues), he wanted to do something about it. that no Grand Slam managed to do during the pandemic last year: have large crowds.
“This is the angle we chose because we felt there was an opportunity to… present the sport and have players play in front of fans,” Tiley said, looking tired and wearing a mask. as he sat in a conference room next to his desk under Rod. Wash Arena.
The US Open did not have a crowd on site and the French Open was limited to 1,000 per day. In its first five days, the Australian Open hosted an average of just under 20,000 spectators per day.
“The momentum was developing really well for us,” Tiley said, “until – boom – we got the change. “
The ‘change’ was a five-day hard lockdown from Saturday imposed by the state of Victoria in an attempt to quell an outbreak of COVID-19 cases linked to Melbourne’s hotel quarantine system. The tournament suddenly went from pre-pandemic near-normality to empty stands and silence.
Tiley’s staff had a contingency plan ready in the event of a sudden lockdown, so they quickly took action. Despite assurances he has had from authorities that the tournament can come to an end – and that fans could return in a few days as well – nothing is guaranteed.
“Tomorrow the government could say we have 10 new cases… and we want you to shut down the site,” he said in a weekend interview. “We have a plan for this. But that’s not what we expect.
For Tiley, it’s been that kind of year.
Planning a Grand Slam tournament in the midst of a pandemic was a logistical nightmare that involved transporting 1,200 people – hundreds of players and their teams – to Australia from around the world and organizing around 40 hotels for all in a country that had everything but eliminated COVID-19.
Yet despite the enormous costs and challenges, the cancellation of the Australian Open this year was only briefly considered and then immediately taken off the table, Tiley said.
“It was like we were drinking from a fire hose every day, out of breath,” he said. “It’s just relentless.”
Paul McNamee, who was tournament director for the Australian Open before Tiley took over in 2006, described it as “six to eight months of torture”.
McNamee said the biggest challenge he faced in his job was a flood on center court the day before a women’s singles final – a minor setback to dealing with a pandemic.
“One would have imagined that it would have been easier in Paris or New York. There, it is acceptable if there is an epidemic. It’s a manageable PR situation anyway, ”he said. “Here there is a case, it is catastrophic.”
The strict isolation rules in Australia inevitably led to a number of complaints from players, which Tiley said sometimes bordered on “aggression”.
Among those most upset were the 72 players forced into strict lockdown for 14 days after passengers on their charter flights to Australia tested positive for COVID-19. Because they couldn’t leave their hotel room for two weeks, some players said they didn’t feel physically ready to play a Grand Slam.
Tennys Sandgren was a vocal critic. After his first round loss to Alex de Minaur, he said: “I’ve never been on a court in a Grand Slam knowing that I probably won’t be able to win.”
No.1 Novak Djokovic sent Tiley a letter last month suggesting ways to ease quarantine restrictions for players, including allowing them to stay in homes with private tennis courts. Djokovic later said in a statement that his intentions were “misinterpreted as selfish, difficult and ungrateful.”
Tiley said he had more than 60 phone calls with players during those two weeks of quarantine, spending 4.5 hours a day personally listening to their concerns.
“Ironically, the people who complained the most were those who were still at the Australian Open and their complaints were that they hadn’t had enough time to prepare,” he said, without name names, almost halfway through the tournament. “So it’s hard for me to reconcile that this is a reason. “
He was disappointed by the complaints because as far as he was concerned, the tournament was doing its best given the circumstances.
“We are offering AU $ 86 million (US $ 66.7 million) in prize money. We haven’t cut the cash price at all in the midst of the pandemic when everyone is going through pay cuts, ”he said. “We have financed planes, we pay all their expenses.”
But Tiley pointed out that those complaints came from a handful of players and it showed their appreciation and support much more.
Grigor Dimitrov summed it up after his fourth round victory over Dominic Thiem on Sunday.
“We have to be very grateful that we were able to play a tournament in the midst of a pandemic and go through it at such a difficult and delicate time as we are now,” he said. “I think it’s amazing.”
Financially, this year’s sacrifices will strain the tournament for years to come.
“We’re always going to start from scratch for the most part,” said Tiley, a former player, coach and sports executive in South Africa, the United States and Australia.
But, he added, it forced his team to find creative ways to diversify their sources of income.
“I’m pretty confident in our skills to find ways to make money and it can’t just be through the event.”
Tiley has set his sights on the 2022 Australian Open, already bracing in case the world is still in the grip of a pandemic.
But if he has learned anything from the past year, it’s how to handle things one problem at a time.
“Because it’s so relentless, you have to take a step back, take a deep breath, make a plan and do it in a much more calm and thoughtful way,” he said. “It really worked. ”
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