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.”

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Hubert Hurkacz Aims To Build On Delray Beach Triumph

The best way to start the season for the world No.35.

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Hubert Hurkacz (image via https://twitter.com/DelrayBeachOpen)

Poland’s Herbert Hurkacz says he hopes to play at an even higher level over the coming weeks after winning the Delray Beach Open title on Wednesday.

 

The world No.35 eased to a 6-3, 6-3, win over Sebastian Korda in the final to claim only the second title in his career after Winston Salem back in 2018. Hurkacz, who was the fourth seed in the tournament, didn’t drop a set all week en route to becoming the first Polish player in history to win the title. In the final he won 68% of his service points and broke Korda four times overall.

“It feels great. It is great to win the title and I am so happy about that. This Is a great start to the season,” Hurkacz said afterwards.
“I am happy that I am improving and we (my team) are doing good stuff with C.B (coach Craig Boynton), and things are working. So I am really pleased with this result.”

The 23-year-old is hoping to improve on what was a challenging 2020 season for him. After reaching the semi-finals of the Auckland Open in January last year, he could only win back-to-back matches in two out of his next 12 tournaments prior to Delray Beach. His best Grand Slam result was reaching the third round of the 2019 Wimbledon Championships.

Seeking to break new territory in 2021, Hurkacz will today start his 24-hour journey to Australia which begins with a 5am departure from America this morning. His coach Craig Boynton also currently worked with Steve Johnson and previously mentored Jim Courier.

“It’s the beginning of the season and I still need to work on a couple of things, but I hope I can play even better in Australia,” Hurkacz stated.

Hurkacz is only the second Polish player to have won an ATP Tour title in the Open Era after Wojciech Fibak. At present he is the only player from his country ranked inside the top 100 on the Tour.

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Cristian Garin Out Of Australian Open Following Fall

The South American tennis star will not travel to Melbourne due to both injury and the travel restrictions implemented.

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Chile’s Cristian Garin has become the third top 30 player to pull out of the men’s draw at next month’s Australian Open.

 

The world No.22 has confirmed that he will not be travelling to the Grand Slam after suffering a fall in which he hurt his wrist a week ago. Announcing his decision on Instagram, Garin said the limitations in place at the tournament which wouldn’t allow him to travel with his physio played a factor. This year’s Australian Open is taking place amid strict COVID-19 rules which requires players to quarantine for 14 days upon arrival and limits the number of team members they can bring. The majority of players will be spending their quarantine in Melbourne but the top names will be in Adelaide following a recent deal secured by Tennis Australia.

I am very sad to report that a week ago I suffered a fall, which left me with a lot of pain in my left wrist (sprain),” Garin wrote on his Instagram story. “It has been very difficult for me to play the last days and given the restrictions of the tour, they do not allow me to travel with my physiotherapist, which makes it impossible to find a good recovery. Unfortunately I will not be able to play this year in Australia, which is something very difficult for me to accept. I hope to return in good condition and with the best energy for the tour in South America.”

photo via – https://www.instagram.com/garincris/

Garin kicked-off his season on Saturday at the Delray Beach Open where he was the top seed. However, he lost his opening match in straight sets to Christian Harrison who went on to reach the semi-finals. It is only the second tournament he has played since the French Open in October.

The setback comes after the 24-year-old confirmed that he has started working with Franco Davin back in November. A tennis coach known best for his work with Juan Martin del Potro. Davin has also previously worked with Grigor Dimitrov and Kyle Edmund.

The withdrawal of Garin follows that of Roger Federer and John Isner. Former champion Federer has pulled out due to his ongoing recovery from a right knee injury. Although one Australian Open official believes his decision was due to another factor. Meanwhile, Isner has opted not to travel to Australia because he didn’t want to spend an extended time away from his family.

The Australian Open will start on February 8th.

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Christian Harrison Speaks Out After ATP Fines Him For Not Wearing A Mask

The American says he is against ‘masking people for the sake of it for TV.’

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Christian Harrison (image via https://twitter.com/DelrayBeachOpen)

American tennis player Christian Harrison has said he will appeal a fine issued to him at the Delray Beach Open after he refused to do an on-court interview because he was required to wear a mask.

 

The ATP has slammed the 789th ranked player with a fine of $3000 for refusing to do the mandatory interview. However, Harrison is arguing his case by saying he believed that wearing a mask was optional and has been told by the tournament supervisor he can appeal against the fine. He has previously spoken out against wearing masks after writing last week ‘Healthy enough to play 3 hour matches. But I’m an absolute safety hazard walking maskless through a restaurant.’ On Twitter he also liked a Tweet last month by Political commentator Liz Wheeler who wrote ‘Wear a mask until EVERY person is vaccinated?! Are you insane?’

“Christian Harrison was fined $3,000 for declining the mandatory post-match on-court interview following his second round win over Cristian Garin on Saturday,” the ATP said in a statement.

Arguing his defence Harrison wrote on social media that it is ‘not healthy’ to wear a mask in the sun for longer than necessary after a match. The rule implemented is one of a series that has been taken in the wake of the COVID-19 pandemic. In America, where Harrison is playing at the Delray Beach Open, the country has recorded more deaths from the virus than any other.

“After my second round match I chose not to do my post match interview due to wearing a mask. It’s not healthy to wear a mask in the hot sun for more time than absolutely necessary after a tough match,” he wrote on Instagram.
“I was given the impression it was optional. I wasn’t told I would be fined. That night I was told it is a requirement for T.V. matches and I would be fined. When I spoke to the supervisor the following morning, I was told since I wasn’t notified that it was mandatory I could appeal the fine and it would be taken away. Unless something changes now I still believe that to be true.”

Refusing to admit any wrongdoing, the 26-year-old says he ‘doesn’t agree’ with masking people for the sake of TV. Although he has stated that he will follow the rules in the future.

“I was required to do a sit down interview after the match with the same person which I agreed to and I did not have to wear a mask for it,” he continues.
“It’s not about safety to wear mask for TV to talk to a microphone with no one around . Playing the tournaments I’ll follow whatever is required even if I don’t agree with it. I don’t support masking people for the sake of it for TV.”

The controversy coincides with Harrison’s fairytale run at the Delray Beach Open this week. On Monday he defeated Gianluca Mager 7-6(2), 6-4, to reach the semi-finals of an ATP tournament for the first time in his career. He did wear a mask during his on-court interview following that win. The breakthrough comes after more than a decade of setbacks for Harrison who has undergone a total of eight surgeries on both legs, both hips, his right wrist, and both adductors.

Harrison will play fourth seed Hubert Hurkacz in the semi-finals.

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