Craig Tiley has been on an impressive winning streak ever since he leveraged his role as Tournament Director of the Australian Open into an appointment as CEO of Tennis Australia. But evolving events during this pandemic suggest that he may be overplaying his hand.
“We will send a signal to the world that Melbourne is the events capital of the world, the sporting events capital of the world and the signal will be a successful Australian Open and successful events leading in,” Tiley boasted to reporters earlier this week. “There hasn't been a sporting event yet, in the height of the pandemic, that has brought in people and athletes to this extent.”
There hasn’t been a major sporting event in the height of the pandemic that has triggered as much controversy on the way to realization, either.
Let’s be straightforward about this. Everyone wants to see live tennis again. Everyone wants to delight in the sight of a Rafael Nadal down-the-line forehand and an Ash Barty sliced backhand. Broadcasters are hungry for content; reporters crave story lines; advertisers wish to showcase their wares. We all desperately want a return to normalcy. But things are going sideways Down Under.
The immediate problem isn’t the logistics of safely staging the tournament; Tiley and his allies in state government can unleash an avalanche of Covid testers and contact tracers. The burgeoning issue is whether or not the tournament can be staged fairly.
Tiley doesn’t seem concerned about that. That isn’t at all surprising.
Craig Tiley, speaking to reporters regarding the nearby bushfires before the 2020 Australian Open. (Getty Images)
Time and again, Tiley has shown that he will let nothing get in the way of his imperial ambitions for Tennis Australia and its premier tournament. His outfit dodged a giant bullet last year during the bushfires, when Tiley chose to ignore the universally embraced Air Quality Index—and pleas from players—and insisted that the daily decision about whether or not to play at Melbourne Park would be based on the advice, in Tiley’s own words, of “meteorological and air-quality experts onsite.”
Fortunately for Tiley and Co., a change in wind direction and temperature reduced the pollution to acceptable levels once the event was underway.
The plan to bring players and support staff who had been cleared by Covid testers to Melbourne for the delayed 2021 Australian Open (due now to start Feb. 8) via chartered flights turned out to be not so infallible. A number of passengers ultimately tested positive for Covid-19 upon arrival. and as a result more than 70 players, including stars Victoria Azarenka, Sloane Stephens and Roberto Bautista Agut, were ordered to remain confined in their hotel rooms for a 14-day quarantine period.
Bautista Agut told Israeli television channel Sport 5 that his hotel room felt like a prison, but with Wi-Fi. He added, “These people have no idea about tennis, about practice courts, no idea about anything. It’s a complete disaster because of that, because of the control of everything.”
It’s easy to understand the frustration expressed by Bautista Agut and others (under fire on social media, he walked back his comments a few days later with the familiar claim that his words were “taken out of context”). But such comments coming from tennis stars inevitably led to a backlash. Melbournians, and others, who had endured long lockdowns and the various ravages of the pandemic accused the pros of embodying entitlement. Somehow, their complaints about lockdown, lousy hotel food, and a lack of the promised training facilities for the lucky ones who avoided mandated and totalisolation did not generate waves of sympathy. After all, first-round losers in singles at the Australian Open will earn $100,000.
Charges of excessive favoritism shown to the game’s major stars also came bubbling to the surface when their peers learned that Nadal, Serena Williams, Naomi Osaka and Novak Djokovic (among others) were flown to Adelaide, where they were free to practice, theoretically under “bio-secure protocols.”
A video posted and since removed on social media by Osaka featured her entire four-person team at a practice site. None, including Osaka, was wearing a mask. Soon after his own arrival, Djokovic penned a letter to Tennis Australia asking, among things, that players be provided “decent food,” fitness and training materials in all rooms, and private houses with tennis courts in Melbourne for as many players as possible.
Like Bautista Agut, Djokovic followed up on social media, saying his intentions “have been misconstrued.”
Asked about the world No. 1's list of entitlements, Victorian Premier Dan Andrews was quick to reply, “The virus doesn’t treat you specially. So neither do we.”
Tiley seems unperturbed by this growing outcry over entitlement and preferential treatment. It’s partly because he has long hitched his wagon to the stars.
“They’re the top players in the world,” Tiley said of the lucky cohort in Adelaide. “My general rule is if you're at the top of the game, a Grand Slam champion, it’s just the nature of the business. You are going to get a better deal.”
Tiley and Andrews may have bigger problems than Djokovic’s wish list. There’s a potential controversy budding over the state of Victoria’s financial obligation to Tennis Australia, and over the disposition of those—and other—TA funds.
According to Reuters, TA officials have shelled out an enormous amount on the charter flights and quarantine-associated measures that, according to Tiley, could ultimately exceed A$40 million ($31 million USD). As tournament director, he added that a portion of the tab would be paid by TA’s longtime silent partner, the government of Victoria.
However, Victoria state police minister Lisa Neville denied that was the case, insisting that the bill will be entirely the responsibility of TA. She said, “The taxpayer is not contributing to the [Australian Open] hotel quarantine program.”
The lavish spending by Tiley has been coming under fire. ABC.net columnist Richard Hinds wrote of the tournament’s deference to the stars: “Emblematic of a sport in which the top players hold a disproportionate amount of power, the Australian Open will go into debt to pay for chartered flights, hotel quarantine and meals for even those players who could afford to buy the five-star hotels they will occupy.”
For decades, the government of Victoria has helped Tiley grow the Australian Open. It’s one of the main reasons the Melbourne Slam has become the state-of-the-art major, the only one featuring three stadia with retractable roofs. But to many, in and out of government, underwriting a glitzy sporting event during the pandemic seems increasingly unseemly.
Tiley doesn’t appear to see it that way. It seems clear that despite the pandemic, he’s still actively engaged in Grand Slam one-upmanship. He’s bent on surpassing what the USTA pulled off with its “double in the bubble”—having last year’s Western & Southern Open and US Open held at Flushing Meadows—and the French Tennis Federation accomplished when it allowed a limited number of fans to attend Roland Garros, even as the pandemic raged in Paris outside the walls of the compound.
Tiley is determined to “send a signal to the world.” Let’s hope that the message ultimately isn’t that the “Happy Slam” is also the “Unfair Slam.”