Tennis Australia boss Craig Tiley pulled off a miracle in guiding the Australian Open to the finish line, but there will be no revelling in triumph.
If this is success, failure would have been unthinkable.
The veteran tournament director for the first time spoke candidly about his month of “torture” behind the scenes, finally letting his emotions show when he could see the finish line in sight ahead of Novak Djokovic’s victory over Daniil Medvedev in the men’s final on Sunday night.
Tiley admits juggling a global sporting event in the middle of a pandemic has taken a toll on him — particularly in the last six weeks.
Despite sleep deprivation, weight loss and incredible stress — somehow he kept the tournament from derailing.
Tiley told AAP exactly how brutal his 2021 has been after overseeing the arrival of tennis players and officials from around the world — with 72 players and their staff forced into hard lockdown in hotel quarantine for 14 days.
Tiley was able to have a laugh before the start of the Open where he revealed “bizarre” requests from players in lockdown, including for kittens and puppies to be allowed into the rooms of players completing their quarantine periods.
But he was not laughing when interviewed on Sunday.
Tiley said he received “significant” abuse when he continually spoke to players in lockdown via Zoom meetings.
“I got abused on the calls. It was significant,” Tiley said. “There were a lot of complaints about a lot of things, and some of it was fine. We were just trying to do our best.
“So I made a decision that was I going to front it and I was going to take the heat from everyone, not anyone from my team. But normally when you take heat, you take it once. This was 15 straight days. It’s like being attacked for 15 straight days, verbally.”
He says the routine abuse left a “heavy black cloud” over his Melbourne home.
His obstacles included the nightmare of a hotel worker testing positive for COVID-19 — forcing around 500 players and officials to isolate and get tested. All play at five ATP and WTA warm-up tournaments as well as the ATP Cup event featuring the world’s top players in Melbourne was cancelled as a precaution — just three days before the Open started.
The event was also pushed to breaking point when an emergency meeting of the Victorian cabinet announced a return to Stage 4 restrictions — a five-day lockdown that shut all fans out of the tennis in the middle of the event. It created the farcical scene of fans being kicked out in the middle of Novak Djokovic’s five-set thriller against American Taylor Fritz after the clock ticked over the 11.30 p.m. mark.
With crowds also hesitant to attend in the middle of a pandemic the total attendance was just 130,374 spectators — down from 812,174 last year.
Tiley has now admitted the event has wiped out Tennis Australia’s $63 million in cash reserves and will force the event to seek concessional loans.
This is what sport looks like in the middle of a pandemic. Despite the heavy hits, Tiley is declaring the event a success after it showcased Melbourne to the world.
Behind the scenes, there were times when it felt anything but a success.
The stress and abusive criticism from players forced Tiley to make the tough call to move his family — wife Ali, twin sons, 7, and daughter, 8 — out of the family home in Melbourne to a house on the Mornington Peninsula, south east of Melbourne.
“Because the stress was too much on the house,” he said. “It was too hard because I don’t think I was in a place to be effective when I was at home.
“So they left. I was at home by myself for probably seven, eight days. And I needed to be – I was getting hammered. If you’re getting hammered like that, it’s probably better that you don’t have people around you because I would have vented on someone else.
“They sensed there was a heavy black cloud over the house so they went and when everyone was out of quarantine and they started playing, they came back, and the kids went back to school.”
He explained his routine in the past six weeks has been leaving Tennis Australia’s HQ at Melbourne Park around 2 a.m., sneaking in 3-4 hours of sleep, before doing it all again.
He said he also had some periods of being awake for up to 50 consecutive hours.
“I think I calculated it was like a 50-hour window of staying awake. It’s like torture,” he said.
“Sleep deprivation is a form of torture.
“But it was my choice. I could have cut things off.”