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Tennis pros: uncertain present, doubtful future

Tennis tournaments have been suspended owing to the pandemic. India’s pros are now looking at months without an income

Rutuja Bhosale during the BVG Pune Open Women’s Championship in November 2018
Rutuja Bhosale during the BVG Pune Open Women’s Championship in November 2018

Tennis players like to live in a bubble. Travel, practise, train, play, repeat. Though the tour takes them from the most famous and vibrant cities to obscure ones, very little filters in as their line of work demands absolute focus. But Indian player Sidharth Rawat recalls the anxiety he felt in early March—for tennis was the last thing on the minds of the players competing at the ATP Challenger event in Potchefstroom, South Africa, which began on 9 March.

“It was very chaotic. No one was really able to focus on the tournament there," says the 26-year-old. “There were many players from Europe who were not sure whether they would be able to get back home. I lost my (second-round) match (against Benjamin Bonzi) on Thursday (12 March). After that, news came that the Challenger tournament is cancelled (all matches from 13 March onwards). That match (against Bonzi) will not be counted. Everyone had to rush back. I took the first flight out. I had to come back via Abu Dhabi; luckily the airport was not closed. But still we were not sure whether flights will be cancelled and we might get stuck there."

Aryan Goveas, 21, was supposed to play a quarter-final at an ITF Futures event in Kolkata—scheduled from 9-15 March. That event too was cancelled.

The three governing bodies in tennis—the International Tennis Federation (ITF), the Association of Tennis Professionals (ATP) and the Women’s Tennis Association (WTA)—announced on 19 March that they have suspended all tournaments till 13 July due to the global pandemic. That adds up to a total of 168 tournaments—19 ATP Tour events, 21 WTA Tour events, 51 ATP Challengers, 42 ITF Men’s Futures and 35 ITF Women’s Futures.

Among the Grand Slams, the French Open has been delayed from its original date of 24 May-7 June to 20 September-4 October. The only grass-court Grand Slam, Wimbledon, has been cancelled for the first time since World War II.

Covid-19 is also taking a toll on the tennis industry. While the top players, who usually ply their trade in Grand Slams and ATP/WTA Tour events and have made hundreds of thousands in prize money from the sport already, may not be too affected by the suspension, these are bleak times for the journeymen who earn their bread and butter from the lower-rung tournaments. To put it in perspective, while 128 players compete at a Grand Slam, there are more than 1,900 ranked men’s players and over 1,300 ranked women’s players.

“That’s our job, you have to play to earn," says Rawat, currently ranked 438 in the world. “We don’t have other streams of income. We fund ourselves by playing in tournaments."

Having turned pro in 2015, Rawat says the longest break he had taken before this was for a month, ahead of his bachelor’s in economics exams. He now finds himself out of work for at least 17 weeks (tournaments could even be cancelled beyond 13 July).

“There are so many questions," says Rutuja Bhosale, who played a key role in India making it to the play-offs of the Fed Cup for the very first time when the team progressed through Group 1 in March in Dubai. The 23-year-old was just about finding form after losing out on the 2019 season due to a shoulder injury.

“Players like me, who have just come back from injury, want to play a lot of matches and get in the groove. What are the tennis bodies going to do? When is this going to settle? Are they going to give a bonus of two more months? Everyone is in panic mode right now," she says.

Even as prize money dries up, players are looking at massive changes in schedules through the year. Planning their calendar and travelling in advancenot only gives the players a sense of structure but also helps save a few dollars.

“At the beginning of the year, (the virus) had started spreading," says 30-year-old doubles specialist N. Sriram Balaji, ranked 143. “My partner (Jeevan Nedunchezhiyan) and I started in Asia and wanted to play the Asian circuit."

The first set of cancellations started in late January, when the ATP suspended four Challenger events (the $50,000 event in Qujing, the $80,000 event in Zhuhai, the $90,000 event in Shenzhen and the $80,000 event in Zhangjiagang), all scheduled in March.

“Once they started cancelling all the tournaments, we started moving our tournaments to Europe and then we went to the other side of the world, to the Americas. We played in Mexico, thinking it will be fine there. We were supposed to play a tournament in the US after that but that didn’t happen. They started cancelling everywhere. So now we are back home," Balaji adds.

For athletes who are always on the move, either on the tennis court or across the world, it is now a nervous game of wait and watch. All the tennis clubs and public courts are shut. Players are left with limited avenues to train.

“Gyms are shut, swimming pools are shut," says Goveas, who was hoping to make some big strides on the Futures tour. “Most of the academies are shut. None of us are practising but just doing fitness, either at home or hoping to get a run in the park or some open space."

A lot of them are treating this as a pre-season or an injury break, or using the time to reconnect with families. They haven’t lost sight of the bigger picture: They realize the world is going through much worse. But they can’t remain in a bubble any more.

Deepti Patwardhan is a freelance sportswriter based in Mumbai.

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