The last two years have tested Craig Tiley, the Director of the Australian Open, to the limits. If unprecedented bushfires had provided the season’s first Grand Slam with a sobering backdrop in 2020, it’s the turn of COVID-19 this time around. Ahead of the Australian Open, Tiley spoke to select media houses about the preparations, contingency plans and prize money. Excerpts:
During the tune-up, we lost a day’s action because of a positive coronavirus case. Are contingency plans in place if there is a repeat?
A) Yes, we do. Unfortunately, we had one incident [on Wednesday] when over 500 players staying at one particular hotel had to get retested, but we were up and running quickly. We are not expecting any positive cases in the next two weeks. If someone does test positive, we have a very rigorous tracing and testing process that takes just 24 hours. We are fortunate to be living in a place that is free of community transmission. In 2020, we had 830,000 fans at Melbourne Park. We hope to have half of that this year.
How did you boost players’ confidence during quarantine?
There was a big difference between the reality of the programme and the perception among players. Some thought they could get out and do their thing. But no. I had five-hour meetings everyday with the players, some of them challenging. [But] this was always about everyone’s health and the proof is in the pudding. After two weeks, everyone has come out negative; they are playing, competing. Their confidence came back over a period of time.
The winners’ prize money is down 30% while early-round losers will get more. Has there been any pushback from the top players?
Qualifying prize money went up by 17%, first round by 16%. A first-round loser will get A$100,000 ($76,700). We have significantly reduced the winners’ cheques, but top players like Novak Djokovic, Serena Williams all agreed with spreading the prize money more evenly because it has been a difficult year. It’s a great initiative and I have had zero pushback. In 2020 there was A$71.5 million in prize money. We have kept it the same this year, despite being forced to run at a multi-million-dollar loss.
What’s been your biggest challenge?
Our new challenge is about bringing the crowds on-site. But the biggest challenge is if something happens with the virus, how do you manage it? There are certain things we can’t control, what we’ll do is control the things we can.
(Watch Australian Open live on Sony Ten 2 & Sony Six from February 8 at 5.30 a.m.)