For the part of their job that some tennis players have always disliked — flying — Jack Sock said that he toyed with what would have been a novel solution to the problem of how to stay coronavirus-free on airplanes: Wear a head-to-toe beekeeper’s suit.
The American was joking, but the headache of how to globe-trot and stay healthy in the era of COVID-19 is no laughing matter for tennis pros who, unlike other business travelers, must keep flying for their paychecks to keep rolling in.
Globally, air travel is down more than 85 percent from a year ago, industry figures show, but tennis players cannot work from home. There are no matches on Zoom.
Tennis pros, as now-rare world travelers, have also become unwitting first-hand witnesses of how the pandemic is battering the airline industry. With tournaments back on again, they are finding themselves rattling around eerily quiet airports that once hummed and worrying about how well filtered the air is aboard airplanes.
Those not wealthy enough to fly private jets describe the flying experience as having been transformed into a masked ordeal of gels, social distancing and stress.
“Shocking” and “weird” is how Sock, competing in Paris at the French Open, described his stopover at New York City’s John F. Kennedy International Airport.
The huge hub last year averaged more than 5 million passengers per month, but only saw 636,883 passengers in July, down 89 percent from the same period last year, New York Port Authority data showed.
“There wasn’t one place open inside. There were maybe 20 people in the airport,” Sock said, speaking after winning his first-round match. “That was a weird sight — one of the biggest cities in the world.”
Flying and the unavoidable proximity with other passengers compounds the angst of players for whom staying virus-free has become as essential as their rackets.
Players must present clean bills of health at tournaments such as the French Open, which subject them to batteries of tests, and not only be negative, but also not have been in close contact with others who are positive.
In Paris, they are shielded in two hotels and ferried in disinfected vehicles to play, but outside the tournament bubbles, flying in and out, limiting exposure becomes more of a challenge.
“I thought about getting a beekeeper’s suit for the airplane,” Sock said, jokingly.
He listed what has become his travel routine: “A little thing of hand sanitizer with me, mask at all times ... check my bags as quickly as possible, have my mask on, get through security, kind of try to get in and out as quick as possible — stay away from people.”
“Obviously, you’re in an enclosed space,” Sock said. “Could be tough if someone in there is infected or something. Knock on wood, everything has been great. Tested negative 95,000 times the last few months — hopefully, keep that streak going.”
New Yorker Kristie Ahn, ranked 102nd, said that her flight to Paris was not crowded, middle seats were left empty and the crew ensured that passengers wore masks.
“You weren’t allowed to wear your own,” she said.
Ahn said that she tried to limit any exposure by “making sure that my nose was covered and just making sure that my hands were sanitized, that I wasn’t touching my face,” and by only drinking “very quickly” when thirsty.
“It’s a bit nerve-wracking traveling just because I’m doing everything I can in my power to make sure that I am safe and I keep other people safe,” she said after a first-round loss to compatriot Serena Williams.
“It’s a two-way street, so we need people to reciprocate and sometimes they don’t, so it’s a bit frustrating,” Ahn added.
Two-time Wimbledon champion Petra Kvitova avoided the stress by riding a private jet to Paris.
“That was much safer,” she said after advancing to the second round.
Zhang Shuai, also a first-round winner, said that when she was growing up in China and had never taken an airplane, she longed to fly and see the world, but the novelty wore off after near-constant flying became part of her tennis job.
“I really didn’t like it, especially long-haul,” Zhang said.
She, too, said that she worries about her health aboard flights, but “I feel more reassured when I see that everyone is wearing a mask.”
For others, flying is simply a chore whatever the circumstances and one that they did not miss when the pandemic grounded most flights and the tennis tour.
“I completely hate flying,” said Barbara Haas, an Austrian ranked 143rd, who lost in the first round. “The best thing during the lockdown was that I didn’t have to go on an airplane.”
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