India's doubles expert Divij Sharan's season began in the first week of January in Doha. In the two months of action, he played seven tournaments but hasn't played a competitive match in a month now. This period will stretch to at least three-and-a-half months. The break is unprecedented for most players on the tennis tour where the off-season lasts three weeks before they have to pick up from where they left off. The situation is unprecedented too.
With coronavirus pandemic spreading globally and the number of cases going past 3,00,000 with over 14,000 deaths, the sporting world has come to a grinding halt, including the tennis season. On 12 March, ATP Tour suspended the season for six weeks and six days later, it was pushed further to 7 June. ATP Challenger tournaments in Nur-Sultan, Kazakhstan and Potchefstroom, South Africa were stopped midway.
Divij Sharan during the Australian Open. Sportscomm
This sudden extensive break comes as an opportunity for Sharan to work on his fitness and mental fatigue after plenty of travel already. "I'm just getting ready to start training again. I've had a lot of traveling, I've not spent that much time with the family. So just been catching up with them. As tennis players, we play tournaments throughout the year so I think this is the time that we can use to really improve on things that we need to work on."
"Our off-season is usually two or three weeks and then we're supposed to get going again. Physically, mentally to use this prolonged period to work on things. If you work on your fitness for three weeks, there's some improvement. But if you have six weeks, which is not common in tennis, I think you can make a lot more improvement. So that's something I would be looking to do. I know it's a tough situation to be in. But I like to look at the positives and try to make the most from the situation," he said in a conversation from London.
With most facilities closed in a lockdown, Sharan is lucky to have a tennis court available at a club where he and wife Samantha Murray, also a tennis player, can get a hit. But he acknowledges the bulk of the focus is going to be on physical fitness. The 34-year-old said the important thing at such a time is to form a routine.
"The key would be able to get into a routine. It's not easy as tennis players because we're used to play plenty of tournaments. Now suddenly there is no tournament to look forward to and there's a big gap before we play our next tournament. It just feels like there's just too much time. Key for me would be to try my best given the situation with no access to gym and tennis courts being restricted or limited. There are a lot of things I can work on and improve even at home. So I guess my plan will be to just make a good routine and keep monitoring my progress and improvement to stay on track. Because it's such a long time, it's easy to slack off a little bit."
Sharan, ranked 56 in the world, has had a tough year with early exits while partnering New Zealand's Artem Sitak. There have been four quarter-final appearances but all came in 16-team draws which effectively translated to an exit in the second round. The last final or title came in September in St Petersburg alongside Igor Zelenay. He was on his way back from the Davis Cup tie in Zagreb, Croatia, where he remained a reserve behind Leander Paes and Rohan Bopanna, when the news of flights being curtailed and Indian Wells getting cancelled became official.
With a 5-7 win-loss rate in 2020, the combination with Sitak wasn't going as planned. At the Australian Open, they were bundled out in the second round, but there have been quite a few surprise defeats such as going down to Roberto Carballes Baena-Alejandro Davidovich Fokina in Chile. This prompted a discussion over change in partner with Sitak defending more points on clay and the rankings dropping to a point where they couldn't get automatic entry. Additionally, the upcoming Tokyo Olympics meant teaming up with Bopanna to fine tune the combination.
"We've (Sitak) had some good wins but we've not gone deep into any of the tournaments. You obviously get into a partnership hoping that you do well with the person. I've had some good results with him, we made quarter-finals of Wimbledon two years back and and it was fun playing with him. We tried our best and things haven't quite gone our way so I think we're going to take a break and and maybe play again in the future."
"The plan was to play some of the clay-court tournaments with Rohan in the lead up to the Olympics. Now everything is up in the air. We don't know what's going to happen and mostly the clay court season is gone. We just have to wait and see if the suspension is just till June or if they want to extend it. There's not (much) really you can do. So we just have to wait and see what happens in the coming months."
Sharan and Bopanna had planned on playing in Marrakech (Morocco), Estoril Open (in Portugal) and Hungarian Open (in Budapest) for their warm up on clay before Roland Garros.
"My idea when the talks were happening was to come to the UK and train before the start of the clay-court season which was going to be starting in Marrakech. I had spoken to Rohan that we should be ready to play three tournaments on clay. Once I got here, then we slowly got to know of tournaments being cancelled. Indian Wells was cancelled but other tournaments were still in the picture. In a few days, they cancelled more tournaments and then we decided to not have any tennis till June. So that's the situation. I guess everybody is just hoping that things improve and that we can get back to playing soon," he clarified on the present situation.
Not just the present situation, even the future remains unclear with the biggest event on the calendar " Tokyo Olympics. Even though Japan has been able to contain the spread of the pandemic, the possibility of athletes to compete or even travel remains a challenge. The pressure continued to mount on the International Olympic Committee (IOC) before they announced a decision on its fate will be decided in the next four weeks. Canada and Australia have already announced they will not be competing if the Games go ahead as planned. Sharan, meanwhile, believes it is too early to take a definite call on the Olympics.
"I think it's too early. I'm sure Japan and everyone else has put in a lot of effort, everybody has been preparing for it, be it the athletes or the federations. If things improve then I don't see why they should not have the event. Japan is still pretty keen to host just hoping that things improve and then we can have the event as planned."
"If things are bad, they won't go ahead with the event. Everybody knows what's happening right now and nobody wants things to get worse. So they would only have the event if things are not getting worse. If they are ready to have the event, I would be ready to go," he signed off.