SYDNEY (Reuters) – Naomi Osaka and Novak Djokovic were rightly hailed as deserved Australian Open champions at the weekend but the ashen-faced former tennis coach standing behind them on the podium might be considered the real hero of the year’s first Grand Slam.
Tournament director Craig Tiley and his Tennis Australia team faced down sizeable odds to get the tournament up and running, albeit by the skin of their teeth at times, while much of the world was still dealing with the COVID-19 pandemic.
“At the beginning, I think there were many people who doubted we could pull it off,” South African Tiley told reporters in Melbourne on Monday.
“We can look back on it now as a highly successful event in the circumstances. I believe in the coming month, there will be a realisation of the extent of what we managed to achieve in pulling off what we did.”
In a project unique in the annals of sport, more than 1,000 players and support staff were flown to Australia on charter flights from around the world and quarantined for 14 days from mid-January.
Melbourne is the biggest city in the state of Victoria, which had endured one of the longest and strictest lockdowns in the world to all but eradicate community transmission of COVID-19.
Perhaps Tiley’s greatest achievement was to convince a local government determined to keep the virus out of the state to let the players in, and to allow crowds to watch them.
The tournament survived the infection of one of the quarantine hotel workers only five days before it was due to start, but only after everyone in the tennis cohort had been tested for the virus again.
Crowds were present for just five days of action until Victoria went into a snap lockdown in response to a small outbreak of the variant of the virus associated with Britain.
The fans returned in reduced numbers from last Thursday, however, and were present in sufficient numbers to create an atmosphere at the weekend’s finals.
Tiley believes that the Australian Open has now set an example that other sports events – including the Tokyo Olympics – can follow, but only if they make a commitment to some form of quarantine.
“This was the first time since the start of the pandemic began that there was a sport and entertainment event that had crowds (and) had every top player bar a few that couldn’t make it,” he added.
“I think it is a blueprint that works, it requires more resources and more time, but that’s a commitment that you have to make.”
The 14 days of quarantine prompted an outpouring of complaints from players. Most were allowed out to train for five hours a day but 72 were forced into total lockdown after passengers on their flights tested positive for COVID-19.
The stress of fulfilling his masterplan was clearly etched on Tiley’s face during the weekend’s trophy ceremonies and he revealed the toll it had taken on him in an interview with local media on Sunday.
In order to assuage athletes not used to confinement, Tiley had committed to spending hours on Zoom calls each day listening to their concerns.
“I got abused on the calls. It was significant,” Tiley told Australian Associated Press (AAP). “Normally when you take heat, you take it once. This was 15 straight days. It’s like being attacked for 15 straight days, verbally.”
Tennis Australia also ran up a huge financial bill for putting on the tournament, especially after the snap lockdown robbed them of crowds in the middle weekend – usually the busiest of the fortnight.
Tiley said Tennis Australia’s cash reserves of A$80 million ($62.96 million) had been exhausted and the governing body had taken out a loan to get them through to next year.
Prize money may drop a little in 2022, Tiley suggested, but there was no doubt the Australian Open would be back.
“We started planning it a week ago … 2022 is going to be a magnificent year,” he said.
“If we’re still in a version of the pandemic, we’ll be well prepared for that. Any single thing you could list that could happen to an event, we had it these last two weeks.”
($1 = 1.2706 Australian dollars)
(Reporting by Nick Mulvenney; Editing by Christopher Cushing)