LONDON – Travel broadens the mind, they say, but for the world’s top tennis players it has become more of a necessary evil.
For 11 months in the year — one of the longest in professional sports — players criss-cross the globe in search of those elusive ranking points and prize money. Most have a travel schedule that would make even the most hardened frequent flyer shudder, dashing in and out of cities on a weekly basis.
And then there is the jet lag.
Two-time Wimbledon winner Petra Kvitova has been on the women’s tour for a decade, but she says traveling to Asia from Europe never gets any easier.
“I like waking up early, but here it is just impossible,” the 26-year-old Czech said from Zhuhai, China, where she competed in the WTA Elite Trophy.
‘Cross-country is the worst’
“I can’t fall asleep really early and I can’t wake up in the morning. So when the alarm goes off at 930am, for me it feels like it is 5am. It’s not easy and it is always taking me more time than usual,” Kvitova adds.
Former US Open winner Sam Stosur has become used to long-haul flights from her native Australia, but traveling from California to Florida gets her every single time.
“Sometimes the worst travel can be just flying cross-country,” Stosur said from Zhuhai.
“From Indian Wells to Florida, it’s only three hours (time difference) but it takes all day to get there and it’s really difficult to wake up in the morning when you’re in Florida after flying from California. I actually think that’s one of the worst jet lags.”
Radwanska’s 55 hours of hell
A bad journey can seriously affect performance on the court.
In August, former Wimbledon finalist Agnieszka Radwanska lost her opening match at the Rio Olympics in 99 minutes after a 55-hour trek to Brazil from Montreal.
When she finally arrived — after a 3,000-mile detour via Lisbon following severe delays — Poland’s fourth seed had so little time to adjust she was comprehensively beaten by 64th-ranked Zheng Saisai of China.
“A lot of miles, a lot of points,” she told the Associated Press in Rio afterwards.
Garcia’s Doha nightmare
The award for travel horror story of the year surely has to go to France’s Caroline Garcia, who told the WTA website this month how she accidentally locked herself out of Doha Airport with no money earlier in the season.
“I went out of the airport, and couldn’t get in again,” said Garcia, the reigning French Open doubles champion.
“I couldn’t go back through security and customs, so I was stuck for 14 hours, sitting on a chair. I had no money, no credit card, or anything.
“It was just a nightmare; I missed my flight, obviously. I had to buy a ticket, which was complicated, because I had no credit card. I’m laughing about it now, but I was really upset at the time! I was all by myself, so it wasn’t funny at all.”
Rafa is a nervous flyer
Rafael Nadal has been traveling the world since he was 15 years old, but the nine-time French Open winner can still get jumpy when the turbulence sign comes on.
“I am nervous flyer,” he told CNN in 2013. Although the Spaniard said his hands usually “start to sweat” during rough conditions, the in-flight entertainment will usually calm his nerves.
Known for his meticulous match preparation, Nadal is no less demanding when it comes to hotels: “The most important thing is have the room completely clean and good service,” he said.
But he likes to cut it fine when it comes to getting to the airport. “I am always late,” he said, adding he’s never missed a flight because of it.
After Kvitova won the Zhuhai title, she flew back to Prague in business class before driving to Strasbourg with the Czech Fed Cup team for the finals against France. Her long journey was rewarded with a third straight Fed Cup title.
Although most players travel business class on longer flights, former world No. 1 Venus Williams has been known to “punish” herself by traveling at the back of the plane.
In 2008, she flew from Europe to the US in economy after an early loss at the French Open.
Her verdict: “I was extremely comfortable and happy. I sat next to an opera singer.”
Elena Svitolina prefers to travel business class — but only if the flight is longer than five hours.
“That’s because of my back issues,” said the Ukrainian, who ended Serena Williams’ reign as Olympic champion in the first round of the Rio Games. “It’s kind of like an investment in myself because if I am going to be in economy it is going to affect my health and it’s not so good.”
Although top players such as Nadal, Roger Federer, Andy Murray and Serena Williams often use private jets for shorter flights, none of them can lay claim to having their picture emblazoned on a huge aircraft.
Kei Nishikori can.
After signing a sponsorship deal with Japan Airlines, his image is now featured on a Boeing 777-300ER dubbed “JET-KEI.”
“I am very lucky,” the world No. 5 said in an email. “My sponsor provides me with a great business-class experience every time I travel to Asia. On the shorter trips I often just pick the easiest flight. Since we often make last-minute bookings (right after I lose) it means flying economy from time to time, which is really not a big deal when the flights are short.”
‘My jet’s full’
Federer, the sport’s biggest money maker with total career earnings including sponsorships of $560 million according to Forbes, has used private jets for years.
Asked in 2013 if he ever offered any of his rivals a ride, the father-of-four said: “I gave Rafa and his girlfriend a lift once, from Canada to Cincinnati. But no, my jet’s full. You don’t want to be on my jet with my kids.”
After 17 years on the Tour, Stosur knows what works and what doesn’t.
“For a long-haul flight, I will always go business class now,” the 32-year-old says. “As soon as I started doing well on tour and made enough money, I said I’m going to fly business class if it’s a long flight because it really does help. But domestic flights or shorter flights, economy I don’t mind, it’s no problem.
“Over the years, you learn the airlines that you like and who you want to travel with and who you want to fly with more than others,” she adds. “You get very experienced, I think tennis players could be very good travel agents one day.”