In the aftermath of an unpredictable 2020 season, player-turned-analyst Daniela Hantuchova believed tennis fans could be certain of one thing in the new year.
“It’s strange because, at some point, I was thinking we would see unbelievable matches,” mused the former world No. 5, “because players got to have a longer pre-season than normal, and everyone seemed to be training incredibly hard.”
For dozens of players relegated to a strict 14-day quarantine ahead of the Australian Open, that momentum will be hard to maintain from their hotel rooms—leading many to get creative and share the results on social media.
“There’s nothing you can do to perfectly replicate the movements you make on a tennis court, but I’m seeing a lot of players trying to do weight and balance training, biking, and all of that. I would compare it to a situation where you end up sick right before a tournament or, say, before a Slam, and as much as you want to play and prepare, it’s not good for your body.”
Hantuchova, who interviewed Tennis Australia CEO Craig Tiley in the latest episode of her podcast The Real DNA, enjoyed some her best Grand Slam results at the Happy Slam. In 2006, she stunned defending champion Serena Williams in the third round; two years later, she roared into the semifinals and came agonizingly close to victory against eventual runner-up Ana Ivanovic. Though she only departed from the tour in 2017, no amount of experience could have prepared her for a global pandemic.
“I keep asking myself how I would have been able to do it. I probably would have put a hole through to the next room with how many volleys I would be trying to hit against the wall. I think they all deserve so much credit because, mentally, to have to deal with this, it’s extremely challenging, and admirable that they’re all going through this.
“As a professional athlete, it’s hard to explain to normal people. You’ve done all this hard pre-season work, you’re ready to go, and your muscles are firing, ready to be on the court, and now you have to sit in a room for 14 days; that’s really hard to accept.”
Some advice she did have for those still stuck in quarantine: take your time in getting back to tennis.
“It’ll be so important for players that, once they get out of their rooms, they have long warm-ups, and that they’re not rushing—even though they will feel a sense of urgency. They’ll need to take that time to warm-up well and get the bodies going again, because mentally, they will want to be back on court as soon as possible.
“When you think of the 14 days, you have to consider the first few days, and how, there’s the jet lag players deal with. It might even be a good thing to have had those days off because sometimes we rush too early to get on court.
“Who knows? The first four or five days may show them a better way of preparing for tournaments in the future, and could open new possibilities for years to come. It’s easier said than done, but those extra few minutes to prepare the body to hit balls will be crucial.”
Between the ATP Cup and joined events in Melbourne for both the men’s and women’s players, opportunities abound to get back into match fitness before the first major tournament of 2021 begins. With physicality up in the air for many, Hantuchova gives the early edge to two groups of players: those who make the most of these two weeks, and those who remain mentally tough enough to take on the best in the world.
“It’s such a new situation that it may be impossible to predict, but there’s an undeniable advantage to the players who are currently able to go out and hit some balls. You can try to stay sharp in the hotel room, physically, but we all know that, if you go without hitting those shots for too long, the timing can go off quite quickly. I think we can expect a lot more from those who are able to get that on-court practice in.
“As far as looking at the tournaments, I think mentality will be the main key: who can be tough as nails and ready to adapt to this kind of situation?”
How much those two groups overlap, however, remains to be seen.