Craig Tiley ready to help becalmed SA tennis

Craig Tiley (AP)
Craig Tiley (AP)

Cape Town - Craig Tiley, whose blueprint to revive South African tennis to the halcyon levels of the 1960s and 1970s was rejected as "too ambitious" and not financially viable by Tennis South Africa in 2003, is ready to help revive the sport in the country.

The Durban-born, former South African Davis Cup captain, who as tournament director and more latterly CEO of Tennis Australia, has been the driving influence behind the meteoric rise and success of the Australian Open for the last 10 years.

Educated at the Bryanston High School in Johannesburg, Tiley says the welfare of South African tennis remains "close" to his heart and he is ready to assist in any way possible to resurrect the glory days of the past.

"It hurts to see South African tennis in the doldrums," he added, "particularly as all the facilities and young talent exist in abundance, with a strong tennis following judging by the huge interest at international level in ATP and WTA tournaments."

In the recently-completed Australian Open, the 55-year-old Tiley's acclaimed success story continued from strength to strength with a record attendance of over 720 000, prize money in the region of R500 million and accolades from top superstars like men's singles winner Novak Djokovic and women's runners-up Serena Williams that he is one of the best, if not the best tournament director in the world.

In contrast, the once-booming South African Open is not going anywhere. Indeed it no longer exists in spite of suggestions that TSA should run the event on a modest basis to maintain what should be an indelible tradition.

This week in an interview from Melbourne, Tiley gave unequivocal support to this approach, proclaiming "you've got to start somewhere."

"I am aware of the difficulties that exist, particularly in securing much-needed  financial backing," he added, "but obstaclemsare there to overcome and it’s sad to see South African tennis falling behind when the sport is booming internationally."

Ironically, 35 years ago the roles were reversed as far as South African and Australian tennis were concerned, with the doyen of local promoters, Owen Williams, having taken the game to such great heights at a thriving Ellis Park that he was plotting the possibility of highjacking the Grand Slam status from a struggling Australian Open.

Williams accepted a lucrative position with oil tycoon Lamar Hunt's World Champion Tennis organisation, immigrated to the United States and systematically South African tennis began its descent into limbo.

Could Tiley have been another Owen Williams? It's open to conjecture.

But his success in Australia is evidence that a great opportunity was missed.

In 10 years as Australian Open director, Tiley has established the event as the biggest annual sporting tournament in the Southern Hemisphere.

"To kick-start the process,” he says, "it is imperative for South Africa to stage a world-class event that attracts top players and interest round the globe."

Tiley's proviso is tinged with bitter irony in view of the fact that the ATP-sanctioned South African Open, which was revived for three years in 2009 after more than a decade and made encouraging progress at the Montecasino Entertainment Complex in Johannesburg, was again allowed to go out of existence.

"A successful, high-profiled event drives widespread interest," says Tiley. "This is converted into growing participation in one way or another. In this way the support  mushrooms and grows.

"This needs government and private sector support," added Tiley, "but the message must be brought home that the long-term benefits more than justify any investment . 

"The Australian Open benefits the state of Victoria alone to an annual amount of R3 billion. 

"It is essential to think big and act boldly. The Australian Open is not only the springboard for creating tennis. It also plays a big part in promoting the country as a tourist venue."

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