Tennis: Joe Salisbury is still a relative unknown to most sports fans despite Australian Open title

For Joe Salisbury, he is more than happy to live life under the radar. 

He can still walk around the streets of Wimbledon without being recognised. He is rarely troubled during a supermarket trip. His inactivity on social media helps add to the mystique. 

And yet he’s Britain’s highest ranked player in current world rankings. Ahead of Dan Evans. Ahead of Kyle Edmund. Ahead of both Jamie and Andy Murray. Salisbury is top of the pile.

Joe Salisbury (third from left) has established himself as Britain's highest-ranked mens player

Joe Salisbury (third from left) has established himself as Britain’s highest-ranked mens player 

The 28-year-old worked through struggles on the Challenger Tour to become an elite talent

The 28-year-old worked through struggles on the Challenger Tour to become an elite talent

Four years ago that sentence would have sounded absurd to Salisbury, then slugging it out on the Challenger Tour wondering how long he could go on losing money at events and using his parents as a financial crutch. 

‘I was playing because I loved doing it but I wasn’t earning money and I didn’t want to keep doing that forever,’ he told Sportsmail.

‘I was not earning money and was still living at home, it was tricky.’

Now he sits down to chat as a Grand Slam champion and Wimbledon supremacy is in his sights.  

He remembers talking up a Wimbledon title of his own when he went to the All England Club for the first time aged nine with mum Carolyn to watch Lleyton Hewitt against David Nalbandian.

That’s what Salisbury wanted – a large crowd glued to his play on a Wimbledon show court.

In the most unlikeliest of circumstances he almost realised his title dream in 2018 – a stunning run to the doubles semi-finals with Frederik Nielsen that no-one saw coming.

A wildcard pairing, little was expected of them and crowds were small for their opening rounds. This wasn’t supposed to be much of a story, even for those in the tennis cognoscenti.

A four-set upset against then-world No 6 pair Robert Farah and Juan Sebastian Cabal changed the narrative. Another gritty quarter-final win moved the needle once more. While it ended in the semi-finals, for Salisbury he knew for him it was only just beginning.

‘That was my second time playing at Wimbledon but the first time I had only been playing on the Challenger tour and hadn’t earned more than a few grand and so making the semi-finals and I got like £70,000 from that,’ Salisbury said.

‘It felt weird having that amount of money but to be honest I don’t think I did anything with it. I kept going as normal, I was still living at home.’ 

It’s a good memory for Salisbury, something he has a growing collection of these days. 

Take his first pay cheque from tennis. The numbers pale in comparison now but he lights up upon reflection.

‘When I first started I won a Challenger doubles tournament and I won £3,000,’ he explained. 

‘I had been earning no money basically, earning a few hundred quid here or there and I remember thinking “£3,000 from a Challenger? Whoa, that’s a lot of money”.’ 

But there are bad memories too and those unfamiliar with Salisbury may look at his last three seasons, see the sums of money he has made and scoff at the notion of struggle.

The 2018 season, according to ATP Tour data, earned him £177,000, he finished 2019 with £436,000 and 2020 brought a further £399,000. 

For a time it was very tough. For a time he had to contemplate turning his back on tennis for good. Salisbury’s story has been shaped around the bad, as much as the good.

Salisbury has developed his game into that of a doubles specialist ever since turning professional but there are niggles at what might have been had he flown solo.

Singles still remains the measure of many junior players and Salisbury conceded there are regrets at ‘not seeing how high’ he could have got in those rankings had he stuck at it.

Ultimately his body made the decision for him, multiple bouts of glandular fever in his formative teenage years placing his ambitions of making it as a tennis player in real jeopardy. GCSE examinations were on the horizon and yet with a ‘massive part’ of his life taken away from him, it took its toll.

‘It was really tough,’ he explained. ‘It stopped me in terms of my development and my career as a tennis player and it didn’t help. I love training and I love playing and it was a massive part of my life so it was tough to not be able to do anything.

Hard courts have brought him great success after he committed to being a doubles player

The goal now is to win at Wimbledon, something he came close to doing in 2018

Hard courts have brought him great success but the goal now is to be Wimbledon champion, something that he came close to achieving in 2018 in a semi-final run that nobody expected

‘I just found it all really strange. I still went to school at that time but I wasn’t feeling great, wasn’t doing anything else, so it wasn’t a great time, it wasn’t fun.

‘I struggled a bit after that as well. A couple of years later I had quite a lot of injuries, partly because I grew loads during that time. My body grew like a foot or so so I didn’t really play too much in the two years before I went to college. I loved playing and I just couldn’t – that’s how it was.’

It felt an apt segue to the topic of college and a move to Memphis, Tennessee, that he admits came about almost by accident.

Paul Goebel, a high-profile college recruiter well known in tennis circles, was over in London scouting potential players for the next round of scholarship offers.

None of those jotted down in Goebel’s notepad were Salisbury and so it took a recommendation from former Great Britain Davis Cup captain Paul Hutchins to get a sit down with the University of Memphis coach.

‘I didn’t have a high-ranking and I wasn’t playing much at that time so I couldn’t have really committed to playing professionally then,’ Salisbury, 28, said.

‘I was offered a really good scholarship, I didn’t really have a ranking so I knew I wasn’t going to have loads of good offers from the top schools coming in so based on that meeting alone I decided to just take a chance and go for it.

‘It worked out well, I had a great time there and he was a great guy and a great coach. I was lucky it worked out but yeah, definitely the right decision for me to go to college when I did.’

Salisbury (left) became a Grand Slam champion in 2020 alongside partner Rajeev Ram (right)

Salisbury (left) became a Grand Slam champion in 2020 alongside partner Rajeev Ram (right)

The 4,000 mile-plus road from Putney to Memphis is one less travelled but one that came at the right time for Salisbury. He even accepted that his tennis road may come to a dead end once his American adventure was over.

He explained: ‘To be honest that time when I went to college I didn’t think I would play afterwards.

‘I wanted to but I thought I wasn’t going to be good enough to do so or maybe I wouldn’t want to. I didn’t really know what I wanted to do.’

Salisbury chose economics. In his mind, at least, it was a sensible call, one to keep his options open. It perhaps explains his moderate spending habits to this day.

He thought about a future in finance or banking. Salisbury knew tennis was offering him no guarantees and it would have been foolhardy not to have planned accordingly. In the end his self-belief he could make a career from the sport, something he insists never left him even in his darkest moments, paid off.

Mindfulness is a key component of Salisbury’s arsenal, as well as his vicious ground strokes. Talk turns to books and recommendations are shared to follow up after the interview.

‘Recently I read The Confidence Gap by Russ Harris which is a really good book,’ he said. ‘But the first one that I read that got me into psychology and self-help books was The Power of Now. I feel like that helped me a lot and changed my attitude towards a lot of things. That was quite influential for me.’

Salisbury (second from left) takes great interest in sports psychology and mindfulness

Salisbury (second from left) takes great interest in sports psychology and mindfulness 

How so?

‘It wasn’t so much in terms of tennis more life in general,’ he adds. ‘I hadn’t previously been exposed to that sort of outlook on things and seeing things in that way. 

‘A lot of it is mindfulness and being there in the present moment. Where are your thoughts? How are they affecting your feelings and emotions? Being exposed to that and being more aware of that definitely helped me on and off the court to be healthier and happier, level-headed and it just helped massively to understand what was going on inside my head.

‘A lot of people are controlled by their thoughts and emotions and don’t feel like they have a lot of control over them. I think when you can start to manage that better then it definitely helps on the court. A lot of the stuff I read and am interested in is in those areas.’

Understanding his thoughts and behaviours laid the foundations for a rise to world No 3 in the doubles rankings and a Grand Slam title with partner Rajeev Ram, at Australia a year ago. He now sits at world No 11. 

Salisbury and Ram could have repeated in Melbourne this year only to fall in straight sets in the final to Ivan Dodig and Filip Polasek. There is disappointment but the mindfulness has already kicked in. Defeat is in the past – nothing will change.

One thing he has managed to solve in the pandemic-ravaged last 12 months was purchasing his first home.  

Salisbury has just bought his first home in south west London, close to where he grew up in Putney and near his boyhood team Fulham. It’s a purchase he admits is a tad out of character given his frugal nature.

‘I’m not a big spender,’ he confesses. 

There was a time in his teenage years where health threatened to ruin ambitions of turning pro

There was a time in his teenage years where health threatened to ruin ambitions of turning pro

His new home is an expense that seemed fanciful four years ago as he returned to his parents’ house short on money and short on confidence.

Some things may never change for an economics graduate and his spending habits may be one. Veganism was one area he did go back on, even if he still tries to keep his meat intake down.

‘I was struggling to get what I needed,’ he said. ‘I felt hungry often and I also have quite a few allergies. I don’t eat eggs or dairy and a few other things which makes it more difficult.’

One area of his life he has no plans to change in a hurry if his perfunctory attitude to social media.

Just 116 tweets in seven years on his Twitter account was the first clue to his disinterest as Sportsmail prepared for this conversation.

‘I actually had my Instagram account hacked earlier this year. Everything got deleted on it. It was weird, they just deleted stuff, I don’t get it,’ Salisbury concluded.

Salisbury’s generosity extended deep into the afternoon to talk his plans to go to Japan for the Olympics if selected, why he feels it is ‘nonsense’ for critics to tell Sir Andy Murray to retire and why US star Frances Tiafoe is the funniest player on the Tour.

But when the doorbell rings and he realises the Wi-Fi technician has arrived to sort out the broadband for his new home, there is a brief moment of silence. Salisbury makes his apologies but is assured there really is no need.

A new home is a lot of work and has left him a long to-do list. 

Given how much has changed in the last four years it’s a problem that he is now more than happy to have.   


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