UNIONDALE, N.Y.—From Stefanos Tsitsipas' vlogging to Naomi Osaka's photography, there's a trend among younger players on tour of finding creative outlets to brighten up the duller parts of the pro-tennis grind and give insight into their lives.
Among the most intriguing of these endeavors is Noah Rubin's Behind The Racquet, a Humans of New York-style Instagram account that Rubin uses to share the stories of tennis players of all experiences.
"This is teaching me, along with teaching everybody else, that we're not just tennis players," the 22-year-old said. "There's many levels to us. We go deeper than that. We all have a story."
Each post features a portrait of a different player holding his or her racquet in front of their face, captioned with a quote about the challenges and insecurities they deal with.
Rubin kicked the project off in January by sharing a little bit about himself first, saying his "most daunting fear" is disappointing the family members and friends who have sacrificed for his success.
“To let down the people closest to me, my friends and family, is my most daunting fear. From an early age I was pretty aware about how many lives I affected. How many people had to sacrifice time, energy and money. The idea that it may not be worth it, or there might not be a way to repay them, haunts me at times. It’s what will take me to that next level, or break me, but to impact the world you cannot let that happen and I won’t.”
Since then, more than 10 players have participated in the project, all opening up about subjects that are normally difficult to discuss publicly.
Ernesto Escobedo talked about his stutter:
“I’ve had a stutter since childhood. I did everything for it. Speech classes, everything. Every day I am trying to improve. That’s why I dont talk too much. Growing up, especially in the tennis world, people are extremely critical with other players. With people who don’t always speak as clearly as they want, they always get made fun of. I learn to live with it, but try to keep improving. It’s always on my mind. If there is a person I dont feel comfortable with I might not go up to them because of it. I am really not that shy, but this holds me back because I just dont want to be at the center of jokes. That’s why in the tennis world I am quiet and I just have my team and thats it. Everyone has a problem, and I know one day mine will go away.”
Nicole Gibbs unloaded an anecdote about depression that she'd been holding in:
“I have suffered from depression since my early teens. I finally shared my story in a Telegraph article at the beginning of 2018, but, by that time, I’d been grappling with whether to go public with my struggle for years. I have an excerpt from a blog post I drafted (but never published) in 2016—the best year of my career to date. ~“I’m sitting in a busy locker room, facing the nearest wall, with a towel draped over my head so no one can see the silent tears rolling down my face. An anti-doping monitor stands nearby shifting awkwardly left and right wondering when will be a good time to ask me to sign consent papers for testing. She’s been standing there for thirty minutes and I haven’t so much as acknowledged her presence—even in my special state of misery, I feel guilty about this. All of the standard questions and doubts roll through my head with relentless persistence. ‘Why couldn’t you handle the nerves better?’ ‘Why didn’t you play your game?’ ‘Would a someday champion wilt under pressure that way?’ And perhaps the most haunting question, ‘At a career high ranking of 71 in the world, competing at the French Open in Paris, how is it possible that you are this miserable?’ Now, I know what you’re thinking. Of course an athlete is going to be in pain immediately after a three set, two-day-long loss at one of the biggest events of the year. But, in reality, I had not enjoyed a single happy moment in weeks."~ While meditation, a healthy lifestyle, bouts with medication, and a solid support system have helped me immensely in the past three years, there are still days where it’s tough for me to get out of bed. Feelings of guilt and shame for "not being as good at tennis as I once was", or anxiety about life after tennis still consume more of my mental energy than I care to admit. I’m working toward being more honest with myself and others about when I’m feeling down, but it can be difficult to show vulnerability in such a competitive, high stakes profession.”
Christopher Eubanks dove into his struggle with the loneliness of the road:
“This is something that I struggled with. During my first few months traveling it was just me and I thought everything was great, living out of hotels, everything just seemed easy. It might’ve been my third month after a lot of travel by myself where I just hit a wall in which I felt pretty unhappy. I think mainly it was just a sense of loneliness. Even when guys are going out to player parties or dinners, I’m kinda like, ‘No, I’m good’. I enjoy just chilling at a hotel, watching movies on my computer and just ordering food in, but after about three months of doing that every single day it gets really old. So I kinda hit a wall in which I said to myself, ‘this sucks, I’m not enjoying myself right now’. There was a good bit of time where I went out and played a match where if I won the match, great and if I lost then I got to go home. Home gave me that sense of normal. I did feel out of place at times. Some of the guys in our generation have this certain level of confidence that I wish I had. At the same time I am also fearful of trying to be that, which is not truly me, and not backing it up. I think if I want to be where I say I want to be, I am going to have to learn to get a bit of that. I don’t know how, I don’t know where it comes from. I have to find a bit of balance between getting that authentically and not letting it be just a facade and a front, while not changing who I am. At the end of the day our tennis careers are only going to last a certain time, you will have a life after it and people will remember the type of person you were while on tour. I am always very mindful of that.”
Dustin Brown discussed the nuances of being both German and Jamaican:
“My dad’s Jamaican and my mother is German. I was born in Germany in ’84 and moved around ’96 to Jamaica. I pretty much have both cultures inside of me. I started out with speaking German at the schools in Germany and then speaking English in high school in Jamaica. They are both a part of me but at the same time, growing up, I was a little bit of an outsider in both places. A colored kid growing up in Germany, when racism was prevalent, which I definitely had to deal with it often, whether at school or tennis, was very tough. There were maybe three colored kids in our area and weirdly enough a couple were even half jamaican. Also on the other side, going back to Jamaica, where I was a black kid, I was still known as the German boy. My english was good but they still heard my German accent. I was really happy when that went away after a few years. It’s always been a little difficult for me but I’ve been able to adapt. Whether German or Jamaican, which are completely opposite, I change based on the culture I am dealing with. I believe it’s not necessarily being black, it’s what anyone sees as different. They will pick it out and target it.”
And Jamie Loeb told the story of her mom's stroke:
“It was Indian Wells, two years ago. I lost in the last round of qualies and I just knew something was off. I called my sister and mom, but no one was picking up, it was really strange. Then finally my sister got in touch with me and told me that my mom had a stroke. I didn’t know what to think and all I wanted to know was that she was okay. I didn’t tell anyone unless someone asked. That changed my outlook on everything. Winning and losing a tennis match means nothing in the grand scheme of things. It was tough, I flew home immediately. If you knew her pre stroke, you would know how independent she was and always on the go, just like everyone knew the famous Susan Loeb to be. Then to see her in a wheelchair, it left me speechless. It changed everything for me since I was always wondering if I was being selfish for being on the road and not at home helping. Between tournaments and training I thought I should’ve been with her, but she wanted me to play. She knows how much it means to me. Both my parents have sacrificed so much to help me get to where I am today. I was on the road quite some time after that, and while my mom didn’t want me thinking about her, it was hard not to. This was something bigger than myself, bigger than tennis. Luckily my mom recovered quickly and fought through it, which has been extremely motivating for me. Between the stroke and both of my parents struggling with depression and fighting on resiliently, it has made me who I am today and continues to push me. I look up to them so much for that. In tough moments I look to them and it just puts everything in perspective.”
"We all work our asses off, and [casual fans] only see the Slams," Rubin said. "Not everybody knows what we go through on a day-in, day-out basis—and the thoughts and the depression and the obstacles that we each have to overcome personally."
The world No. 152 lost a hard-fought 6-7 (7), 7-5, 6-1 opener at his hometown New York Open on Monday, to No. 7 seeded Jordan Thompson.
While Behind The Racquet lives mainly on Instagram for now, Rubin, the art aficionado that he is, says he wants to someday take it to the physical realm:
"I'm obsessed with coffee-table books," he said. "I have a thousand of them. So I would hopefully make one, one day and get on the Humans of New York level, so we'll see how this goes."