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Christmas Comes Early For Craig Tiley As The Australian Open Tennis Gets The Go Ahead

Raphael Nadal with Australian Open director Craig Tiley in 2020.

By Alix Ramsay

It was the worst kept secret on record but, even so, it was Tennis Australia’s big news: the Australian Open will start on February 8 – it’s official!

After weeks and weeks of delicate negotiations, months of speculation and endless stalling, the news was finally released – officially – on Saturday. Unfortunately, TA’s thunder had been stolen by the ATP a few days before.

In that fabulous way that tennis has of coordinating the stream of information from the two tours, the four grand slams, the ITF and any other group with an acronym worth remembering, the ATP published its 2021 calendar (or the first bit of it at any rate), on Wednesday. And there, cemented firmly into February with a Monday the 8th start, was the Australian Open. Somehow, it didn’t seem fair.

It was like the fraught mum who has spent the past three months shopping for Christmas presents, hiding said presents to keep the mystery and the surprise alive, trying to remember where she hid them so that she can wrap them, hiding them again, decorating the Christmas tree, buying enough food to feed an army, preparing same and stashing it in the freezer while repelling the ravening hordes (otherwise known as the darling children) as they try to scoff the lot before the 25th – and all so that she can come down on Christmas morning, open a bottle of fizz and watch the delight in her little ones’ eyes as they see what Father Christmas has brought them.

But when she gets downstairs on the big day, the presents have all been ripped open, the lights on the tree have gone on the fritz and the other half has helped himself to a turkey sandwich and is sitting in his Santa underpants watching reruns of Mrs Brown’s Boys (the kids having long since retired to their rooms to message their friends). Really, it didn’t seem fair.

TA seemed to be taking it on the chin, though, as Craig Tiley, the AO Tournament director, made his announcement.

“For the first time in more than 100 years the Australian Open will start in February,” he said, “and we look forward to offering the players what we believe will be one of their best playing experiences in 2021.

“From the outset, ensuring players have the best possible preparation for the Australian Open, while at all times protecting the precious Covid-free environment that the Victorian community has built through incredible sacrifice and hard work over the past six months, has been paramount.

“It has taken eight months of working alongside government authorities, here in Victoria, nationally and interstate, to give us the opportunity to present an Australian Open that will play a major role in both the economic and psychological reinvigoration and rejuvenation of Melbourne and Victoria.”

The announcement played “a major role in both the economic and psychological reinvigoration and rejuvenation” of the players, too. They have been waiting – some less than patiently – to know if and when they can make their way to Melbourne and prepare for the first grand slam of the year.

In all, 1,100 people will be allowed into the country to be a part of the Open and all must complete the mandatory 14-day quarantine period. They will arrive from January 15 and will be released from their hotel rooms just in time for a week of utter madness before the Open begins.

From January 31 to February 6, there will be a new ATP 250 event held in Melbourne alongside the Adelaide event (which has now been relocated to Melbourne to keep the players safe and contained in one place). From February 1 to 5, there will also be a 12-team ATP Cup, again held in Melbourne. So, in theory, most people should get a competitive match or two in before the AO kicks off.

The women will also have two WTA 500 events running side by side in Melbourne from February 1 but they have also squeezed in an extra WTA 250 to be held in the second week of the Open. Again – and obviously – that will be in Melbourne. That means that those who fall in the first week have somewhere to play in the second.

And, for the record, the WTA had the good grace to keep all of their news quiet, officially at least, until TA had made their big announcement. The girls clearly have better manners than the boys.

The qualifying tournaments will be held overseas on January 10-13 with the men playing in Doha and the women in Dubai. That gives them a travel day to get from the Middle East to Australia before they are locked in their hotel rooms for a fortnight.

During quarantine, the players will be allowed out for five hours a day: two hours practice time on court, two hours gym time and one hour for “dining on-site”. It is far better than everyone’s worst fears but it still leaves 19 hours a day to fill with no one and nothing for company other than a Q-Tip to ram up your nose and send away for regular testing. But once it is over, the players will be free to stay where they want and go where they want: if they are proven to be bug-free, they can act as normal after the 14 days of misery.

In theory, then, the commitment in terms of both time and money made by the players to get to Australia should be worth it: there is plenty of tennis to be played by everyone in the three weeks once quarantine is over. And even if the lowly ranked but Covid-free hopeful takes a pasting in the first round of the Open, they will take home AUS$100,000 for their trouble, a 15 per cent increase on last year’s prize money.

So, what we have learned from this is that patience, persistence and a good dose of sheer bloody-mindedness does pay off: Craig Tiley has got his tournament up and running. And we have also learned never, ever to trust the ATP with a secret.