Newcombe questions TA board’s role in Djokovic saga

Australian tennis legend John Newcombe has questioned the absence of the Tennis Australia board and its apparent lack of support for chief executive Craig Tiley during the Novak Djokovic visa crisis, as the organisation also deals with an exodus of senior staff.

Newcombe’s comments came as former TA president, Steve Healy, called on current president Jayne Hrdlicka and her board to explain any dealings they had with Djokovic during the saga and said the organisation’s members must consider Hrdlicka and the board’s future.

Deported: Novak Djokovic leaving Melbourne’s Park Hotel immigration detention on Sunday. Credit:Luis Ascui

Healy, who chaired TA between 2010 and 2017, said the debacle had done “enormous damage” to the Australian Open and the country’s international reputation, and it was incumbent on the board and chief executive Craig Tiley to explain themselves.

“If I was the chair at the time, given the enormous reputational issues and potential for damage, I would have regarded that as a critical matter for the board to be aware of and very much involved in,” he said.

“Surely the board were aware of this? They should have been. It’s such a large reputational risk, not just in terms of the tournament but the relationship with government. If it’s just been run by management, I’d say, why weren’t the board involved?”

Healy, a lawyer and former partner at Dentons, acknowledged he did not have all the information about what happened but said it appeared clear that letters from Federal Health Minister Greg Hunt to TA indicated Djokovic did not have a right to enter Australia.

Credit:Matt Golding

“What happened to those letters, where did they go? The Victorian Government says they didn’t see them. That’s pretty fundamental.”

Asked whether Hrdlicka should resign as chair or Tiley as chief executive, Healy said that was a question TA members needed to ask themselves. “They’re the ones with the power to do that. There’s an enormous amount of damage done to the tournament and to our reputation worldwide,” he said. “The members have got to review what’s happened.”

Healy, after finishing his TA presidency , was cleared in 2019 of any wrongdoing by the Federal Court after the Australian Securities and Investment Commission issued charges against both he and former board member Harold Mitchell regarding a broadcast deal in 2013 for the Australian Open rights.

Newcombe, one of the most influential figures in Australian tennis history, backed Tiley’s handling of Djokovic’s visa, but suggested that the board – silent since it became a political issue – should have been involved in a matter that involved the Prime Minister and Premier of Victoria.

“I support Craig 100 per cent,” said Newcombe, a three-time Wimbledon champion, former world No.1 and Australian Davis Cup skipper. “But I wonder why people who are above his pay grade in Tennis Australia were not there [to support Tiley] during this.

“This was above just tennis players. This was to do with the Prime Minister and the Premier of Victoria … I wonder why he wasn’t really supported.”

Tennis Australia’s nine-member board – a mix of representatives from the states and business figures – is chaired by Virgin Australia chief executive Hrdlicka, who has not commented on the Djokovic controversy.

While there have been calls for Tiley to be removed from his position – he is both chief executive of TA and tournament director of the Australian Open – Newcombe said the criticism “was very unfair”.

Newcombe said the responsibility for the situation lay with Djokovic. He said that while the Serbian president had said Roger Federer and Rafael Nadal would not have been treated this way by authorities, “Federer and Nadal would never have been in that position”.

“It was humiliating for him in the end,” Newcombe said of Djokovic.

He added that Tiley had a “tough job getting all this together”, but predicted that the Djokovic affair would be forgotten soon. “Get in to the second week of the Open, all of this will be old news.”

Newcombe said the suggestion that this episode would undermine the Australian Open’s position and the tournament’s grand slam stature was “absolute bulldust”.

“Tennis is bigger than any one player. Donald Bradman came and went and Babe Ruth came and went.”

The stress of running two Australian Opens in the midst of a pandemic has led to a significant turnover in senior personnel at Tennis Australia, The Age has confirmed.

At least three executives reporting directly to Tiley, in charge of finance, marketing, revenue and tennis and participation have left in the past 12 months, or have signalled they will be resigning.

Other senior personnel in areas including government affairs, biosecurity, revenue and media strategy are among those to leave.

One former executive, who did not wish to be identified, called on the TA board to institute a “full, independent cultural review” based on an exodus of senior personnel.

“The Djokovic drama is a small window into the soul of the business and its poor operations,” the former senior staffer said.

Tennis Australia has been contacted for comment.

Darren Cahill, who has coached three players to the world’s top ranking, also said the TA board deserved scrutiny for their handling of the matter.

“I think a lot of responsibility sits with the Tennis Australia board. I would hate to see Craig Tiley have it all lumped on his shoulders,” he told Channel Nine.

“And, from there, that has kind of been our government for the last couple of years. The state government is not talking to the federal government. Did the federal government grandstand here and try to make the most of the opportunity?

“Then, in the end, I actually started to feel sorry for Novak. I just think it was a complete and utter mess.”

But Cahill did say that he did not believe an exemption process should have been instituted in the first place.

“I hated the exemption that he had because I think that exemption is really for people who want to get vaccinated and can’t get vaccinated because they have contracted COVID in the last three or six months, and Novak never wanted to get vaccinated,” he said.

“If you have an acute medical illness, or something that holds you back from getting it, no problems. I didn’t like the whole thing from the start. I think it was a mess from the start, and then it just got worse and worse and worse.”

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