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Monday, March 24, 2014
Missing Malaysia flight pains players

By Sandra Harwitt
Special to ESPN.com

KEY BISCAYNE, Fla. -- The tedium of commuting to work is a given, even when you're a famous tennis player. But unlike most people who take a car, bus or train to their jobs, tennis players do the bulk of their travel by plane.

So it comes as no surprise that the bizarre disappearance of Malaysia Airlines Flight 370, which was heading from Kuala Lumpur to Beijing on March 8, has captivated the attention of many of the players.

"I didn't want to follow it in the very beginning because I didn't want to know about it so much," admitted Roger Federer at the Sony Open on Sunday. "But now I've been following it more the last few days and it's very interesting, to say the least.

"If it was just that we can't find the plane, but we knew it went down, it would be different," said Federer, a day before new satellite data revealed that the missing plane ended in a remote location of the southern Indian Ocean. "Then at least it would be clear. But all the theories that are out and about, it's pretty strange. I know the planet is big, but somehow it feels very small sometimes with aviation becoming as good as it is. For me, as a world traveler, clearly I've started following it quite intensely."

Normally a comfortable flier, Maria Sharapova is of the mindset that a plane just vanishing is far-fetched and beyond the realm of reality. That is, until it happened a little more than two weeks ago.

"It makes me nervous, especially after watching all the seasons of 'Lost,' it really does," said Sharapova, who was a devotee of the TV series that detailed plane-crash survivors on a remote island. "I wake up every morning and check my Twitter feed, whether there's an update, if it was found and what happened."

Andy Murray admits he's not a fan of takeoffs, but otherwise is fine during the remainder of the flight. He's been traveling by plane to play tennis since he was 10, and it's just become a way of life.

The Scotsman has been glued to following the news of Flight 370 and, like Sharapova, finds it inconceivable there's no concrete evidence weeks later of what happened to the Boeing 777.

"Every single day I've been checking to see if anything has happened," Murray said. "You hope that the people survived and everything is OK. It's a pretty amazing story for this amount of time, in this day and age, with all the technology, nothing has been found."

Players who don't particularly enjoy the constant air travel have definitely become more edgy about boarding planes since the Malaysia flight has gone missing.

"I was kind of afraid the last time I flew," said Jelena Jankovic with a nervous laugh. "When I got on the plane, I came from San Diego, I was thinking, 'Oh my God, where is that plane; it's kind of lost and they don't know what happened to it.' When you hear those things you kind of see it in your mind. It's not pleasant because we have to travel every week and you get afraid."

Jankovic, however, is usually a fearless flier: "I don't have that phobia for the planes. It's just life and you don't know what's going to happen. I think planes are actually safer than any other way of transportation. I think the less you think about it, the better it is."

Jankovic's hypothesis is a good one, but it's not going to resonate with everyone. It's certainly not an approach that Serena Williams can wrap her head around. And as Williams puts it, the "freaky" circumstances of the Malaysia flight have not assuaged her fear of flying.

"I really actually hate flying," Williams said. "I don't like it. If there's turbulence, my heart just stops. I always pray before the flight. I just leave it up to that and try to be as relaxed as I can."

Another player who considers flying a necessary evil is Jo-Wilfried Tsonga. Part of Tsonga's dislike for planes stems from a genetic problem he inherited from his father that has to do with the oxygen in his blood levels, which causes his limbs to swell. The Frenchman tries his best to combat the problem with special compression socks and compresses during flights. But if possible, such as when he's going from tournament to tournament in Europe, he chooses another alternative: "When I can take a car or the train, I'll always take this option even if it's a little bit longer."

Murray believes it's understandable that many players lack an enthusiasm for flying, and not because of long hours spent cramped on flights and the jet lag aftermath. He thinks it has to do with an innate personality trait players have in common.

"As athletes, we like to be in control of situations just because of the nature of what we do," Murray said. "I think a lot of people think just because you travel all the time, you're fine with flying. But I think because we're not in control, it's easy for athletes to be pretty nervous fliers."

Whether a player is an antsy flier or content passenger, there's one thing that is not in doubt. When the Sony Open comes to its conclusion, most of the players will be heading to Miami International Airport, where they'll board planes and move on to their next port of call.