Millman back in practice after backyard tennis in pandemic

Sports
John Millman

FILE – In this Jan. 25, 2020, file photo, Australia’s John Millman, left, shakes hands with Switzerland’s Roger Federer following their match at the Australian Open tennis championship in Melbourne, Australia. Just four matches after his five-setter against Federer on one of the biggest stages in tennis, Millman was having to scramble to find a practice court. (AP Photo/Lee Jin-man, File)

BRISBANE, Australia (AP) — Just four matches after losing his five-setter against Roger Federer at the Australian Open, John Millman was having to scramble to find a practice court.

It’s not like he was suddenly an unknown to Aussie tennis fans. More a case of making himself at home as the coronavirus pandemic forced athletes everywhere to think outside of the box.

The professional tennis tours have been suspended. His regular practice venue at the Queensland Tennis Centre, which hosts the season-opening Brisbane International, was shuttered during the lockdown because of strict social distancing restrictions.

So, Millman went the social route, playing on backyard courts that belonged to people he sometimes was meeting for the first time.

“Ït was awesome — really good fun,” he said. “I had a couple of lovely families that welcomed me in and allowed me to keep my eye in. It was really nice. Stuck to the (social distancing) protocols, of course, so we were ticking all those boxes.”

Chris Mahony, Queensland’s National Academy manager, organized for 12 professional players including Millman to have fitness equipment shipped to their homes and for them to maintain contact with trainers via digital and other means. He also organized a half-dozen courts owned by people from within the academy network where players could practice.

Then Millman widened the network to his fan base.

“I think Johnny said something in one of his newspaper articles and before he knew it, he had people contacting him and offering courts,” Mahony said.

With Australian authorities managing to contain the spread of the virus, the local lockdown is being eased gradually and some sports venues are reopening for practice.

So Millman and Co. were back at work on Monday in the shadows of Pat Rafter Arena.

The 30-year-old Millman has seen the highs of lows of being a tennis pro, from reaching the U.S. Open quarterfinals in 2018 after a win over then No. 2-ranked Federer that continued with his run into the Top 40 in the rankings, to playing in the lower tiers “for a couple of hundred bucks a round” after returning from surgeries.

Despite having only 12 competitive matches in 2020, including a grinding four-hour third-round loss to Federer on the center court at the Australian Open in January, Millman is in no rush for the tours to resume until it is safe for players, staff and officials.

He’s proposing instead some domestic team events in Australia to keep players occupied and give local tennis fans more of a look at Australian talent while international travel bans are in play.

The No. 43-ranked Millman is also happy for the conversation about player compensation to be high on the agenda around the tennis circuit, saying it’s years overdue. Players in some sports have been forced to take big pay cuts because of the coronavirus.

In tennis, Millman said, the problem runs deeper than the pandemic despite a recent push to increase prize money for the early rounds and qualifying tournaments at the Grand Slam events.

“Players outside 100 are struggling all year round whether there is coronavirus or not,” Millman told the Australian Associated Press. “It should be managed better by the ATP, the WTA and the ITF.

“Maybe this starts the discussion, but I won’t hold my breath.”

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