MELBOURNE: Australian Open chief Craig Tiley said the Novak Djokovic saga will not define the 2022 tournament but that he regrets how the volatile situation took the focus off the Grand Slam and players leading up to the Melbourne Park major.
The 34-year-old Serb was deported from Australia after an 11-day rollercoaster involving two visa cancellations, two court challenges and five nights in two stints at an immigration detention hotel where asylum seekers are held.
Tennis Australia (TA) CEO Tiley, also tournament director of the year's first major, came under fire after Djokovic, who was not vaccinated for COVID-19, was told he could play at the Australian Open with a medical exemption.
The decision to grant nine-times champion Djokovic entry outraged many in Australia, which is battling its worst surge of infections and where the adult vaccination rate is more than 90 per cent.
The controversy completely overshadowed the build-up to the tournament but Tiley said his team deserved credit for managing to bring in over 3,500 participants from overseas amid the highly infectious Omicron variant.
"In the lead-in there was meticulous planning," Tiley told Reuters in an interview on Tuesday (Jan 25). "The one major challenge around the Djokovic situation doesn't define everything that went on because 99.999 per cent of everything was good.
"It has been very challenging and we're delivering an event in the middle of a very infectious strain. The tennis has been awesome. It's going to be a really good finish."
Multiple Australian news outlets called on the TA board to fire Tiley over the episode.
"I do have a regret and the regret I have is actually different," said Tiley, adding that he expected Djokovic to return in 2023. "The regret is the distraction that this whole scenario in this challenging environment created.
"We had over 500 players that were here, were ready to play and wanted the focus back on the tennis and wanted the focus to go back on them. We all wanted to move on and put that behind us so we can focus on the tennis.
"Of course there's going to be lessons that we can learn but we do that every year. We do a full review after the event which we'll do again this year. We'll see what we did well, we'll see what we could improve as we plan to 2023."
Tiley, who has since received public backing from the TA board, said he had no clarity on whether unvaccinated players would be allowed at the 2023 Australian Open as the pandemic continues to evolve.
Despite the damage to TA's reputation over the saga, he said there was no impact on the popularity of an event Roger Federer once dubbed the "Happy Slam".
"Nobody is bigger than the event and everyone needs to realise that," Tiley said. "The event has done extremely well under these circumstances. In fact, we're enjoying record breaking audiences in broadcast."