UTR's event gives Riske and tour pals a chance to "feel normal again"

UTR's event gives Riske and tour pals a chance to "feel normal again"

The world No. 19 will be joined by Amanda Anisimova, Ajla Tomljanovic and Danielle Collins at this weekend's UTR Pro Match Series in West Palm Beach, Fla.

In the early stages of at stay-at-home orders brought on by the COVID-19 pandemic, many across the globe turned to online shopping to seek out necessities and products to enhance life under quarantine. Except there was one problem: the E-commerce world wasn’t prepared to take on the exponential increase in demand, from groceries and cleaning supplies to workout equipment.

Fortunately for Danielle Collins, the former Australian Open semifinalist beat out the competition. A week before product inventory disappeared, the 26-year-old bought several gym essentials, like dumbbells and a straight bar, and soon converted her living room into a gym. And when Indian Wells was canceled, it allowed Collins to take a couple weeks off to properly nurse an ab injury that had been bothering her.

Having ramped up her training in St. Petersburg, Fla., the former University of Virginia standout has kept in shape by hitting with local college players. This weekend, she will put her competition level to its biggest test since January as one of four competitors at the UTR Pro Match Series in West Palm Beach, which will air live on Tennis Channel beginning Friday.

“I was lucky to be able to get my equipment early. There was a fitness store in Tampa, too, that had some extra stuff I wanted to get,” Collins said in a Zoom press conference on Wednesday. “This actually gave me a little bit more time to heal and work my way back into everything gradually. I’ve now been able to get on the court pretty much every day.

“Things have been pretty lenient here, so I’ve been able to get around and practice at different places, with different players. It’s been fine for me, which is nice, because I know it so many parts of the world, people are barely able to leave their house.”

Joining Collins in the four-woman field are world No. 19 Alison Riske, 2019 Roland Garros semifinalist Amanda Anisimova and Australian No. 2 Ajla Tomljanovic. Having been slightly “let down” by her quarantine birthday celebration two weeks ago, the now 27-year-old Tomljanovic thought along the same lines as Collins by putting together a makeshift exercise room at her home in Boca Raton, where boyfriend Matteo Berrettini is also staying.

“My body started to hurt because I wasn’t doing anything. I was like, ‘OK I need to get in the gym’. I set up a little thing in my garage,” she said. “Once the courts started opening up, I started hitting with my dad. Matteo has been in Florida since Indian Wells, so he was hitting with me. Now he found someone better, so I’m just kind of scraping for people to hit with.”

Anisimova, the youngest of the four competitors, has made an effort to put a positive spin on the situation as much as possible, using her time away from the tour to reflect on life and remind herself of what she can be grateful for.

“It was really challenging at first, the unknown about the future, when we’re going to play again. It’s put things into perspective, everything that’s going on,” the 18-year-old said. “There are bigger things going on with the health of others, so it’s OK to be on pause for a little bit. I’m sure we’ll come back soon.

“It’s going to be nice for me to go out and play some matches, because I’ve really missed it. I’m not really going to care about how I’m going to play or not being at my A Game. It’s just going out and having fun, just being back at it.”

The series debuted two weeks ago with a men’s tournament, won by Reilly Opelka. A number of new safety regulations, such as players using their own set of balls and workers sanitizing the court in-between every match were implemented. For Riske, who will carry an event-leading UTR rating of 13.19, those measures are one of the primary reasons why she feels “comfortable” getting back out there.

“We know we’re being looked after, being taken care of and just are smart about it. I think it’s really exciting, just to have something that makes us feel normal again. To compete, to be on a tennis court, to have that opportunity is really awesome.

“For me, the most challenging part I think, has kind of just been the mentality. I’ve been trying not to fixate too much on it, just because it’s out of our control.”

With tournaments currently suspended through July, details began to emerge on the distribution of the Player Relief Program. Initially reported to be backed by the WTA, ATP, ITF and controllers of the four majors, it appears the initiative has been segmented. There was also a proposal, led by Novak Djokovic, Rafael Nadal and Roger Federer, that encouraged players inside the Top 100 of the ATP Rankings to contribute to the overall efforts. Dominic Thiem was the first to publicly oppose to the idea, receiving his fair share of criticism, and while WTA players weren’t asked to do the same by their Player Council members, Tomljanovic and Riske both agreed no one should be condemned for not agreeing with the notion.

“We’ve all been through the process of going up the ranks and we all know how hard it is. So I understand why they did that,” said Tomljanovic. “But at the same time, I also understand people who choose to help other organizations and things that are closer to their heart than tennis players ranked less than us. I can see both sides but I think the initiative is very nice.”

“I also think it can be a tough ask to force something upon a player in having to make that decision, forfeiting basically x amount to help someone ranked maybe say 500,” added Riske. “I think it is a great initiative. It’s a tough ask and I think it should be a player’s decision to donate where they choose to donate accordingly, as Ajla stated.”

For all four, this weekend will present an opportunity to play in a televised event without fans present for the first time. Based on previous matches, Collins is expected to be the most demonstrative of the bunch, and it shone through on Wednesday’s call when she put Riske on notice.

“All of us know each other pretty well, and we’ve all competing against each other, with each other at some point in time, so I think we’re all really looking forward to going out on the court,” said Collins. “I’m still going to be expressive, get in Ali’s face, because she was texting my boyfriend earlier this week, so I got to get back at her. I’m kidding! (laughter)”

Chimed in Riske, “I’m so thrown off by that trash talk.”

Anisimova, who partnered Collins in doubles at the 2019 Australian Open, played down her countrywoman’s fire.

“I don’t really know what to comment about Danielle’s trash talking, because I haven’t really heard her say anything really bad,” she said.

Could there be a dark horse when it comes to talking smack? None were presented, but perhaps Tomljanovic could sneak up on the rest of the group, if she picked up enough vocabulary during her isolation with Berrettini.

“I’ve been trying to learn Italian. I did start really well,” she said. “I improved a lot in the first couple weeks and then it got really tough, so I’m kind of throwing in the towel.”