Amidst the Covid-19 pandemic, the sports industry has halted. Stadiums are empty, competitions are canceled and leagues are postponed. Among those events are various tennis tournaments, including Wimbledon, one of the four Grand Slams held every summer in England.
While players are staying in their homes, many have been sharing their personal stories about tennis in social media through the account “Behind the Racquet.” Behind the Racquet is a passion project created by American professional tennis player Noah Rubin, and it is a platform where players can share the struggles they have gone through as professional athletes. Rubin was inspired by Humans of New York, a photoblog of street portraits and interviews of people living in New York City. In every post, a tennis star, former professionals or fans of the sport pose behind a racquet and share an issue that has been challenging for them. There are more than one hundred stories included in the platform, and all are different yet extremely personal. People open up about heavy subjects: mental health, sexuality, injury, financial troubles and more.
Among them are players Coco Gauff and Roberto Bautista Agut. Coco Gauff, a 16-year old who became a teenage phenomenon and tennis star with her Wimbledon breakthrough last year, shared her personal story in a Behind the Racquet post earlier in April. She revealed that months before Wimbledon, she felt “really depressed” and had a “dark mindset” that almost led her to a year-long break from tennis, as she was not enjoying what she loved due to all the pressure she had. The post reads: “I was just lost. I was confused and overthinking if this is what I wanted. It took many moments sitting, thinking, and crying.”
On the other hand, Spanish tennis player Roberto Bautista Agut opened up about losing both of his parents: his mother unexpectedly passed away days before the 2018 French Open and his father died while Agut was away playing and representing his country in the 2019 Davis Cup finals.
Some stories highlight the problems of the sport that take a toll on a player’s mental and physical health. Rubin, through the stories, wants to make a change in the sport. He believes that there is a disconnect between fans and the players, a difference in perspective of those in the audience and those in the court. He is one of the many that believe in the necessity of a fundamental overhaul–both for the wellbeing of the players and the survival of the sport itself.
The Covid-19 pandemic has put the current problems haunting the sport’s framework in the spotlight. Rubin states in an interview with BBC Sport: “in terms of the sport, [tennis] is not fan-friendly, it is not promotable, it is not TV-friendly. There are so many issues.” One of the main problems, however, is the financial trouble that comes with a professional playing career, which include international travel fees, coaches and physios, among other costs. Low-ranking players that do not receive support from sponsorship deals and their national federation have to cover the expenses on their own, which, to say the least, is extremely hard and can trigger mental health issues. Especially now, with tournaments being canceled due to the pandemic, professional players have been very concerned. “We have got to a point where a pandemic has highlighted the issues we were worried about with a magnifying glass,” said Rubin, “I know players around my ranking who in two months from now will be worried about rent. I know players who are ranked 250 to 300 who are worried about rent today.”
The Association of Tennis Professionals (ATP), Women’s Tennis Association (WTA), and the International Tennis Federation (ITF) have launched a $6 million package to finance lower-ranked players, while current top players Novak Djokovic, Roger Federer and Rafael Nadal have begun a separate fund for their fellow ATP professionals.
However, more should be done to improve the sport. For Rubin, his project Behind the Racquet is the first step. “It is the first step in bringing people together, uniting the players on a deeper front and connecting the fans and the players, bringing a new sense of interpersonal relation.” While others are joining on the side of wanting a change in the sport, Rubin has big plans for his project.
“What I’m trying to do is pave a way for tennis players that, in five or 10 years from now, are saying ‘this is better because of Behind The Racquet.’”