Mark Philippoussis was no stranger to time away from competition during his career. It was after multiple knee operations that the Aussie reached his first Wimbledon final in 2003.
But the ATP Tour’s stars are in an unprecedented situation, returning to action after more than five months at this week’s Western & Southern Open, which is being held at the USTA Billie Jean King National Tennis Center. It’s been a long time away, but according to the former World No. 8, that means only one thing.
“Let’s face it, this is a huge opportunity for players, anyone playing. You’re talking about going straight into an ATP Masters 1000 event and the second tournament is going to be the US Open,” Philippoussis told ATPTour.com. “This is a huge opportunity for anyone. Who knows what will happen? We’ll know who’s been working hard in the off-season in the first few weeks and this is an opportunity to take a bite out of the top four players in the world.”
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The Aussie doesn’t necessarily expect everyone to be firing on all cylinders from the first ball, which makes the first matches even more important for those who may not have made a deep run at a Masters 1000 before.
“I guarantee you there have been players working incredibly hard off the court and we’re going to see that with the results, especially the first few weeks. Once these players find their feet, it’s a different story,” Philippoussis said. “There could be some huge surprises. Maybe [it won’t be so] surprising because they’re coming back into it, but there’s an opportunity especially for the guys who aren’t in the Top 10 to really step up and show who they are and move up on their [FedEx ATP] Ranking.”
Due to the COVID-19 pandemic, there will be no fans at the event, which will be a different experience for the players. Philippoussis loved playing in front of many fans, enjoying the bigger courts. But he believes that even if it seems strange, the athletes must simply focus on the task at hand: playing their best tennis.
“When the time comes, just like any other athlete, it’s time to play again,” Philippoussis said. “You’re on the court [and if] there won’t be spectators, it’s going to be weird. But everyone plays practice matches and at the end of the day you have to be ready to go.”
Players will want to make a quick start and advance as far as possible in the Western & Southern Open to set the tone for their return to tennis. All around the world, fans will be keenly watching.
“People love to watch tennis on TV and there are so many millions of people who cannot wait to watch it on TV. They’ll miss not being there live, but at least they get to watch it on TV,” Philippoussis said. “Once these matches get started, people will quickly forget [there aren’t crowds]. Of course it’s going to be an adjustment with things. But I think we’ve all adjusted to life differently with what’s been going on.
“Our daily lives, going to the supermarket, washing hands, wearing gloves, wearing masks, being careful. We’re all up to that point anyway where we’re making adjustments and this is going to be another little adjustment that I believe once it happens that people will get comfortable with it and realise that it’s the norm right now.”
According to Philippoussis, this might be an escape of sorts for the players, too, saying, “I think as people start playing again they’re going to be in the match, play and forget about the rest.”