ATP Finals: Joe Salisbury’s journey from setbacks to Grand Slam success

3 weeks ago
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Joe Salisbury and Rajeev Ram
Venue: O2 Arena, London Date: 15-22 November
Coverage: Watch live on BBC Two, BBC iPlayer, BBC Sport website and mobile app; follow BBC radio and live text commentary online on selected matches

He’s a British Grand Slam champion and among the favourites at next week’s ATP Finals but Joe Salisbury is still far from a household name.

And that is just how he likes it.

“I’m not a limelight person, not really a social media person, I’m quite happy to stay under the radar,” he tells BBC Sport when asked if he is bothered that Andy and Jamie Murray usually grab the headlines and the focus.

The 28-year-old Londoner has quietly gone about lifting the Australian Open men’s doubles title as well as reaching a US Open semi-final and French Open quarter-final this year with his American partner Rajeev Ram.

Not bad for someone who almost had to give up tennis as a teenager.

“I hit a wall at 15. I had glandular fever and couldn’t play for around a year around the ages of 16 to 18,” says Salisbury, who started playing tennis at the age of three and was brought up a few miles away from the grass courts of Wimbledon, in Putney.

“The glandular fever set me back. I had injuries and I was a late developer [in terms of height].”

He eventually grew to 6ft 4in (1.93m), but not before he had come up with a Plan B – an economics degree at the University of Memphis.

He’s not sure why he picked that subject – “it seemed a good idea” – but some of what he studied may have stopped him frittering away his winner’s cheque for more than £200,000 for his maiden Grand Slam in January.

“I just put it straight in the bank,” he says. “I’m in the process of buying a flat in London.”

The US college route in an increasingly popular one for young players who may not be ready to join the pro Tour, providing plenty of top-class playing opportunities alongside an education. British number three Cameron Norrie followed a similar path.

After Salisbury graduated he spent a couple of years trying to forge a singles career in Challenger and Futures events before his health once again derailed his plans.

“I was diagnosed with chronic fatigue, which the doctors thought might be to do with the glandular fever,” he says.

“I was doing better in doubles and it’s not as physically demanding so I decided to concentrate on that.”

It was, however, financially demanding as it was costing him more to play than he was earning.

“I was really lucky that my parents were able to support me financially and emotionally,” he says.

Salisbury can pinpoint the moment when, at the relatively ripe age of 26, his tennis career took off – a Wimbledon semi-final in 2018 alongside then partner Frederik Nielsen of Denmark.

Not only did he earn a handy £56,000 but his world ranking leapt from 80 to 41.

He started looking around for a new doubles partner – it sounds like a system a bit like dating where you are “talking to a few players at the same time” before deciding who might be the best fit – and eventually settled on American journeyman Ram.

They clicked almost instantly, winning two titles and reaching another three finals in their first season together, which culminated in qualification for the 2019 end-of-season ATP Finals that feature the top eight teams.

Last year the pair went out in the group stage but now with a Grand Slam title – which they won with the loss of just one set – and deep runs at the other two majors of the year, Salisbury believes they can go much further.

“Last year I think there was a little bit of pressure as the only Brit [at the tournament],” he says.

“I think this year’s different – there was a bit of a feeling that it was great to have qualified last year but this time we want to win.”

He could still be joined by compatriots Jamie Murray and Neal Skupski in the doubles draw depending on their results this week, but there are no Britons in the singles.

Salisbury’s preparations for the ATP Finals have been hampered by having to self-isolate this month because of contact with someone with Covid-19 but he will be out of quarantine in time for some practice before the event starts on Sunday.

The atmosphere at the O2 Arena will be very different to last year, with the event held behind closed doors because of the coronavirus pandemic, but there will still be plenty of people watching from afar.

And Salisbury may be hoping to catching the eye of one in particular with thoughts turning to next year’s postponed Tokyo Olympics.

When asked who he would like to partner if he is selected, he replies without hesitation: “Andy.”

“I’d love to play with him. We haven’t discussed it,” he adds. “I didn’t think I’d ever play at an Olympics.”

If that happens, he might just have to get used to a bit more time in the limelight.

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BBC Sport – Tennis

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