There’s no denying that needles are a sensitive subject. Whether it’s the pricking itself or a history of dreadful experiences—mental or physical—several factors contribute to widespread aversion.
For Anastasia Potapova, the world No. 75 meets her match when shots are her opponent.
“It’s always a battle for me to do a blood test or anything that includes needles,” she tells TENNIS.com.
Needles reemerged as a global topic of discussion when multiple companies began developing vaccinations at the height of the COVID-19 pandemic last year. Roll out began in mid-December, and as of now, the only way to administer the vaccine is through needle injection.
Like everyone else, tennis players have seen their job landscape change significantly. Tournament bubbles, hotel quarantines, slashes in prize money, limits to traveling team members, playing behind closed doors and reductions in playing opportunities below the tour level are among the impacted areas WTA and ATP athletes have been forced to accept.
Volvo Car Open/Chris Smith
Will the outlook improve as the year goes on? It's an impossible question to answer. That said, in Charleston, S.C. this week, WTA players entered at the 500-level tournament were presented a noteworthy opportunity—one that shows the sport has genuine ambitions to support their competitors in returning to familiar playing environments.
“All participants got an email like a day or two before the tournament started about the possibility to get vaccinated,” shares Oksana Kalashnikova, ranked No. 65 in doubles. “It was up to every player to confirm if she wanted to get her shot.”
In cooperation with the Volvo Car Open and Plantation Pharmacy, a local drugstore, WTA secured single dose, Johnson & Johnson Janssen COVID-19 vaccinations for their entrants. The program is available for two weeks, with the LTP Daniel Island Tennis Center hosting consecutive tournaments. (A 250 event was added to the 2021 calendar for the week of April 12 earlier this year, when the ITF postponed the Billie Jean King Cup Finals.)
“With the state of South Carolina opening up vaccine eligibility on March 31 to everyone over the age of 16 to anyone that desires to be vaccinated, the WTA and Volvo Car Open were provided the opportunity to secure vaccines while remaining respectful to the priority of local access,” says Amy Binder, the WTA’s Vice President of Global Communications. “We are very grateful for this opportunity, especially with the single dose vaccine, which is ideal for the global nature of our tour.
“We of course hope to have other chances to secure the vaccine when it is feasible, factoring in various countries and their own vaccine rollout. The WTA does encourage everyone that has the opportunity to get vaccinated to protect not only themselves, but the communities in which they reside.”
Potapova’s agent originally spotted the prospect and encouraged the 20-year-old to check her email. Her first reaction was, “Why not?” While she admits a decision to proceed wasn't easy, Potapova opted in after taking a few days and consulting with her team.
And her needle problems? They were soon quashed.
“I was super nervous, but I was so wrong. It literally took three seconds to do it,” she says. “I didn’t feel the shot at all. After a few seconds, I felt a bit of soreness in my arm but in five minutes, it was gone.”
Kalashnikova, who previously contracted COVID-19, felt a bit lightheaded shortly after being inoculated. Outside of that, her side effects were limited and by day two, deemed herself back to normal. The 30-year-old’s motivation to take advantage of the unexpected offering extended beyond her well-being.
“I wasn't planning to get one but then realized it would help me with traveling,” says the Georgian, who alongside Alla Kudryavtseva, was eliminated by Potapova and Ons Jabeur in the first round. “Every player sent a request and was given the day and time when to get her shot, but only when you were out of the tournament.”
After her immunization was complete, Potapova—whose tournament ended Thursday—headed straight for the airport. Beyond her initial sore arm, the Russian experienced a round of chills. She’s now without symptoms, and is full of gratitude for what her tour and its partners provided.
“I didn’t plan it at all, so that’s why it was so surprising for all of us. It’s better to have the vaccine than the virus,” Potapova says. “Really thankful to WTA for this opportunity, I hope one day we can go back to normal.”
Back to normal: when, or if, that moment arrives is a question that burns inside each of us. But with proactive, collaborative approaches like this one carried out in Charleston, it can only drive forward the common goal of reinstating what normalcy used to look—and feel like.