Rajeev Ram: US Open should not go ahead even if one player is unable to travel to New York

WION Web Team
New Delhi, IndiaUpdated: Jun 08, 2020, 04:57 PM IST


Story highlights

The 2020 Australian Open champion and Olympic silver medallist in mixed doubles, Rajeev Ram, in an exclusive interview with WION's Sports Editor, Digvijay Singh Deo, talked about the nationwide protests in the US, racism, training in lockdown, future of US Open, players' safety post resumption, ATP-WTA merger, Tokyo Olympics and much more. 

The 2020 Australian Open champion and Olympic silver medallist in mixed doubles, Rajeev Ram, in an exclusive interview with WION's Sports Editor, Digvijay Singh Deo, talked about the nationwide protests in the US, racism, training in lockdown, future of US Open, players' safety post resumption, ATP-WTA merger, Tokyo Olympics and much more. 

Digvijay Singh Deo: Rajeev, thanks for staying up pretty late, how have these last few months been for you?

Rajeev Ram: The last few months have been tricky for me, like it has been for everyone else. The tennis season has come to a standstill. I remember being excited for the Indian Wells Open in early March but everything has gone downhill since then. I thought the shutdown would only last for a week or two, but here we are in the first week of June and hardly any action is taking place in the world of sport.

DSD: You are in Indianapolis which is where the speedway is for us sports fans, but even in your state the numbers have been pretty high in terms of COVID-19 cases.

Rajeev Ram: All over America, the situation looks very grim. There are almost 2 million COVID-19 cases in the country and more than 100,000 deaths have taken place because of the virus. Every individual, regardless of status, colour or wealth is equally susceptible to the disease.

DSD: I was speaking to John Barnes,the former Liverpool FC captain last week and he said that one of the reasons the USA and the UK have seen such high number of cases is because of people’s views on individual freedom. Do you agree with that when you compare it to India and the lockdown we have had.

Rajeev Ram: Yes, probably that is one of the reasons. This is an unprecedented crisis and it makes sense for people to not come in contact with each other because the virus is so contagious. Unfortunately, we haven't been able to contain the virus here in America. More industries are being opened up and we might see a further rise in the number of cases in the near future. One of the worst things about this pandemic is that there is so much uncertainty because of the unprecedented nature of the crisis.

DSD: The last few days has seen massive violence over the death of George Floyd. The protests have been peaceful in places and pretty violent elsewhere.

Rajeev Ram: Here in Indianapolis, some of the protests have taken a violent turn. There has been some looting and vandalism. I don't know if the situation here is as bad as we see in some of the other cities, but it certainly is an incredibly troublesome time in America. I don't know if anyone alive has seen times like these, with the coronavirus and the nationwide protests. There was a curfew imposed here the other night from 8 pm to 5 am and I don't ever remember that happening.

DSD: Rajeev, you are the son of Indian parents and also a national hero after your Olympic medal in 2016 for the US. Have you ever felt this divide that is rocking America?

Rajeev Ram: Yes, these are definitely troubling times. I am fortunate that I have never been subjected to racism in my life but that doesn't mean it doesn't exist. Turning a blind eye to racism just because it doesn't affect you directly is as bad as denying its existence. Racism is a real issue and we are seeing it on a regular basis. Sometimes, it takes protests like these to get to the bottom of things. I don't know if this will bring about real change, but the George Floyd killing is not a one-off incident, racism is a major issue in the country.

DSD: You would agree that this hasn’t shown up America in good light. Even sports stars from those in tennis like Roger Federer, Rafael Nadal and Novak Djokovic to the likes of Lewis Hamilton have expressed anger at what happened...

Rajeev Ram: It hasn't shown America in the best light but I also believe that the hardest times bring out the best in people. Athletes all over the world, regardless of colour, creed or nationality have raised their voice against racism and injustice and we have gotten to see the beauty of sport. Sport transcends borders and doesn't discriminate on the basis of race, country or gender, it's a great lesson for people all over the world.

US protest

DSD: There are also quite a few burning issues in your sport. You love your Golf and the PGA Tour resumes next week but as things stand no word from tennis authorities.

Rajeev Ram: Yes, I'm a huge fan of golf and I just played 24 holes today. Tennis is a global sport, tournaments take place all over the world, so the sport faces a lot of challenges at this time. Leagues like the NBA and NFL can get all the teams in one city and create a bio-secure environment for them, but that can't be done for tennis. I don't think it would be wise for our governing bodies to make commitments which they can't deliver on. I'm very interested to see what happens with golf's PGA Tour because it might provide a lot of sports, including tennis, a template to work with during the pandemic. At this point, I can't see a clear timeline for tennis to resume.

DSD: Have you been training through this period and staying in shape?

Rajeev Ram: it's been very hard over the last few months. Luckily, I have been able to find a private tennis court near my house where I have played a little bit. I have used some of the equipment I have at home to do my fitness training. However, it is tough to train without a goal in mind. I have no idea when competitive tennis will resume and I'm just trying to maintain my general fitness levels. The positive thing is that everyone is in the same boat.

DSD: This break sort of hit you at the wrong time didn’t it as it had been a pretty good start to the 2020 season with your first men’s doubles grand slam at the Australian Open.

Rajeev Ram: I'd like to look at it positively. The fact that I was able to win the grand slam before the hiatus gives me some sort of relief, this break would have troubled me even before if I had lost in the Australian Open final. I think I'll still have some momentum when action returns because of my good form earlier this year. I'm not the only one who has had to stop playing. There are certain things that are out my control, I'm just going to do the best I can when I return to the court.

DSD: The thing with restarting the tennis season is the fairness aspect. Unlike the PGA Tour which is largely American, the ATP and WTA Tours have professionals from all over the world playing and till every player is eligible to travel and compete resumption looks difficult.

Rajeev Ram: I completely agree. The global nature of our sport is what makes it so wonderful. Everyone has an equal opportunity to compete no matter where you are from. However, the global nature of the sport will also lead to massive challenges amid the pandemic.

DSD: The US Open still remains uncertain and a decision will be taken by the end of this month.lots of interesting options being thrown about including the masters 1000 event in Cincinnati being moved to New York and to have back to back tournaments. As a player how does that sound to you?

Rajeev Ram: We can't have the US open until everyone who has qualified for the event is in a position to travel to the event, until that happens we are going to be at a standstill. As far as holding the back-to-back events are concerned, the idea sounds good as long as the authorities can ensure the safety of everyone involved. I don't think it would be fair for the tournament to go ahead if players can't make it due to travel restrictions. Even if one player who has qualified cannot make it to the us open because of some travel regulations, then I believe should not go ahead. For the tournament to take place, a safe and secure environment must be created and the competition should also be fair on all tennis players.

DSD: The options sound good in theory, chartered flights to fly players in, no fans, no locker room access on practice days, centralised housing and lots of testing.that will require a lot of compromise from the players.

Rajeev Ram: Personally, I would be willing to compromise on my access to facilities or the number of guests I am allowed to take with me. However, I wouldn't be willing to sacrifice my safety or the fairness of the competition. If the competition is not fair or safe then we shouldn't go ahead with it. I realise everyone is in a different situation, some players need to travel with their children and families, so it will be a major problem for them if only one guest is permitted. I think we have to see the current situation from different points of view.

DSD: Till the time a vaccine comes out, will players feel 100% safe while competing?

Rajeev Ram: I don't see players feeling 100% safe without a vaccine because there would always be a risk of contracting the virus. The virus is so contagious and in any kind of sport, athletes are always in close contact with their peers, whether it be on the field or in the locker rooms, there is just no way around it. There is always going to be a risk without a vaccine. I don't think the US Open or any event will take place if a certain number of players feel uncomfortable or unsafe while playing.

DSD: I was speaking to Daniel Nestor and he felt that it is going to be tough physically to play best of five sets at the US Open after such a long layoff where not many have held a racket. A best of three has been mooted, same for all formats. Where do you stand on this?

Rajeev Ram: It doesn't affect me as much because I'm not a singles player any more, but if I were competing in the event, I would be fine with matches being reduced to best of three sets. There are going to be a few adjustments that all players are going to have to make and I completely agree with Daniel Nestor's point that players are not going to be conditioned to play five sets after such a long break. It's going to be tough for players to play at full capacity after this layoff.

DSD: There is also the question of goodbyes. Take the Bryan brothers - Bob and Mike - for instance, legends of the sport and American sporting icons. This would have been their last hurrah and for sentimental reasons, they deserve one big sendoff.

Rajeev Ram: They deserve whatever farewell they want. They are simply the greatest men's doubles pairing of all time. However this just shows you the power of the pandemic, it doesn't care about sentiments. I hope the Bryan brothers stick around and get an opportunity to play another US Open so that they are able to get a proper send-off, which they deserve. I also think this is going to be a significant chapter in the history of the sport, it might be a turning point for many of the greats.

DSD: If they manage to create this bio bubble which is being spoken about it will also be an opportunity to trial Federer's theory of merging both the men’s and women’s tours. Cincinnati plays both events simultaneously.

Rajeev Ram: This is the perfect time for the authorities to trial Federer's theory of merging the tours. It is definitely going to be a massive logistical challenge, but if there was ever a time to test the merger, then it is now.

Rajeev Ram

DSD: Now through this period there have been hardships for lesser ranked players. Are you happy with the response of tennis bodies with the player fund that was created?

Rajeev Ram: This is such a strange and unique situation. There is no rule book on how to handle this crisis, that is why we see many people unsure about how to act. I certainly feel that it is important to support the young players so that they don't lose the incentive to continue with tennis. We have a responsibility to help the next generation carry the sport forward. I can't imagine the plight of a 20-year-old player whose development will be halted because of this shutdown. This might have a long-lasting effect on their careers.

DSD: Now there was a suggestion from former Wimbledon Champion Marion Bartoli about scrapping doubles events and boosting the prize money at challengers and lower levels. You have predominantly played doubles last few years and are world no 9 now. Is that statement uncalled for?

Rajeev Ram: She's entitled to her opinion, however i completely disagree with it. I look at it from a totally different perspective. The majority of the amateur and club players in the world play doubles and the event has been an integral part of tennis since the sport was created. The doubles discipline actually complements the singles category since it is a team event, so it adds a lot of value to the sport. If doubles events are marketed in a better fashion, then they could be as popular as the singles game. In my opinion, scrapping the doubles events would be completely wrong.

DSD: Not everyone can be a great singles player, in India, we have had some legendary doubles players from Leander Paes and Mahesh Bhupathi to Rohan Bopanna and Sania Mirza. Fact remains that Federer's only Olympic gold came in doubles so it does require a whole lot of extra skills.

Rajeev Ram: Doubles is an integral part of all the major events in tennis - Davis Cup, Fed Cup and now the ATP Cup. Some of the biggest stars in the sport plied their trade and made their name in the doubles format. People don't realise how much they would miss doubles events if they were to be scrapped.

Rajeev Ram

DSD: This break actually works out in Federer's favour doesn't it and even andy Murray’s as they will probably be able to recover from their surgeries. But you can't battle father time forever, can you?

Rajeev Ram: I'm not sure if it does work out in Federer's favour. He isn't getting any younger. He's 38 now and the best chance he had to win another major was at Wimbledon, which was cancelled this year. It's difficult to say what impact it will have on his career, but he will have to make a call sooner rather than later. As for Serena, this break doesn't help her at all. I think she's ready to win every major and she will definitely look at this break as a lost opportunity. This hiatus might be able to buy Andy Murray a bit of time for his recovery, but no true competitor wants the sport disrupted like this. Murray has overcome injuries before and I'm sure he'll do it again. This period probably hurts some more than others but it affects everybody.

DSD: For you as well, how does the Olympic postponement affect won with Venus Williams in Rio and I was there when you beat Rohan Bopanna and Sania Mirza. Venus will be 41 next year and not a sure-shot contender to make the team while you as things stand.

Rajeev Ram: It's a real shame. I was really looking forward to the Tokyo Olympics in 2020, but as I said before, some things are out of our control. There is a lot of time left for the postponed Olympics in 2021, I don't know who will be on the team, but I hope I get the opportunity to play.

DSD: Lots of uncertainty over the Olympics as well, is it frustrating as players not to have a definite target ahead of you and do you see this being a trial and error process till we achieve some sort of normalcy?

Rajeev Ram: Absolutely. As I said before, there is no rule-book to follow for this crisis. Some organisations are being cautious, others are being more aggressive, but no one really has the answers. I don't think there is any guarantee of the Olympics happening next year as well. If there is no vaccine available and there is a second wave of the virus in 2021, we could be in the same situation we find ourselves in right now. It is very frustrating for us athletes to not know when we will be able to compete again.