Next challenge is to get the crowds in, says Australian Open Director Tiley

On the eve of the Australian Open, tournament Director Craig Tiley spoke about the preparations, challenges, contingency plans and prize money.

Tennis Australia CEO Craig Tiley speaks to the media during a press conference at Melbourne Park   -  GETTY IMAGES

The last two years have tested Craig Tiley, the Australian Open Director, to the limits. If unprecedented bushfires had provided the season’s first Grand Slam with a sobering backdrop in 2020, it has been the turn of COVID-19 this time around. On the eve of the Australian Open, Tiley spoke to select media houses about the preparations, challenges, contingency plans and prize money.

Excerpts:

Q) In the week leading into the Australian Open we had a day’s disruption because of a positive coronavirus case. Are there contingency plans in place if there is a repeat?

A) Yes, we do. Unfortunately, we had one incident [on Wednesday] when players staying at one particular hotel had get retested. But over 500 players got tested and we were up and running. If something similar were to happen, we will have a similar action plan. We are not expecting any positive cases during the course of the next two weeks. In the event that someone tests positive, we have a very rigorous contact-tracing and testing process that can be done under 24 hours.

The only thing which could potentially lead to severe disruption is if there is significant outbreak of the disease and the government decides to shut everything down and put everyone under lockdown. That will be the only condition but we haven't forecasted that. We expect to run a great event with lots of fans.

We are fortunate to be living in a place where we are free of community transmission. In 2020, we had 830,000 people go through the gates at Melbourne Park. We hope to have half of that this year.

How did you boost the confidence of the players when they were in quarantine?

There was a big difference between the reality of the programme and the perception among players coming in. Some thought they could get out of the rooms and do their thing. I had five hours of meetings everyday with the players. Sometimes they were very challenging discussions. Players thought it was unfair that some were in the room and some were not.

This is always about everyone’s health and the proof is in the pudding. At the end of two weeks everyone has come out negative, they are playing, competing for over AUD 86 million in prize money [including warm-up events]. Their confidence came back over a period of time and they now know that we are going to pull this off, they are going to be a part of it and potentially make history.

Player earnings have suffered due to COVID-19. How has it been addressed?

Last year, there was AUD 71.5 million in prize money, and we kept it the same this year. We are going to run this even at a debt, a multi-million-dollar loss. [But] we have money in reserve and we are going to spend that. I think if we keep the momentum of the business going, we’ll be able to very quickly recover those funds that we lost.

Many of the players haven’t had jobs for months. In tennis, you rely on two things to be successful as a tennis event. You have to have international travel and mass gathering. You are going to have neither of those during a pandemic and players have not been able to make a living. So, we have done our best by offering the players the same prize money as 2020.

But the tournament winners will be earning nearly 30% less while the early-round losers will get more. Has there been any pushback from the top players?

For qualifying, we increased the prize money by 17%. First round prize money has gone up by 16%. So, if you lose in the first round, it’s AUD 100,000. We have significantly reduced the winners' prize money cheques, but players like Novak Djokovic, Serena Williams all agreed with spreading the prize money more evenly, providing the up-and-coming players an opportunity to earn more because it has been a difficult year. We think it's a great initiative and I have had zero pushback.

What's been your biggest challenge?

The uncertainty that the pandemic brings day in and day out. I wake up in the morning with a little bit of anxiety about what the day's going to bring. Our new challenge is about bringing the crowds onsite. But the biggest challenge is if something happens with the virus, how do you manage it? How do you contact trace? How do you hope to pull it off? There are certain things we can't control. What we’ll do is control the things we can.

(Watch Australian Open live on Sony Pictures Sports Networks from February 8, 5.30 a.m.)

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