The Aviators coach offers post-pandemic predictions and hope for a return to tennis
As the world waits eagerly for an answer to the question of when there will be a return to a semblance of normalcy, the tennis world also awaits their return—to the tennis court. The Aviators’ John Lloyd is right there with them. Hunkered at home in Ft. Lauderdale, our charismatic coach is doing his best to stay connected to the sport that’s been his life, as a player, commentator, and coach.
Fortunate to have access to a private tennis court, he and his girlfriend have been getting their swings in while access to his local beaches is still limited. “We’ve been playing two to three hours a day, which keeps us sane, so I’m happy for that. I’m ready in reserve in case the team needs me. That would absolutely be the last resort, but you never know,” he jokes.
It’s easy to understand why Lloyd is eager to see World TeamTennis get the go-ahead for the 2020 season, which is currently scheduled to commence on July 12. He has arguably assembled one of the strongest teams he’s had since taking on the team in 2015. From the return of 2016 WTT Male MVP Ryan Harrison, who led the Aviators to a championship season, to re-signing former Olympian Christina McHale, inking doubles specialist Jonny O’Mara for a second year to adding mixed doubles Grand Slam champion Nicole Melichar, Lloyd has put a roster of full-season players in place to ensure synergy and sustained momentum throughout the season.
“If I can, whenever I pick a team, I want players to be full-time,” he explains. “It’s great to have celebrity pros come in for two or three matches and that’s fine because it’s great for the league, but you want the bread and butter of the team to be solid for three weeks. Unless they’re unbelievably just better than the others by a long way, I’m going to go for someone for three weeks rather than part-timers, because it just makes the team spirit so much better I think and it just helps us in a lot of ways.”
Additionally, the personal connections between the players off-court only work to boost performance during competition. Harrison and McHale are brother-and-sister-in-law (Harrison is married to McHale’s sister Lauren), and Melichar knows both McHale and Harrison from juniors. As for O’Mara, “He could fit into a team with anybody because he’s just got that kind of personality, and he rolls with it,” says Lloyd.
“You’ve got to have a team where everybody blends well and I always try really hard to do my homework,” he continues. “In three weeks, there’s tension, it’s a pressure situation. That great line that Billie Jean said, ‘Pressure is a privilege,’ is absolutely correct. In team tennis, there’s pressure every match, I mean every single point means something, that’s why it’s so important to play. You’re going to have ups and downs, and we’ve got to make sure the team is all ready, and when a player has a bad day, the other three pick him or her up. It’s all about bouncing back together. No one is trying to purposely have a bad game. It happens and it’s going to happen in three weeks. You’ve just got to try and hope that the good parts outnumber the bad, we stick in as a team, and we help someone if someone’s having a slightly off day, because it will happen.”
Before his team can take to the court, the world has to be ready to press “play” on tennis and other sports. Naturally, after extended time away from regular play, there is room for concern about players’ readiness to return to the highest levels. “In terms of coming back — I’ve talked to a few players and they cannot find a tennis court to play on,” he says. “Where can they play? They can’t. So literally, they’re trying to keep themselves fit and they won’t have hit a tennis ball for who knows how long.” He wonders about the ability to compete if the first tournament after play resumes is the US Open. “Can you imagine going into a grand slam without everybody playing for seven or eight months? It will be a strange thing, but I guarantee you that every player in the draw will be very happy at the chance at playing again, getting out there and playing, firstly, and then financially, making a living again.”
There’s also the impact on individual careers to consider. “This is a minor thing and obviously health is more important, but, there are things called ‘records’ in this sport,” says Lloyd. He believes everyone from the Big Three — Rafael Nadal, Roger Federer, and Novak Djokovic — to players in the twilight of their careers, including the Bryan Brothers, are thinking about how cancellations and time away will impact their career stats and professional goals. As for the Bryans, who’d previously announced their retirement at the conclusion of the 2020 ATP tour, Lloyd offers this prediction: “It’s been a treat for them and it’s been a treat for spectators, and it’s being taken away. To be honest, I’d be shocked, if all things get back to some sort of normal, that they won’t play next year. I’d be very surprised.”
Now, numerous sports are mulling over the idea of playing without crowds — a concept that might be simpler for tennis, with fewer total people required on court, than something like soccer, with more players and increased contact. Though World TeamTennis is known as much for its enthusiastic fans who bring a level of energy rarely seen in tournaments on the ATP or WTA tour as it is for the level of tennis on-court, Lloyd is intrigued by the possibility of returning to play in any form.
“From my point, obviously I love team tennis. It’s a passion of mine,” he says. “If it was going to happen that way, I’d look at it as a gift to World TeamTennis, and the players playing it would be tremendously lucky to have the opportunity. But also, let’s face it, it would be the only show in town for tennis the last [four] months, and I would imagine that every TV channel in the world would be begging to show it because there’s only so many bloody replays you can watch!” he laughs. “Yeah, we would miss it from the interaction from the crowd, but the players, I think, would be so hungry and so happy and grateful to be out there that they would put on one hell of a show. It wouldn’t be the same, but it would be damn good. I think we would all make sure it would be that way.”