Q&A: tennis’ 20-something star

Noah Rubin on what’s next for the sport and what it takes to be one of the best players in the world

In their 30s, Roger Federer and Rafael Nadal are well within their prime. Just last weekend, Federer took the Wimbledon win in three straight sets; and in June, Nadal won the French Open.But kicking at their heels is a new generation of athletes. The Association of Tennis Professionals (ATP) calls them the #NextGen: players in their late teens and 20s who are making waves in the sport, inching up in the rankings.

Noah Rubin, a New York-born 21-year-old who’s ranked 183 in the world, is one of them. A month out from tennis’ closing slam, the U.S. Open, Furthermorecaught up with him to find out the differences between the junior and the professional tour, what’s next for tennis, and how to stand out in a sea of high-performers.

You made the decision to play college tennis at Wake Forest University in 2015 before turning pro. What made you want to play in college?

It was almost frowned upon by a lot of coaches to do that. I made the decision after I won Wimbledon and the National Junior tournament, Kalamazoo. People thought that I was for sure turning pro but I looked it over and the longevity of tennis was changing—the better players were 28 to 34 and I wanted my career to be longer. I wanted to get a year or two of college under my belt before taking on a professional career.

What were the biggest struggles transitioning from college to the pro tour?

There are not too many changes. The junior tour was quite demanding and there’s lots of travel. The biggest thing was the level of tennis these guys play. No matter what ranking—50 or 500 in the world—they are coming to beat you and play their best tennis. There was a day-in, day-out mentality that I had to get used to.

You are part of what the ATP is calling the #NextGen. In tennis, there is a bit of a changing of the guard. Can you tell us about that?

We’re in a day and age where the best players right now are in their 30s; Federer is 35, Nadal is 31. But we have this whole group of 19- to 21-year-old guys who are incredible tennis players. We know each other well and we have played in the junior tour together. It has been a really great group of guys to grow up playing with. We have good, friendly competition. Hopefully we’re going to be the next greats competing for the Slams, showing everyone what we’re made of.

The NextGen ATP Finals will showcase the top eight 21-and-under players in Milan in November. Why is this such an important event for tennis?

They're trying out a few different things, changing the format of tennis: playing sets to five instead of to six; having no doubles alleys on the courts, so it looks different; and setting a stop clock in between every point. It’s quick tennis. It’s exciting.

At 5-foot-10-inches, you’re of slightly shorter stature on the court. What makes you stand out?

On a good day, I'm 5-foot-10-inches. Some of these guys—even in the #NextGen, like Kokkinakis, who is 6’ 5”—are just monsters. So I try to use my speed. That’s always been a weapon for me. My speed is almost second to none for my age and almost for the tour. Whether I have a 150 mph serve is another story, but my speed is going to steal me a lot of points. Soccer has always been a big part of my life and has helped with speed and agility.

Many people don’t realize how great the fitness demands of professional tennis are.

It’s tough to talk to an American about tennis. Since there’s no physical contact, right off the bat in an argument, you feel like you have the lower hand. But there are countless reasons why tennis is one of toughest sports in world. For one, you play on four-plus different surfaces. Then, you’re playing in infinite types of weather conditions. It’s not like basketball where it’s 70 degrees no matter what because the A.C. is on. Then, there are no subs. If you want to leave because you’re tired or hurt, you forfeit. There are time violations. It’s just countless. Matches can go on for five hours, too. You have to have quick speed while maintaining that for three or four hours. You’re combining a lot of different muscle groups and skill to compete at the highest level of the sport.

Tennis can be as much mental as it is physical. How do you stay mentally strong?

It’s something that is not easily taught but a lot of tennis players have it because it’s a must. One big thing is you have to incorporate how travel affects you and how missing your family affects you. A lot of aspects have to line up when the best players are playing great. It’s not all about tennis either. I could be in Oklahoma or in Paris and I try to make an itinerary that suits my likings. I am living a life that most people don't get to live, so I want to enjoy those aspects of well.

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