To most tennis fans, the life of a professional player seems almost ideal. Elite players travel the globe, rub shoulders with the rich and famous, play on the best courts in the world, and are paid handsomely to play the sport they love. But beyond the glitz and glamour, players face challenges just like those in any other career path.
“When you’re travelling as a professional athlete, all you really care about is for everything to run smoothly,” says former player Scott Draper.
“You want a good flight, good connections, no hold-ups, and you want to get to your hotel and hope that it offers some level of comfort. Once you arrive, you then want to find out how to get to the courts and where to eat. A meal out is more about refuelling for the next day rather than a special outing.
“Everything is focused on preparing for matches, and that’s where travel becomes quite challenging and monotonous because your life really revolves around airports, hotels and the court.”
The idea that professional players live a fantasy life begins to give way to the reality that for a professional athlete, everything is geared towards peak athletic performance, making life on tour far from one extended holiday.
The fact that tennis is for the most part an individual sport also throws up its own unique set of challenges.
In his autobiography Open, eight-time Grand Slam champion Andre Agassi lamented the lonely existence of being a professional player and the combative nature of the sport, “In tennis, you stand face-to-face with the enemy, trade blows with him, but never touch him or talk to him, or anyone else,” Agassi wrote.
“People sometimes mention the track-and-field runner as a comparably lonely figure, but I have to laugh. At least the runner can feel and smell his opponents.
“They’re inches away. In tennis, you’re an island. Of all the games men and women play, tennis is the closest to solitary confinement.”
Agassi’s comments highlight how the individual nature of tennis can make the life of a professional player a lonely one.
In a team sport, the pressure to succeed is spread amongst a group of players, whereas in tennis each player must deal with the pressure and scrutiny of their chosen sport on their own.
While players in a team sport travel in a group and work towards a shared objective, tennis players are focused mostly on their own goals due to the individual nature of the sport, which can lead to feelings of isolation.
The very best players in the world can afford to have an entourage of trainers, coaches and family travel with them, but this same luxury is not shared by all players on the professional tour. Those not at the top of the sport may travel alone for extended periods, without the support networks which make life on tour easier for the top ranked players.
Given the combative nature of the sport, it is little wonder that players enjoy team events such as the Davis and Fed Cups, which give them a taste of the camaraderie that is more commonly found in team sports.
“The Davis Cup ties were unbelievably good weeks, because you get to fly typically as a team, you stay in the same hotel, you go to dinner together, you train together, and you are all there with a common goal,” says Draper.
“Those times were significantly better in my opinion than the rest of the times spent as an individual playing in tournaments,” says Draper of his Davis Cup experiences.
Although tennis is chiefly an individual sport, Australian players are encouraged to help each other out where possible to assist in overcoming the occasionally isolating existence of life on tour.
“Australians have always been very good at supporting each other overseas,” says Todd Woodbridge.
“If Australians use each other to beat the rest of the world, individually they’re going to be champions anyway. If you take on the whole of the world by yourself, it’s a really tough prospect.
“It is important to have support networks around you, whether that be coaches or people that you have worked or trained with. Ninety percent of the tour is played overseas, so if you’re going to be a successful tennis player, you have to be prepared for the difficulties which come with travelling for extended periods. And the way you do that is to assemble a team of either a coach and a trainer or friends and practice partners that you can hang around with,” says Woodbridge.
In recent years the increased availability of technology has provided another tool to assist players in overcoming homesickness while travelling.
“While elite tennis players face similar challenges to those of players from previous eras, the modern player has far greater means available to assist in overcoming some of these challenges, particularly loneliness.
“Due to the technology and greater communication methods available, players have a much better opportunity to stay connected with friends and family, which has made travelling a lot easier,” Woodbridge says.
Technology such as Skype allows players to not only speak with family and friends but also to see them in real time, which can assist with overcoming the loneliness of travelling abroad.
For more serious or extended bouts of loneliness or issues of self- confidence while on tour, players have access to sports psychologists to help overcome these concerns which can arise on long stretches spent away from home.
Aside from the physical demands which accompany playing sport at the highest level, tennis professionals also have times when, like anyone else, they require the support and assistance of others. While the jet-setting lifestyle of a professional tennis player might seem perfect at first glance, life on tour throws up plenty of challenges for the world’s best players.
This article first appeared in Australian Tennis Magazine.
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