WASHINGTON, April 14, 2020 (by Michael Dickens)
Noah Rubin has been chasing his dream on the tennis court since he was a kid growing up in Long Island, N.Y. Now, at age 24, the 225th-ranked Rubin is embarking on a new journey, one in which he’s leveraging his interest and skills in photojournalism to share the stories of his fellow professional tennis players by giving them a platform to reach out to others.
Thanks to Rubin, his Behind The Racquet website and Instagram series (with nearly 30,000 followers) candidly and honestly shows the human side of tennis outside Centre Court arenas and stadiums, which sometimes includes stories about loneliness on the road as well as anxieties regarding mental health, injuries and finances, as described in first-person essays by players – both the well-known and the up-and-coming.
Now, with a lot of unexpected time on his hands, thanks to pro tennis being on lockdown due to the global coronavirus pandemic until at least July 13 – and likely longer – Rubin not only is taking a mental and physical break from tennis, he’s staying busy at home devoting five or six hours daily toward working on Behind The Racquet. It is his way of highlighting his feelings toward the sport he’s dedicated his life. Lately, when he’s not conducting live chats with fans via Instagram, like he did on Sunday afternoon, Rubin has been interviewing players for Behind The Racquet and handling media inquiries, such as the phone interview he sat for with Tennis TourTalk last Friday.
Last week, French sports daily L’Equipe published its list of the 20 most influential tennis figures and Rubin was recognized at No. 20 for his work with Behind The Racquet.
I want to thank @lequipe for the honor of even being mentioned on the same page as the 19 other people who “matter most in tennis”. It’s not to brag but shows the effort my team and I give to tennis. I don’t feel worthy but promise to keep working until I do…and long past that pic.twitter.com/rmE1aKpawR
— Noah Rubin (@Noahrubin33) April 9, 2020
Looking back at his own life story, as a teen, Rubin won USTA junior national titles in both singles and doubles and captured the Wimbledon junior singles title in 2014. Then, he reached the finals of the NCAA singles championships as the top-ranked freshman in the country, representing North Carolina’s Wake Forest University the following year. Although the seventh-seeded Rubin lost the title match after garnering ACC Freshman of the Year honors, he was ready to take the next step in his tennis journey. Just 19, Rubin turned professional in 2015 and split his time shuttling between ITF Futures and ATP Challenger Tour tournaments. Within a few months, he won his first ATP Challenger title In Charlottesville, Va. Since then, he has won three others.
By October 2018, Rubin reached No. 125 in the ATP rankings – a career-best plateau – and stayed inside the Top 200 for another year after battling ankle and wrist injuries. Among his biggest wins, Rubin looks back fondly at his 6-4, 7-6 (6) victory over then-No. 9 John Isner at the 2018 Citi Open in Washington, D.C., as a stepping stone. More recently, he defeated No. 58 Lucas Pouille in the Oracle Challenger Series last month at Indian Wells. This year, Rubin has compiled a 7-6 win-loss record in all competitions. Overall, he is 8-19 in his career in ATP Tour-level events.
At home off the tour … and staying busy
Now, Rubin has been at home in Long Island, N.Y., living on his own with his girlfriend, who is in veterinary school at the University of Minnesota and studying online for the rest of the semester because of the coronavirus pandemic. Like all tennis players, Rubin has been off the tour for the past month. “Being home at all – and with her – is a silver lining,” he said during a recent telephone interview with Tennis TourTalk.
Rubin has been idle since last month’s Oracle Challenger Series in Indian Wells, Calif., where he lost to fellow American Steve Johnson, 6-3, 6-3, in the quarterfinal round. When a wild card entry in the BNP Paribas Open qualifying draw fell through after the entire tournament was cancelled, Rubin escaped to Hawaii with his girlfriend for a few days before returning home once word spread that the tennis tours were shutting down because of the coronavirus outbreak. Had all been normal, Rubin likely would have played in the U.S. Clay Court Championships event in Houston as well some Challenger or Futures competitions in Florida while getting in some extra practice in Orlando, where he trains.
“It happened so quickly,” said Rubin, looking back at the past month. “Tennis has been unusually at the forefront of the situation, which has never happened before.” Instead, Rubin has had to get used to the inactivity brought on by not playing tournament tennis – but he’s finding a silver lining. “We always complain about how long the seasons are – we rarely have the ability to take a break – but many of my fellow professional players don’t really know how to live life without tennis. … We haven’t had an opportunity to take time off without feeling the anxiety that we’re missing out. It’s important for these players to take some time and say, ‘Hey, let’s get this body to a point where we have no aches and pains.’”
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“I should preface this by saying that I understand if the first part leads you to believe I am ungrateful or cynical. There are no words to explain the extraordinary opportunities tennis has given me and my love for this game never ceases to stun me. Regardless, I have come across obstacles I never thought tennis would force me to face. I am 23, yet I feel so much older than that. It seems that this sport has a way of making you feel irrelevant while at the same giving you this sense of entitlement. With the likelihood of losing every week and the forever expanding field of players, chances are if you were once ‘talk of the town’, that will quickly diminish over time. I feel in the case of many players, even in the slightest way, that hard work and past success should allow for present fortune. It is a never ending battle. I remember a loss last year in Spain after losing first round of qualifying of a challenger. It was 11 at night and there I am, all alone, tears slowly dripping down my face. There were only a few lights on as the club was shutting down. This loss continued a 5 match losing streak for me. I sat there thinking how hard I had been working, how much effort I put into this match and how in the world it was possible that after starting the year with a title I was now losing first round of qualifying. Recently after looking back at this match and other moments along these lines, I truly started to understand that tennis didn’t owe anything to any one. It is the sport it is and will not be changing any time soon. I thought I knew how unglamorous it was, but I was mistaken. It is an ongoing treacherous road that leaves you guessing what the right thing to do is. Quite often it has led me guessing if the output of effort is worth the product. After further analyzing I started to realize that I was losing the mentality I once had. That when I stepped on court, of course I wanted to win, but I played for the excitement of seeing my efforts displayed, for the love of running down every ball and obviously the intense pleasure that comes with extreme competition…” (full story on Behind The Racquet facebook)
Rubin believes it’s important for tennis players to take a mental and physical breaks from the game to relax and clear their heads. “It’s okay to keep active and keep the range and mobility,” he said, taking advantage of his home gym. “However, there’s no need to train at a high level right now. This is a time to take time off for each other.
“I guess I’m different because this time has almost been busier that my normal tennis schedule for me. I’m doing all of this Behind The Racquet work – six or seven interviews a day – I don’t really have time to rest myself with everything I’m doing. I’m putting in five or six hours of work. I guess I’m different in that sense, but regardless, I don’t have to feel the anxiety that people are getting better in terms of ranking. It is a nice place to be in. Some people are seeing us coming back in July, but I don’t see us coming back this year!
Rubin believes tennis will be one of the last things to go back to normal because of how international of a sport it is. He knows it is a tough, scary situation. While paychecks in tennis have improved, players like him are still independent contractors and many outside the Top 50 go paycheck to paycheck. He says players who are No. 200 in the world and higher six months from now are going to worry about how their rent is going to be paid.
For now, however, Rubin is trying to look at the positives. “I’m looking forward to spending some times with family and friends – you know, social distancing of course,” he said. “I think its a time to relax and do something we’ve always wanted to do – and reach outside of the tennis world for once. … I’m enjoying getting away from the tennis world.”
Behind The Racquet
Noah Rubin’s idea for Behind The Racquet came about came about following the 2019 Australian Open. He was literally in bed and in the middle of the night happened across a popular social media account, Humans of New York, which follows a day in the life of New Yorkers – their stories and who they really are. It dawned on Rubin it was something he needed to do for tennis players. He wanted for tennis fans to relate to players while also giving players a platform to share their stories.
“I wanted to learn from the downtime that others had – see how they used it – and how it could benefit myself,” said Rubin. “I wanted to highlight mental health and open up a conversation about it.”
Rubin admits he didn’t know what to expect when he started Behind The Racquet, but he was filled with passion and knew he wanted to be in a position to help other players because he could relate to their struggles. Since then, it has become his raison d’etre when he’s not competing on the tennis court.
“It’s incredible to see in the past year how far it has come,” said Rubin. “During the pandemic, alone, being at home, I think I have published 35 new interviews. Its an incredible time for me – obviously exhausting – and also doing interviews about myself like this one. Its been very busy.”
When Rubin was asked if there was a specific Behind The Racquet interview that stands out, he suggested, “It is not so much about the story but about the conversation – having grown men cry in front of me – hearing stories about people opening up when you give them a platform.”
Two that impacted Rubin come to mind:
“Tennys Sandgren, who was the first one to really hug me and cry in front of me during an hour-long conversation. He said, ‘Thank you so much. Ive never really been able to share my full story. Thank you for giving me this chance.’ I’ve been good friends with him, but for him to say that at the end really meant the world to me.
“Another, Darian King, who I’m very good friends with, talked about his mom passing away. I had no idea. So, that sparked something in me that said: ‘Wow.’ I have a responsibility to open up. There have got to be so many others in the same situation and I have to be able to shed light on it if people want to.”
Now, there is so much going on with Behind The Racquet – with 122 essays posted and growing, including the latest by teen sensation Coco Gauff – and it thrills Rubin. He’s found something that not only has an effect on people but also it incorporates all of his passions – tennis, journalism and photography – and he finds it truly exciting, even in pandemic times. Rubin hopes to branch out and to make it into a brand that everybody knows and loves.
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“Throughout my life, I was always the youngest to do things, which added hype that I didn’t want. It added this pressure that I needed to do well fast. Once I let that all go, I started to have the results I wanted. Right before Wimbledon, going back to around 2017/18, I was struggling to figure out if this was really what I wanted. I always had the results so that wasn’t the issue, I just found myself not enjoying what I loved. I realized I needed to start playing for myself and not other people. For about a year I was really depressed. That was the toughest year for me so far. Even though I had, it felt like there weren’t many friends there for me. When you are in that dark mindset you don’t look on the bright side of things too often, which is the hardest part. I don’t think it had much to do with tennis, maybe just about juggling it all. I knew that I wanted to play tennis but didn’t know how I wanted to go about it. It went so far that I was thinking about possibly taking a year off to just focus on life. Choosing not to obviously was the right choice but I was close to not going in that direction. I was just lost. I was confused and overthinking if this was what I wanted or what others did. It took many moments sitting, thinking and crying. I came out of it stronger and knowing myself better than ever. Everyone asks me how I stay calm on court and I think it’s because I accepted who I am after overcoming low points in my life. Now, when I’m on court, I am just really thankful to be out there. Personally for me, I like playing for more than myself. One of the biggest things is to continue breaking barriers. At the same time I don’t like being compared to Serena or Venus. First, I am not at their level yet. I always feel like it’s not fair to the Williams sisters to be compared to someone who is just coming up. It just doesn’t feel right yet, I still look at them as my idols. With all their accolades I shouldn’t be put in the same group yet. Of course I hope to get to where they are but they are the two women that set the pathway for myself, which is why I can never be them.” @cocogauff Go to behindtheracquet.com for extended stories, podcast and merch
“There’s a cool look to it – everyone posing behind their tennis racquet,” said Rubin. “Everyone is on the same platform. There are up-and-coming players and there is Daniil Medvedev who is No. 4 in the world. They are all doing the same thing – being who they are. There is something between you and them you don’t always know and there is a barrier to overcome. That’s the metaphor I was playing around with and the racquet represents a cool visual of it. …
“Obviously, I am fortunate enough to be building something right now that will be my legacy and, hopefully, will grow and grow and grow. To do it during my playing days is a plus.”
Above all, Rubin wants everyone to know there is a community within the tennis world and he’s ready to offer his support – his platform – through Behind The Racquet. Said Rubin, “I want to make tennis a better world.”