Australian Open Organizers Hope the Drama Stays on the Court

Craig Tiley doesn’t sleep much. It’s a habit he picked up during three years of army training in his native South Africa.

But as chief executive of Tennis Australia and tournament director for the Australian Open, which begins Sunday at Melbourne Park, since 2006, Tiley finds that slumber is overrated and inconvenient.

“Maybe I get that sense of fear of missing out,” said Tiley, who was the tennis coach for the University of Illinois team that went 32-0 in 2003. “I always want to be up and around, especially when you’re under pressure.”

There has been no shortage of difficult situations for Tiley and the Australian Open over the last several years. Often lauded as the happy slam by players and spectators, the open, which has had memorable tennis over the years, as when Serena Williams won a three-set battle with her sister Venus in 2003, has taken hits that have threatened the relaxed atmosphere and the tournament itself.

“Unfortunately, the tournament’s been plagued by some very bad luck the last few years, said Rennae Stubbs, a Sydney native and former world No. 1 doubles player who is now a television commentator. “It’s been a bit of a disaster, and all of it completely out of the tournament’s control.”

Three years ago, wildfires filled the skies over Melbourne with smoke so thick that play was hindered and the tournament almost postponed. A year later, Covid-19 restrictions were so stringent that players were forced to quarantine in hotels, many unable to practice until days before the start of play. And last year an unvaccinated Novak Djokovic was deported before he ever got to hit a ball.

The extreme heat of the Australian summer is nothing new and has disrupted play in the past, as in the 110-degree temperatures that had players wilting in 2014. That year, Jo-Wilfried Tsonga and Caroline Wozniacki complained that their sneakers and water bottles were melting into the hard court. One player, Peng Shuai, vomited on court and another, Frank Dancevic, fainted.

In 2018, Simona Halep spent four hours receiving intravenous fluids at a Melbourne hospital after she lost an almost three-hour, three-set final to Wozniacki in the sweltering heat.

Djokovic accused the sport of not caring enough about the health of players. The tournament then updated its excessive heat policy that takes into consideration on-court temperatures, the strength of the sun, air temperature in the shade, relative humidity and wind speed. If certain thresholds are met, matches can be suspended and the roofs closed on the main show courts.

The intense heat helped spawn the 2020 fires. Some were so close to Melbourne that tournament officials considered postponing play because of the thick smoke and poor air quality.

Also that year, there were protests at the tournament, including by the tennis greats Martina Navratilova and John McEnroe over Margaret Court, the former Australian player, after she accepted an invitation to return to Melbourne Park to celebrate the 50th anniversary of her winning all four majors, called the Grand Slam, in 1970. The park’s secondary stadium was named after her in 2003.

Court, who holds the record for winning the most major singles titles with 24, is now a Pentecostal pastor in Perth and created a divide in her homeland because of her opposition to gay marriage. The tournament went ahead with its celebration of Court, but did not give her a microphone to speak to the crowd.

“When you get a stadium named after you, you have to understand that people who are walking through those doors may be gay, and insulting those people is totally unacceptable,” Stubbs said. “You are essentially an ambassador for our sport and for our country. You can think what you like but just don’t say it.”

The open signals the official start of a new season, which is one of the reasons players love it. Players are eager to show off new strokes, new coaches, altered bodies from hours spent in the gym during the tours’ brief off-season and new sponsored tennis clothing.

“Everyone’s coming from cold climates to the sun of the Southern Hemisphere,” said Mark Woodforde, who captured 12 doubles major titles, 11 of them with fellow Australian Todd Woodbridge. “They’ve had their holidays, are well rested physically and mentally, and they’re eager and excited to be back.”

That changed in 2021 because of the pandemic. Determined to hold the tournament in spite of heavy governmental restrictions, Tiley pushed back the start date to allow time to put players on chartered planes and have them quarantine for two weeks in hotels before they were allowed to compete.

Despite his efforts at creating a bubble to keep everyone safe, several people tested positive, prompting lockdowns with no time off to practice for many players. Some players even improvised their exercise routines by hitting tennis balls against shuttered windows and turning beds on their sides to serve as backboards.

Then last year, Djokovic created an international incident when he arrived in Melbourne unvaccinated — a breach of Australian protocols — and was deported before he was ever allowed to step foot on the court. The tournament was saved by some extraordinary on-court action, including championships by Rafael Nadal and the hometown hero Ashleigh Barty.

“It’s a real testament to Craig and his staff that, despite all the obstacles with Covid, they were able to put on the event the last two years while still playing by the rules,” said Rajeev Ram, who won the 2020 Australian Open doubles tournament with his partner, Joe Salisbury, and played for Tiley at Illinois. “It would have been easy to just say, ‘No tournament,’ but they got creative, and the players really benefited from that.”

Another reason the players refer to the open as the happy slam is because of the way they are treated.

“We design this event around having fun,” Tiley said. “Our whole mission and position is ‘playful premium.’”

For fans, there is an on-site beach, dozens of restaurants and bars, a field full of family activities and a water park.

Players are lured by grants to pay for their travel, even for junior competitors for the first time this year. They are also treated to a variety of medical services, including a new foot treatment area; new performance spaces, including three gyms, a preparation/recovery center and ice baths; and an area that offers a nutrition bar and mindfulness activities. There is also a beauty salon and on-site tax advisers.

“The environment they create is akin to the way Aussies treat people,” Woodforde said. “The tournament doesn’t ever say no to a request. They work hard to create a stress-free environment for everyone. They want people to say, ‘Do we have to go home?’”

Tiley said that Australians love their sport and entertainment.

“They would choose to invest in that before anything else,” he said. “That’s a great attribute to have from your fans when you’re in this business.”

After all the tumult of the last few years, Tiley is optimistic about a turnaround. By mid-December, he said, ticket sales for ground passes were up by more than 30 percent compared with last year. “We’re seeing this absolute pent-up demand for everything.”

“Our ultimate responsibility is to deliver a global tennis championship,” Tiley added. “These tournaments in London, Paris, New York and, of course, Melbourne, are massive entertainment events with multimillions in global audiences. At the end of the day, my job is to run the best event possible under the circumstances.”

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