Tennis

Grand slam tennis has returned with Australian players including James Duckworth having headed into the US Open ‘bubble’. Journeyman Matt Reid, however, opted to sit out the tournament at home, swapping his racquet for a hammer and chisel at a Sydney quarry. By Linda Pearce.

Grand slam tennis resumes … for some

Australia’s James Duckworth in action during his match against Salvatore Caruso of Italy on day two of the 2020 US Open.
Credit: Matthew Stockman / Getty Images via AFP

In early March, back when normality was still a thing, Nick Kyrgios hosted a barbecue for a handful of his fellow Australians at a rented house near where the prestigious Indian Wells tournament was due to start in southern California later that week. But a relaxed social gathering was soon interrupted by the ping of text messages. Rumour had it the $US17 million combined event, the biggest outside the four tennis majors, might not be going ahead.

“Everyone was like, ‘Oh yeah, turn it up, as if that’s gonna happen,’ ” doubles specialist Matt Reid recalls. “Nick and I were joking, ‘Oh, how good would that be? We get to go home’, and the next morning we wake up to read on Twitter that, yeah, it’s been cancelled. The best thing was seeing the different reactions. Some people were in disbelief and just went and practised, and other people went to the nearest pub. The majority of us Aussie boys decided not to wait around for Miami, but to get on the next flight out of there.”

Almost six months later, Reid and his good mate Kyrgios are still in Australia, despite tennis having officially resumed on a limited scale. World No.  40 Kyrgios – a wildly unexpected poster boy for Covid-19 common sense – was joined by the likes of defending champion Rafael Nadal, women’s No.  1 Ash Barty and five other members of the women’s top 10 in skipping the coronavirus-compromised US Open that began on Monday. Kyrgios, interestingly, remained silent when French 17th seed Benoît Paire was removed from the draw after returning a positive test for the virus on tournament eve. “We all knew it was going to happen, it was just a matter of when and how they were going to deal with it,” says Reid. “And I’m sure Nick would say the same.”

It reinforced to Reid the fact the United States “is probably not a place I’d like to be right now”, although, truth is, his current ranking of 102 was too low for entry into a doubles field halved to help limit onsite numbers at the Flushing Meadows venue, which had been repurposed as a hospital when the New York death toll soared. Still, the 30-year-old from Sydney maintains he would not have attended, regardless. He says that had he been eliminated in the first round and then been required to quarantine on his return to Australia, “I would almost have lost money, so what was the point when I can enjoy some time at home?” More than anything, though, he considered the risk too great.

Which is saying something, considering current returns. Reid’s main tennis-related earnings in the months since that hasty exit from Indian Wells have been the two instalments totalling almost $10,000 from the ATP’s controversial player relief fund. He has picked up some private coaching work – with talented junior Aaliyah Jweihan and at St Joseph’s College in Hunters Hill – after initially struggling through 13-hour days breaking rocks and driving a forklift at a quarry, for which he earned about $150 a day.

“At first I thought, ‘This is a bit of fun; something different,’ ” says Reid. “But then after a while I was like, ‘Holy moly.’ My friends who are tradies all laughed at me, said, ‘Oh, you live the life’, and I always thought living on the road is tough because it does get lonely. But, geez, it’s much easier than digging holes and cutting rocks.”

Taking a break from the tennis tour has had its positives, though. Having been on the road for up to 51 weeks a year since leaving home as a teenager, Reid says the upside of the extended return to the family property in Dural was reconnecting with his three siblings, spending time with his parents and popping down to Canberra to visit Kyrgios, who, during their two years travelling together in 2017-18, described him as a “coach”. Reid quips that his preferred description is “more of a babysitter”.

 

Other Australians, whatever their misgivings, did make the long trek to compete in front of empty stands as grand slam tennis resumed from its longest break since World War II. With fewer events – no qualifying, mixed doubles, juniors or legends – Brisbane-based James Duckworth was among 11 main draw singles entrants, including sole seed Alex de Minaur and five women who lost on day one. The injury-plagued Davis Cup representative had re-entered the top 100 in just enough time to be assured of a singles berth at this year’s Australian Open, where he lost first round but reached the doubles quarter-finals with Marc Polmans.

Initially, the break was a chance for a clean-up of Duckworth’s troublesome right shoulder – the eighth surgery of the 28-year-old’s career – and then rehab in a makeshift home mini-gym using borrowed equipment. In the past five months Duckworth has lived off his January prizemoney. A welcome addition was a £25,000 bonus when Wimbledon distributed part of the payout from its shrewd pandemic insurance policy to 620 players affected by its first cancellation in 75 years.

Less positively received was the Djokovic-championed relief fund, in which players inside the top 100 were asked to donate – on a sliding scale – to those outside it. Reid finds it absurd that a player such as Duckworth – with medical, living and coaching bills to pay while sidelined – should be subsidising, for example, Sir Andy Murray, who is currently ranked No.  115, but with career prizemoney of $US61 million and endorsements dwarfing that. “Every case is different,” says Duckworth, in his measured way. “But it’s also a tricky one from the ATP asking players to fund other players. I probably felt it should have come more from the ATP creating a bit of a better system where players weren’t put in that position.”

Did he contribute? “No, I didn’t.”

Did anyone? “I don’t know of any Australians [who did].”

As enticing as the lure of a minimum $US61,000 payday just for making it to the start line in New York clearly was, Duckworth still had much to consider before committing to play where Barty and so many others would not. The world No. 84’s greatest safety concern involved not the being-there aspect but the getting-there, so he followed the route taken a week earlier by the likes of Australians John Millman and Jordan Thompson and flew via Doha in order to avoid changing planes in the US. “It was a tricky decision,” says Duckworth. “Obviously New York has had quite a few cases and America in general has had a lot. I guess it just came down to the fact that, at the end of the day, I’m a tennis player. That’s my job.”

After landing in New York, Duckworth was transported straight to a designated hotel in the Long Island biosecurity bubble, required to return two negative Covid-19 tests in the first 48 hours, then another every four days ahead of Tuesday night’s tough four-set first-round loss to Italian Salvatore Caruso. Manhattan is off-limits for all competitors, replaced by a strict hotel-courts-hotel routine, while the Paire positive, which was followed by a negative test several days later, saw tightened restrictions for 10 players deemed close contacts. There have also been fines for “unsportsmanlike conduct” issued to Dominic Thiem and Adrian Mannarino for breaches of mask-wearing protocols by entourage members.

It is a fragile, unprecedented situation, but Duckworth is glad he went. “I feel like overall the USTA has done a great job of creating a safe environment for the players,” he said via email from New York on Thursday. “The bubble has been a new experience, as has everything else that we have had to deal with in the last week or so.” Next stop is Europe, and for Duckworth it’s Kitzbühel, Austria, for the quick switch to clay ahead of the rescheduled French Open from September 27.

As for the future of tennis more broadly, and especially at the lower levels, Duckworth knows the prospect of future competition beyond the US and Europe is heavily vaccine-dependent. “It will be really interesting. I’m not sure how the game’s gonna go,” says Duckworth, who has been on the weekly Zoom conference calls organised by Australian Open tournament director Craig Tiley, and is grateful for the updates about plans and protocols both here and abroad. “We’ve got to see how we go these first few weeks, and see if we’re able to control cases at these events and see if the protocols and biosecurity measures work and then I guess go from there.”

On top of the threats to the second-tier Challenger level that is home to so many of the sport’s non-superstars, Matt Reid is among those who suspects doubles will be most susceptible to the inevitable revenue squeeze. “I wouldn’t be surprised if they start getting rid of doubles. [Champion American brothers] the Bryans are done now. Apart from when the big singles names [play], and apart from in Australia and Great Britain, a lot of people don’t look at doubles – I doubt many people could name the top 10. I feel like doubles will be the first thing to go if tennis does struggle.”

How long Reid continues is also uncertain, but having peaked at No. 183 in singles and 60 in doubles, he will have no regrets when the time comes. “I’ve never been the best trainer…” he admits. “That’s probably why Nick and I got along pretty well.” Reid suspects that without the Covid-19 pause he would have continued the relentless shuffle on the tennis treadmill, doing pretty much what he has always done: play, lose and move on. Another week, another tournament.

During this fortnight, he has been keeping an eye on the Aussies’ scores, but missing New York more than the event. The symmetry comes with the fact that, as it was in March, there has been a late change of plans. Reid had intended to continue as a coach/quarryman until the Australian summer circuit began, but this week accepted an invitation to partner de Minaur in the French Open doubles. There will be a slightly “nervy” flight to Paris and then one straight home. Even with so little having returned to any kind of normal, Reid will be back to what he knows best. On the road again. For now.

This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on Sep 5, 2020 as "Altered courts".

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Linda Pearce is an award-winning freelance sportswriter, based in Melbourne.