Uncertainty, Anxiety And Optimism: What It Is Like To Work In A Sport That Has Come To A Standstill - UBITENNIS
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Uncertainty, Anxiety And Optimism: What It Is Like To Work In A Sport That Has Come To A Standstill

From travelling the world for tennis to self-isolation with an uncertain future, Ubitennis sheds light on those in the tennis industry directly affected by COVID-19…

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Just three months ago tennis coach and tactical analyst Mike James travelled the globe providing his expertise on the ATP Tour.

 

The founder of Tennis Data company Sportiii Analytics is working with the team of former world No.1 junior player Miomir Kecmanović, who reached the semi-finals of the New York Open in February. James’ job is to provide relevant data to Kecmanović based on the matches he played and travelled to the Doha Open in January.

“The year started well. I was out in Doha with the team. Miomir made the semi-finals, he beat (Jo-Wilfried) Tsonga, (Marton) Fucsovics and it was a really good tournament. He lost to (Andrey) Rublev, who has been on fire this year,” James reflected.
“The last tournament I was involved with was Acapulco and he had a great win against Alex de Minaur before losing to the champion Rafael Nadal.’
“He has had a good year in the sense of making good progress with his development and analytical side.”

Relishing in his job on the Tour, it all started to come crashing down on March 9th. A date that triggered the beginning of the longest suspension of play in the history of modern tennis. In what had originally been thought to be a serious health threat in China alone, the coronavirus swept through the world in devastating fashion. It is no longer safe to travel to certain areas as experts continue to research into a remedy to contain the previously unknown virus.

In light of the serious health threat, it was only a matter of time before the global sport of tennis would suffer. At first Indian Wells was cancelled, then Miami, then all events until April and now the suspension has been extended to at least July 13th. Leading the lower ranked players anxious about how they will make ends meat over the coming weeks. Some have already returned back to studying and others have embarked upon the online coaching.

James isn’t a pro, but he is one of the hundreds of behind the scenes workers affected by the suspension. At a glance, some would think tennis starts and stops with the player, but there’s much more to that. There are their physios, coaches, hitting partners and so on. In most circumstances, if the player cannot generate any income, their support staff will not get paid. The exceptions are those making big money at the top.

“My role is predominately based on playing matches on the Tour. So when he (Kecmanović) is not playing, there is not too much for me to do,” James explained.
“I am doing a lot of work behind the scenes with the game development and helping support him. But obviously there is a limit to how far that can go when he is not playing.”

Leicester-based James is not immune to the hardship despite his credentials. His previous role was supporting Magnus Norman for team Stan Wawrinka and other players he has worked with include doubles specialists Ante Pavic and Tomislav Brkic.

Fortunately, he and other British coaches has been given a lifeline by the British government and their pledge to support self-employed people like him. Although in other countries, it is a very different situation.

“Tennis coaches, physios and players are a self-employed entity. So everyone has their own individual case,” he explains.
“I’m from the UK and our government has been amazing in supporting self-employed people and furlong 80% of my last tax return.’
“I’m doing some online consultancy and a few other things to keep me busy, but the reality is my main income comes from the professional Tour.”

From worldwide travel to virtually house confinement

James pictured with Magnus Norman (left) and Jonas Arnesen (middle)

Like most of the world, James finds himself in lockdown waiting for the pandemic to reach a point where he can soon return back to everyday life. When that will be is unknown. Coming to terms with the prospect of being told what you can and can’t do it tough for anybody regardless of their job.

Perhaps the biggest issue a person may encounter at this time is their mental health. In one survey conducted by the American Psychiatric Association, 36% of respondents have said the pandemic has had a serious impact on their mental health. These findings will differ between countries and even sports, but the issue remains very much a serious factor in all forms of life.

“Personally, I am going through positive and negative moments of emotion,” James commented on his own circumstances.
“The positive thing is that we are all in this together and the coronavirus is not discriminated against in any walk of life.’
“Originally when Indian Wells was cancelled there was a mini panic in my household. Everybody around me was saying why was I getting so upset and anxious. I was aware then that I could see into the future and the domino effect that could be happening.”

The tennis community appears to be uniting in order to support each other through these times. For example the top 100 players on the ATP Tour have their own WhatsApp group, but it is secret as to what they discuss. James himself is also seizing the benefits of technology.

“I’m over-communicating with everybody at the moment, I’m speaking on WhatsApp, Zoom, Houseparty and everything I can do to communicate with guys around the Tour,” he said.
“Everybody is trying to feed off each other in regards to what the Tour will look like when we come back. I think that will be down to the length of time the Tour is away will affect what the Tour looks like when it comes back.”

As to when the sport will come back, it is very much a case of the unknown. The United States Tennis Association recently published a statement saying they intend to host the US Open as scheduled later this summer. Something that former players such as Amelie Maureasmo and Janko Tipsarevic have doubts about.

James also shares the view that the current July deadline of tennis returning will not happen. At present there has been more than one million cases of COVID-19 worldwide, according to John Hopkins University. More significant for tennis, is that America is yet to reach its peak of the epidemic. A country that is currently scheduled to host no fewer than six ATP events between July-September.

“Do I think it (the tour) will be back on July 13th? No, because of the current situation. I think if it gets postponed until September and if the first tournament is the US Open, the issue with the tennis tour is that it can’t start back at 25 or 50 percent capacity with tournaments because it would affect the rankings too much,” he believes.
“The tennis tour has to start back fully – ITF’s, Challengers, main Tour. If that doesn’t happen then basically the Tour can’t start back. So my concern is maybe 2020 is now finished.”

The LTA lifeline

On Friday the British Lawn Tennis Association (LTA) announced a £20 million aid package to support players, venues and coaches around the country with the help of grants to players outside the top 100 (as long as they don’t have an existing governing grant). Britain has 11 male players in the world’s top 400, but only three of those are in the top 100 – Dan Evans (28), Kyle Edmund (44) and Cameron Norrie (77).

Support staff like James are also set to benefit from the scheme that aims to maintain the standard of British tennis throughout the ongoing crises.

“What the LTA did was unprecedented from any federation. I think it is an amazing gesture with them (the LTA) putting £20M back into the game. Supporting coaches with £4 million set aside. That will hopefully support somebody like myself, but I don’t know yet how much I could receive.”

It is understood that the ATP and WTA are also coming up with their own plans as to how they can help compensate players who have lost earnings. It is unclear as to if this will extend to anybody else working in the sport.

There is also another element to all of this. The Tour has been able to grow over the years due to their sponsorship deals, but with the economy taking a battering there could be more problems ahead.

“Tennis is a global sport and massively relies on sponsorship. From ATP 250s down. On the WTA side, it is even more. If there is a global meltdown the first thing companies stop doing is putting money in sponsorships. The longer this goes on, the more it will change the way the tennis tour looks.” James warns.

Light at the end of the tunnel

James pictured with Tomislav Brkic (left) and Ante Pavic (right)

Six weeks have already passed since the last ATP Tournaments were played. During the last weekend of February Nadal triumphed at the Mexican Open and Novak Djokovic was triumphant in Dubai. Undoubtedly those involved in the sport are now suffering mentally, physically and financially. But can it be possible that the devastating pandemic could have a silver lining for the future?

Tennis is a unique sport due to the way it is structured. No fewer than seven bodies are involved in the sport. Each with their own objectives and agenda. A situation that has previously proved problematic when it comes to reaching a mutual agreement. So it may be that COVID-19 ironically unites them once and for all.

“I want to say that it will be different for the better and I think if the organisations actually communicate and come together during this period and create more solidarity. I believe tennis could come out in a much better way,” James says with optimism.

So what could the future of the Tour look like? That depends on who you ask with various personalities in the sport having their own view. As for James, how the sport changes will depend on how long the Tour suspension lasts for.

“I think in regards to prize money, International travel, rankings, Tour structure that could all very well change. But this all depends on the length (of the suspension).” He said.
“If the whole year is written off there are a whole lot of people behind the scenes who have got to look at what 2021 looks like and how we get tennis back. Which is the most important thing.”

With people fighting for their health around the world, it all seems very trivial to consider what may happen to a sport in the coming weeks.

At the time of his despair, James does see the bigger picture. Whilst he resides at home, somebody close to him is in the midst of the covid-19 battlefield, providing him with a stern reality check.

“My wife is a nurse and they are on the front-line. The job they’re doing is unbelievable.” He said.
“I think I’m quite fortunate to be at home, safe and waiting for this to ride out.’
“You have to stay positive and over-communicate with people.”

ATP

Australian Tennis Great Passes Away Aged 83

Ashley Cooper is one of only 11 men in history to have won three grand slam titles within the same year.

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Women’s world No.1 Ash Barty has led tributes to multiple grand slam champion Ashley Cooper, who passed away on Friday.

 

Cooper was one of the sports best players in the years leading up to the birth of the Open Era. He was declared the world’s best amateur player in 1957 and 1958. It was during 1958 where he really stood out by winning three out of the four major tournaments within the same season. Something only 10 other players in the history of men’s tennis have been able to achieve. Cooper also achieved success in the doubles by winning another four grand slam titles. In the Davis Cup he led Australia to a 3-2 victory over America in the 1957 final.

Whilst his achievements occurred during the 1950s, Cooper did sort of have a taste of what it was like to place in a major event during the Open Era after featuring in the main draw of the 1968 French Open. He progressed to the second round after his opponent retired before withdrawing from the tournament without playing a single point.

After retiring from the sport, he maintained his links with tennis. Working alongside Tennis Queensland with their player development and was on the Board of Directors for Tennis Australia.

“Ashley was a giant of the game both as a brilliant player and an astute administrator and he will be greatly missed,” said Tennis Australia CEO Craig Tiley.
“His contribution to the sport went far beyond his exploits on the tennis court. His rich legacy includes the magnificent Queensland Tennis Centre, a project he was passionate about, nurturing the development from the very beginning, and resulting in the return of world-class international tennis to Brisbane.”
“Ashley was also the most humble of champions and a great family man. Our hearts go out to his wife Helen and his family, along with his wide and international circle of friends, including so many of our tennis family.”

Paying her own tribute, French Open champion Barty took to Twitter to send her sympathy to Cooper’s family. Last year she was presented with the Ashley Cooper Medal at the Queensland Tennis Awards. The highest individual honour that can be issued by the organisation named in after the tennis great.

Rod Laver, who is one of Australia’s greatest tennis players of all time, described Cooper as a ‘wonderful champion’ in his tribute.

“So sad to hear of Ashley’s passing. He was a wonderful champion, on and off the court. And what a backhand! So many cherished memories. Farewell my friend. My thoughts are with Ashley’s wife, Helen, and his family.” Laver wrote on Twitter.

The have been no details released on the exact cause of Cooper’s death, but it has been reported that he has been battling ‘a long illness.’ He was 83-years-old.

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Stefanos Tsitsipas Hails Laver Cup Participation Days After Jibe From Nick Kyrgios

The Greek tennis sensation said he was left feeling ‘emotional’ when selected to play in the three-day event last year.

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Reigning ATP Finals champion Stefanos Tsitsipas has labelled the Laver Cup as his favourite tournament due to the ‘magical’ feeling of playing alongside some of the sports greatest ever players.

 

The 21-year-old has praised the team competition less than a week after he and his European team mates was criticised by Nick Kyrgios. Who has played in all three editions of the event since its birth that sees Europe take on the rest of the world over three days. During an Instagram Live chat with Andy Murray, a slightly intoxicated Kyrgios said his rivals had ‘no banter’ before going on to take a swipe at the friendship between Tsitsipas and Alexander Zverev.

“I am there with my best buds, trying to beat some European guys who have no banter, don’t give one-eff about each other and act like they care for one week which p*sses me off,” the Australian ranted.
“Let’s be honest, (Stefanos) Tsitsipas and (Alexander) Zverev hate each other, then they are besties all of a sudden…p*ss off.”

Tsitsipas, who has lost both of his matches against Kyrgios on the ATP Tour, didn’t directly address his rivals comment during a recent interview with Eurosport. However, he did speak about his enthusiasm for the event which has been scrapped from this year’s calendar due to the COVID-19 pandemic. Tsitsipas made his Laver Cup debut last year in Geneva, where he won two out of three matches played. He played in two doubles matches alongside Roger Federer and Rafael Nadal.

“My favourite tournament is the Laver Cup. I love the vibes at the Laver Cup, we were all so connected, we came into the tournament as a union, trying to represent our continent and it just felt magical to be on the same team as Roger [Federer] and Rafa [Nadal],” he told Eurosport’s Hanging out with Babsi.
“I got to play doubles with both of them and it was a great experience for me. It was a dream come true for sure. As a child, I would never have dreamed the Laver Cup would ever happen – a competition between Europe and the Rest of the World – I would never think that would be possible but it happened and I got to be part of it. I got invited which was such an honour.”

Elaborating further the world No.6 said he felt ‘emotional’ when he was selected to play. Team Europe won the 2019 event for the third year in a row with a score of 13-11.

“Playing for your country is one thing, but playing for Team Europe – if you just sit down and think about it – you are among the best European tennis players. You get to be chosen as one of the top tennis players to play for your continent. That makes you feel very emotional.” He added.

After being postponed this year, The Laver Cup is set to return in 2020 in the American city of Boston.

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‘Money Talks’ – John Millman Issues Stark Warning Over Resumption Of Tour

The world No.43 has said the coming weeks will show if tennis bosses are willing to put money ahead of health.

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Australian tennis star John Millman has said the decision to start professional tennis at some stage will be an indicator as to if tennis’ governing bodies are willing to put money ahead of players’ health.

 

The WTA, ATP and ITF Tour’s have all been suspended since March due to the COVID-19 pandemic with officials hoping they will be able to resume the sport during August in North America. Meanwhile, the United States Tennis Association (USTA) are still hoping to stage the US Open later this year with a final decision expected to be made during June.

However world No.43 Millman believes the idea of starting the sport again in August is too soon given the global reach of tennis which requires players from all over the world to gather in one place. It is also unclear how the various travel restrictions would impact the Tour. Despite his concerns, Millman fears that money will be the decisive factor.

“I feel as if it is probably way too early to get back into it or even thinking about returning in August,” he told the AAP.
“Indian Wells, the last tournament we were meant to play, was cancelled because there was one case in the region. It is a bit of a contradiction if they say come August ‘there are cases around but you guys can travel and play some tennis’.
“But money talks at times and our hand could be forced, unfortunately.
“What is more important – money or the health of not just yourself but the community?” he added. “We will see what is tennis’s priority.”

Despite his own reservations, the former grand slam quarter-finalist feels that his fellow competitors may have no choice about returning should the Tour get a green light. Unlike team sports with contracts, tennis players are essentially self-employed. Therefore the majority of them, especially those outside the top 100, solely earn money from prize money generated from tennis tournaments.

“Unfortunately, when the tour says we are back playing your hand is forced a bit because it is your career at stake.

As to when the 30-year-old would be happy to return to the Tour himself, he said that he will need to be certain that it is safe to do so first. America, which is where tennis officials are hoping to start the sport, has more infections of COVID-19 than any other country in the world. An estimated 1.5 million Americans have tested positive for the virus which has resulted in 91,000 deaths.

“Players would have to be coming from places where the virus isn’t there any more and going to tournaments where the virus isn’t there any more,” he said. “For that to happen on a global stage, I think we are a fair way off that.”

Millman has reached two ATP Finals so far in his career and earned more than $3.6 million in prize money.

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