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How Craig Tiley came back from a tennis near-disaster


Controversy plays out

At the start of this year, it was unclear Craig Tiley would make his 10th anniversary as CEO of Tennis Australia (TA), the body that runs the AO and tennis more broadly in Australia. Coming after almost two years of lockdowns, including 260 days-plus in Melbourne, the triumphal arrival of world sport’s anti-mandatory-vaxxer-in-chief proved COVID’s final defining moment in Australia.

Wrong-footed initially by Djokovic’s cheery January 4 Instagram post that he was “heading Down Under with an exemption permission”, the Morrison government played the subsequent controversy like a pre-election fiddle. Djokovic, who’d refused to confirm publicly whether he’d been vaccinated, appeared to have obtained his visa on the basis that he’d recently had COVID-19, an apparent bending of the rules.

How Craig Tiley came back from a tennis near-disaster

Novak Djokovic arrives in the Serbian capital after his deportation from Australia. AP

The Victorian government, which had set up its own expert panel in addition to the TA panel that had cleared Djokovic on a blind application, was nowhere to be found.

Which just left TA and Tiley, who emerged blinking, pale as a cave salamander, into the spotlight. And it was unremitting in the fortnight leading up to the first 2022 match on January 17. Tiley was accused of misreading the trifecta: rules, politics, public sentiment.

The controversy had done “enormous damage” to the Australian Open and the country’s international reputation, former TA president Steve Healy declared, calling on Tiley and the board to explain themselves. In the doldrums of the early January news cycle, it seemed to be the only story around.

On January 5, the day after Djokovic’s Instagram post, Tiley insisted the world No.1 had met strict guidelines set by the Australian Technical Advisory Group on Immunisation (ATAGI). But a day later, a letter dated November 29 from health minister Greg Hunt was leaked, stating players had to meet ATAGI’s definition of fully vaccinated, which did not include prior infections.

How Craig Tiley came back from a tennis near-disaster

The crowd booed Tiley as he presented flowers to Samantha Stosur after she played her last career singles match. Getty

The TA board’s only statement came two weeks later, on January 18, two days after Djokovic was deported, supporting its under-pressure CEO while “deeply” regretting the distraction the saga had been for other AO players.

None of which satisfied those after a scalp. Scrutiny became so intense that by January 19, when Tiley broke cover to attend Sam Stosur’s final singles match – and was booed by the crowd – his refusal to resign became the story. As veteran Melbourne tennis writer Alan Attwood recalls: “The impression at the time was that he hadn’t handled it very well and there were thoughts it would be the end for him – not then necessarily, but quietly before 2023.”

And yet here he is, not quite nine months later, launching a 2023 Open designed as a comeback. The program targets the biggest AO crowd yet, 900,000. It does so via a “three-week tennis and entertainment extravaganza” – equal emphasis on both – starting with a new 18-nation mixed tournament, the United Cup, which will replace the ATP as the AO warm-up.

Craig Tiley on the cover of the December 2022 issue. Benny Capp

An audience of 900,000 would land AO between its record of just over 812,000 in 2020, and its longer-term target of 1 million fans to cement the AO as the biggest sports event in the world in January. To get those numbers, AO 2023 packs an array of tennis-plus baubles, including a two-storey Beach Bar, complete with DJ, private cabanas and a “spritz bar”, as well as a new AO Tennis Club featuring tennis and padel courts and particularly targeting kids.

All up, Tiley is looking to generate half a billion dollars in 2023, more than 2020, its most successful event financially, which managed $456 million, up from just over $387 million in 2019. “I think we are on target, but it’ll depend on a few things,” he tells The Australian Financial Review Magazine after the October 13 press conference, sitting in the big glass box that is the Tennis Australia boardroom overlooking Margaret Court arena. “If we go gangbusters with ticket sales, then we’ll get close, and we’d then be back to 2019 levels or 2020 levels.”

The AO has increasingly targeted other sources of revenue since 2015, when it realised capacity limits would put a top on ticket sales. One of Tiley’s first moves after being appointed CEO in 2013 was to bring in-house sponsorship, merchandise and media rights, previously handled by third parties, followed by the AO broadcast in 2015. From a quarter of total revenue in 2013, broadcast rights have risen to a third. Sponsorship and media rights tripled to 2020, while patron revenue more than doubled.

That revenue is particularly crucial now. When COVID-19 hit, staff chose a 30 per cent, six-month wage cut over layoffs. Nonetheless, the past couple of years have more than halved Tennis Australia’s reserves from $80 million to $30 million, though it is unique among grand slams, Tiley says, in having no debt. That revenue is central to the virtuous circle at the heart of Tiley’s role as CEO of Tennis Australia, which runs multiple events including the AO he directs, but also has broader responsibility to facilitate all levels of tennis in Australia.

Day two of the 2022 Australian Open outside Rod Laver Arena. Getty

The AO is not only the aspirational and inspirational platform for tennis in Australia, it is its cash cow. Meanwhile, TA feeds the AO pipeline of players and fans. Ash Barty and Sam Stosur, Nick Kyrgios and Alex de Minaur all grew up under Tiley’s reign, first as Tennis Australia’s development manager and then as CEO. And it was of course Barty, in addition to Nadal, who saved the show in 2022, providing a double header of sublime matches that washed away much of the bitter aftertaste of the Djokovic saga.

To traditionalists, the scale, and breadth, of the AO’s offering already indicated an insecurity about its core product, a broader dumbing down of tennis. It’s the sort of dismay that greets the gladiatorial shenanigans of Kyrgios (the id of Australian tennis to Barty’s superego).

“I’ve been with him outside the stadium and he gets absolutely swamped by kids,” Tiley says of Kyrgios. “He’s got this swagger about him that the kids like, which is not an arsehole swagger.” In 2022, that swagger had a new home – the looser, ampier Kia Arena, backdrop to Kyrgios and doubles partner Thanasi Kokkinakis’ famous chest bump of victory. Where the latter had urged the crowd to “sink piss and come here” after their quarter-final victory.

Nick Kyrgios, right, and Thanasi Kokkinakis celebrate their win over compatriots Matthew Ebden and Max Purcell in the men’s doubles final. AP

Tiley is enthusiastic about his new jumping castle for adults. “It’s a 5000-seat outdoor stadium built for an experience,” he says. “My whole vision was to make it like a bullfight arena, a place of unbelievable energy and partying. I wanted it to explode with energy.” You can see why cake-and-circuses matter, too, given the seismic generational change under way in the tennis world as marquee names that kept its fortunes aloft for a decade withdraw.

Federer, Serena Williams and Barty all announced their retirement this year. Even the Energizer Bunny, Nadal, shows increasing signs of mortality, from his rib fracture after March’s Indian Wells, and foot problems at Roland Garros in June, to his shock Paris Masters loss to the world No.31 Tommy Paul earlier in November.

It’s another layer to the “story starts here” slug line: an invitation to watch young Spanish genius 19-year-old Carlos Alcaraz as he tries to become the next Nadal; or Ajla Tomljanovic as she vies for Bartydom after her historic win over Williams at the US Open in September. “Young guns to lead the charge at AO 2023,” an AO 2023 media release trumpets hopefully.

But the AO isn’t just masstige. It does cake-and-circuses just as well at the premium end. Ralph Lauren signed on as official outfitter before 2021. This year’s premium culinary offering, which already included Penfolds Restaurant and Shane Delia’s Maha, will extend in 2023 to menus from Supernormal’s Andrew McConnell, Nomad’s Jacqui Challinor, Stokehouse’s Jason Staudt and fish king Josh Niland.

The premium shift, focused on Melbourne Park’s Centrepiece development, is the result of a 10-year strategy. “We have a very egalitarian approach to everyone being able to come in,” Tiley says. “But we didn’t really have a strong enough premium product. Since 2014 we’ve completely overhauled it, learning from the best in New York, LA, London.”

That overhaul has helped the AO gain ground as Melbourne’s other signature event loses speed. The Melbourne Cup obituary has been written with increasing frequency since Taylor Swift cancelled her appearance in 2019 after protests from animal rights activists.

Woke-minded fashion designers are steering clear of the Birdcage and David Jones has stripped references to horses from its catalogues, swapping out “racewear” for “eventwear”. The 2019 AO residency of fashion’s high priestess, Anna Wintour, a genuine tennis tragic who took a particular shine to the AO cheese sandwiches, seemed to underline the shift.

Aside from competing in 40-degree heat, no such animal-rights quandaries plague the Open. More broadly, too, the auguries for 2023 are fair. “We know there’s a huge pent-up demand for AO tickets,” says Tiley. “We hit a million dollars in the first six minutes when tickets went on public sale in October.” Premium sales, too, are already 30 per cent up.

Tiley says no sponsors sought a discount in 2022 or 2021, when AO had 50 per cent crowds and moved to February. “Every single one went with us on the journey, although some of our Chinese partners pulled back somewhat.” And every partnership, he says, has since been “uplifted”, including the AO’s longest-running partner, Kia, in its 21st year.

In May, Tennis Australia announced a nine-year extension to 2031 of its US broadcast partnership – TA’s biggest global broadcast deal yet. As this story went to press, too, Nine Entertainment, publisher of the Financial Review, was reportedly poised to sign a $500 million extension of its broadcast deal, giving it the rights to air the Australian Open tournament until 2030, a 66 per cent price increase on the value of the current deal.

Even before that story breaks, however, journalist Alan Attwood marvels at how completely the wheel seemed to have turned for Tiley since January. Rather than being finished, he says, “he seems to have more power than ever”.

In the car with Craig

The surprise of meeting Craig Tiley for the first time is his personability. He’s nothing like the faceless suit who only seemed to appear at the end of the AO to signal that the fun was over, if you noticed him at all; still less the grimly taciturn presence who seemed to melt like a candle before our eyes in January’s glare. At the morning press conference after the rehearsal, he addresses each journalist by name, as he does the staff who cross his path.

“I like people. I want to know about their lives,” he says when I ask him about his name recall. “Everyone has a story. That’s kind of like the tagline, the story starts here … I’ve always had a fascination with knowing other stories. Every friend I have is a best friend, you know?”

Craig Tiley: “I knew the narrative would start to change once the event got going. I learnt to have as much patience as possible.”  Benny Capp

It’s disarming. Before the interview, AFR Magazine is told Tiley has a scant hour before a flight. But as it expires, he volunteers to continue the conversation on the way to the airport, to which he drives in a Kia people-mover the sponsor would be mildly horrified to see. Papers covering every surface, debris crammed into every cranny, it’s somewhere between a travelling office and family van, mid-vacation. Tiley takes particular delight in depositing it kerbside at the Qantas Chairman’s Lounge parking lot, handing over the keys.

We’re also told the boss will be constrained in what he can say about January past. But he doesn’t baulk when it comes up. “It was difficult because you’re thrust into the spotlight,” he says. “I’m not a spotlight-seeker by personality. I’m interested in being with the staff and the people. For me, that’s really my fun factor.”

By January 17, the first day of the event and the day after Djokovic was deported, Tiley was staying in a hotel in town, having moved his family from their house, where media would be parked for 13 days straight. “I would generally get back to the hotel like 2am, 12 on a good night, and then be up between five and six. I flipped on the TV, when I got out of the shower, and it was the early morning news. All the politicians were on with commentary and my face was plastered all over the place and I thought ‘this is not going to be easy’.”

It’s what he did next that still seems to take him aback. “I turned off the TV and I thought, ‘I’m just going to do my best to deliver a great event these two weeks’,” he says. “I knew we would have the support of the players and the board and our stakeholders, because they’ll know what we did … I was surprised at myself because I can get intense and worked up quickly, but I was unbelievably calm.”

That became the strategy: steer clear of public debate, focus on the tournament, however dangerous the void left in the interim; wait for the players to bring the event home.

How Craig Tiley came back from a tennis near-disaster

“Craig has been always close to the players and that’s well known in the locker room,” says Rafael Nadal. “He had a vision and he definitely is making it happen.” Benny Capp

“The thing I learnt was, firstly, to keep your stakeholders close. We kept them all informed, the board, our partners, the players, the team and our members. I learnt that while you can’t always control what is happening, you do decide how you respond.

“I said that to myself every day: I have a choice. I can get angry, which was easy. I wanted to jump out and tell my version of the story. But who was going to listen … I chose not to do anything that would negatively impact the event, because I have a deep love for this event and I would sacrifice myself to ensure it not only survives but grows. And of course for the sport. I love the sport.”

The actual rights and wrongs of the situation remain unclear even nine months later. “Legitimately no one knew what was happening,” he says. “Things were changing, in real time. I’ve always said, ‘would we have preferred for it not to happen? Absolutely. Did we do everything we possibly could within the constantly changing conditions? Absolutely.’ I think what a lot of people forget is that Novak was cleared in a court proceeding and the then minister used his discretion to deport him.”

How Craig Tiley came back from a tennis near-disaster

Ash Barty on winning the singles grand final at this year’s Australia Open. AP

Former Morrison government sources say the federal health department advice – of which then-minister Greg Hunt’s November 29 letter was the third iteration – was clear, categorical and consistent. But leaked letters to and from TA in the lead-up to Djokovic’s arrival show real confusion prevailed over whether vaccine exemptions were a state or federal government responsibility.

One federal insider maintains the Victorian government was “playing a bit of a double game, saying they wanted consistency, but privately working to get Djokovic in without talking to the Commonwealth. They walked away and left Craig holding the baby”. By that logic, TA’s mistake was its December 7 advice to players that a recent COVID infection could qualify for an exemption from quarantine. But even that followed advice from Victorian Chief Health Officer Brett Sutton.

On the flipside, Djokovic definitely looked at the time like a beleaguered Scott Morrison’s equivalent of Tampa 20 years earlier. Interestingly, nine months on, Greg Hunt, while declining to comment on January’s events, does offer a defence – of Tiley.

“All things have to be considered in balance and my view, big picture, is that Tennis Australia did an extraordinary job of maintaining the Australian Open in 2021 and 2022,” Hunt says. “There should be credit and recognition for that.”

Which was the other thing Tiley learnt in January. “The third thing, and it’s interesting, was that I knew the narrative would start to change once the event got going. I learnt, as hard as it was, to have as much patience as possible.” He did a video message to staff, saying that while the drama has been difficult, people should not forget the difficulties of those who have suffered through COVID and lockdowns. “I said, ‘close your eyes and just picture the trophy being held up by a champion’.”

Champions bring it home

The transformational power of champions has always been central to his strategy for the Australian Open. Born in 1962 in Durban, South Africa, Craig Tiley picked up a racquet for the first time at 12. After studying economics at university, he completed compulsory military service (both, in a sense, handy training for his current role) before moving to the US to coach college tennis, taking the Illinois men’s team to the fabled triple crown of team, singles and doubles’ wins in 2003.

His rapport with players was why he was first recruited to the job as director of the AO in 2006. And attracting the world’s best players was integral to lifting up what was very much the fourth of the four international grand slams – after Wimbledon and the French and US Opens – to their equal.

The cosiness of those relationships, the lengths he goes to for them, may have looked like his Achilles heel in early January, but it was champions who brought it home for him a few weeks later. Not only did Nadal, a local crowd favourite in a way Djokovic has never been, win in an epic five-set comeback watched by 3.14 million viewers at its peak, the first thing he did immediately afterwards was throw his arms around the Tennis Australia CEO.

“From my personal experience and point of view, the AO has done an amazing job making themselves one of the most prestigious events in the world of sport,” Nadal later tells AFR Magazine. “Craig has been someone always close to the players and that’s not only me saying that but something well known in the locker room. He had a vision and he definitely is making it happen. We have seen a tournament that is always growing, getting better at all levels and that’s including the very difficult past years.”

Even Nadal’s January opponent Medvedev was unstinting in his praise for that circus’ ringmaster while continuing to deplore the crowd that had backed Nadal with one-eyed partisanship. “I want to thank Tennis Australia, especially Craig,” Medvedev said post-match. “I think tournament director is a tough job, and this year, you will be able to tell me if it was the toughest in your career,” he said.

It was 2022’s most interesting sidelight. Tested as never before, January ended up underlining the thing that has evened up the slams: the esteem in which the AO and Tiley are held internationally. “He’s somebody the tennis fraternity looks upon as one of ours,” says former player and Nine broadcaster Todd Woodbridge. “Tennis is his sport, it’s in his blood. He grew up playing, wanting to be a professional player. That didn’t come about and then he became a very renowned coach and then took it into the business world where he’s actually hit his straps.“

“When Craig took over, the AO ramped up to completely new levels,” Woodbridge says. “And that’s got to do with the rapport that he has with the players, but that comes because he was one of them, travelled with them, totally understands the requirements of a tennis professional.”

The sentiment is echoed by Naomi Osaka. “Craig is unique in that he invests a lot of time and energy getting to know the players and listening to us,” she tells AFR Magazine. “It’s probably the only slam where I feel like we as players have a true voice.”

Paul Annacone, who has coached Pete Sampras, Tim Henman and Roger Federer, says the AO is regarded as the most innovative of the grand slams due to Tiley’s ability to think outside the box.

“It’s old-fashioned spoiling,” Tiley says of the AO’s approach. “You come here and you can get your teeth seen to. We have a dentist on site. You can get your feet fixed; we have a podiatrist. We have a barber, so you can get a shave, and a hair salon, so you can go and get your hair prettied up. You can get transport, an ice bath, nutrition advice, massages. Whatever you want.

“It’s my wheelhouse. I’m a coach; I understand what players want and need. I’ve lived it. I mean, I first came to the Australian Open as a coach trying to get a can of balls, practice desk. I understand the difficulties. And I think in January that came back probably in spades.”

Destined for television

That last line is anything but casual. We are sitting in an AO boardroom clear of January juju. It’s a wet Melbourne day, but Tiley has survived, launched a new program that returns the AO to the trajectory on which he has set it over the past decade or so.

It seems a fair bet that Djokovic will be allowed in to play, but he’s made it clear he won’t be lobbying and has outsourced the vexed issue of visas to a third party. A new government is in power in Canberra and AO even has a new state minister, the impossibly junior looking Steve Dimopoulos, who has just told media at the presser that Victoria has the AO until 2046.

If the past couple of years have taught Tiley anything, however, it is never to count his grand slams before they hatch. “I never assume we’ve got it until 2046, because it doesn’t take much for your brand to be hammered,” he says.

“Little things, let’s say there’s a ban on flights. Let’s say the players decide to strike. Let’s say we make a bad decision, and the fans revolt and decide not to buy tickets, or there’s a significant war, that you can’t fly planes,” he says, referring to the bad old days, when the AO didn’t yet attract top-grade players.

“That’s why we are maniacally focused on having a great product, because it’s my belief that a great product can withstand global financial crises, can withstand social and medical crises. But you have to invest in it. So if it’s having a great player relationship, you just fill that jar up with benefits to the player relationship. And then if you’ve got to take some out, like we had to take some out in January, it goes down a bit, and you keep filling it.”

 Yesterday’s tennis heroes and the stars of tomorrow: Roger Federer, Serena Williams, Ash Barty; Ajla Tomljanovic, Carlos Alcaraz, Casper Ruud.

You could be forgiven, as Tiley ramps up for a 16th grand slam, for thinking January has now faded into the mists of endless COVID-19 nightmares, notoriously hard to recall or pinpoint. But it’s not quite over.

In the wake of the success of its Formula 1: Drive to Survive, Netflix has been filming a new series about the four grand slams. Its cameras were rolling, behind the scenes, through the drama that unfolded at the start of this year. Not the best year to be filmed, you might think, but Tiley, who has had a sneak peek, is characteristically sanguine.

“It’s going to be great,” he says of the series, which airs in January, and which will capture the city state that is Melbourne Park at the height of the crisis. “The producers are very happy with the access they’ve had and the stories that have been created … It’s going to be full of interesting behind-the-scenes stories we don’t often get to see.”

The December issue of AFR Magazine – including the jewellery special – is out on Friday, November 25 inside The Australian Financial Review. Follow AFR Mag on Twitter and Instagram.





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