Top 10: Flying tennis players

Sep 19, 2014, 12:00:00 AM

In the world of professional tennis more than anywhere else, planes are an integral part of the daily life of every top player. Between aviophobia and air crash, WAT goes back on ten stories of the mean of transport of the little yellow ball.

Tournaments all over the world, all year round, mandatory international travels: in the world of tennis more than anywhere else, planes are part of the daily life of all the top players. Between aviophobia and air crashes, WAT goes back on ten stories about the favourite (or despised) mean of transport of the little yellow ball.


1/ Marc Rosset, Mats Wilander and the lucky changes of mind


In 1988, Mats Wilander, then World No. 1, was planning to travel to the US in order to get a knee surgery ahead of the forthcoming Australian Open. But a few days before Christmas, the Swede hesitated, and at the last minute, gave up. Nice intuition: on the 21st of December 1988, the Pan Am Flight 103 in which he was supposed to be, exploded over the town of Lockerbie in Scotland, victim of an attack attributed to Libya. No survivors. Similarly, Marc Rosset lost in the first round of the US Open 1998. A big surprise. To go back to Switzerland, he then booked a ticket on Swissair. After deciding to train a few more hours on the courts of Flushing Meadows, he changed his flight... That same Flight 111 from New York to Geneva which crashed hours later in the Canadian sea, killing two hundred and thirty passengers!


2/ A military aircraft, Bill Tilden and a photographer


In 1920, during the US championship finals in Forest Hills, Bill Tilden was facing Bill Johnson, the defending champion. The match was tight; the stakes were high: the winner of the tie would take the first place in the international ranking. But early in the fifth round, a military aircraft hovering over the court to take pictures violently crashed a few miles from the stadium. The photographer and the pilot were killed instantly. Stupefaction invaded the stadium, but the match eventually resumed with Tilden becoming world number 1.


3/ « Nadal hugged me »


Wojtek Fibak, does this name ring a bell? Greatest Polish player of all time, the former winner of the Australian Open met Rafael Nadal on a day of 2010 in the alleys of the Monte Carlo tournament. Ironically, the meeting happened days after the crash of the Tupolev Tu-154, which caused the death of 96 passengers, including the Polish President Lech Kaczynski. The two players exchanged a few words, and then the Spaniard, overwhelmed with emotion, took Fibak in his arms. He even started crying. "Nadal hugged me, remembers the Polish. He told me that he was very fond of Poland, which is where he won his first ATP title (At the Sopot tournament in 2004, ed.) I couldn't believe it. What a guy! "


4/ « That guy is a moron»


In 2010, the American player Wayne Doeskin was arrested at the airport of Brisbane, Australia, with importunate luggage: eight vials filled with growth hormones, anxiously muffled in some of his socks. As a defence, he told the judges that the substance had been recommended to him as a treatment for his injuries, but he was unable to produce any therapeutic authorization or to remember the name of the doctor who would have prescribed those infamous remedies. Result: he was fined 6 000 euros, a two-year suspension and a punchline from his compatriot Andy Roddick: "This is pure cheating and the authorities should kick him out of tennis. I was shocked. We don't need stories like that. I have no sympathy for him. This guy is a moron.


5/ « Yes, I have a private jet. But I also have a helicopter and a submarine »


"I gave enough to tennis and tennis gave me enough. I can go home in a private jet" said Pete Sampras at the end of his career. Today, players are less patient. For added comfort and speed, the best of them don't hesitate to use private jets rental companies. Or even to buy their owns. This is the case of Ernest Gulbis, who has often been "criticized" to fly untrammelled everywhere thanks to the plane of his father, one of the richest men in Lithuania. A rumour to which he has recently responded wryly: "Yes, I have a private jet. But I also have a helicopter and a submarine."


6/ « Tennis is a travelling circus »


Sydney, Tokyo Paris. Three remote cities. Three continents. Three tournaments. Only one player: Boris Becker. At 18, the German started this world tour in 21 days marked by three victories. "Professional tennis is a traveling circus, he said at the end of the trip. This tour around the world was a great experience and it was probably the best three weeks of my career." You definitely need to be good at handling the jet lag in order to endure such a journey: Starting from Hong Kong, where he played an exhibition match, it took Becker ten hour to reach Sydney. Then ten more hours to reach Tokyo, and finally fifteen hours to get to Paris. He then said: "After France, I slept almost 24 hours."


7/ Airport, US Open and porn


The US Open is a world of excess. Between the smell of grease and burgers, the "Greatest Show on earth" as Henri Leconte once called it, has long held its reputation due to the air traffic, over the courts, of all the planes from La Guardia. In 1978, the American Federation indeed decided to organize the tournament near the runways of one of the busiest airports in the country. A year later, in a legendary match against John McEnroe, Ilie Nastase, disturbed by this air noise, asked to stop the game. His excuse? The Romanian wanted to call the control tower at La Guardia to ask if the planes could be diverted. Request denied. "Inside out, I never liked planes, he explained a few years later in his autobiography. I was often drinking during my long flights to try and relax. Or I was reading porn. And believe me, those are the only magazines that I have ever read through the end."


8/ « I couldn’t get on a plane»


Great hope of French tennis, Olivier Mutis has for two years been forced to adjust its international schedule to his fear of flying – also called aviophobia. A phobia that started after a shaky take-off in Greece, in 2000 "A few minutes after leaving the ground, a strong smell of burning started to spread in the plane which pitched nose down. All the lights went on, it was horrible, remembered Olivier Mutis in the Republican Lorrain. I threw up in the toilet, I was traumatized. My coach however had a different experience, he was laughing like a child coming out of a thrill ride at a theme park." Heavy consequences: the player "couldn’t get on a plane" and therefore had to refuse all the tournaments that were too far away. "I favoured France, Germany, Belgium, Italy... Actually, all the tournaments that were less than 300 miles away, said the player. All those accessible by car." The man who retired 12 years ago admits that he can now fly without too much difficulty, but always in first class, even if it's much more expensive: "For added security and champagne."


9/ Has Djokovic really played on the wings of a plane?


To what length would a player go for his sponsor? In 2011, as long promised by his equipment manufacturer, Head, Novak Djokovic played a tennis match on the wings of an airplane in flight. Proof in pictures, with a question: real exploit or video montage? You'd be disappointed with the answer...



10/ An airport sponsoring Aravane Rezaï


In 2006, the young French girl Aravane Rezai, revelation of the season, signed her first professional contract with a sponsor, unexpected to say the least: Beauvais airport in northern France. For several months, the logo of the aerodrome appeared on the shirt of the player against an estimated 30,000 euros a year and free tickets for her and her companions for all the flights leaving from the airport. At the time, Marc Amoudry, Director of the local Board of Trade and Industry, said: "In one or two years, Aravane won't probably need Beauvais Airport anymore so we will have to add a zero to the contract. But we will have been her first sponsor." And her last.


By Victor Le Grand