KATOWICE, Poland - As the COVID-19 pandemic continues to grip the world, tennis players have been playing their part in helping to fight it - with the Polish tennis community coming together in the past fortnight to support the Rakieta w Koronawirusa (Racquets for Coronavirus) initiative.
The campaign, which aims to raise money to purchase personal protective equipment such as masks, helmets and suits for Polish health workers, was started by former player Sandra Zaniewska, now the coach of World No.59 Alizé Cornet. Zaniewska, whose parents are both doctors, managed to get it off the ground in just a few days while in a mandatory 14-day quarantine after returning to Poland from the United States, where she had watched the pandemic erupt from afar.
Partnering with the Fundacja Sensoria (Sensoria Foundation), a Wroclaw organisation that promotes health and education, every leading light of Polish tennis has lent their support to Rakieta w Koronawirusa: Magda Linette, Iga Swiatek and Katarzyna Kawa were among those who contributed to a promotional video to raise awareness, and plans are afoot to auction off signed racquets and other tennis memorabilia.
"We must act quickly and protect our heroes who are on the frontlines - doctors, nurses, paramedics, rescuers," reads the initiative's statement. "The warm-up and defensive time is over. The threat is real and you need to act. We must order the equipment as soon as possible."
Former World No.142 Zaniewska, whose own playing career was prematurely halted by injury, has already gained a reputation for her holistic approach to the sport in her relatively new role on tour: "My coaching philosophy is that the best coaches don't create the best players, they create the best humans," she told WTA Insider earlier this year. In a thoughtful blog posted during this year's Australian Open that mulled over questions of identity, the 28-year-old asked: "Who are we when everything we own and accomplished has been taken away from us?" This ability to zoom out to a wider perspective is serving her well during these unprecedented and uncertain times. Speaking to wtatennis.com from her ongoing quarantine, Zaniewska discussed how she had managed to turn Rakieta w Koronawirusa from an idea into reality in such a short time - as well as how she is dealing with the COVID-19 pandemic as a coach, and how she envisions society changing after it is over.
AM: How did the idea for Rakieta w Koronawirusa come about?
SZ: After Indian Wells was cancelled I stayed in the States for two or three weeks, and over there I was reading all the news about the coronavirus from around the world - especially in Poland because my parents were here and I was keeping in touch with them. And I figured, as much as the virus is the problem for all of us, the healthcare workers in Poland had to work without any protective gear. Which I guess is the case everywhere now, not just in Poland.
But to me, it felt unfair, and the subject is close to my heart because my parents are both doctors. I'm very happy that they are retired, because I wouldn't want to be in a position of knowing that they are going to work and they might get infected, and cannot do anything about it. Reading diaries of doctors and nurses in Poland who wake up every day and go to work with the mindset that they might get infected, and how their families feel about it - to me, it didn't feel right.
I thought, I cannot do much about it alone, none of us can - but because of the fact that we have such a big tennis community in Poland, maybe collectively all of us can. So I reached out to basically all our best players and asked them if they wanted to get involved and to start something - I didn't know yet what. The response was really positive.
🦠Ruszyła akcja #rakietąwkoronawirusa wobec czego zachęcam do wsparcia inicjatywy wpłatami na "zrzutkę" (link w bio). Razem można zdziałać więcej więc nawet drobny wkład dużo zmieni. Cel: zakup sprzętu medycznego niezbędnego do walki z epidemią. Działajcie i udostępniajcie!💪🦠 pic.twitter.com/tBrgPVAqAs— Iga Świątek (@iga_swiatek) March 26, 2020
AM: How did the idea begin to crystallize into something specific, and what were the challenges in getting it off the ground? How does it work now?
SZ: I had in mind a fundraiser where we could raise money to buy this protective gear for hospitals, but I had no idea how it would work from an organizational standpoint, so I started googling and found Fundacja Sensoria - a foundation that's already raising money for a similar cause. I reached out to them and asked if we could join forces. It was me and Alicja Rosolska helping me do things from the players' side, and the foundation was doing things from the organizing side and telling me what they need from us in order to make it work.
You can donate as much money as you want and the proceeds will all go to purchase necessary equipment and protective gear. The foundation is taking care of ordering the masks, gloves, goggles, suits, and they already have a supplier for that - so we are just raising money. We are going to enrich this initiative and we're going to start auctions of different things - signed racquets, stuff like this - from all our players.
AM: How are you dealing with the mandatory quarantine and lockdown restrictions in Poland?
SZ: Good, actually! I don't think that it's anything bad that they're asking us to do. Staying at home for 14 days? I feel pretty lucky that I have a house where I can stay for 14 days. I don't have to worry about impacting someone else or not having food on my plate, which for a lot of people in the world is their big concern right now - they cannot work and it affects them already. I don't have those basic worries and I feel very, very lucky because of this.
Also, being at home gives me time to do all those things that I didn't have time to do before - when you're on tour the days go by so fast and you're quite busy and we all have things we like but don't find time for. We all say, if only I had time I would do this - and now we all have the time.
AM: So what sort of things have you found the time for?
SZ: I don't even know which day it is - fourth or fifth? I lost track - but I'm busy all the time and I love it. Mostly I'm learning, I really feel like I have the time to catch up on things that I'm interested in, both in tennis and outside of it. A lot of reading - I don't really read fiction, but psychology and philosophy, I could read them all the time. I've read Dare To Lead by Brené Brown, which I think is a great book, and right now I'm reading two at the same time - The Art Of Fear by [extreme skier] Kristen Ulmer, which Alizé's boyfriend recommended to me, and The Wisdom Of Insecurity by Alan Watts.
[sounds of an oven door and distant crashing]
Sorry, I was just baking! I'm doing that too, which I never have the time or space to do - obviously we are mostly in hotels, so we don't get a chance. I'm making vegan banana bread right now. And I'm working out every day, which is also great because usually I say, well, I'm not going to work out because then I'll be tired, or I don't have time, or something-something - but I'm at home anyway so there's no excuse any more. It's perfect, I'm being very productive.
When I was writing this piece during Australian Open this year, I would have never thought, that the big question I started that article with would be so relevant today. https://t.co/dTdDRpEWHA— Sandra Zaniewska (@szaniewska) April 2, 2020
Już wkrótce po 🇵🇱 w @TenisklubPL
AM: In January, you wrote: "Who are we when everything we own and accomplished has been taken away from us?" That seems very relevant to our current situation.
SZ: Exactly - very much so! I think this time forces us to look inside. It's really challenging for everyone, but especially for people who are really defined by what they do - it doesn't matter if they're tennis players, coaches or whatever else - because now you cannot do anything. So here you are - how are you going to use that?
I think we can look at it two ways. One, we are forced to stay at home, we cannot play, we cannot work, all the things associated with that fall like dominoes. Or you can look at it like: We cannot play, we cannot coach - but there are still so many other things we can do, so when this is all done, we can come out as better. Work better, play better, be better. At the end of the day it's up to us which road we take and I hope as many of us take the better road.
The tennis player helps the human being, but the human being also helps the tennis player. If we can push ourselves to grow on both levels - and right now there is only one that we can grow on - then to me this is the way.
AM: Did you tell Alizé this? Are you still in touch with her as a coach?
SZ: I did tell Alizé this, but I don't think I needed to. We speak every couple of days, joke a little bit, talk about the things she's doing and what else she can do. She told me, "Ah, yeah, I don't have time to do anything!" I was like, "You've been locked in the house for the past three weeks and you don't have time? That's incredible, really, really good." She's busy with working out, keeping herself fit, growing as a person.
AM: In the tennis world, who do you think will come back strongest? We see that some players are lucky enough to be in lockdown with access to tennis courts, for example, while others aren't.
SZ: You would think that players who have access to courts would come back stronger - but then on the other hand, you think: If we come back in July, fine, that's not that far away, but what if we come back later? Those players could end up really tired of all the practising. They could even be a little burnt out. On the other hand with the players who are locked up like Alizé is, I'm already excited because I know the second she can get on a court she's going to be so happy and so hungry to play.
It's not easy to predict who's going to come out strongest: there's still so much growth that can be done despite the fact that we are locked up, and I'm looking forward to seeing it. I don't know what other players are doing, just my player, but even from that perspective I'm curious to see how this is going to affect her, how she's going to come out of it, and what's going to change afterwards. It's a very, very interesting thing to observe.
AM: Is the uncertainty over when all of this will be over one of the hardest things to deal with?
SZ: I don't pay attention to it. I'm trying to live day by day. Right now we know it's coming back in July, I'm assuming it's going to be longer - but I don't know how much longer and there's no point in trying to figure out when, it's impossible. There are smart people working on this who will take good positions and that's all I need to know. It's not like I have any control over this, so it makes no sense to obsess over it.
AM: This situation will have so many ramifications on every level. How do you think things will change in terms of society?
SZ: What I hear from my friends is that when they go to the shop, older people are looking at them, they are not happy, they are telling them to stay away and it's not so nice, let's put it this way. But on the other hand the movement you see going on - encouraging other people to do the right thing, to stay at home and look out for each other - this is bringing people together and closer.
So I think we could have two outcomes: one in which people are more open and kinder after being faced with something that's pushed everybody outside their comfort zones. We look at how we can change things and how we can be better. I really hope that will be the outcome rather than people going the other way, being more closed-off and holding more to themselves, which could also be the result.
AM: And in terms of the tennis world - how do you see that changing?
SZ: In the tennis world, I hope everybody's going to be so happy to be playing again that we're going to see a better and better quality of tennis - that people will fight more and more because they weren't able to play for such a long time! That happens to players who come back from injuries, they feel like they maybe took it for granted for a while and now they are able to be back and it feels so good. Very often players play better, are happier on the court, are happier to work - so I hope it goes in that direction.