AO Boss: Why we couldn’t let COVID beat us

 

We got there.

Would we do it again? Good question.

Our team did it for the players, our sport, the community and for sports fans here and around the world.

Yes it was hard, but anything worthwhile is.

We wanted to send a signal to the world that - amid the height of the pandemic - you can successfully stage a global sporting event

We got there.

Would we do it again? Good question.

Our team did it for the players, our sport, the community and for sports fans both domestically and around the world.

Yes it was hard, but anything worthwhile is.

We wanted to send a signal to the world that - amid the height of the pandemic - you can successfully stage a global sporting and entertainment event, ie, our industry can live on.

From the outset, we also had some other objectives:

* Develop a modified quarantine program to enable every athlete to play

* Grow the confidence and morale of the broader local community as well as the international sporting community

* Boost the local economy

* Deliver a summer that is safe for all involved

As far as logistical exercises go, this was an absolute behemoth involving a myriad of vital stakeholders. A year of working with players, agents, the tours, our broadcast and sponsorship partners, suppliers, multiple agencies and departments within various governments and ultimately working hand in glove with the Victorian Government throughout.

 

In the end we ran a couple of qualifying events in the Middle East, connected about 1000 people (players, coaches, staff) with 17 charter flights, got them into four hotels (one in Adelaide) and a two week modified quarantine, transporting back and forth a training bubble at Melbourne Park, and a similar set up in Adelaide. Then we ran an exhibition, six lead-in events, a Grand Slam, another WTA event in the second week of the AO and helped them all get home, other than those going to the last event of the summer in Adelaide.

THE SETBACKS ROLE IN

Having three flights locked down and confined to their rooms sent our back up plans into overdrive as we sourced more exercise bikes, treadmills, stretch bands, free weights, coffee machines and a range of other items. As you would expect, some of the players and coaches struggled to adjust. Our solution was simply to try and look after them, communicate as much as possible and work harder. When another challenge presented itself, we would just work harder again to solve it, then explain any ramifications as quickly as possible.

We ended up doing around five hours a day of video conference meetings with groups of players and staff on the affected flights, finishing each night with an optional call for all players. At times that involved more than 450 players and coaches on a call, including executives from both tours and even the occasional appearance from Roger Federer.

 

No question was off limits and there was plenty of robust discussion. But we wanted to address all concerns and give as much certainty as we could, as soon as we could. The world was watching how we were doing this, how the players were coping. Wondering what would happen next.

There were long days, long nights. For me there were a few all-nighters. One back to back. Same for a lot of our team, our contacts in government agencies, our partners, broadcasters, tour and player reps. We'd all worked so hard, come so far. We were just not going to let this thing beat us.

After quarantine the challenges didn't abate. There were people on site with symptoms, tests taken, followed by the relief that comes with a negative result. The emotional ups and downs were relentless. The false reports, false positives, false rumours and a seemingly endless stream of speculation and commentary never ended.

THE WORST MOMENT

Then, just days out from the Slam, things truly looked grim. It was probably the first time we really thought we might not make it. We got news a quarantine worker tested positive and that we would have to completely shut down the site and mobilise the entire playing field to immediately get tested. Overnight we puts plans in place, established testing stations, advised players of their timeslots and sorted transport. They were amazing. En masse, they rolled up and all got tested, without exception, for what must've been about the 15th or 16th time.

So began the seemingly interminable wait for more than 500 results to roll in. Slowly they started to come … 130 … all negative … up to 245 negative, 320, still all negative, 389, 445 … finally, all in…. negative. We got to continue on.

Australian Open tennis players were forced into lockdown after arriving
Australian Open tennis players were forced into lockdown after arriving

SNAP LOCKDOWN

Nearly a week into the AO, just as we started to get momentum, the speculation started about the entire state going into lockdown. We watched and waited for the phone to ring. Hoping against hope, the call from the Government wouldn't come. Alas, it did. Then the Premier's press conference. We had to switch gears. Move to our broadcast-only scenario. Dress the stadium. Adding cameras and audio to the pictures we were sending out to the world.

What we learned is that no matter how well you plan, the public health environment is volatile and will change … week by week, day by day … even hour by hour. The only counter is to have more flexibility than you can have ever imagined and be ready for a 24-7 effort.

When the quarantine ended and yes there were a handful of positive tests and unfortunately three plane loads of people went into hard lockdown. But the community remained protected. The players remained protected. The majority got to practice and play matches in preparation. Yes the hard lockdown was a giant challenge for the 72 players. Yet still Jenn Brady emerged and made the final. Barbora Krejcikova and Rajeev Ram won the mixed doubles and both made their respective doubles finals. Along the way, the AO and all who attended were kept safe.

WHAT WE TAKE FORM ADVERSITY

We will all learn lessons from it. Lessons on selflessness. Not to take things personally. Resilience. Work ethic. But most importantly, we managed to keep tennis and the Australian Open alive in the hearts and minds of the next generation of great athletes and fans.

So again, knowing what we know now, would we repeat it next year? Hopefully, we won't have to. But if necessary, yes, a thousand times yes. Now we are even better prepped.

We wanted to show the world what we could do.

Australian Open tennis players return to the View Melbourne in Albert Park
Australian Open tennis players return to the View Melbourne in Albert Park

After the tough start we had, the positive feedback has been energising for the entire team. The players have been glowing. There has been praise from global sports bosses, heads of governments, business leaders, celebrities, elite athletes from a variety of codes and many past and present greats in our own sport.

But the one that will resonate for us all was from Rod Laver.

"You make me proud to be an Australian. I wish I could have got there to experience history."

Upon reflection, maybe this event will go down as one of the most historic. Ironic, given it was probably never supposed to happen.

Originally published as AO Boss: Why we couldn't let COVID beat us


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