Sliding doors: From the Redbacks to Roland Garros

Alan Obst will soon leave his role as physio for South Australia to travel the world with tennis star, Victoria Azarenka

Alan Obst could justifiably cite a couple of watertight reasons for ignoring the email that arrived from Tennis South Australia in the first week of this year.

Not only was the SA Cricket Association physiotherapist preparing players for the imminent resumption of the Marsh Sheffield Shield season, even more pressing was his upcoming wedding to fiancee Jamie on January 8.

A former footballer who played five games for North Melbourne in the AFL and was a member of Central Districts' 2007 premiership team in SA's top league, 34-year-old Obst regarded his role with the Redbacks he's held for the past three years as "the best job in the world".

But he finishes up at summer's end to embark on an unforeseen and barely believable foray into international tennis, a sport he's never played and only encountered over the course of a couple head-spinning weeks last month.

Image Id: BC331C395C044207974898FBB7DA4056 Image Caption: Victoria Azarenka at the Adelaide International // Getty

Despite the Redbacks' offices being barely 50 metres from Memorial Drive where the Adelaide International hardcourt tournament – headlined by world women's number one Ashleigh Barty – was being played in January, Obst opted not to answer that group email sent to members of the state's Physiotherapy Board.

As he figured, the request for a physio to provide treatment for an unnamed female tennis player in town for the Australian Open warm-up event was likely a rudimentary session for a low-ranked qualifier with limited resources which one of his colleagues was probably better placed to answer.

But when he was undertaking supermarket shopping later that day and received a phone call from the email's author expressing disappointment Obst had not answered the call because it was an assignment that was ideally suited to his skills set, he reluctantly offered his services.

The next day's appointment opened his eyes, and has now altered his life.

The unnamed player in need was two-time Australian Open winner and former world number one Victoria Azarenka, and the pair immediately forged a strong bond.

So much so that Azarenka requested a follow-up session next evening as she progressed through the singles and doubles draws at Memorial Drive, but Obst advised he was unable to treat her come the weekend due to his upcoming nuptials in the Barossa Valley.

However, when the day of the wedding arrived Obst received a polite request from the US-based Belarussian for another appointment, which he duly declined.

Image Id: 40C4C8E338B840C5BBF563D097A5B921 Image Caption: Obst at a Shield match in Adelaide // Getty

"She said 'look, I've got a final on Saturday can we catch up then?' and I said 'I really can't, I'm getting married' to which she replied 'oh no, I'd forgotten ... I'm sorry'," Obst told this week amid his on-field commitments with the Redbacks against Victoria.

"But when we communicated on the morning of my wedding, she asked to see me the next day.

"So I raced back to Adelaide from the Barossa (75km away) next day, and she actually moved her flight to Melbourne back from the afternoon that Sunday to the evening so she could see me, which was nice from her.

"That's when she asked me to come to Melbourne and be part of her team for the Australian Open.

"So I had a conversation with my wife and she said 'that sounds pretty cool ... I'm not going to get in your way, so you go do your thing'."

In addition to his new wife's blessing, Obst's mid-season tennis sojourn was made possible by the sudden shortfall of eligible players in the KFC BBL that was beset by COVID-19 issues.

With SA-based players whose fitness programs he was charged with overseeing – Jake Lehmann, David Grant, Nathan McSweeney, Jake Carder, Daniel Drew and Thomas Kelly – hurriedly called up for BBL duties, Obst's workload in Adelaide was sizeably diminished.

Armed with the SACA's okay, Obst became part of Azarenka's entourage as the 32-year-old breezed through the first three rounds of singles competition without dropping a set despite suffering from a wry neck that saw her require on-court treatment.

Image Id: 7C1CB52943F8432686CE54BE54C8C812 Image Caption: Azarenka receives treatment at the Australian Open // Getty

Then, just hours after her loss to Czech Republic's Barbora Krejcikova in the round of 16, Azarenka asked Obst to join her four-person crew full-time and become part of the globetrotting professional tennis circuit.

Having gained assurances from Azarenka that his wife (a primary school teacher in Adelaide) will be able to travel with him if and when she wishes, Obst then sought the blessing of his SA bosses John Porter and Tim Nielsen before signing up for the ride of his life.

"It's such a sliding doors moment," Obst said of his abrupt career change that sees him fly to Rome at cricket season's end, where Azarenka begins her French Open campaign.

"I keep thinking there was so many opportunities along the way, with the wedding and with cricket work, where I could have opted not to have that initial meeting with Vika (Azarenka). But from that moment we just got along super well.

"For all I knew, that call for treatment could have been from a local 16-year-old tennis player but the fact it turned out to be Victoria Azarenka was totally random, and pretty cool.

"She did have a full-time physio for the last 12 years, but he's literally just retired and she actually has a really small entourage – it's just her tennis coach (Maxime Tchoutakian) a fitness trainer and myself.

"I'm just so lucky that my wife is really supportive, and we agreed it's such a great experience for a couple of years and then we'll just see where the wind takes us.

Image Id: 902D392DB4524ACFB245B7F5DC6059F6 Image Caption: Azarenka celebrates her Australian Open win in 2013 // Getty

"At this stage, I think the plan is after the tournament in Rome we'll go to Spain, and then possibly on to Monaco for a week of preparation for the French Open in Paris and then straight to Wimbledon from there, so it's going to be pretty full-on.

"They just chase tennis all over the world, and they actually play a lot more tennis than people realise.

"And when she does have a couple of weeks spare she goes back to Miami where she lives, so at those times I'll either come home to Adelaide for a week or two if I can, otherwise I'll follow her to Miami where she's got the full training set-up with gym and tennis court."

As he cheerily admits, Obst boasts "absolutely zero" tennis pedigree and was mildly unnerved on his first day with Azarenka's entourage in Melbourne when he was presented with a brand new racquet and was told he may need it "just in case".

He soon learned that emergency requirement extended to all members of 'Team Azarenka', who are routinely called into action as 'hitting partners', a job Obst took on with trepidation when he was summoned on to Rod Laver Arena for a practice session within hours of accepting the gift.

Asked how he performed having his first-ever hit of tennis against a champion of the sport on a fabled grand slam court, Obst noted with a broad smile: "Not horrendous ... but ask me again in a year's time.

"I'll think I'm Roger Federer."