After early US Open ouster, 24-year-old outspoken New Yorker gives feedback on tournament organizers and players’ mental health in these crazy times
Being successful as a professional tennis player requires natural ability, dedication and hard work. Making it during a global pandemic while also exposing injustices in “the system” and bringing attention to the mental health issues of fellow players requires you to be Noah Rubin.
Rubin, only 24 years old but wise beyond his years, is no stranger to the US Open and to advocacy.
A proud Jew, Rubin – No. 228 in the world in singles and No. 703 in doubles – was eliminated with partner Ernesto Escobedo in the first round of the men’s doubles tournament at the recently completed, spectator-less US Open, held in New York City. Their match vs Israel-born Denis Shapovalov and Rohan Bopanna was suspended due to rain and continued the next day, when Rubin and Escobedo lost 6-2, 6-4.
This was Long Island-native Rubin’s seventh trip to the US Open since competing in his first qualifiers in 2013. Rubin spent the days leading up to his first-round defeat with all other players and tournament personnel at the Garden City Hotel. He said ironically, “I live nine minutes away. It was a strange situation.”
Rubin spoke with The Jerusalem Post about his experience in the US Open “bubble,” gave suggestions for improving pro tennis, and reflected on his popular “Behind The Racquet” project.
The United States Tennis Association took great pains to assure the Grand Slam tournament would be played this year. USTA CEO Mike Dowse and US Open tournament director Stacey Allaster shared details of the safety plan at several press briefings.
“We really established some guiding principles at the beginning. The first one was could we do it in a healthy and safe way for everyone. That included the players, the staff, even the local community here in New York. The second guiding principle was is this good for the sport of tennis, will it reignite our industry in the broader tennis ecosystem. The third question is frankly did it make financial sense, that included for the players and for the USTA, again the broader tennis ecosystem. As we went through this journey starting in mid-March, we couldn’t say yes at all times against those three guiding principles. But ultimately on June 16 we said ‘yes’ with this formula we put together.”
Rubin and other players had mixed reviews of the plan and of the tennis bubble.
“At first, there were very few problems,” noted Rubin. “It was great. I gave them so much credit before the tournament – for how much work they put in.”
Rubin playfully noted that the players-only set up meant that players could wander the grounds freely.
“I didn’t see my third-grade teacher asking for tickets!
“It was great, [but] then there were issues that they handled poorly.”
Rubin spoke of the boredom.
“They had basketball [in the hotel] – it was fun shooting hoops – and they had mini golf, but there is only so much 9-hole mini golf you can play!”
Rubin reported spending some days “lying down in the middle of the park…not their fault.”
And he spoke of playing in front of empty stands.
“The thrill is with the fans, but I am used to not having people at my matches.”
Rubin began to witness problems after the first coronavirus case were detected.
“It didn’t seem they were ready.”
Rubin felt communication was poor and that rules were constantly changing.
“They didn’t really tell us everything. It seemed like they were hiding something. And there was a lack of consistency.”
Rubin was referring to a situation where French player Benoit Paire tested positive for the coronavirus on the Sunday before the US Open, though he was not showing symptoms. Paire, the No. 17 seed, was set to play Kamil Majchrzak of Poland in the first round and was forced to withdraw from the tournament.
“There was a lack of consistency. Top players were put on a pedestal.”
Rubin described it as “a fake bubble in a lot of ways,” with hotel staff going home, therefore coming in and out of the bubble. He also reports sharing the hotel with other guests not connected to the tournament.
“They got to the 10-yard line and dropped the ball a little bit. They did the hard parts really well. It was a good effort.”
Rubin is no stranger to speaking out on issues which he says as affecting professional tennis. He has spoken out on income inequality the sport, and started the “Behind the Racquet” website and podcast, where he allows professional tennis players to share personal stories of mental health issues and other struggles.
As Rubin wrote on the website: “From the beginning of my life there was nothing I loved more than chasing around that yellow ball.
Wherever it went, I followed. I could not always articulate the impact I wanted to make but I had this innate feeling that I needed to leave my mark on this sport. As I progressed through the levels, meeting and experiencing all there is to, I started understanding that there is a true disconnect between how spectators interpreted this field and what actually is the reality.
“The perceived glamorous, travesty-free lifestyle was far from what is actually taking place. The combination of this blinded misconception along with the antiquated mentalities of some at the top, running our sport, made me feel a responsibility to implore change.
“I have grand dreams to drastically evolve the sport we all love in order to prevent this continuous decline of fans. This is where ‘Behind The Racquet’ (BTR) plays a major role. I realized that this disconnect has arisen partially due to the lack of connection between potential fans and players. I started BTR to give players the platform to share their stories on their own terms, while also giving fans an opportunity to relate to a player on a deeper level.
“In doing so, I am also helping to fight the stigma of talking about mental health, especially in the world of professional sport. I truly dream that these stories, told by honest and bold people, inspire you to see deeper into who they truly are. Everyone has a story and it’s time to share yours.”
While he hopes to play in the upcoming French Open in two weeks, he is devoting a great deal of time to “Behind the Racquet.”
“I have worked six years in six months,” exclaimed Rubin, who has built a team, collected 50 stories, and has a book and possible documentary on the horizon.
His mother, Melanie Siegel Rubin, is proud of all of Noah’s accomplishments.
“Noah has trained all his life to accomplish what he has on the court as a junior and professional tennis player. His dedication and determination are beyond admirable. In recent years, Noah’s off-court endeavors, through ‘Behind The Racquet,’ have taken my admiration of him to an even higher level. Noah giving other players an outlet to express themselves, resources to help themselves and a platform to reach so many, has surpassed what I could have dreamed for him. His work with NAMI [National Alliance on Mental Illness], North Shore Animal League and as a voice for change for his fellow players are just some of his undertakings that should be commended. I couldn’t be more proud of my boy.”