Tennis players are staying in the game longer than ever, and making their breakthroughs later than ever. Yet the lifespan of the average pro career remains brutally short—imagine having to find an entirely new line of work in your 30s. Players need to make their money while their legs are still fresh, and to do that, most of them are willing to climb onto airplanes and crisscross the globe for 11 months a year.
Now, for the first time in living memory, they’ve been grounded. As of today, the players have lost a little more than two months to the coronavirus—doesn’t it feel more like two years?—and they won’t go back to work until late August at the earliest. That’s a bummer no matter what you’re ranked. If you’re Roger Federer or Serena Williams, you might feel like you’re watching your last chances to add to your Grand Slam totals slip by. If you were on a roll right before the break—like, say, 20-year-old Elena Rybakina, who was 21-4 in January and February—you’re going to have to start that roll all over again.
For four women—Amanda Anisimova, Alison Riske, Ajla Tomljanovic, and Danielle Collins—this period of enforced idleness will come to a temporary end over the weekend, when they participate in a MyUTR exhibition in Florida. It’s not a tour event; the scoring system is experimental; they’ll have to retrieve their own balls and towels; and the only fan in attendance may be a cow. But it’s a chance to play tennis, a chance to get off Zoom, a chance to earn some money. For us, it will be a chance to re-connect with their games and personalities.
None of these four are currently worrying about their Grand Slam totals, and none were on a hot streak right before the lockdown. Ranked from No. 19 to No. 56, they represent the WTA’s vast, ever-shifting middle ground. They’ve all had ups and downs, breakthroughs and setbacks—some more serious than others—over the last few years, and all are at slightly different stages of their careers. Judging by their social-media accounts, they’ve all been going through the same emotional phases—a mix of fear, boredom, and goofiness—as the rest of us during the lockdowns.
Tomljanovic, the only non-American in the event, may feel the urgency of time more acutely than the other women right now. Two weeks ago, she turned 27, which takes her from her mid-20s to her late-20s—still a big shift, psychologically, for a tennis player. Highly touted a decade ago, the rangy Australian has lacked the consistency of the top players for most of her career. In 2019, though, she had something of a surge, reaching a final in Thailand, beating Aryna Sabalenka in Miami, and topping out at a career-high No. 39. Since then, she has fallen back to No. 56, and her best shot of 2020 may have come during a press conference at the Australian Open. Asked about being ATP player Matteo Berrettini’s “fiancée,” Tomljanovic rolled her eyes and denied that she was any such thing. When she was asked if she preferred to be called Berrettini’s “girlfriend” instead, she said, “I guess. Ajla would be great, too.” Personally, I’ve always thought Tomljanovic had Top 20 potential. She says she’s happy off the court; maybe that can start to translate on the court when the lockdown is over.
Like Tomljanovic, Collins is a year removed from a career-best result. The 26-year-old American started 2019 with a stunning run to the Australian Open semifinals. But instead of conquering the tour, she found herself suffering from mysterious aches and pains. Finally, last October, the mystery was solved when she was diagnosed with rheumatoid arthritis. “It has been somewhat of a relief and completely validating to understand the cause of my pain,” Collins said. After reaching a career-high No. 23 last year, the Florida native has drifted back to No. 51. That doesn’t mean Collins has lost any of her famous confidence or competitive moxy. She must have a few—or a few thousand—“Come on!”s bottled up in her by now.
If any of these four women looked destined for bigger things in 2020, it was Riske. Last year, at 29, she reached the quarterfinals at Wimbledon and ascended to a career-high No. 18. Her flat-hitting style, which had looked disjoined at times in the past, began to click. How has the newly married Pittsburgh native been spending her quarantine? If you go by her Twitter account, she’s had a pretty relatable spring: She has spent it watching Tiger King and The Last Dance, and compulsively browsing realtor.com. Last week, Riske was back on the court, trying to find her timing again. She said it wasn’t easy, but that’s what exhibitions are for, right?
If anyone could have used some time away from the tour to collect herself and clear her head in 2020, it was Anisimova. Last summer, just before the US Open, the teenager’s father and longtime coach, Konstantin, died of a heart attack at 52. Anisimova pulled out of the Open, but couldn’t leave the court behind for long. “The only thing that helps is just playing tennis,” she told The New York Times. “That’s what makes me happy.” But mixing training with grieving was hard, and Anisimova ended up in tears after an early loss at the Australian Open in January. In March, she split with her new coach, Carlos Rodriguez, after two tournaments together. “No one can beat you up more than yourself,” the introspective Anisimova wrote on Twitter this spring. Maybe being away from the tour will give her a chance at a fresh start and a new perspective. She was a Grand Slam semifinalist at 17; nothing should hold her back for long.