No handshakes, no talking into the ball: Divij Sharan enters ‘new normal’ of competitive doubles tennis in UK

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Divij Sharan returned to competitive tennis for the first time since March. He played three matches alongside Vijay Sundar Prashanth on the British Tour in London.

There’s been tennis indoors. There’s been tennis on the lawn in the backyard. There’s been tennis on the street outside. Lockdown has prompted Divij Sharan to look for different avenues to keep himself active and busy. Having the company of his wife and fellow pro Samantha Murray helps to a great extent. On Sunday, Sharan was able to take his skill to the tennis court in his first competitive match since March.

With relaxations underway in the UK, Britain’s Lawn Tennis Association (LTA) have been organising matches in Roehampton, less than four miles from Wimbledon’s All England Club. While there was no Wimbledon this year, for the first time since 1945, the sound of the ball hitting the strings of a racket hasn’t gone amiss entirely. The UK has been trying to find its feet on the tennis court with the ‘Battle of Brits’ exhibition event and now the tournament labelled ‘British Tour’.

Spread across four tournaments, two days have been reserved for men’s doubles with Sharan competing alongside Vijay Sundar Prashanth in ‘Fast 4’ format. On Sunday, Sharan and Sundar lost their opening match (1-4, 4-1, 7-10) but went on to win the remaining two (4-2, 1-4, 10-8 and 4-1, 4-1).

“We were a bit rusty in the beginning. The first match we played, we lost. We were supposed to play three matches: we lost the first one but then we won the other two and got better each match. Towards the end of the third match, I was feeling my body a little bit because we usually don’t play three matches in a day. But it was great to go out there and compete,” said world No 56 Sharan.

The 34-year-old’s last competitive match came at the end of February in Chile. He then joined up with the Davis Cup squad as a reserve player against Croatia. In the three matches played across two courts, there were no fans, no ball kids, no linespeople with just a chair umpire overseeing proceedings.

“For the last four months, I guess everybody’s sort of gotten used to not seeing that many people and not having that many people around. Even when I’ve been practicing, people have been following social distancing. The first two-three weeks back, I would make sure not to touch anything, not sitting down, being careful with the balls, like the balls don’t get mixed up. It’s been a long time since I played in a professional tournament. I guess it was in a way a better situation to be in than just sort of practicing on my own,” said Sharan who played in the ‘Fast 4’ format for the first time.

Entering the new normal for tennis meant clearing the COVID-19 test to get into the draw, limited access to practice courts, regular masks when not on court, no claps, no talking into the ball. At the conclusion of the second match, Sharan went for a fist bump but immediately remembered the new rules.

“When you enter the tennis complex, there is a temperature check. They only let you in if you don’t have a temperature and you have to fill out forms. Before you even get there, you have to chat with the tournament doctor to make sure that you’ve been self-isolating or not been in touch with a lot of people; that you’re not living with people who are vulnerable just in case you end up picking up something while playing the tournament.”

“Then there’s marking everywhere. The whole place has signs so they’ve made everything one way to avoid crossing paths with other people. We got the COVID-19 test done a few days before and they put you in the draw when your result is clear. Practice courts are very limited. They try to clean the courts after every session. No mixing of tennis balls, you’re only supposed to practice with your doubles partner so that you’re not getting in touch with different people. The showers were still closed so you could use a locker room to change but there were no showers.”

“On the court, no fist bumps, no claps, no handshakes at the end of the match, people would tap rackets. We basically had to maintain a two-metre distance as much as possible.”

“As doubles players when we’re speaking to each other, especially if you’re serving, you end up covering your mouth so opponents can’t catch what you’re saying. They strongly said you shouldn’t be doing that. I don’t have an issue there because I use my forearm to block what I’m saying. Vijay is used to speaking into the balls, so the umpire had to remind him a few times. I guess it was a bit different. Even for the umpires, it was new. Everybody’s sort of trying to get hold of the rules and regulations, but I think everybody sort of eased into it as matches went on.”

US Open is the next Grand Slam on the re-organised calendar with Roland Garros to follow later. The players remain on the fence about playing in New York due to rising cases in the US and travel restrictions imposed by the European Union (EU). Sharan and Rohan Bopanna are the two Indian doubles players who make the cut for the reduced 32-team draw but are still unsure if they’ll play at Flushing Meadows.

“Conditions have worsened in the last few weeks in the US, there are still restrictions as far as travel is concerned. Going to the US, they’re saying that they should be able to lift the quarantine for the tennis players. But then coming back to Europe (is tricky because) there is a travel ban. There’s still some time. We’ll know better in the next few weeks. The entry deadline for the US Open is still a month away as far as doubles is concerned. So I’d assess the situation and take a call closer to it,” he stated.

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