On Behind The Racquet, Noah Rubin brings tennis players' mental, emotional struggles into focus

Noah Rubin restored his love of tennis in part by engaging in open conversations with his competitors and posting their stories and photos on his online platform, Behind The Racquet. EPA/TRACEY NEARMY

"This sport has a way of making you feel irrelevant while at the same time giving you this sense of entitlement ... Chances are if you were once 'talk of the town,' that will quickly diminish over time."
-- Noah Rubin, Behind The Racquet

AS THE CLOCK crept toward midnight and the winds blew off the Mediterranean and into the Puente Romano Tennis Club, Noah Rubin hunted for an escape. It was March 2018. Rubin had just lost his fifth straight professional tennis match, a disappointing two-and-a-half-hour roller-coaster ride that was a microcosm of his career.

The grounds of the chic club, founded by Bjorn Borg on the Spanish Riviera in 1979, had long ago emptied. Groundskeepers had switched off all the lights except for the ones for the court where Rubin had just lost. Security closed and locked up the café. Rubin, more than 3,500 miles from his New York home, gathered his belongings and headed into the darkness. Four courts away, he found a set of empty cement stairs. He sat down. And began to cry.

Fifteen months earlier, there had been another walk, onto the famous blue court of Melbourne's Rod Laver Arena for a second-round Australian Open match against Roger Federer. Rubin threw everything he had at Federer that sweltering January afternoon. After breaking Federer's serve in the third set, he instinctively pumped his fist and screamed "Come on!" The outburst irked the tennis great, and Federer stared through Rubin during the subsequent break.

"I was like, 'I pissed off Roger Federer,'" Rubin said. "How amazing is that?"

Rubin lost in three sets that day but won the belief he belonged. A little more than a year later, after this first-round qualifying loss on the ATP Challenger Tour, tennis' version of the minor leagues, the swagger was gone, replaced by anger, embarrassment and a plummeting sense of self-worth.

"I just didn't feel I was worth anyone's time," Rubin said.

The story is a common one in tennis. Young star tastes the big time but struggles to escape the clutches of the game's proving grounds. It's a grueling climb, one athletes rarely discuss publicly until it's over. Their competitive shield is too thick, the fear of vulnerability too strong. Rubin believed he had the talent -- and work ethic -- to be a top-50 player and build a comfortable life playing the game he loved. But he couldn't crack the top 150 and was barely breaking even.

"I could just sort of feel my soul slipping away," he said of that night in Spain. "I just sat there thinking, 'What am I doing that I'm so upset and so miserable on the tennis court?' It was my lowest point. It was also a beginning."

"People forget we aren't robots. People see this fantasy world and guess that everything is kind of perfect. There are true struggles that each and every player deal with that are far more important than winning or losing."
-- James Blake, Behind The Racquet

NINE MONTHS AFTER the disappointment in Spain, Rubin sat in his childhood bedroom in Long Island, jet-lagged from his most recent trip to the Australian Open. It had been another up-and-down stretch for Rubin. He temporarily numbed the pain of six straight losses with an August 2018 upset of fellow American and then-No. 9 John Isner. But he then began 2019 with a second-round qualifying loss in Melbourne.

"He was down on himself and struggling, big-time," said Tallen Todorovich, Rubin's agent. "He was this blue-chip recruit who thought he would show up and have immediate success."

As the clock pushed past 3 a.m., Rubin scrolled through Instagram while watching "Inst@famous," a Netflix documentary about social media influencers. He thought about "Humans of New York," the social media project turned New York Times bestselling book profiling random New Yorkers blurred in the shuffle of the largest city in America. He wondered about applying a similar concept to tennis players lost in the pursuit of their on-court dreams.

The idea was simple, combining his passion for tennis, photography and journalism. Athletes would pose for a picture hiding their faces behind the strings of their racket. Then, in their own words, they would reveal the human struggles behind chasing greatness. Within an hour he had a name, "Behind The Racquet." He quickly registered Instagram and Gmail accounts and purchased the URL www.behindtheracquet.com for $750.

On Jan. 19, 2019, Rubin posted the first picture for the project. It was a shot of himself, his face slightly blurred by the lime green strings of his racket. Below the photo, he revealed his greatest fear: letting down the people closest to him. It was an emotion he felt from an early age in a tennis-loving family. Rubin's grandfather, a self-taught tennis star, passed the game on to Noah's father, who put a racket in Noah's crib when he was 1.

Noah's dad was his coach early on, and Noah saw him lose work after his boss would give him an ultimatum about choosing the boy's tennis tournaments over his work commitments. He saw his mom, who worked in education, sacrifice her summers to work at a local sports facility so Noah and his sister could receive free lessons. Then he saw his parents' marriage fall apart. They divorced when he was 12.

"I always felt this yearning to pay my parents back," said Rubin, now 24. "I would ask myself, 'Am I doing enough for all their time and effort? Is all this worth it for them?' Tennis is one of the most financially grueling sports. We were not wealthy. We were fine. But they used basically hundreds of thousands of dollars to pay for this. That's tough."

To the outside world, it all seemed worth it. By the age of 7, Rubin was beating kids five years older. By 12 he was competing internationally as one of the top-ranked players his age. Then at 18, with his dad watching from the stands, Rubin won the Wimbledon boys' championship. Lawrence Kleger, the director of the John McEnroe Tennis Academy, tagged Rubin the best player to come out of New York since McEnroe himself.

It all led to a young man growing up fast. A young man sitting in his childhood bedroom on that January night in 2019 still trying to process it all. His place. His purpose. An understanding of what happiness and contentment actually looked like. Why was the game he loved making him so miserable? He'd begin to find answers through sharing the struggles of others.

"Throughout my life, I was always the youngest to do things, which added hype that I didn't want. ... I was just lost. I was confused and overthinking if this was what I wanted or what others did. It took many moments sitting, thinking and crying."
-- Coco Gauff, Behind The Racquet

IN THE 16 months since launching Behind The Racquet, Rubin has shared more than 135 stories while building a following of more than 40,000 people on social media. The posts have shown the human side of sport, shining a spotlight on everything from eating disorders and speech impediments to the death of a parent and battles with depression and anxiety.

"These are humans. They have pitfalls," says retired American tennis star James Blake, who has contributed to the site. "It's great for young players to get that perspective. In the past, it was all kept secret. But this will help so many realize they're not alone. It's OK. And it's a positive to get help." Blake believes the pressure in tennis and other individual sports is unlike any other.

"That's why some of the best talent isn't always the best performer," he said. "Every tennis player can tell you about a guy who beat them in practice but couldn't put together the results when it came time to perform."

Rubin does the interviews for most of the posts, then paraphrases those conversations into the subject's voice. In one of his early interviews with his friend Darian King from Barbados, Rubin discovered that King had lost his mom in 2010 to pancreatic cancer, which he did not previously know.

"I stopped the interview," Rubin said. "I just felt so sorry. I felt like an awful friend. But it wasn't on him or me. It was on everybody. There just isn't a platform to feel comfortable talking about things like that."

In early 2019, Rubin connected with Jolene Watanabe, who upset Jennifer Capriati in the 1997 Australian Open. Watanabe was fighting appendix cancer and wanted to spread a message of hope and resilience. Rubin planned to run the post a few weeks later. But then he received a message from Watanabe's husband, Sylvain Elie. The couple had just returned from the Mayo Clinic, and the news was not good. Doctors told Watanabe she had two weeks to live. She was saying her final goodbyes. Elie asked Rubin whether he could put her on Behind The Racquet before she died.

"She was basically bedridden," Elie said. "She wasn't using her phone that much. I told her you might want to check Behind The Racquet. She was emotional about it. It meant a lot to her."

Added Rubin: "Here's this dumb idea I had jet-lagged, and it becomes one of someone's final wishes. I can't even compute and articulate what that means. If anything, it just shows I have to keep doing this."

In April, L'Equipe, the daily French sports newspaper, included Rubin as one of six active players in its list of the 20 most influential people in tennis. The other five: Federer, Novak Djokovic, Andy Murray, Rafael Nadal and Serena Williams. The paper referred to Rubin as a "lanceur d'alerte," a whistleblower.

There's now a Behind The Racquet podcast, merchandise and long-term talks of a docuseries and a tabletop book. Rubin hopes to share the stories of athletes in other sports while also connecting with Talkspace, an online therapy platform, and developing mental health camps through the National Alliance on Mental Illness.

"It's grown into something far bigger than I could have imagined," Rubin said.

"It always affects me when people judge without any thought. It is one thing to argue but to think your opinion is the best never makes sense."
-- Daniil Medvedev, Behind The Racquet

IF THERE'S ONE thing all professional athletes know, it's that everyone has an opinion. For Rubin, it started with the passive-aggressive comments of neighborhood parents when he would miss a birthday or bar mitzvah for a tennis tournament. As a professional, it's become the gamblers, who Rubin says reach out on social media with everything from "Your mom should die in hell" to "Hitler should have killed your people." "The most racist, homophobic, sexist, anti-Semitic comments you can imagine," he says. "It's incredible." Now the topic is Behind The Racquet. There are those who insist Rubin is complaining because he is not good at tennis, others who suggest Behind The Racquet is a distraction getting in the way of his tennis potential, and still others who insist just the opposite, that tennis is getting in the way of Behind The Racquet and his mental health work.

"Everything changes depending how I played that day," he said. "I'm always like, 'Just pick one, people.'"

For now, Rubin's plan is to pursue both lanes. It's become normal for Rubin to compete at a tournament and have a competitor tell him that he appreciates the site or that he's thought about how he would share his own story.

"On the most basic of levels, it's gotten people to think about these things, maybe even speak to others about them," he said.

Rubin has spent the coronavirus pandemic back in New York with his girlfriend, practicing on the streets while using his free time to focus even more on Behind The Racquet. He says he has more than 30 interviews in his queue.

On a personal level, he has finally found a balance of happiness and contentment. His game is as strong as it's been, he insists. And even when he does inevitably struggle, he has learned how to handle it better.

"It's become an extreme form of therapy," he said. "You have these deep conversations and begin to understand there is more to life than tennis. There's more to tennis than tennis. And you can't give up your happiness to get to the top."