Learning from WTA players — WTA mascots

The IX: Tennis Tuesday with Joey Dillon, Feb. 6, 2024

Howdy, y’all, and Happy Tennis Tuesday! With it being a slow(er) week on the calendar, I wanted to use this Tennis Tuesday as another personal op-ed. After traveling to Australia and visiting multiple cities, playing multiple tournaments over multiple weeks, it really opened my eyes to how extraordinary these athletes are.

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As someone who has dabbled in ITF World Tour events and have known many players who actually deserve to be there, I understand the perils most tennis fans don’t think about — the downtime, the lack of ballkids/umpires, playing in subpar cities and clubs and injury management while each match can be a make or break moment for their career. My time in Australia really enlightened how tough it can be being away from home and a normal routine for an extended period of time. Mind you, my month-long holiday was to play amateur tournaments and my livelihood was never in danger.

First, I booked my January trip in September, while a lot of players can’t or don’t have the luxury to get the best travel fare possible. I remember towards the end of last season, friend of The IX Sabrina Santamaria posted on her Instagram Story trying to travel from one WTA 125 in Mexico, where she reached the doubles final, to another in Michigan and she couldn’t find a fare lower than $2,000. Fortunately, she found one for $700, but when players go to a tournament, they usually don’t have a return trip planned. Sure, you could always expect to be in the finals and book the last flight out on that Sunday and if you lose early, just pay the big difference. However, is that worth it? I arrived in Australia a little under a week before my first tournament, though it was on the other end of the country and the only true leisure portion of my trip. Still, a 20-hour trek requires a bit of acclimation — another luxury players don’t really get except for the beginning of the season. Look at Jelena Ostapenko. She’s made the singles or doubles final in each of her tournaments this year and took the latest flight she could out of Melbourne and play in Linz, Austria. Or even Sabrina. She planned on going from Australia to Hua Hin last week, but had to change her plans last-minute and ended up in Linz and this week she’s in Mumbai, India. How can an athlete be optimal in this state? Or are they just on the go so often with tentative plans that it’s their norm?

I was struggling with a shoulder issue when I left and I tried physical therapy, acupuncture, special pain patches, etc. Fortunately, I have great health insurance that covered most of it — something many players definitely struggle with. I knew many American players who were unsure of what they could do or afford once they were taken off of their parents’ health insurance. I also had the — again, luxury — to find massage therapists to help rehab and be as optimal as possible, while some players can’t even get an appointment with the ITF/WTA physios. When I was in Perth, I struggled with a sinus infection and then when leaving to go to Hobart, I had a medical episode where I had to go to the hospital. Luckily, I was in between tournaments but sometimes cramps or something more severe can land a player in the hospital and they’re required to play the next day. I think casual sports fans tend to forget that tennis players are independent contractors and there’s no guaranteed salary. You play to get paid, period.

Lastly, the tennis. I played 21 singles and doubles matches in my four tournaments across three weeks. That’s a lot of tennis at any level. At the GLTA World Championships, I went undefeated in my singles and mixed doubles groups, winning four of my five matches in a match tiebreaker across the first two days. My final match, I was the last match to finish, getting off the court at 9:30pm and being first on for my singles semifinal at 9am the next morning. Though I don’t know if I would’ve been able to overcome my semifinal opponent who ended up winning it all, but I was too sluggish and couldn’t overcome the circumstances. We’ve seen more recently than ever many players playing until 2, 3:00 in the morning and possibly having to play not before noon. Sure, these are conditioned athletes that are among the world’s best but they’re not robots — they’re humans.

I was lucky to find form and at my final tournament, having my career-best UTR win and the best finish I’ve had in my new, higher division. All of the matches and perhaps the moment got to me and I’ll be honest — between my own matches and watching the Australian Open in person, the last place I wanted to be was a tennis court. I didn’t step foot on one for an entire week, largely to readjust and overcome the jetlag. Arriving in Australia and acclimating was pretty easy, but coming back? I’ve been back in the States for a week and my sleep is still 50 Shades of Messed Up. That’s something that professionals deal with on a weekly basis but they have no choice but to go on court and play. The majority are likely burnt out, hurt, tired and/or sick, but they just push through.

I was lucky that I knew people at each of my tournaments — and even more grateful my twin brother was with me for most of my time in Melbourne. Still, having those friendships and making new ones was probably my greatest highlight and it’s something I see so common on players’ social media pages. Sure, the top players usually have a team they travel with, but the majority share hotel rooms to net some more of their per diem money or always do meals/excursions with. It helped my personal homesickness — well, it was winter in Ohio, but I missed my dog a ton — and it was creating those memories that made me think about writing this piece.

Author Joey Dillon with a group of GLTA players on Rottnest Island
Author Joey Dillon with a group of GLTA players on Rottnest Island near Perth, Australia

Though I don’t have to emphasize this because we have the best subscribers who also hold a lot of perspective, but remember what I said earlier. These players are human beings and they aren’t void of personal/medical/emotional problems like the rest of us. They’re — unfortunately — forced to mask it to the general public because they need to perform well to essentially fund their tomorrow. I don’t know if I could ever do a month of tournaments back-to-back like I did. Of course, I think I would love to, but putting myself in a WTA player’s shoes stops me in my tracks and makes me a little happy that I’m just an Average Joe that enjoys playing amateur tennis. I don’t have the pressures of fans, sponsors, federations, bettors, etc. breathing down my neck and can take in the present as much as I can.

Now — onto links!

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This Week in Women’s Tennis

Jelena Ostapenko continues to be the most in-form player of 2024. The Latvian captured her second singles title of the year at the Upper Austria Ladies Linz by defeating Ekaterina Alexandrova in the final. The doubles title went to Sara Errani and Jasmine Paolini who upset top seeds Nicole Melichar-Martinez and Ellen Perez.

Not even a full year ago, Diana Shnaider was playing collegiate tennis for NC State. Now, she’s a WTA singles titlist after her win over Zhu Lin at the Thailand Open. Miyu Kato and Aldila Sutjiadi won their third team title, knocking out Guo Hanyu and Jiang Xinyu in the doubles final.

Naomi Osaka knew coming back would be tough, but hopes to gain some momentum in the Middle East to avoid the tough draws she’s been given so far.

At 34, Arina Rodionova became the oldest player to debut in the WTA’s Top 100 almost twenty years after making her pro debut.

This was going to be my tweet of the week until I saw Jelena Ostapenko in Linz. Yulia Putintseva is a vibe:

2024 hasn’t been the best start for Jessica Pegula, who not only withdrew from the Middle East swing of the season, she and coach David Witt parted after over four years together.

The Saudi Arabian ambassador to the United States spoke out about Martina Navratilova and Chris Evert’s op-ed asking the WTA to not go into business with the country, one of the biggest WTA question marks of 2024. Ons Jabeur defended Princess Reema bint Bandar Al Saud as she hopes the tour’s crown jewel will land in the Middle East. While Saudi Arabia is likely going to be the WTA Finals destination, I would LOVE Charlotte to somehow win a bid.

Daniela Hantuchova is reportedly joining the Mutua Madrid Open in a managerial role to help handle the women’s event that is consistently seen as second-class compared to the men.

The University of Texas topped tennisrecruiting.net’s Spring 2024 recruiting class rankings, earning all but 3 No. 1 votes. In other college commitment news, Sophia Webster, daughter of UCLA head coach Stella Sampras Webster and niece of Pete Sampras, committed to Vanderbilt University this week. Her twin sister Savannah, will be heading to the University of Miami.

Steffi Graf and Maria Sharapova battled alongside John McEnroe and Andre Agassi at the Pickleball Slam 2 event. Graf and Agassi won the event and the $1 million prize. Though not in a tennis space, it was nice to see both of them out on a court.

If you’re a fan of Serena Williams, you know how much of a Green Day fan she is and the GOAT got to introduce the band at the Clive Davis pre-Grammy’s event this weekend.

Tweet of the Week

If a tournament wants to be on the WTA calendar, I think it should be a requirement for each event to have their own mascot. Linz is camp:

Mondays: Soccer
By: Annie Peterson, @AnnieMPeterson, AP Women’s Soccer
Tuesdays: Tennis
By: Joey Dillon, @JoeyDillon, Freelance Tennis Writer
Wednesdays: Basketball
By: Howard Megdal, @HowardMegdal, The Next
Thursdays: Golf
By: Addie Parker, @addie_parker, The IX
Fridays: Hockey
By: @TheIceGarden, The Ice Garden
Saturdays: Gymnastics
By: Lela Moore, @runlelarun, Freelance Writer

Written by Joey Dillon