Noah Rubin interview: 'I don't know if people realise alcohol and substance abuse in tennis is a thing'

Noah Rubin is ranked just inside the world’s top 200 - Getty Images AsiaPac
Noah Rubin is ranked just inside the world’s top 200 - Getty Images AsiaPac

To the casual observer, the life of a professional tennis player is nothing but glamour - the money, the fame, those immaculate white clothes.

The reality for the majority is altogether different. It is a grind, a place where mental and physical exhaustion, alcohol abuse, and depression are prevalent.

The American player Noah Rubin, ranked just inside the world’s top 200, is part of this majority. He sensed he wasn’t alone in struggling with the lifestyle of a professional tennis player, and so earlier this year set up the Instagram account Behind The Racquet. Each post sees someone from tennis open up about their struggles - their identity known but their face concealed.

Players, including in May the British youngster Katie Swan, discuss issues from self-esteem to injury worries to financial concerns. In one especially powerful edition, the 2017 US Open finalist Madison Keys revealed that she struggled with an eating disorder as a teenager.

“It’s a really tough sport,” Rubin tells The Telegraph. “I’m trying to open people’s minds and eyes to what’s really going on in tennis.”

Madison Keys, of the United States, serves to Venus Williams - Credit: AP
Madison Keys revealed on Behind the Racquet that she struggled with an eating disorder as a teenager Credit: AP

Rubin, a 23-year-old New Yorker, won the Wimbledon boys’ event aged 18. He was marked out as a future star, but is yet to crack the world’s top 100 and has spent the majority of his career on the second-tier Challenger Tour. This week he is competing in the US Open qualifying event in his home city, and as someone who has experienced the lows of minuscule crowds in far-flung places like Panama and New Caledonia to the highs of taking on Roger Federer at the Australian Open, he is well-placed to offer a 360-degree view of the state of tennis in 2019.

Rubin stresses that he enjoys the job and loves the sport, but that for tennis to stay appealing to athletes and spectators, it needs to make major changes. Broadly speaking, these are Rubin’s two main concerns: that tennis’s current structure is destroying the players and putting off fans by being too drawn-out and prioritising quantity over quality.

When asked what tennis needs to do first and foremost, Rubin’s response is instant: “Shorter seasons”, he says. “Eleven months is brutal. In every other sport they have a proper break.

“And if you’re not top 50 and so trying to get as many points as possible, you’re forced to play too many tournaments and that’s a real problem because you’re just hurting yourself more.”

As well as contributing to injuries - Rubin has struggled physically for much of the year - the relentlessness of the tour has other damaging effects.

“The season is 11 months long and you’re mostly alone,” he says. “People see Federer lifting the trophy, but they don’t see the Challenger in Germany or in Mexico.”

These feelings of loneliness and exhaustion even cause players to throw matches - and this is separate from tennis’s acute match-fixing issue, described as a “tsunami of corruption” by an independent report in 2018. Earlier this year, the Argentine player Marco Trungelliti revealed he had been shunned by many of his peers after blowing the whistle on match-fixing to the Tennis Integrity Unit.

“As well as match-fixing, a lot of tanking goes on because people are tired, or they’ve got planes to catch,” Rubin says. “People are like ‘they must be getting money for this’, but often they just don’t want to be out there.”

Rubin lets out a sigh, and continues: “It all adds up, the loneliness, the failure - you feel like a failure constantly. There are some real problems on tour, a lot of people take time off. Depression is prevalent, there's lots of alcohol and substance abuse because that’s just how people deal with tennis.”

On the depression point, a Telegraph investigation last year revealed how widespread mental health challenges are in the sport. This year’s French Open champion Ashleigh Barty took an extended break in 2014 due to emotional exhaustion.

Alcohol and substance abuse has been less reported on in tennis, but Rubin insists it is a real issue. “It’s not yet in the public domain,” he says. “I don’t know if people realise alcohol abuse in tennis is a thing.

“I know a lot of players who to cope and to get ready for the next week spend 12 hours drinking. I don’t drink myself, I never have.”

Ashleigh Barty, of Australia, returns to Maria Sakkari - Credit: AP
This year’s French Open champion Ashleigh Barty took an extended break in 2014 due to emotional exhaustion Credit: AP

Underpinning these difficulties is the immense financial cost of being a tennis player. Outside of the world’s top 100, most players barely break even once the cost of travel, accommodation and coaching staff - something Rubin can't afford - is factored in.

“Top heavy money is a huge problem,” says Rubin. “The guy who wins a grand slam gets roughly an extra £400,000 these days. It’s just not necessary. If you put that into everyone who loses in qualies [qualifiers], and they get an extra two grand, that’s great, that covers expenses.

“Not getting enough money overall from the tournaments is another huge problem.“

The Association of Tennis Professionals (ATP) can point to prize money going up from a total of $64 million (£52.8m) outside the majors in 2008 to $139.4m (£115m) this year in response, but the issue - as discussed by John Isner in a recent article for Forbes - is whether the current amounts are sufficient to cover escalating costs.

At lower levels, players often don’t even get paid on time. The Belgian player Greet Minnen, ranked outside the world’s top 100, told The Telegraph that it took three months before she was paid for reaching the quarter-final of an International Tennis Federation (ITF) tournament in Istanbul earlier this year.

For Rubin, the problem is more deep-rooted: “My argument goes further than prize money, it’s about building a sport that people want to pay more to see. Take the grand slams out of it, and there are empty seats everywhere.”

Again the picture here is complicated. The total attendance for non-grand slam events was at a joint-record high of 4.57m last year, but it is jarring seeing big matches often played in front of small audiences. Certainly the barely half-full stadium in Cincinnati last week was not a fitting environment for Andy Murray's long-awaited singles return.

“I don’t want to ask for ATP or USTA for more money,” Rubin says. “We just have to build a sport that takes in more money.

“The sport is dying out, we’re not getting that same intensity, the same love, or new fans anymore. You can’t tell an eight year old to watch a match for four hours. Nobody wants to do that. We don’t need best of five sets, we don’t. No matter what people say, we don’t need it. It’s absurd.”

The legendary Billie Jean King is among those who would do away with best of five sets for this very reason, but for traditionalists like former world No 4 Brad Gilbert, the format is the lifeblood of the sport. On the issue of attracting younger fans, it's worth remembering that the average age of TV viewers of ATP matches was 61 years old last year.

These are not straightforward debates, and they are easy to ignore - especially during the grand slams, when tennis can feel almost utopian.

This apogee of the sport should be celebrated, but through Behind The Racquet, Rubin is determined to shine a spotlight on tennis's darker side.