Why Break Point Comes Between Tournaments For Some Players
PARIS -- Ah, the exquisite City of Light. Savoring the aroma of crepes and croissants as you walk past sidewalk cafes. Gazing at the impressionist paintings in the Musee D'Orsay. Cruising romantically past Notre Dame on the River Seine. Sipping wine under the Eiffel Tower as the sun sets. Does travel get any more sublime than this?
Yes, tennis players enjoy some of the greatest cities in the world. But while the destinations are usually wonderful, the traveling between those cities isn't always so fun.
"I traveled from Moscow to, I think, Chicago right after I had food poisoning, so I was on the plane for, like, a 13-hour flight. I don't think I have ever been more sick,'' Serena Williams says, adding that she spent most of the flight in the bathroom. "I will never forget that. I was so young and I was just so sick. It was just a disaster.
"I learned you probably shouldn't eat chili in Moscow.''
That's what tennis travel can be like. The most international game of them all, tennis requires that players travel all over the globe, shifting from one country to another on an almost weekly basis for a season that stretches over 11 months. And unlike athletes in team sports, they pay their own airfares.
"It's exhausting,'' Sam Querrey says. "A lot of people think you just travel around to these great places. They are great places and beautiful cities, but being away from home over half the year is exhausting. Being away from your friends and family and being in and out of hotel rooms and flights. It is fun, but it's tough, day after day, hotel room after hotel room.''
Bethanie-Mattek Sands lives in Scottsdale, Arizona. At least, that's what she considers home, but she lives mostly in planes, hotels and apartments around the world. She flew to Australia in January, playing in Brisbane, Sydney and Melbourne. Then she flew home for a brief time, then on to Brazil. Then to Mexico. Back home. Indian Wells. Home. Charleston. Then she flew to Europe to play in Stuttgart, Madrid, Rome, Nuremberg and here in Paris.
Following the French Open, she will fly home and then back to Europe for Wimbledon, followed by tournaments in Sweden and Austria. Then back home to play in the U.S. for the remainder of the summer, followed by trips to Brazil, Seoul, Tokyo, Beijing and perhaps Moscow (warning: don't eat the chili).
"You would think we would have chairman status on an airline, but we don't,'' Mattek-Sands says. "Because it's so hard to fly the same airline when you're going everywhere around the world.''
What, Southwest doesn't fly from Kuala Lumpur to Marrakech?
Madison Brengle played a tournament in Trnava, Slovakia, last year that ended so late she could not catch a train to Prague for a qualifying match she had the very next day. So she and a friend were booked into a hotel near the Bratislava train station, but when she arrived she learned it was a very seedy "cash-only, basically nightmare'' hotel.
The two were so terrified by the surroundings and voices outside that they piled all their luggage against the hotel room door to barricade it from possible attack.
"My friend travels with a pocket knife, so she took it out and put it on the nightstand,'' Brengle says. "And we're in our little track suits and we sat on the bed with our tennis rackets [as weapons]. If we make it through the night that's all we need, to survive the night.''
Brengle didn't sleep a wink, caught a 5 a.m. train, arrived in Prague around 10:30, showered quickly at her hotel, rushed to the tennis grounds and won her match.
Think Madison Bumgarner and the San Francisco Giants ever stay in a place like that?
Australia's Samantha Stosur was flying from Miami to Charleston, South Carolina, in March when the flight was first delayed for more than an hour due to a question about a passenger's luggage. When that was finally resolved and ready for takeoff, the pilot announced that there was a mechanical issue with the plane and they would have to return to the gate. Stosur booked a flight the next morning and went to a hotel, which was so bad she decided it would be better just to return to the airport and wait for her flight. She wound up sleeping on the luggage carrousel.
Or at least laying on the carrousel.
"It was noisy because you had the floor sweeper guy coming through,'' she says. "It wasn't one of the more fun moments, especially since I was completely by myself.''
Andrea Petkovic knows the feeling. She estimates she is on the road 40 weeks a year.
"I remember one trip,'' Petkovic says. "I came back from France and it was a little town, with no airport, no nothing, and I took the train, and I changed trains five times. It took 13 hours and I arrived, I don't know, at 8 p.m. and my parents forgot me at the train station and I had to wait another two hours because my parents forgot they have a daughter. That was very nice of them, and it showed me their love and appreciation for their daughter, I guess.''
Petkovic laughed. "Plus, it was my 18th birthday.''
Travel is not cheap
With a draining six-month season that includes 81 road games (plus spring training and possible playoffs), travel isn't easy in baseball. But at least when Clayton Kershaw loses a game, he doesn't have to quickly search Expedia.com to book a flight for the following morning. And then pay for it. And for his pitching coach's flight as well.
While tennis tournaments are required to provide lodging or stipends (to a certain amount), players must pay for their flights. And if they travel with a coach or others, they must cover their expenses as well. Querrey says he probably spends $50,000 on his own travel. Mattek-Sands' husband, Justin, estimates their annual travel costs are roughly $150,000.
Making things trickier is players don't know how long they'll last in a tournament. Which is why many players book only one-way tickets then book their next flight immediately after a loss.
It's easy to check out of a hotel early, but buying a flight, particularly a trans-oceanic flight, can be very expensive. Coco Vandeweghe estimated that one last-minute trip from Morocco cost $4,000. "Booking late flights is never cheap,'' she says.
A logical plan might be to book a departing flight the first day after the tournament starts. That way, if you lose in the first round, you can fly out without any financial hit. But if you advance, you can always pay the extra fare with your winnings.
Of course, there has to be a flight available the day you need to leave. Which isn't always the case.
Mattek-Sands said she played well and deep in Memphis, Tennessee, one year only to learn there was no flight available that could get her to the next tournament in time. Weather issues in Charleston, South Carolina, this spring caused some cancellations, and when Mattek-Sands tried to book a flight, she was told there was nothing available for four days. "I'm like, four days?'' She and her husband wound up driving to Augusta, Georgia, and flying out of there instead.
Even if you get on a plane, there is no guarantee it will get to its destination. Christina McHale was already on the plane late one night when the flight was canceled. She tweeted, "And there's no more flights for the night.''
And then there was the time this February when Jamie Murray booked a flight home after a doubles loss in Rotterdam, packed his bags and checked out of his hotel -- only to learn that he was still in the tournament as a lucky loser.
These things happen. As Steve Johnson says, "You travel every week. Something is bound to go wrong.''
"And sometimes the strikes don't help,'' Ernests Gulbis says. "We arrived in Rome and everybody was waiting for their bags like three and a half hours because the Italian people just decided to have a small strike. These are the things which don't even annoy you. Not anymore. They would annoy you if you go, for example, on vacation once a year. But if you travel every week, you just go with the flow.''
Still, they always have Paris
Major leaguers have equipment managers and clubhouse workers to pack and transport their bags. The non-elite tennis players have a little more work involved. Alize Cornet tweeted out a photo of her friend's gear. "That's maybe the worst part about this job,'' Cornet says, "packing the bags every week to go in different place, different hotel.''
Alison Riske lost her bag on a flight last week from Brussels to Strasbourg, France. She didn't get it back for five days, forcing her to borrow clothes from Brengle, Lauren Davis and Ajla Tomljanovic. "They were all clothing me until my clothes came.''
Some of the thickest pieces of luggage players carry are their passports. Most have to request extra pages because their passports are stamped so often, while players from some countries must get second passports so they can travel with one while submitting the other to an embassy with a visa request.
Mattek-Sands says Americans have it easier, but she nonetheless made a rookie mistake as a junior when she didn't fully complete the entrance requirements for a tournament in Japan. She was stopped at customs, taken to a quarantine area, questioned about whether she ever committed a crime and was warned she might never be allowed into Japan again. It got so bad that she began to cry, "I'm here to play tennis!''
Johnson says he's fortunate that he's never had anything go seriously wrong.
"Knock on wood,'' Johnson says. "It's just part of the occupation. You have to deal with it. It's not enjoyable, but when you get to the place, it's enjoyable. It's not quite as glamorous as maybe the top guys make it look, but that's what we're all working for.''
Plus, they are young and they are traveling the world to play a sport they love. And many make a lot of money. The travel might not always be fun, but they get to savor life in Rome, Madrid, Melbourne and, of course, Paris.
"I like the change, I like to be in a different city every week, exploring new things and meeting new people,'' Petkovic says. "For me it's just very rewarding. It gets you out of that normal day-to-day life. Just being in a different city and dealing with changing climates. There are always cities that are more exciting, like Madrid and Paris. And then there are other cities that aren't so exciting. Like Mason, Ohio, for example.
"But that's OK. I still like Mason, Ohio.''
So the cities are great. It's just getting to the cities that can be stressful.
"You ask any tennis player: If you could have a superpower, what would you want? And everyone says teleportation,'' Brengle says. "I don't care what other powers there are, that would make our life sooo much easier. Every tournament would be like a tournament at home. It's my dream in life. That would be the best.''