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Tourney director on planning Slam in pandemic: 'relentless'

TENNIS NEWS:
Tourney director on planning Slam in pandemic: ‘ruthless’

MELBOURNE, Australia (AP) – It might have been canceled at any minute. It still could.

Australian Open competition director Craig Tiley was constantly working on the presumption there’d be a huge hit economically for staging the year’s very first tennis significant throughout the COVID-19 pandemic.

Organizers have actually invested 80 million Australian dollars (US$62 million) in money reserves, developed over ten years, and secured a loan to get the season’s very first significant begun.

No matter the barriers, Tiley constantly stayed concentrated on a sweet area, an angle that made it various.

Tiley informed The Associated Press that he was not just devoted to holding the competition at its normal season (it was pressed back 3 weeks due to scheduling problems), he wished to do something no Grand Slam handled to do in the pandemic in 2015: have significant crowds.

“That’s the angle we chose because we thought there’s an opportunity to … showcase the sport and have the players play in front of fans,” Tiley stated, looking tired and using a mask while sitting in a meeting room next to his workplace beneath Rod Laver Arena.

The U.S. Open had no crowds on website and the French Open was restricted to 1,000 daily. For its very first 5 days, the Australian Open balanced simply under 20,000 viewers daily.

“Momentum was building really nicely for us,” Tiley stated, “until – boom – we got the change.”

The “change” was a five-day difficult lockdown from Saturday enforced by the state of Victoria to attempt to quash a break out of COVID-19 cases connected to Melbourne’s hotel quarantine system. The competition all of a sudden went from pre-pandemic near-normalcy to empty stands and silence.

Tiley’s staff had a contingency plan ready in the event of a sudden lockdown, so it leapt swiftly into action. Despite assurances he’s had from authorities that the tournament will be able to finish – and fans may also return in a few days – nothing is guaranteed.

“Tomorrow, the government could say we have 10 new cases … and we want you to shut the site down,” he said in a weekend interview. “We have a plan for that. But that’s not what we expect.”

For Tiley, it’s been that kind of year.

Planning a Grand Slam tournament in the middle of a pandemic was a logistical nightmare that involved flying 1,200 people – hundreds of players and their teams – to Australia from all over the world and arranging hotel quarantine for all of them in a country that had all but eliminated COVID-19.

Yet, despite the enormous costs and challenges, canceling the Australian Open this year was only briefly considered and then immediately taken off the table, Tiley said.

“It felt like we were drinking from a firehose every single day, gasping for air,” he said. “It’s just relentless.”

Paul McNamee, who was Australian Open tournament director before Tiley took over in 2006, described it as “six to eight months of torture.”

McNamee said the biggest challenge he faced in the job was a flood on center court the night before a women’s singles final – a minor setback compared with dealing with a pandemic.

“You could have imagined it would have been easier in Paris or New York. Over there, it’s acceptable if there’s some outbreak. It’s a manageable situation in terms of PR anyway,” he said. “Here, there’s one case, it’s catastrophic.”

The strict isolation regulations in Australia inevitably led to a number of complaints from players, which Tiley said verged on “aggressive” at times.

Among those most upset were the 72 players forced into hard lockdown for 14 days after passengers on their charter flights to Australia tested positive for COVID-19. Because they were unable to leave their hotel rooms for two weeks, some players said they felt physically unprepared to play a Grand Slam.

Tennys Sandgren was one vocal critic. After his first-round loss to Alex de Minaur, he said, “I’ve never walked on to a court in a Grand Slam knowing that I’m probably not going to be able to win.”

No. 1 Novak Djokovic sent Tiley a letter last month suggesting ways to ease quarantine restrictions on players, including allowing them to stay in houses with private tennis courts. Djokovic later said in a statement his intentions were “misconstrued as being selfish, difficult and ungrateful.”

Tiley said he had more than 60 phone calls with the players over those two weeks in quarantine, spending 4 1/2 hours a day personally listening to their concerns.

“The people who had the biggest complaints were ironically some who are still in the Australian Open and their complaints were they didn’t have enough time to prepare,” he said, without mentioning any names, almost halfway through the tournament. “So it’s hard for me to reconcile that being a reason.”

He was disappointed by the complaints because as far as he was concerned, the tournament was doing the best it could given the circumstances.

“We’re offering A$86 million (US$66.7 million) in prize money. We haven’t reduced the prize money at all in the middle of the pandemic when everyone’s taking pay cuts,” he said. “We funded planes, we’re paying for all their expenses.”

But Tiley did emphasize these complaints came from a handful of players and that far more showed their appreciation and support.

Grigor Dimitrov summed this up after his fourth-round win over Dominic Thiem on Sunday.

“We have to be very thankful for being able to play a tournament in the middle of a pandemic and to pull that through in such a tough and delicate moment of where we’re at right now,” he said. “I think it’s amazing.”

Financially, the sacrifices this year will put a tight squeeze on the tournament for years to come.

“We’re still going to be starting from zero for the most part,” said Tiley, a former player, coach and sports executive in South Africa, the U.S. and Australia.

But, he added, it has forced his team to come up with creative ways to diversify their revenue streams.

“I’m pretty confident in our skills to find ways to make money and it can’t just be through the event.”

Tiley has trained his sights on the 2022 Australian Open, planning already in case the world is still gripped by a pandemic.

But if he’s learned anything from the past year, it’s how to manage things one problem at a time.

“Because it’s so relentless, you need to take a step back, take a deep breath, figure out a plan and do it in a much calmer, more considered way,” he said. “That’s really worked.”

___

More AP tennis: https://apnews.com/hub/tennis and https://twitter.com/AP_Sports

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Copyright © 2021 The Washington Times, LLC.

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TENNIS NEWS: Tourney director on planning Slam in pandemic: 'relentless'

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