Recent events on the tour and in general life have spawned a think tank in this writer about the idea of a greater work/life balance and how it can improve performance and general wellbeing.
This phrase is being used now more than ever before as people suddenly find themselves with more time on their hands due to the pandemic. It has also become more of a hot topic since awareness around mental health has increased and how a poor work/life balance affects one's self.
A shift in thinking has been gradually taking place over the past few years as we move away from the usual office 9-5 grind and towards more flexible working arrangements.
This shift has got me thinking; can it be translated to professional sport and more specifically, the tennis world?
Luckily, I have some fairly good case studies for how this can work, and I don’t even need to leave Australia to find them. Ash Barty and Nick Kyrgios.
Both chose to forgo travelling around the world and instead stayed in Australia for 2020 and Kyrgios for large parts of 2021. For people who have been living out of a suitcase for so many years, it must’ve felt invigorating. No, life changing.
Kyrgios played his video games and even found the time to become a guest host on Australian Ninja Warrior. He also became a sane voice in the tennis world, calling out those who weren’t taking the pandemic seriously *cough Novak cough*.
When he returned to the court this year at Wimbledon, he looked like a man who had released every pressure valve that had been about to burst in his body and played his matches with a smile. Sure, he was underdone in terms of match practice and fitness, but he certainly cut a relaxed, happy figure. The much maligned ‘hot head’ had seemingly come to peace with who he is and who he will be as a tennis pla...no, entertainer.
Now look at Barty. Not much needs to be said to be honest. She went from drinking beer at the footy, to presenting her beloved Richmond the AFL Premiership Cup, to storming back onto the tour and winning Wimbledon. Let’s not forget the year she took off to play cricket in 2014 before her rise to multiple Grand Slam Champion.
She hasn’t missed a beat since she came back from her 2020 hiatus, winning tournaments on all surfaces and silencing her doubters along the way. Believe me, there were a lot of doubters. She didn’t deserve to be number one in the world apparently. I wonder if anyone would be brave enough to argue that now that she's back.
Oh, and for the person that was dominating when Ash was away. Well, she decided to take some time away from the game too. Naomi Osaka, in every way as talented as Barty - perhaps even more depending on which continent you ask that question - was by all money everyone's World Number One. Well, when Barty found her groove as the tour moved into the clay season, Osaka went the other way.
Suddenly, Osaka had major flaws and could only play well on the hard courts according to popular media. It seemed like all the talk was getting to her and, sure enough, it was.
The Japanese superstar bravely spoke about her issues with mental health and anxiety and made the decision to withdraw from Roland Garros and Wimbledon. She has declared she will take part in the Olympics in the hope she can win gold on home soil. We will have to wait and see what the results of her time off will be, but hopefully it was beneficial for her to reset and refresh. Just like it was for Barty and Kyrgios.
So, will we now see more players picking and choosing which events they want to play? My gut feeling is yes. Particularly the older guys like Fed and Rafa who may want to extend their glory years and don’t need to travel the world to pay the bills. Will we only see Rafa in Paris and New York? Roger in London? Novak...well, he’ll be everywhere, trying to win as many titles as he can because that’s Novak.
If more of the top players were selective with which events they play, it could open the possibility for lower ranked players to have a greater slice of the pie financially. It may uncover new talent and new fan favourites who may otherwise get eliminated early or not feature in ATP/WTA events regularly.
Of course, tournament organisers, government tourism departments and fans would be unsettled to learn that the best players in the world may not come to their city because they need time off. Gosh, you can hear the negative tweets already.
Flying all over the world year-round may sound glamorous but in reality I highly doubt it would be all that flash. You aren’t afforded the comforts of home and the normality that comes with everyday life. Taking the dog for a walk or going around to a friend's place for a catch-up are simple things that you and I take for granted but are luxuries foreign to those committed to the tour.
As a tennis pro you might be lucky enough to be afforded a month off at the end of the year but, it isn’t really time off. You have to spend that month training anyway because of a jam-packed schedule that doesn’t afford you any rest. In fact, the first major tournament of the year is in January which you need to be in form for, otherwise you’re playing catchup for the remainder of the year.
I can already hear a chorus of “They get paid millions of dollars to play, this is their job, they should suck it up.”
It is their job. You have yours, and I have mine. Guess what, I get holidays and I’m sure a majority of you do as well. Getting paid a handy wage doesn’t make you exempt from stress and everything else that comes with it. Just ask Naomi Osaka.