Usually by mid-August, a professional tennis player’s body and mind are baked to a crisp. Eight months in, three Slams gone. Pound your way through the hot, humid and physically demanding U.S. summer hard court season. Given all that, it’s logical that upon arrival at the US Open, the contemporary professional tennis player can best be defined as eager but weary. One more chance for Grand Slam glory, but will this well-traveled athlete hold up for all the demands of late summer in New York?
That’s all been capsized. Call 2020, The Year of Playing Dangerously. With tournaments resuming, as pros gear up for the three-week New York stretch of Cincinnati and the US Open—not to mention the truncated European clay-court season—the picture of competitive professional tennis looks as uncharted as a new planet. Many factors have entered the picture, from the psychological to the physical, all occurring amid a vastly uncertain landscape.
For the pros, it’s an unprecedented drought, likely the longest many have gone without competition or travel since before adolescence. Add to that the stress, anxiety and even the lurking dread the entire planet has dealt with and continues to face. “We’ve all been cooped up,” said Bill Norris, a former ATP trainer now based in Florida who still works with many players. “Then there’s the psychological trauma of what we’ve all been through.”
On the mental front, the seasoned quality that defines a pro—profoundly the case by August—is not part of the picture in 2020. Nowhere is this absence more clear than in the lack of match play. “The exposure has not been there,” said Jeff Greenwald, a sports psychologist and author of the book, The Best Tennis of Your Life. “It’s hard to replicate that, even in practice sets. That muscle is a little atrophied.”
“A player might have been training and even playing lots of sets, but probably at the same place, with the same people,” said Craig Kardon, a longstanding pro coach now working with CoCo Vandeweghe. “Pro tennis requires a lot of adapting to different court settings and different opponents, and of course that’s not been happening this year.”
Luke Jensen and the New York Empire (Getty Images)
Yet rusty as the players are, their current attitude towards competition might well be drastically different. Luke Jensen, fresh off having coached his New York Empire squad to the World TeamTennis championship, said as the season neared its end, “It’s been great to see these players so excited to jump into the battle. No burnout here.”
Greenwald adds a spiritual element. “The route of Novak—meditation and mindfulness—will help them,” he said. “There might be a certain kind of gratitude there that might offset the atrophy. A tennis match might be a little less life and death when you look at having worn masks.”
Alongside the mental dimension comes the potentially more daunting and dangerous physical challenge. For many players, time away took the form of extensive off-court fitness activities. “There’s no reason a player shouldn’t be in tremendous physical shape,” said Jensen. “Fitness is something you can control.” Kardon, who also captained a World TeamTennis team last month (Philadelphia Freedoms), says, “What I’m seeing is which players have taken time to get in shape. You see who’s put in the work.”
Others were also able to spend significant time on the court. “Some people weren’t able to practice as much as others,” said Kevin O’Neill, coach of Caty McNally. “It depends on where you’re located, which state or country you were in.” McNally was fortunate because her Cincinnati-based grandparents had a court in their backyard. She also had a built-in hitting partner, her brother John, who plays for Ohio State.
Still, competition will bring a whole other level of stress. “We’ll see soft tissue injuries—hamstrings, groin, Achilles, quad, back,” said Larry Starr, a former head athletic trainer for the Cincinnati Reds and Florida Marlins who has also worked with many tennis players. “Something as stop-and-go as high-intensity tennis, it’s hard to duplicate.” Kardon wonders if “there’s a bit of a panic, that the player feels the need to train even harder.” This might be particularly true for lower-ranked players who have deeply suffered the consequences of not being able to earn prize money.
Novak Djokovic was undefeated in 2020 before the tours went on hiatus. (Getty Images)
Another aspect of curiosity: During the time away, did a player make a technical change? Venus Williams, for example, has altered her service motion. Might others have improved forehands that are hit too flat, volleys that are rarely used, second serves that go shallow under pressure? Recall, for example, how after missing the last half of 2016, Roger Federer returned with a significantly enhanced backhand—both with technique and deployment.
Some players might likely be able to compete effectively sooner than others. O’Neill’s belief is that “anybody sharp coming back is going to have a little more simple game style—an aggressive baseliner, like Andre Agassi. They might possibly do a little better than someone who has a lot of variety in their game.”
And yet, for all efforts to logically explain matters of mind and body, what’s happening now is so unprecedented, so scary and so uncertain, that no one quite knows what will happen throughout these tournaments. Consider just a few new conditions: Frequent testing. Playing in front of no spectators. Eat, play and live inside a bubble. “It’s going to be overpowering for a lot of people,” said Norris. “It could be the most monumental task they’ll ever face.”