When Andy Murray arrived in China from England last month for the Asian tour swing, the weary champion grabbed a few hours sleep in Zhuhai before heading straight to the courts.
A couple of days earlier the three-time major champion had featured in Great Britain’s stirring triumph over France in Manchester which booked a spot in the Davis Cup Finals.
A social media post of Murray driving his younger teammate Jack Draper, who had clearly celebrated the triumph with enthusiasm, back to London went viral.
Murray had a clear goal in mind when he dragged himself out of bed and back onto the practice courts in Zhuhai, namely to adjust to the conditions as quickly as possible.
Dealing with jet lag and changes in court surfaces, balls, time and environments are a fact of life for tennis players given the global nature of the sport.
Murray’s challenge was to adapt from the chilly weather in Manchester to the stifling conditions in southern China, where the temperature was in the mid-30s and the humidity was hovering around 90 percent, as well as switching his body clock to local time.
“There are a few things that help me a little bit when I have a quick turnaround,” Murray said.
“When I arrive (at a tournament), I try to do multiple short practices in the build-up rather than one two-hour practice. I feel like I adjust to the conditions more quickly if I do 45-minute practises, or 30-minute practises, a few times a day.
“Apart from that, it is really just time … in the conditions before you start to adjust. You can’t expect to come and play and feel like you are back at home and feeling great.”
The impact of jet lag and adapting to different time zones is something every traveller experiences to differing degrees.
Symptoms include waves of fatigue in the middle of the day. Or long nights staring at the alarm clock in the dark of the night. Or hunger pains flaring at unusual times of the day.
Handling the challenge, or minimising its impact, is a critical skill for tennis players.
Earlier this month, four-time major champion Iga Swiatek confirmed she would not represent Poland in the Billie Jean King Cup finals next month due to travel-related challenges.
The three-time Roland Garros champion and American stars CoCo Gauff and Jessica Pegula will feature in the eight-player WTA Tour Finals in Cancun at the start of November.
The Billie Jean King Cup finals begin in Seville, Spain, just two days after the Mexico tournament finishes, and the trio decided it was too big an ask to compete in both events.
Swiatek also skipped last year’s Billie Jean King Cup for similar reasons, saying at the time the scheduling of the two major events created a “situation (that) is not safe for our health”.
After Murray’s epic triumph over Thanasi Kokkinakis in a match that finished at 4.05am in Melbourne in January, he highlighted how important sleep is for a tennis player.
“I’m sure if you went and spoke to some sleep experts and sports scientists, etcetera … they would tell you that sleep is the number one thing, that that’s the most important thing,” he said.
Former world No.4 Sam Stosur shakes her head when she looks at the scheduling decisions some younger players make, particularly those who skip from continent to continent from one week to the next.
Chasing an opportunity is not always worth it, she says, noting that as players become more established, they have a greater awareness of the stress travelling places on their bodies.
“It is like anything. Sleep deprivation is a form of torture and there is a reason why. It is because it is absolutely horrible. If you are not sleeping, it is rough,” she told The First Serve.
“You are going to need days to feel the best you possibly can and then not only that, but flying from (Cancun) to Saville (for example), it presents totally different scenarios on court.
“Sleep is important for recovery in normal situations, let alone adding in hours of difference on a clock. It does take some days to adjust.”
Dr Stephen Jasper, who has studied the impact of jet lag and fatigue on elite athletes, said it was clear a change in time zones can be detrimental to performance.
“Police, firefighters, medical professionals, industrial workers such as miners, there is an increase in mistakes when people are doing things later at night,” he told The Age after Murray’s Australian Open late night outing against Kokkinakis.
“I wrote an Olympics paper about it, that teams which travel a lot or are in changed time zones tend to lose out on gold medals.
“I predicted Australia would do well in Tokyo (because of the time zone) and that we will not do so well in Paris, and I’m very safe in that prediction.”
Japanese star Yoshihito Nishioka said that when he arrives for a tournament in a different time zone, he fights the urge to sleep, even if he is feeling particularly weary.
“When we go to the US from Japan in particular, it is the opposite way and opposite time, so I wake up really early and then feel really sleepy about noon time,” he said.
“We try to practise at that time and be on site. I feel like I am going to die, but I need to practise as much as possible and try to move the body as much as possible.
“That is the only way, I think, of how to fix it. If I went to bed when I felt tired, I would never change it. The best way is to go outside, even when you feel really tired.”
Stosur concurs, both in terms of the difficulties of getting onto time when travelling to the United States, but also in regards to how best to overcome jet lag.
“I always found going from Australia to LA really hard because the flights would land in the morning,” she said.
“Trying to stay up for that day was always brutal. By 3 o’clock you would want to go to bed. I’d maybe give myself half an hour of sleep, but it was always a tough ask.
“The key was to stay out of your hotel room, get out of there and walk around, try to stay busy. But that first night, staying up to an acceptable time to go to bed was key to me.”
Playing to empty stadiums was a challenge for players during the pandemic.
But Nishioka said he found the experience of living in a Covid-19 safe bubble after the tour resumed particularly testing when the circuit moved to Europe for an indoor swing.
“During the COVID time it was really tough to fix jet lag. We could not go outside during the European season, which was played indoors. I felt like I never saw the sun,” he said.
“After practice, we had to go straight back to the hotel, having dinner, breakfast and lunch, all the time indoors. And our practice sessions were also indoors.
“My body did not know where it was. To fix my jet lag, it took far more than a week and it was pretty rough.”
Stosur, the 2011 US Open champion, notes that even with the best preparation, a match schedule can also throw a player out as they are trying to combat jet lag.
“Some places, if you are waking up at 5am in the morning, you might think that is not too bad and you can get through it,” she said.
“But if you are that night match, that second night match, that is rough. If you are first on, it is no problem.
“You have to be totally adaptable, because you don’t know when you are playing. You might finish one match at 11 o’clock at night, and you are probably not sleeping until 3am, and then the next day you might have the third day match.
“You have always got to be really adaptable with how you recover, how you sleep, the sleep ins and early mornings. It is all so variable.
“The more you travel, the more you have to deal with it, you know it is part of it and you kick into the automatic mode where you have a couple of days of hurt. But you have to get through it at some stage.”