ATP Finals 2019: Joe Salisbury’s quiet journey from London – to London
Putney-born first-time qualifier Joe Salisbury is only British player at the O2
It was the first Saturday in March, and Joe Salisbury and Rajeev Ram could not stop beaming. They had just won their first doubles title together, in Dubai, and it took them to the top 20 for the first time.
When confronted with that news during a thinly-populated press conference—for home favourite Roger Federer was about to embark on his 100th title win against Stefanos Tsitsipas—Salisbury’s eyes grew even wider: “Really?”
This brand-new team, that reached the Brisbane final in their very first event together, certainly had not set any ranking goals for the year. However, they had discussed their chief goal, as Salisbury admitted:
“For me, as a team, I think the goal is to make the World Tour Finals. Obviously, that’s sort of the pinnacle of the sport, to play in those Tour Finals. I think if we keep going, having a good year, it’s definitely a possibility for us.’
Eight months on, and they have done just that, and not just by the skin of their teeth but as the No4 seeds. That puts them ahead of illustrious doubles teams such as Jean-Julian Rojer and Horia Tecau, and Pierre-Hugues Herbert and Nicolas Mahut.
Ram has, it is true, been here before. The older man, at 35, has won 19 doubles titles with 11 different partners, including a couple of Masters, and has reached a couple of Major semis and a handful of quarter-finals.
For the tall, slender Salisbury, this has been a rather different journey.
The Briton’s early passion for tennis was undermined by glandular fever, so rather than leave school after GCSEs, as planned, he continued his education with A Levels, and then graduated with a degree in economics at the University of Memphis, where he became the all-time leader with 97 doubles wins.
Salisbury still hoped to pursue a singles tennis career, but bouts of fatigue made it an uphill task. He admitted in an article for the Daily Mail:
“I just kept having weeks where I was completely wiped out. That kept recurring and I couldn’t put the training in, so doubles was a better option.”
But money and ranking points are not easy to come by on the doubles circuit, especially while working the Challenger circuit. So the welcome boost he got from his break-out result, the semis of Wimbledon last year with Freddie Nielsen, made a big difference.
The jump between Challengers and the main professional tour is writ large in his resume. Take his final run, with Luke Bambridge, in St Brieuc in April last year: 48 ranking points, $775. In Tunis a fortnight later, another final finish, just 55 points and $1,350.
These are the kind of rewards that barely keep the wolf from the door, and explain why he lives in his sister’s home in Peckham when he is not on the road. But the Wimbledon semis meant 720 points and £56,000, and a ranking inside the top 40 boosted him onto the ATP circuit. By the end of 2018, he had won the Vienna title with Neal Skupski—and put out feelers to Ram for 2019.
So what drew him to the American?
“I think it was just knowing how good a player Rajeev is. He was a good singles player as well and had a lot of success in doubles, making the finals here a few years ago. I played against him a couple of times last year and thought he had a really good all-round game. So for me, he was kind of top of my list of the guys I’ve wanted to play with.”
Ram saw strong qualities in Salisbury, too, as he outlined after winning in Dubai:
“I think we complement each other really well. He’s just a super athlete on the court, covers a lot of space. I think we both serve quite well. I don’t think we actually faced a breakpoint all week, which is pretty good.”
In London, Ram is also relishing the support the team is sure to enjoy from supporters of the London-born Salisbury:
“I think one of the best things about Joe is he doesn’t get too intimidated or overwhelmed by any occasion just because it’s new. I think it’s great, he embraces it, and being the only Brit is going to be great for us. He’s going to have support and I think in turn I’ll have some support. We did our best to be here, but there’s still a long way to go. All the teams have a good shot to win, so do we.”
It is not the first time they have played a final in front of a London crowd: They were runners-up to Andy Murray and Feliciano Lopez at Queen’s this summer. This time around, there will be no national heroes, even in former doubles No1 Jamie Murray, to divide British loyalties.
So Salisbury is making the most of ‘the most glamorous tournament I’ve ever played in.’ He is staying at the players’ hotel on the South Bank, though has little concern about being recognised as he journeys to Greenwich to open play on the first day of action. Only Andy Murray, he opined, gets that sort of attention.
For he is a man with his feet firmly on the ground. He is adamant that the huge prizes on offer at the O2 are not life-changing—though the team is looking at a minimum of $80,000 for one round-robin win, rising to hundreds of thousands for a final finish. What playing the big tournaments does mean is that he no longer comes away from a tournament worse off—with cost of hotel and travel—than he goes into it.
He put it thus:
“For a while I was [losing money]. Not a huge amount, because I was playing more locally, I’d be playing Futures in England and around Europe, so not having as many expenses. I wouldn’t have had a coach with me because I was doing it on a budget, but you get barely any prize money so your expenses are still more than your prize money.
“Until a year and a half ago, I was not earning any money and enjoying it just as much. I was driven by other things, by getting better, by doing well at tournaments and getting to play the bigger tournaments, and obviously it’s nice that I get to earn a living from it now as well, but that’s not the motivation.”
So were there times, what with the struggles for fitness and the draining of financial resources, when he thought about giving up?
“Yeah, that did come into my mind for a bit. I don’t think I ever seriously wanted to stop—I always wanted to do this, I wanted to keep going unless there was an absolute reason why I couldn’t do it. It was the reason why I switched to just playing doubles.
“And since then, it’s been a lot more manageable. Again, there have still been some low points where I wasn’t doing well, playing Challengers, not getting my ranking up to where I want it to be, but I’ve always wanted to do this so there wasn’t any point where I was about to decide to stop.”
And now, there is every reason to continue. Salisbury and Ram come into London on a wave of form: the final in Antwerp, victory in Vienna, the quarters at the Paris Masters. It has been a difficult journey thus far, but it looks as though the dedicated Briton is about to become rather better known on the courts—and streets—of London.
NB No5 seeds Raven Klaasen and Michael Venus beat Salisbury and Ram in the opening match, courtesy of a break in each of the two sets, 6-3, 6-4, in exactly one hour.