Professional tennis players, especially those not in the world’s top 100, have long typified the term journeymen. Criss-crossing cities, countries and continents by flight, train and car to make their own way to tournaments week in and week out is familiar territory.
But to do that amid a raging pandemic with different lockdown situations in various countries? “A completely different ball game,” says Divij Sharan, 34, a doubles pro.
When he decided to play a few Challenger events in Prague in August, for instance, he had to fly there 10 days prior to satisfy travel restriction protocols in the European Union. The following week he reached the doubles quarter-finals of the Prague Challenger and settled in to play a few more tournaments in the country.
Change of plans. He then made the cut for the doubles draw of the US Open, and hustled to fly to New York. At the airport, he found his name was missing on a crucial flight list. “The US Open helpline got in touch with the border authorities in Prague who in turn called the officials at the gate. It all happened very last-minute,” Sharan says.
At the US Open, Sharan lost his doubles first-round match with partner Nikola Cacic. “There was anxiety in me. You heard stories of players getting stuck in different places due to quarantine issues and cases of false positives. So there was a lot of uncertainty. It took a while to get used to,” he says.
Prajnesh Gunneswaran, 31, India’s highest-ranked singles tennis player, was so wary of all the drama around flying that he chose to drive as much as he could. The results of that decision remain on his fingertips. “About 6,000 km in Europe and 3,000 miles in the US so far.” That’s how much he has driven over the past three months.
He did all the driving, incidentally.
Gunneswaran flew into Europe in August with his wife and then went tournament-hopping. They drove from Kitzbuhel (Austria) to Biella (Italy) to Paris (France) to Parma (Italy) to Cologne (Germany) to Ismaning (Germany) to Hamburg (Germany), before flying to the US. There, they drove from Atlanta to Cary to Orlando before returning to Atlanta last month, where Gunneswaran is currently training.
In one instance, he played the Ismaning Challenger semi-final on October 24, then drove the 10 hours to Hamburg on October 25 for a first-round match at the Hamburg Challenger on October 27. “Stuff like that was tiring. I’ve never driven this much back to back almost every week,” he says.
Of all the cities that he visited, Gunneswaran says he felt most secure in Germany. “People there were really into following rules; 6 ft apart literally meant 6 ft apart. That’s exactly what you want in such times. Europe was more stringent that way,” he says.
Ankita Raina, 27, India’s top-ranked woman player, decided to hedge her bets and take some public transport. She took a train from Nice to Paris to get to the French Open in September. Sharan too boarded a few more during this period: In London, Parma to Forli in Italy, Dusseldorf to Cologne and Cologne to Frankfurt in Germany. “Trains weren’t as busy as normal, at least the ones that I took,” he says.
Not all tennis tournaments featured bio-secure environments. A large number of events at the ATP Challenger level and the ITF level (a rung below the ATP/WTA) were sans bubble and that came with additional anxiety. “There were many tournaments in which players or their coaches would test positive, someone who you saw just a day ago. That would be freakish,” Raina says. “But I was grateful that I was at least getting an opportunity to play, which a lot of other people weren’t.”
Food became a concern and a trial. After more than a month of playing in the Czech Republic, France, Portugal and training in Germany, during a 10-day gap due to quarantine issues in returning to India, Raina finally got fresh food courtesy a local Indian family. In Macon, Georgia, in October, Raina checked into a hotel owned by a Gujarati couple. Born in Ahmedabad herself, the 27-year-old says she finally felt at home.
“They sent me home-cooked, Indian food for dinner throughout the week. The tour itself was so uncertain. You never knew which city you would be in after a few weeks, and whether there would be a sudden lockdown there,” Raina says.
Sharan encountered one such unplanned restriction during a Challenger in Eckental in the first week of November, when Germany re-imposed strict lockdown norms. “There was no access to showers, locker rooms and gyms. There were only portable bathrooms. Every movement was restricted to an area of 10 to 15 square metres between two courts,” says Sharan, now back home in Delhi for a while. “But the other option was what — to not have a tournament? Sure it was challenging. But when you get that sense of normalcy from playing tennis again, it makes it all worth it.”