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…
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
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
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.”
Miami Open Daily Preview: Elena Rybakina Plays Jessica Pegula in the Semifinals
Due to rain on Wednesday, only one WTA semifinal will be played on Thursday.
Elena Rybakina is just two wins away from completing the “Sunshine Double,” which is winning both Indian Wells and Miami. But in Thursday’s WTA semifinal, American No.1 Jessica Pegula stands in her way. The other semifinal is still to be determined, and will not be played until Friday, as Petra Kvitova and Ekaterina Alexandrova will contest their rain-delayed quarterfinal on Thursday.
Meanwhile, the ATP quarterfinals will be completed on Thursday. Indian Wells finalist Daniil Medvedev faces American Chris Eubanks, who has been the breakout story of this tournament thus far. Also, Karen Khachanov takes on Francisco Cerundolo, who is vying for his second consecutive semifinal in Miami. And delayed from Wednesday night, Carlos Alcaraz battles Taylor Fritz in another ATP quarterfinal.
You can find a preview of the Alcaraz/Fritz and Kvitova/Alexandrova quarterfinals in yesterday’s daily preview here.
Each day, this preview will analyze the two most intriguing matchups, while highlighting other notable matches on the schedule. Thursday’s play gets underway at 1:00pm local time.
Chris Eubanks (Q) vs. Daniil Medvedev (4) – 1:00pm on Stadium
Medvedev leads the ATP with 26 wins this season, as well as with three titles. Daniil has not dropped a set to this stage, though he’s only played two matches thus far due to a walkover earlier this week.
Eubanks has already won six matches this fortnight after coming through qualifying. And the 26-year-old achieved a career goal of breaking into the top 100 with this quarterfinal run. Chris became emotional on-court after clinching that feat on Monday, and followed it up with another upset the next day, over Adrian Mannarino. The American is projected to become ranked 85th in the world on Monday, but a win on Thursday would propel him into the top 60.
In their first career meeting, of course the self-proclaimed “hard court specialist” Medvedev is a strong favorite. But I’m quite interested to see how Eubanks performs in the biggest match of his career. During a rain delay on Monday, Frances Tiafoe provided Eubanks with some advice in the locker room, which Chris credited with helping him come back in the second-set tiebreak once play resumed. He’s played more freely since that comeback, and Eubanks may feel as if he has nothing to lose on Thursday.
Elena Rybakina (10) vs. Jessica Pegula (3) – Not Before 8:30pm on Stadium
Rybakina is 20-4 this season, and is currently on a 10-match win streak. If her 2,000 points from winning Wimbledon last summer counted, she’d currently be ranked third in the world. Elena easily dispatched of Martina Trevisan in the last round.
Pegula is 19-5 on the year, and 10-3 in Miami. This is her second consecutive semifinal at this event, and she’s the No.3 player in the world without Rybakina’s Wimbledon points counting. She saved multiple match points to come back and defeat Anastasia Potapova during Tuesday’s quarterfinals.
Pegula is 2-0 against Rybakina, with both matches taking place on hard courts during 2022. A year ago at this same tournament, Jess prevailed in straight sets. And last fall in Guadalajara, Pegula outlasted Rybakina in a final-set tiebreak, another match in which the American saved multiple match points. As confident as Elena currently is, with her big serve and groundstrokes dictating play, it’s hard not to favor the reigning Wimbledon champ. But based on their recent history, as well as Pegula’s rising confidence after saving match points in the last round, I give Jess the slight edge in Thursday’s semifinals on home soil.
Other Notable Matches on Thursday:
Francisco Cerundolo (25) vs. Karen Khachanov (14) – Cerundolo was in danger of falling out of the top 40 with an early loss in Miami, defending the best result of his career at this level, but has impressed by returning to the quarterfinals, defeating Felix Auger-Aliassime on the way. Khachanov upset Stefanos Tsitsipas in the last round, and is looking to reach his first Masters semifinal since 2019. Last summer in Canada, Karen defeated Francisco in three sets.
Thursday’s full Order of Play is here.
Miami Open Daily Preview: Indian Wells Champs Carlos Alcaraz and Taylor Fritz Collide
On Wednesday in Miami, 2023 Indian Wells champion Carlos Alcaraz faces 2022 champ Taylor Fritz for the first time.
Alcaraz is just three wins away from defending his Miami title, which he needs to do in order to remain World No.1. Wednesday’s other ATP quarterfinal sees Indian Wells semifinalist Jannik Sinner take on Emil Ruusuvuori, who is the first Finnish quarterfinalist at a Masters 1000 tournament in a decade.
In the WTA singles draw, Aryna Sabalenka and Petra Kvitova are one round away from a big-hitting semifinal. But first, they must get past Sorana Cirstea and Ekaterina Alexandrova, respectively.
Each day, this preview will analyze the two most intriguing matchups, while highlighting other notable matches on the schedule. Wednesday’s play gets underway at 1:00pm local time.
Ekaterina Alexandrova (18) vs. Petra Kvitova (15) – Not Before 7:00pm on Stadium
Kvitova is 14-5 this season, and has now reached the quarterfinals of both Indian Wells and Miami this month. Petra has also now advanced to the fourth round or better of this event for the fifth straight time, and has not dropped a set this fortnight.
Alexandrova had a losing record this year before arriving in Miami. She defeated Belinda Bencic two rounds ago, and advanced in the last round after Bianca Andreescu’s upsetting ankle injury. This is Ekaterina’s second WTA 1000 quarterfinal, after first achieving that feat last year in Madrid, when she advanced to the semifinals.
Their only previous encounter occurred three years ago at the Australian Open, when Kvitova comfortably prevailed 6-1, 6-2. Ekaterina does not possess the same offensive weaponry of Petra, so on a hard court, the two-time Wimbledon champion is a considerable favorite to win again on Wednesday.
Carlos Alcaraz (1) vs. Taylor Fritz (9) – Not Before 8:30pm on Stadium
Alcaraz is 17-1 on the season, despite missing all of January due to injury. His only loss came to Cam Norrie in the final of Rio, a match in which Carlitos reaggravated his leg injury. He’s yet to drop a set during this tournament.
Fritz is 20-5 in 2023, and has now reached the quarterfinals or better at his last five events. This is Taylor’s first quarterfinal in Miami, and his third consecutive quarterfinal as Masters 1000 events in North America. Like Alcaraz, he’s also yet to lose a set in Miami, but he’s 1-4 in his last five Masters quarterfinals.
This is the first career meeting between the World No.1 and the American No.1. Fritz certainly has the firepower to threaten Alcaraz on this day. But based on Carlitos’ recent sharp form, the 19-year-old is the favorite to advance to the semifinals.
Other Notable Matches on Wednesday:
Sorana Cirstea vs. Aryna Sabalenka (2) – Sabalenka is now a stellar 20-2 on the year, and has allowed her opponents this past week an average of just 2.5 games per set. Cirstea is having an excellent March, having advanced to her second consecutive WTA 1000 quarterfinal, a stage she hadn’t reached since 2017. This is another first-time career meeting.
Emil Ruusuvuori vs. Jannik Sinner (10) – Sinner is vying for his second consecutive Masters semifinal, and has not dropped a set thus far in Miami. This is Ruuuvuori’s maiden Masters 1000 quarterfinal, at the only Masters event where he had ever previously advanced beyond the third round. Jannik is 4-0 against Emil, with all of those wins in straight sets, except a match in Miami a year ago that went to a third-set tiebreak, and saw Sinner save three match points.
Wednesday’s full Order of Play is here.
Miami Open Daily Preview: Two Matches Between Top 10 Seeds Headline Fourth Round ATP Action
All ATP fourth round singles matches will take place on Tuesday in Miami.
And in a rarity, two of those fourth round matches include meetings between top 10 seeds. 2022 Indian Wells champ Taylor Fritz takes on 2022 Bercy champ Holger Rune. And in a battle of the gingers, Andrey Rublev faces Jannik Sinner. Other ATP matches on Tuesday include three of the four top seeds: Carlos Alcaraz, Daniil Medvedev, and Stefanos Tsitsipas.
Also on Tuesday, the WTA quarterfinals begin. American No.1 Jessica Pegula will look to avenge a loss her doubles partner Coco Gauff experienced earlier in the tournament to Anastasia Potapova. And Wimbledon champion Elena Rybakina plays Italy’s Martina Trevisan, who took out another Major champ, Jelena Ostapenko, on Monday.
Each day, this preview will analyze the two most intriguing matchups, while highlighting other notable matches on the schedule. Tuesday’s play gets underway at 11:00am local time.
Jannik Sinner (10) vs. Andrey Rublev (6) – 11:00am on Grandstand
Rublev is a modest 13-7 this season, but was a semifinalist in Miami two years ago. He comfortably defeated Miomir Kecmanovic in the last round by a score of 6-1, 6-2.
Sinner is a strong 18-4 this season, and is coming off a semifinal run at Indian Wells. He was the runner-up at this tournament two years ago.
These two have split four prior meetings, the last three of which occurred on clay. Their only hard court matchup took place three years ago in Vienna, with Sinner retiring after just three games. But considering Jannik’s impressive form this season, he should be favored to advance on Tuesday.
Taylor Fritz (9) vs. Holger Rune (7) – 12:00pm on Stadium
Dating back to the end of September, Rune is now 33-8. The 19-year-old achieved four consecutive finals to end last season, winning two of them (Stockholm, Bercy). This is his Miami Open debut.
Fritz is 19-5 in 2023, and is vying for his fifth consecutive quarterfinal of the year. This would mark his seventh Masters 1000 quarterfinal, all achieved since the start of 2021. But Taylor is 0-2 in the fourth round of this tournament, losing in the past two years to Bublik and Kecmanovic.
In their first career meeting, it’s hard to pick a winner. Fritz has become a pretty reliable performer, while Rune remains quite a streaky player, with impressive highs and some immature lows. Both possess similar weapons on court, and neither have dropped a set through two matches. I’ll give the slight edge to Holger based on his recent hard court success.
Other Notable Matches on Tuesday:
Martina Trevisan (25) vs. Elena Rybakina (10) – Rybakina has now won nine matches in a row. Trevisan was only 3-8 on the year ahead of this quarterfinal run. This is another first career meeting.
Karen Khachanov (14) vs. Stefanos Tsitsipas (2) – Tsitsipas survived a tight three-setter against an in-form Cristian Garin on Monday, while Khachanov easily dispatched of up-and-coming 21-year-old Jiri Lehecka. Stefanos is 6-0 against Karen, which includes a four-set victory at this year’s Australian Open.
Carlos Alcaraz (1) vs. Tommy Paul (16) – Alcaraz is now 16-1 this season, and has claimed his last 17 completed sets. Paul is 16-5, and was a semifinalist in Melbourne, as well as a finalist in Acapulco. Tommy took their only previous encounter, last summer in Montreal, in a three-set match that lasted three hours and 20 minutes.
Jessica Pegula (3) vs. Anastasia Potapova (27) – Pegula has now reached the quarterfinals or better at seven of the last nine WTA 1000 events. This is Potapova’s first quarterfinal at this level in over two years. At the last WTA 1000 event, in Indian Wells, Pegula came from behind to beat Potapova 7-5 in the third.
Quentin Halys vs. Daniil Medvedev (4) – Medvedev is 25-3 on the year, and received a walkover on Monday from Alex Molcan. Halys upset Alex de Minaur on Saturday, and had never won a main draw match at Masters 1000 level prior to this fortnight.
Tuesday’s full Order of Play is here.
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