x Abu Dhabi, UAEThursday 27 July 2017

‘Friends is quite difficult to have’: Loneliness is toughest opponent for tennis players on tour

After nearly decades on the tour, world No 1 Serena Williams still struggles with life on the tour. At the Australian Open last month, she talked about being “kind of sad”, lonely and bored, writes Ahmed Rizvi.

“It gets me a little sad. I see every week, there are girls my age and they are all very nice but they are my competition,
“It gets me a little sad. I see every week, there are girls my age and they are all very nice but they are my competition," Spain's Garbine Muguruza said. AFP PHOTO / ROSLAN RAHMAN

Andre Agassi, the eight-time major winner, wrote in his autobiography, Open, “Of all the games men and women play, tennis is the closest to solitary confinement.

“Only boxers can understand the loneliness of tennis players — and yet boxers have their corner men and managers,” the American legend added.

“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 on an island.”

Surviving on that lonely “island”, then, is a challenge, especially when you are young. That perhaps explains why the likes of Agassi and Jennifer Capriati, and even Serena Williams, kept falling in and out of love with sport.

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That loneliness, perhaps, explain Andy Murray’s berating screams towards his coaching staff in the stands. Or the crumpled notes that some of the other players carry with them.

One year at Wimbledon, Pete Sampras, with his game in tatters, brought out a note from his wife, which was addressed to “My husband – seven times Wimbledon champion – Pete”.

Most people might find such acts odd, but tennis can be a cruel sport. In cricket, the batsman has his partner to lift his spirits, the golfer has his caddie. In football, and indeed any other team sport, you have your teammates for support.

In tennis, there is none of that. After nearly decades on the tour, Williams still struggles with life on the tour. At the Australian Open last month, she talked about being “kind of sad”, lonely and bored.

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Does she not have any friends in the locker room? It seems a reasonable question, but then these following words of American author David Foster Wallace in his 1996 novel Infinite Jest perhaps explain the situation best.

“We’re all on each other’s food chain,” he wrote in the novel, which is centred on a junior tennis academy and a nearby substance-abuse recovery centre. “All of us. It’s an individual sport. Welcome to the meaning of individual. We’re each deeply alone here. It’s what we all have in common, this aloneness.”

Being on each other’s food chain makes friendships virtually impossible, and we have seen the likes of Maria Sharapova and Eugenie Bouchard say it loud. Garbine Muguruza confirmed the fact recently and, here in Dubai, Carla Suarez Navarro agreed in part.

“Friends is quite difficult to have,” Muguruza said in a recent radio interview. “It gets me a little sad. I see every week, there are girls my age and they are all very nice but they are my competition.”

Suarez Navarro said on the subject: “I understand what Garbine wants to say. I know it’s not easy because you are in competition all the time, but I think that most players have one or two friends on tour.

“Look at Serena and [Caroline] Wozniacki. They play finals but they are friends. I know that players go on holidays together; I see some having dinner of lunch together. But I know it is difficult.”

For Petra Kvitova, one such friend is Lucie Hradecka and the two-time Wimbledon champion is glad Hradecka is playing in Dubai this week, especially since the world No 8 is travelling alone after parting ways with coach David Kotyza.

“It’s a bit more difficult for a woman than a man on tour,” said Kvitova, the No 4 seed here in the Dubai Duty Free Tennis Championships who will start her campaign against American Madison Brengle on Wednesday.

“You are away from your family, boyfriends, friends but it’s fine for a few years, then it is not easy. That is part of the job. I’m OK right now.”

Over time though, that loneliness can become your toughest opponent. Ask Agassi, ask Capriati, or even Williams.

arizvi@thenational.ae

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