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Merrick's Noah Rubin adjusting to life without tennis during coronavirus pandemic

Noah Rubin returns the ball during a New

Noah Rubin returns the ball during a New York Open qualifier match against Mackenzie McDonald at NYCB Live's Nassau Coliseum on Feb. 9. Credit: Errol Anderson

Among the tens of thousands of New York workers idled by the coronavirus is the 24-year-old professional tennis player Noah Rubin, currently — and at least until June 8, the earliest tour officials say play might resume — ranked No. 225 in the world.

Rubin lost in the quarterfinals of the Oracle Challenger Series in Indian Wells, California, three weeks ago but had stayed in town, hoping to find a spot in the larger and more lucrative BNP Paribas Open, held in the same facility. He was in a Korean barbecue restaurant with friends when he got an email saying that tournament — sometimes called tennis’ Fifth Slam — had been canceled.

“We thought it was a joke,” said Rubin, who grew up in Merrick. He called over to the Korean players Hyeon Chung and Soonwoo Kwon, sitting at a nearby table with a coach: “Did you guys get this too?” 

Everybody had. In the days that followed, the world’s top players began flying out of the United States, back to their home countries. Officials for the ATP, the governing body of men’s professional tennis, announced the cancellation of the Miami Open and the U.S. men’s clay court championships in Houston, tournaments Rubin had hoped would provide income and rankings points for the spring clay court season. The ATP suspended play until April and then June, cancellng tournaments in Phoenix, Brazil, France, Ecuador, Spain and elsewhere.

Whatever momentum Rubin had built in the first months of this year, with wins over fellow American Mackenzie McDonald and Frenchman Lucas Pouille, former world No. 10 now ranked 58th, was halted. He flew back to New York recently and took up residence in the Rockville Centre apartment he’d rented last year when he’d been sidelined by an elbow injury.

He is an independent contractor who lives on his winnings: $33,019 thus far in 2020, less thousands of dollars in expenses for racquet stringing, travel and coaching. “For somebody outside 50 or 100” in the world, he said, “you don’t have many sponsorships off court, and if you do it’s minor, you can’t live off of them . . .If you don’t work, you don’t get paid.”

He tweeted a plan to teach private lessons and drew a positive response from scores of well-heeled New Yorkers eager to pay a few hundred dollars an hour to play with one of the elites. That idea fell through, at least temporarily, when the authorities closed indoor tennis facilities across the metro area. Even the outdoor high school courts near his apartment were closed, he said.

He has other projects including the Instagram series Behind the Racquet and a podcast by the same name that explore the lives of the professional tennis world’s non-Rogers and Serenas. He also has an idea for an app that would connect athletes to fans as a savvy business manager might, for example allowing fans to Facetime with an athlete for a fee.

He has had time to think about a sport he loves but one he has said is “broken,” rewarding those at the top magnificently but those below hardly at all. Many touring professionals will need stipends or alternate sources of prize money to survive the coming months of inactivity, he said, a big ask for a sport dispersed over the globe and over different professional circuits.

He cited as an example the recent announcement that the French Open, one of the four major tournaments of the year, would move from the spring to the fall. News of that decision, made apparently with little consultation with the ATP or other tournament organizers, set up a scheduling conflict with the Laver Cup, one of the sport’s few team events, and it caused Rubin to laugh out loud.

“We’re fighting our own sport,” he said. “It just shows how poor the communication is, how difficult it is in an international sport to get everyone in the same room.”

Some professionals may leave the sport and the circuit model, with players hopscotching around the globe, and may not return this year, Rubin said.

“Normal life has to come back” first, he said, adding in a later interview: “Every country has to be safe before tennis comes back anywhere.”

So he has switched to the life of a civilian. He stayed up late one night and slept until almost noon, something he hasn’t done for years because of his training schedule. He has not hit a ball in over a week, keeps in shape in his building’s gym and hasn’t left his apartment building much.

“If we’re going to do quarantining," he said, "let’s do it right."

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