“Without anyone to invest in you, chances are you won’t become a professional tennis player.”

Tennis through the eyes of Radu Albot. An interview.

This interview took place in late January 2021—just days before the Australian tennis swing began. In the following month, Radu Albot reached the third round at the Australian Open and the semi-final of a 250 tournament in Singapore.

“My dad saw the sport on TV for the first time and looked for a club in Moldova,” Radu Albot remembers. “In the beginning, when I first started training at the Tennis School, I didn’t really understand what tennis is and whether I wanted it or not.”

There are no hints of nostalgia to Albot’s voice as he matter-of-factly recalls the days of his youth. His low, soothing voice rumbles when he talks, and he frequently pauses to search the mists of memory. “It was more of a way to spend time, the kind of activity that parents take their children to do,” he continues.

“For some, it’s swimming, football, athletics, dancing, etc. My dad decided to introduce me to tennis.”

Wearing a white Yonex t-shirt, Albot reclines in his chair and smiles from his hotel room in Melbourne where he’s currently under quarantine. He has a laid back and relaxed manner about him, almost languid, cutting a striking contrast to his dynamic on-court persona. When the conversation livens up, so does he—leaning forward and gesticulating.

It’s a cold, albeit sunny morning in London, where I’m calling from, but for Radu Albot the day is already winding down, and he finds a bit of time to talk about his life, career, and tennis in general.

For the past two weeks, his days had a distinct Groundhog Day feel with all activities strictly pre-planned, and time spent outside his hotel room allocated to the minute. For over a year now, the world has been battling the Coronavirus pandemic and Australia is at the forefront of the fight.

“With regards to the pandemic and tennis in Australia, I am already 13-14 days in quarantine,” Albot says, “I have one more day left and then I’m out.”

Radu Albot is one of the veterans of the tennis tour. At 31, he has been playing professional tennis for over 15 years, but it wasn’t until 2019 that he hit his stride. Over the course of the year, he had won 31 matches at the ATP level, claiming his first trophy in an ATP 250 event in Delray Beach, eventually rising up to 39 in the world.

I ask him about the start of his journey.

“I started playing when I was 6 years old, but then took a two-year break and only played continuously from the age of 8.”

Coming from a country with virtually no tennis traditions, Albot’s dad didn’t have many options. He took him to one of the few tennis clubs in the country.

“I am from Chisinau where I first started training at the Tennis School (Scoala Republicana de Tenis), located in Buiucani. It was there that I started and after a while, I looked at another club, called Tennis Club Nika. It no longer exists.”

“At the time, Nika was a rival to the Tennis School—it was trying to poach the best players and bring them up at the club creating competition for the Tennis School. There weren’t that many clubs around. Nika had the money, and they had an owner who was very passionate about tennis and invested a lot in the club. He wanted it to be more successful than the Tennis School.”

“That was the beginning of, more or less, my eight years there.”

Have his parents encouraged him to follow a career in tennis?

“In the beginning, it was a sporting activity, but with time, when I started to play better tennis and win the smaller, local tournaments, you could see the talent I already had and the type of a player I could become.”

“Of course, my parents were helpful throughout my career, not only in the beginning but even now, which is very important. Both of my parents supported me and guided me.”

“There can often be differences of ideas so it’s important that everyone is on the same wavelength.”

“When a child is growing up, and one parent wants to do one thing, and the other parent wants to take the child to do swimming or football instead, I think that creates a problem for the family.”

“But with me, everything was clear. I continued to play tennis, and it was just a sporting activity—a way of spending time with my friends. Only later, it started being more professional with the trips, tournaments, practices with a coach, flights, etc. And like that, bit by bit, it became more of a job than a hobby or a way of having a good time with your friends.”

After nine years of tennis education, Radu Albot had earned his first ATP point at an F1 Futures event in Yerevan—a mark of adulthood in the world of tennis. He still remembers the moment.

“If I’m not mistaken it was 2007, in Armenia, I won against a guy ranked in the 500s (Franck Dalla-Santa), Frenchman. I was 17 at the time.”

Is that when he realised that he could become a professional player?

“For me, it was too early to understand what ‘professional’ even means—the tournaments, ATP, Grand Slams, it was all too far from the mind of a young child.”

“Over time, when I grew up and started to play more tournaments, when I began to travel to Europe and got to see players from other countries, I saw that there are better players, that some of them travel with coaches or that there are players who have sponsors, etc., and I understood that the world of tennis is very big. These were the kind of things that I haven’t seen much of in my own country.”

“From that moment, it became clear to me who was a professional and what it means to be a professional—how far you can go if you play good tennis.”

“However, I think that the mindset of becoming a pro wasn’t present in me until I was around 17, 18 years old. Until then, I wasn’t thinking about it, I was just playing tennis.”

“I was ranked 2nd in Europe, 11th in the world (ITF Juniors), so I was aware of the rankings, but professionalism only came later to my mind.”

The life of a tennis player is fraught with risk—their livelihood is heavily dependent on the compliance of their bodies, and many a career was prematurely ended with an injury. And yet, during the formative years of any player, the need for a safety net, the education, is often sacrificed at the altar of sporting brilliance.

“I went to high school. I tried to do everything in parallel, but didn’t succeed—there wasn’t enough time. I knew that the exams were coming, but also more tennis trips, so I ended up skipping classes. It was pretty hard. When I finished high school, it became a different story. I could travel more and play.”

Would it have been easier without trying to do both things at the same time?

“I don’t think any parent can say ‘let’s forget about school, let’s focus on sports full time’. It’s not something any parent would risk.”

“Each parent decides the fate of their child because the child doesn’t know what they want, what is best for them—they will do what their parents ultimately decide.”

“They can’t just say at 10 years old, ‘Dad, I want to become a professional tennis player.’ They don’t have that mentality. They just want to have fun and it’s the parent who should be thinking ahead. If the parent decides that the child, at the age of 12, should leave school and go pro then they are responsible for that decision.”

 ‘A Moldovan player’ is not a phrase commonly heard in the world of tennis. Over the past half-a-century, only a handful of Moldovans have managed to break into the top 500 of the ATP rankings which makes Radu Albot something of a lodestar of his country’s tennis.

And yet, to get there certainly wasn’t easy. For a lot of young talent in tennis, the helping hand comes from the sport’s governing bodies. Unfortunately, as Albot was finding his feet in the world of tennis, so was his federation.

“At the beginning of my career, the Moldovan Federation didn’t help me with anything, and I can say that openly.”

“Financially speaking, there was no support from the federation. The logistical stuff, such as letters to tournaments, writing letters to schools [to excuse absence]—I don’t think that’s helping. It’s their responsibility, and they should do that regardless. If they don’t, then who will?”

“Financially speaking, to pay for travel to tournaments somewhere in Europe, the federation didn’t help me at all.”

“This had continued for several years, even until recently, in the last 10 years that I have played. As long as Marina Tabir was the president [of the Moldovan Tennis Federation], supporting players wasn’t a thing.”

“It was politics. The federation was using the players, the stature of their names, for their own financial interest. They used the players.”

Luckily for Albot and all aspiring tennis players in Moldova, things have changed.

“More recently, when Ceslav Cehri took over as the president, he started sponsoring players with his own money and paid for a few juniors to travel to tournaments with a coach. They went to different countries, and absolutely everything was paid by him without any expectations to return the money.”

“Certain sponsors invest in players with the aim of getting their money back should the players become successful in their careers. Ceslav Cehri doesn’t have such goals. He tries to help and has helped me financially as well. I am forever grateful to him for that.”

“Now it’s a whole different story but before, the federation was mostly using the names of the players for their own gain, and not helping with anything.”

The scarcity of talent coming out of Moldova makes for a grim panorama of the country’s tennis scene, but Albot’s continuing success offers a glimmer of hope. Could his achievements form a cornerstone of a new generation?

“I really hope that this will happen, that the generation that follows will be inspired by all the tournaments I won and all the results that I have achieved.”

“I always say this in every interview, but I would like the next player coming after me to be better than I am so that we [as a nation] don’t rest on the laurels of my achievements.”

“I want the next player to be even better because this would mean that tennis is developing in our country. This isn’t easy.”

“There are so many factors that must work in your favour as a player. You can’t get injured, you need luck on your side in tournaments, etc. There are more nuances that you can enumerate.”

“At the same time, you need to have a very competent coach to bring you up to that next level. Otherwise, even if you are very responsible and diligent, this wouldn’t be enough without someone experienced by your side to guide you.”

“When you are a young player, you don’t know any of this.”

“At the same time, when I speak to children at various events and when I play tennis with them, they seem to be very enthusiastic. It seems that, in a way, you do really influence them to work harder and train more.”

“Many of the kids follow my results and I hope that, in the future, they will be the players to represent Moldova as well as I do.”

The conversation shifts to the subject of developing tennis players. I ask Albot about his views on the journey one needs to undergo in order to ‘make it’.

“Tennis is a very expensive sport. It’s very difficult to get to the top because you have to invest a lot of money in yourself. If you can’t afford to invest, and you don’t have someone to help you, the chances are almost zero—you just don’t progress.”

“You get to a level, let’s say top 1000 in the world, which is not bad already because to be in the top 1000 you will already have a few ATP points.”

“Some may say, ‘top 1000 in the world, that’s bad’, but if you look at the top 1000 players in football, for example, that’s not bad in my opinion. There are so many players in different positions, different countries, different leagues, and levels—to be inside the top 1000 in that world, you think it’s OK.”

“But to be inside the top 1000 in our sport, it works differently. If you are in the top 100, you can say that you’ve achieved something. But if you are in the top 500, 600, 700, it’s very difficult.”

“Without anyone to invest in you, to believe in you, chances are that you won’t become a professional tennis player.”

It becomes a whole different ball game if a player comes from a country with a strong federation, I suggest. Iga Świątek, a Polish player who last year won her maiden Grand Slam at the age of 18, mentioned in a recent interview that the Polish Federation’s lack of clout in the tennis world meant that she rarely benefitted from wild cards during her rise through the professional rankings. Albot strongly agrees.

“Absolutely, countries like England, France, USA—they have Grand Slams and can exchange wild cards with each other. Here, in Australia, five Australian players get wild cards, and one goes to an Asian, one to an American, and one to a Frenchman, for example.”

“You have eight wild cards that you can exchange and respectively, an Australian receives a wild card in America, France, and such player, who is likely ranked in the 150s, 120s, has the opportunity to play in the main draw of a Grand Slam tournament.”

“But if you are from a country without a strong federation, with your ranking of 120, you still have to play the qualifiers. And when you play the qualifiers, there are so many good young players with the hunger to make the main draw that it’s far from a sure thing that you’ll get in.”

“In that sense, the Grand Slam countries have a big advantage, and are able to progress their players easier.”

“Still, the federations are important. If you don’t get any support from your federation, it’s very difficult. I felt that on my own skin,” Albot adds.

“As I mentioned earlier, no matter how much you want it, how professional and motivated you are, you eventually reach a level that you can’t pass.”

“To get to that next level, you need a better coach, you need to play more tournaments, you need to be able to travel with your physio as well as your coach, and you need to be able to have physiotherapy six times a week after heavy training sessions. All of this requires investment.”

“If you can afford a coach, a physio, etc., it makes all the difference, and the possibility to get to that next level is greater. But for all of this, you need money because no one will travel with you for free.”

“Of course, there are cases where people with lesser means make it but it’s a lot more difficult.”

After an injury halted his rise through the ranking, Albot struggled to regain form. A string of first-round losses during the first half of 2020, mixed with the pandemic-induced uncertainty surrounding the tour, kept his confidence low.

But by the end of the year, Albot had managed to find his best tennis again. He had made two quarterfinals in ATP250 tournaments in Cologne and Sofia and reached the second round in the Paris Masters—in the process scoring impressive victories over numbers 34 and 12 in the world (Hurkacz and Shapovalov respectively).

In 2021, Radu Albot hopes to continue where he left off, but, at the same time, he is acutely aware of how precarious the ever-developing situation is.

“One of my goals for 2021 is to play the whole year without getting injured.”

“In 2020 I was injured for half the year and couldn’t play for about four months, more or less. It would be good to play as many tournaments as possible.”

“The year is going to be difficult with the pandemic. It will be interesting to see which tournaments go ahead and which ones don’t.”

“I’d like to climb up to top 50 in the world again, something that I believe is possible with the style of tennis that I play, the kind of game that I show. I really hope that this will happen in the coming year.”

“Recently, I fell out of the ranking a little bit. But again, I think all this happened because I was injured. If I stay healthy this year, everything will be different.”

I ask Albot what he would like to leave the tennis world with at the end of his career. Before I can even finish the question, the look on his face makes me realise I just made a gaffe. “Once you hang up your racquet, that is,” I add quickly.

He flashes a cheeky smile and says, “I understand, I am not going anywhere yet.”

“I think that for Moldova the message is that everything is possible. It doesn’t matter which country you come from and if you have any help or not. Everyone should understand that there is always a possibility.”

“You need to want it to happen very much, and you have to work hard for it because nothing will happen on its own. I think that this would be important for our country.”

“With regards to the rest of the world, I think that I would like to leave something so that people could speak well of me and say that I was a hard worker, very careful, punctual, honest—so that they could say good things about me.”

“I wouldn’t want to be called anything supernatural because there are players like Federer and Nadal, and, in relation to them, you can use whatever words you want.”

“But for me, I would like something simple and to do with the characteristics of my game: that I never gave up, always fought until the end, always worked hard in training and gave everything it took to become what I became.”

“I think that this would be my message for the tennis fans across the world.”