Rino Tommasi Has An Answer For Everything: From Doping To Tennis, From Giorgi To Nadal - UBITENNIS
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Rino Tommasi Has An Answer For Everything: From Doping To Tennis, From Giorgi To Nadal

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TENNIS – Whether you’re talking about Camila Giorgi, Fabio Fognini, Nadal or Federer, soccer, cycling, betting, journalism or commentary, Rino Tommasi always has the right answer. An interview with one of the greatest Italian journalist; a talk with a great sportsman, a former athlete that all tennis players have come to know as the “custodian” of numbers. By Claudio Giuliani, translated by Lorenzo Dicandia

 

On the phone, when he invites us over, he is always polite, even when he suddenly changes the meeting time. “My wife invited our children for breakfast – actually our lunch e.d. – and I didn’t know it, could we make it in the afternoon?”. And so, reaching the heart of Parioli in Rome, where parking is precluded unless you own a Burgman or a Smart, which absolutely dominates the streets around Piazza Euclide. We enter Rino’s elegant house. Books, books and more books, ranging up to the incredibly high ceilings in these old houses made of wood on the walls and carpets on the floors, with silverware on display. He is waiting for us at the threshold of his study, while we slowly cross the long corridor, drawn by the pictures on the walls, the story of Rino’s life. He comes towards us. “That is Henry Kissinger,” he tells us proudly, while his gaze remains on the picture that shows him interviewing the former U.S. secretary of State; an interview that granted him also an award. All photos are in black and white and all of them portray him with all the most important sports personalities, but also with some Italian celebrities. A color picture of a young Boris Becker smiling to him during an interview stands out. Below, there’s the picture that shows him together with Clerici, Scanagatta and a cheerful Roberto Lombardi. “We were in Melbourne there”, he tells us, looking tenderly at the departed friend. We sit in front of him in his studio, with the desk invaded by notes and books to divide among us. He has recently published a book on boxing, “Muhammed Alì. The last champion. The greatest?”, but, who knows why, we aren’t that surprised in hearing that he is already working on a new project (“it’s going to be about the disappearance of provincial soccer teams”).

Doping And Liberalization

We immediately start talking about doping, a matter recently raised by the words of Camila Giorgi’s dad, who said that since everybody in sports uses doping we might as well legalize it. Rino is a precursor of this theory, although he is not that convinced. “It’s a complicated issue in the sense that, from a certain point of view I would agree with a more rigorous approach, and so whenever you commit a mistake, even if it’s for small quantities, you should be banned. But I’m also convinced that if we actually check everyone, nobody would play anymore. Therefore, I have never actually taken a position on the subject and it’s not because I don’t care about it. I have never smoked a cigarette in my life, even when I was young, and anyways when I used to compete I would have never thought of enhancing my performances in strange ways. The problem, from my point of view, is economic: testing everyone is impossible. If we did it, rigorously, we wouldn’t get out of there.” Assuming that doping would be legalized, wouldn’t there be a kind of race among athletes in order to get the best doctors? “Yes, paradoxically we could have some tournaments’ finals played directly by doctors, “ he answered, smiling. “It is pretty obvious that from a certain point of view I would like to be ruthless in tests and so also in consequences, in the bans, but I also realize that maybe we would paralyze the sport by acting this way. I don’t have an exact idea of the importance of the phenomenon, but I’m noticing that it is getting increasingly bigger.”

Some time ago a book came out, “Champions without virtue”, edited by Sandro Donati, a former athlete and responsible for mid-distance races for Fidal, the Italian athletics federation. In the book he tells the history of Fidal and of Primo Nebiolo’s time at Coni (the Italian Olympic Committee), when they used to sponsor doping thanks to the auto-transfusions by Professor Conconi, because medals had to be won at any cost. What do you think? “The athlete often agrees, and he finds himself forced to accept these method because he wants to win, and because he also has the suspect that the others are acting in the same way. Actually even federations, when they find out about some doping cases, prefer to turn a blind eye. Some executives have built their careers on the false achievement of doped athletes.” Rino himself is a former athlete, a tennis player, champion of various junior tournaments, following his father’s footsteps. “My father held the long jump record for many years; he competed in the Paris Olympics of 1924 and in the Amsterdam ones of 1928.” Was it Evangelisti and his magical 8.38 meters in Rome, measure that was later found out to be rigged, to break Tommasi’s dad record? Rino laughs as he looks for the best posture on his black leather armchair with brown armrests: “No no, the eight meters benchmark had been already achieved by Evangelisti but earlier than that, and legitimately it seems.”

Doping And Results

In Italy, until the 90’s, there was a kind of resistance in facing the doping issue. Why? “The press was reluctant, because every person that does this job hopes that the sport is clean. If you take away the legitimacy of the results, the sport dies.” Sport dies, therefore, but didn’t it already die with the various cases of Di Centa, Bugno, Moser (with Conconi that flew all the way to Mexico City just to give him blood transfusion, with the excuse of anemia, in the race that earned him the track record), Cipollini, Chiappucci, Pantani and so on? Haven’t we already lost the legitimacy of the results? “I repeat myself: it is a difficult problem because the issue is complex. Maybe, I am almost convinced, that after all it is a lot better to ignore things, even though this would compromise the health of athletes.” Let’s get to how the outcomes are affected. How do you handle things when, starting from Ben Johnson and Armstrong, and getting to Juventus, titles are revoked? Should they be reassigned to the runner-ups? “This is an unmanageable situation. This is why I would instinctively go for a rigorous approach. But, in doing so, with strict rules and absolute rigor, it could really be the end of sports activity, given the spread of the phenomenon. Today even young guys take doping substances, even boys that participate in school events. In tennis there is the matter of time because you don’t know how long the match is going to last, while you know that 1500 meters are going to be 1500 meters. At the end of this thing I am afraid, I deeply fear, that we will have to give up. It looks to me like a battle that legality cannot win.”

Culture Matters

Donati however, tells also of athletes that refuse to take drugs. The problem, then, is cultural. “Definitely”, so, how can we improve? “Given that all the educational and teaching attempts are reduced to a mere recommendation to the athletes to do nothing, to be able to compete only eating bread and drinking water, then the reality is another. And when the levees break, setting a limit on what is doping and what it’s not, then it is, frankly, impossible.” Some claim that doping in tennis does not exist. “No, that’s not true. Some people resort to little helps, and then the players speak to each other in the locker room, they get advices from one another. Then there is always the fear of losing to one that makes use of doping. Nobody ever admits to have lost against a better player.” Yet players and associations, with the controls done at dawn and the introduction of the biological passport, feel fine. “They adopt these strategies to give the impression that they are defending themselves from this plague, but in reality they are not doing so. The tools necessary to make use of doping are available to everyone. For years, we have been witnessing the medicalization of the sport, even at an amateur level.” Jim Courier late in his career was going around saying that they were all doped. And if you were asking him why, he replied, “Because they run more than I do. No one runs more than me.” He laughs. “A cruel observation but all-in-all right.” What is your opinion of the Kostner case, the former skater accused of complicity and failure to report to the authorities in the story linked to her former boyfriend disqualified for doping, the walker Schwarzer? “The fact that there is a relationship of affection or intimacy does not absolve you from the complaint. It is a very much correct disqualification, every affiliated has a duty to report in case of illegal activity.” Doping or betting, what is worse for the image of the sport? “One would instinctively say that the worst issue is doping, but the other issue is moral, and it is the worst cancer but also the easier to eradicate. In betting there is a flow of money, so when you find them out, you can be relentless. But with the doping issue we are also talking about the health of the athlete and the credibility of the sport. Regarding the betting issue I am favorable to maximum rigidity, except that I do not think that there are players who lose on purpose: losing is against nature in the sport. “

Federer, Murray, Seppi, Nadal And The Doubles’ Slam

In his study Rino has the TV right in front of his desk, behind us, on the right. The images of the newscast scroll through the screen, muted to allow us to listen. I ask him if he followed the Australian Open. “Certainly,” he replies. “There were a few surprises. The results were very regular. I would say an ordinary tournament.” Is a tournament ugly when the main favorite wins? “Absolutely.” He does not agree on the idea that there is a revolution taking place, started by the success of Wawrinka in Melbourne in 2014 and carried forward by Cilic and Nishikori in New York. I ask then about Federer. “Federer is confusing me, he is resisting more than expected considering his age, but that’s all because of his talent.” And Murray, a recent protagonist in Australia? Here the expression of Rino becomes witty. “Murray is an interesting subject to be studied. Regarding natural qualities, I speak from the perspective of personal resources, he is a true athlete. He is one that is able to do 10% more on the day of a big match. Murray is one who can get excited at times, from an athletic standpoint. The problem is that during the year he loses 5 or 6 matches that he should not lose, because he obviously can not be always at his best.” Are we going to remember this Australian Open because of Seppi beating Federer? “It was not Seppi beating Federer, but Federer that can not play at his best because of his age.” But there was the big news of the doubles. “Forget it. No one plays doubles anymore, it is a consolation race. The good ones do not want to waste energy because they are not interested neither in the economic benefit nor in the athletic one coming from it and many of those who play it are not that serious about it, they just play a few matches.” And Nadal? “Nadal is at risk. In my opinion he can even get seriously injured. He pulled out all that there was to pull out from his body. He can also have drained his desire of competing maybe, after all he has solved the problem of life”, money.

Camila Giorgi And Italian Tennis

The star of the moment, also because of her presence in the first round of Fed Cup, is Camila Giorgi. What do you think? “She is a resource, she represents the new generation making progress.” Her father is sure that she is going to get to the top. “Her father is crazy, but in a useful way. He is a charlatan, but he raised this little girl, whom definitely is his creature. Camila Giorgi is almost a burden for the other teammates, for the relationship between her and the historical group, which, anyway, apparently are good. There is always going to be a bit of rivalry, it is inevitable. I do not think she has neither centimeters nor muscles to climb to the top.” The common vulgate says that she has to change coach to reach the top. “No, I do not agree. Her father is crucial.” Just like for Williams? “Exactly. Without her Camila is not going anywhere. Parents as Sergio or Richard Williams are bulky but fundamental figures. They exert a power that is beyond the one of the coach, or the parental, and this can be devastating but also vital, useful”. I tease him on the alleged crisis of talent among the males, at the highest level. “Talents exist. We have been fortunate to find Panatta, an extraordinary talent with a great hand”, he says, mimicking the gesture of the forehand with his right hand in the air. “Then there were those like Barazzutti, who through hard work have achieved results. Anyway in the history of Italian tennis I do not remember a player about whom we can say: ah, if he only did better he could have achieved great things. I can not find many players who could have changed much of their career.” Inevitable final note on Fognini, our best player. The jaw stiffens: “I do not like Fognini”, he says in a lapidary way, as if to say: let’s close the topic here.

Panatta, Tv And Clerici

You talked about Panatta, recently returned to the commentary on TV. Many listeners have branded him as superficial. “But he is like that. All in all it is not an entirely wrong attitude. Of course, Adriano, leans on his popularity. I don’t want to take the example of my case and of the one of Clerici, but let’s just say that we have studied more.” The problem, for him, is that television executives, are unqualified in the choice of the commentators. “What is lacking in many TVs, for example, are the leaders. Until I was there I got to work with Lombardi and Scanagatta, I mean, I am talking about two amazing commentators. Now, however, the concern of these leaders is finding the great name, to draw the attention of the public.” One last thing: who was a better player between you and Gianni Clerici? “I am convinced that I was better than him, but I cannot tell this to him. We never met in a tournament; I was stronger athletically, but he had more talent than me. “

Rino smiles amused, asking us how we got attracted to tennis. He seems interested, and after a more relaxed, easygoing and outside of the journalism’s boundaries chat, he talks bout his collections of books, of his hundreds of yearbooks on football and tennis that are sorted on the shelves. Well, if you do a search on something that is not on the internet, Tommasi’s house, and Rino himself, are your solution.

Translated by Lorenzo Dicandia

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Interviews

From Serena Williams’ Return To Strycova’s Rise: Coaches Shed Light on Their players At Wimbledon

On the eve of women’s semi-finals day at Wimbledon, the coaches working behind the scenes share their thoughts.

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WIMBLEDON: On Thursday the four women taking to Center Court to play their semi-final matches will not be the only nervous people in the stadium. Watching from the sidelines will be their coaches. Who are tasked with the responsibility of trying to guide their players to grand slam glory.

 

24 hours before the matches took place, the mentors of Elina Svitolina, Serena Williams and Barbora Strycova spoke with the media. The latest initiative by the WTA, who has increasingly conducted more media sessions with coaches. Something the ATP Tour is yet to do. The only person missing from the session was Daniel Dobre. Dobre, who is the coach of Simona Halep, declined the invitation. Worried that he may jinx the former world No.1 if he spoke. Shortly after Dobre spoke in public at the French Open, Halep lost.

Svitolina’s British asset

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Being British Andrew Bettles knows Wimbledon very well. He is a former junior player who once featured in the boy’s draw. Unfortunately for Somerset-born Bettles, he admits that he was ‘not good enough’ to embark upon professional tennis. However, he has always made an impact on the WTA Tour at the age of 26.

“It’s amazing. Growing up Wimbledon has always been so special. To be around it is amazing for me personally.” Said Bettles.
“I wasn’t a good enough player, but the coaching side always fascinated me. I’ve been lucky to work with some amazing coaches, and I’ve been lucky that Elina has given me this opportunity to be her coach.”

A former hitting partner to Ana Ivanovic, he was eventually promoted to the coach of Svitolina, who has become the first woman from her country to reach the last four of a grand slam. Svitolina will play Halep in her semi-final match and leads their head-to-head 4-3.

“It’s always been a good match-up.” Bettles previewed. “I think the key is to be aggressive and kind of maybe take a bit of control from the baseline. Then see if she can dictate the point.”
“The grass is playing pretty slow so it is about being more aggressive. The Grass is a leveler, but you can use it to your advantage as well. “ He added.

Whilst he may still be considered a newcomer to the world of coaching, Bettles has already proven that he knows what he is doing. Guiding his player to the WTA Finals title last year.

“I think because we are similar ages we get on very well. I can understand what she is going through and we are good friends. It’s not like I’m the boss. We talk things through and work things out together.” The Brit commented about their partnership.

Five facts about Bettles
-Graduated from Boise State University in 2014 with a degree in English Lit
-He was Boise State University’s No.1 singles player
-A former national champion in juniors
-Worked with Ivanovic between 2015-2016, before joining Svitolina’s team in 2017.
-During a very brief time on the Futures tour, he peaked at a high of 917th and won $5,968 in prize money.

Serena’s rock

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Patrick Mouratoglou is undoubtedly one of the most well-known coaches in the world of women’s tennis. He has been guiding Serena Williams on the tour after working with a wealth of players on both the men’s and women’s tour.

It has been a turbulent season for the Mouratoglou-Williams team. Injury issues with Williams’ ankle and knee has hampered her training sessions and tournament schedule. Wimbledon is only the sixth WTA tournament of 2019 for the 37-year-old.

“I think she is in a good place at the moment. I think she is happy.” The Frenchman said ahead of Williams’ match against Strycova.
“She has been pain-free for three weeks and feels so much lighter.’
“When you focus on your pain so much because you’re in pain, it is difficult to prepare well for tournaments. You have to adapt to that pain to play tournaments.”

Williams has undoubtedly been gathering in momentum as the Wimbledon tournament has progressed. She has dropped two sets in five matches played. Scoring wins over seeded players Juia Georges in the third round and Carla Saurez Navarro in the fourth. In the quarter-finals, she edged her way past Alison Riske. One of the most in-form players on grass this season.

“In the last match (against Riske) you could see that she was able to raise her game when necessary, which was one of her trademarks. Everything is positive.” Said Mouratoglou.
“She started really slow in the tournament in terms of the level of play. I think the second round match was a key moment. I said afterward (to Serena) that it was the first time she was really struggling with her game and she dug deep and the next two sets were so much better. She felt her game better.”

Quietly confident of more success on Thursday at The All England Club, Williams’ mentor says her game is suited for the grass.

“Serve and return are two of her biggest assets. On the grass when you have those two things you have a big advantage and that is probably why she has had so much success on that surface.”

The American has won more matches (106) and more titles (8) than any other active player on the surface. This year is her 16th main draw appearance at Wimbledon.

Five facts about Mouratoglou
-Started coaching at the age of 26
-Previously coached Marcos Baghdatis (2005-06), Anastasia Pavlyuchenkova (2006-08), Yanina Wickmayer (2010), Aravane Rezai (2009-2010), Laura Robson (2010-11), Jeremy Chardy (2011) and Grigor Dimitrov (2011-12)
– 84% of Williams’ time as world No.1 has been under his guidance
-Founder of the prestigious Mouratoglou Tennis Academy
-Also works as a TV commentator

The late bloomer

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At the age of 33 Strycova is relishing in her best ever run at a grand slam tournament. Whilst not being the most powerful player on the tour, she counteracts speed with the use of slice, as well as the serve and volley. Reminiscent of how the game used to be played in the past. Strycova’s play proved too much for her opponent in the previous round.

“When you are playing against a player like (Johanna) Konta, who is more powerful than you, you have to find a way to eliminate that and play something different.” Explained coach Lukas Dlouhy.
“Hopefully we can find some tactic for Serena as well.”

Dlouhy is one of two coaches working with the Czech. The other is David Kotyza, who used to collaborate with Petra Kvitova. Strycova is also an accomplished doubles player and is currently ranked third in the world.

“We started 18 months ago together with Barbora. Some tournaments David goes to and some tournament I am going to.” Dlouhy commented about the setup.
“We just have to make a right schedule and that’s it.’
“We are working together so there are no disagreements.”

Refusing to give any details about the game plan for the upcoming match, which is likely to be similar to the one she used against Konta, Strycova’s mentor believes Williams can be beaten. Even though she hasn’t won a set in their three previous meetings on the tour.

“When you have a 0-3 record against Serena it’s tough. But she’s trying and she wants to win. She isn’t just going there to participate.” He said.
“It different because she was younger and had a different type of game. Now she is at the top of her game.’
“Serena has won everything, but she has days when you can beat her. So hopefully we can find out a way about how to do it.”

Known for her sometimes fiery attitude on the court, Dlouhy admits that it isn’t always easy to work with the former top 20 player. However, the positives outweigh the negatives.

“She has a lot of emotions. So some days it is tough to be in her box. Otherwise, she’s a good girl. She’s working and doing everything right. It’s enjoyable to be with her.” He concluded.

Five facts about Dlouhy 
-A former world No.5 in doubles
-Played hockey as a teenager, but chose to focus fully on tennis at the age of 15
-Won 10 ATP doubles titles, including the French Open and the US Open in 2009.
-Growing up his tennis idol was Yevgeny Kafelnikov
-Earned more than $3 million in prize money during his professional career.

The women’s semi-finals will get underway at 13:00 on Thursday. The first match will be Svitolina against Halep followed by Williams’ clash with Strycova.

 

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EXCLUSIVE: ITF Presidential Candidate Dave Miley Talks Olympics, Money And Trust Issues

Ubitennis speaks to the man bidding to become one of the most powerful people in the world of tennis.

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Former International Tennis Federation executive director of tennis development Dave Miley (photo via ©Tennis iCoach)

WIMBLEDON: A mile away from the venue of the Wimbledon Champions is an elegant cafe. Spotless inside, plenty of waiters and a hint of traditional decoration. A suitable venue for the launch of the latest political campaign in the world of Tennis.

 

David Miley addressed a room full of media to officially kick-off his candidacy to become the President of the International Tennis Federation. Backed by Tennis Ireland, the former ITF administrator has vowed to revamp the organization, marred in recent months by Davis Cup changes and the controversial transition Tour. His pledges include implementing a chairman to ensure greater accountability within the organization, introduce a brand new ITF world Championships and holding a summit of world tennis in 2020.

“I believe tennis is very fragmented at the moment and is not very healthy. The ITF has a perception that it is quite weak and I want to change that.” Miley said during his presentation.
“My manifesto is underpinned by two things. What’s good for tennis and what is good for the nations of the ITF.”

Speaking with confidence, Miley wasn’t phased by any question asked by those watching him. Ranging from the controversies surrounding the fairness of the ITF Presidential process to managing the billion-pound tennis market. After his question and answer session, Ubitennis spoke directly with the man aiming to dethrone David Haggerty later this year.

It is the future of tennis’ involvement in the Olympic Games that is raising concerns. At present, there are strict guidelines for players wanting to play in the event. In order to be eligible, they must participate in three ties during an Olympic cycle. This is reduced to two ties depending on the length of service or the zone group round-robin criteria as specified in the eligibility rule. Although there are exceptions. As a consequence, some of the world’s top names will not be able to feature unless they submit an appeal.

“I think the ITF is the governing body of tennis and it is very important that they encourage people to play the Davis Cup and Fed Cup,” Miley told Ubitennis.
“I don’t think it is unfair for the ITF to say you have to play a certain amount of Davis or Fed Cup ties to qualify.’
“The ATP can say these are mandatory events you have to play. So why can’t the ITF say in order to play the Olympics you have to meet certain requirements?
“Asking players to play in the Davis or Fed Cup a couple of times within four years isn’t too much.”

Critics could argue that if this policy was removed, more big names would be attracted to play in the Olympics. However, Miley points out that this isn’t the issue with the four-year extravaganza. It is with those less developed tennis nations.

“I believe the problem with the Olympic Games right now is that many nations currently don’t feel that they have a chance of qualifying and as a result, they don’t get any assistance from their Olympic committee.”

To combat this issue Miley, who is a former player himself, wants to resurrect the qualifying tournaments. Something that was used for both the 1988 and 1992 Olympic Tennis competitions.

“If there was a qualifying tournament taking place with 64 men and women a couple of months before for maybe six places. This would be a way of involving more nations into the Olympic movement.” He explained.
“Of course you need to work with the IOC, ATP, and WTA. We need to find a way for more players to feel like they have a chance.”

Big money, tough control

A key figure within the ITF for 25 years, the Irish-born candidate has big ambitions. His aim as president is to double the value of The Global Tennis Market within a decade. Its current worth is in the range of $22.5 billion, according to Miley’s election manifesto. The idea is then more money can be given to federations in order to grow.

On paper, it sounds like a simple idea. However, how can Miley guarantee that any potential surge in money issued to nations will be distributed to the appropriate areas?

“You can’t micromanage from the ITF what happens at national associations.” He admits.
“What you can do is try to facilitate good practice. If you see countries where they are doing a good job like Norway, Canada, and Australia. They are increasing participation and having good results. We need to share that.”

In order for this to happen, one idea is to issue tougher rules concerning what Federations do. Although the governing body of tennis will never have enough power to control what happens completely.

“The ITF needs to give strong guidelines about the practice for federations to develop tennis in their own countries, but it is up to the federation to do it.”

Building trust and a future

Some would question why anybody would want to take over at the ITF after what has been a turbulent past few months. In January the ITF Transition Tour was launched with an estimated value of $2 million being spent on research etc. It wasn’t long before players and coaches, including Toni Nadal and Magnus Norman, erupted with anger. Posting videos calling for the changes to be removed as an online petition attracted thousands of signatures. Six months later, the ITF backed down.

“What happened with the transition tour was that there was a lack of respect with (the lower level) players. I was one of those players and you need to respect these people have a right to play. I believe we can find a way to involve the top coaches in order to make the pathway more effective.”

There is undoubtedly a trust issue that has arisen. Especially concerning the lower ranked players. There will be no easy solution, but one suggestion is the creation of a player council. Following in the footsteps of both the ATP and WTA. Quite a risky idea given the political turmoil that continues to affect the men’s game.

“I want to set up an ITF player council which has current players. 12 players from both singles and doubles who meet up twice a year during the practice week of a grand slam.”  He outlies.
“At the same time at the entry level, we need to send people to places such as Egypt and start listening and talking with players. That is how you get the trust back.”

One of the most striking facts from Miley concerned tennis participation in America. During the era of the Williams sisters, nearly 8 million fewer people played tennis in 2016 than in 2009. Falling from 24 million to 16.7 million. So how does Miley plan to turn this around?

In his opinion, it lies with fitting in with the present. Formats such as Fast 4 or Tie Break Tens are ones he thinks could be a solution. Shorter matches to fit in with people having less time in their everyday lives.

“Lifestyles are changing, especially in the developed market. So when lifestyles change, you need to adapt the product. For example people with less free time, you need to implement formats that are punchier.” Miley argues.
“The job for the future is to adapt competitions and caching to the lifestyles. At the professional level, we need to be conscious of the customer and be ready to adapt.’
“I like what the ATP has done with the Next Gen in Milan. They are experimenting a bit. At the same time, we need to protect the integrity of the sport.”

The election for the ITF presidency will take place in September. During that time Miley has vowed to travel to 45 countries. Quite an ambitious target, but one he is committed to.

Regardless of if he wins or now, few will ever question Miley’s commitment to tennis.

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ATP Challenger

The Ilkley Trophy Celebrates Five-Year Landmark And Is Ready For A Bigger Event

Ubitennis speaks with tournament director Charlie Maunder about the the goals and future aspirations of the British tennis tournament.

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The Ilkley Lawn Tennis and Squash Club during the 2019 Ilkley Trophy (photo Twitter @ilkleytennis)

The Ilkley Trophy has celebrated this year the fifth edition of the Challenger Tournament combined with a women’s ITF World Tour 1000 event with another successful event that has brought to Yorkshire a number of world-class tennis players looking to conquer the winner’s prize that comprises a highly coveted main draw wild card for the Wimbledon Championships. This year’s winners, Dominik Koepfer and Monica Niculescu, secured the ultimate award at the end of two entertaining three-set finals played in front of a sold-out crowd that has taken advantage of a very fortunate week of weather to enjoy some fine tennis.

 

Created in 2014 contextually to the extension of the grass court “season” from two weeks to three weeks, the Ilkley Trophy has gone from strength to strength, steadily growing year after year to establish itself not only as the most important grass court tournament in the Challenger circuit, but also as a marquee event in Yorkshire’s summer calendar. The organizing committee, led by the Manager of the Ilkley Lawn Tennis and Squash Club, Charlie Maunder, who also doubles up as Tournament Director, has managed to create a really unique atmosphere that everyone seems to enjoy.

Before the final day of the tournament, we have managed to spend a few minutes with Charlie (everyone calls him this way), who we have been told is not too comfortable with media, preferring to let his work speak for himself, but in this case he was kind enough to talk to us. Or he was just cornered by his fellow team members and given no choice… we will never know.

How do you think this edition went?
This is the best year we have had. And so far, we have been able to say it every year, each year we have jumped up a couple of steps. This year has been a lot smoother, with a lot less stress. All the organization, all the contingencies, everything worked well, the team has done it before, we have a lot of familiar faces. The courts held up really well, where we are sitting now [just behind Centre Court] just 12 weeks ago was under water because of a flood, so it has been a tough preparation that required us to remain focused all the way through. The feedback I have received is very positive: players, officers, spectators, everyone seems to have had a great time, we have created a real atmosphere around the event.

What kind of resources is the club dedicating to the organization of this event?
There is a small team of club employees, two-three of us, who work at setting up the tournaments, with the cooperation of the volunteers who make up most of the operations team. We meet once a month throughout the year to coordinate our efforts, but most of all we have managed to put together a really great team of volunteers that come back year after year, 150 to 200 volunteers between club members, students coming back from university, the all swarm us every year to meet the demands of organizing this event. Without volunteers it would be impossible for us to deliver what we deliver, so credit to these people.

How many spectators will you have this week?
We will have something between 13,000 to 15,000 spectators. We have been sold out Friday, Saturday and Sunday. Tuesday was also a big day, after a wet Monday, Paul Jubb helped us draw a big crowd on Centre Court on a weekday, so numbers are fantastic.

Do you benchmark yourselves against other tournaments, either Challengers or higher-level events, both in the UK or overseas?
No, not really. We looked around to learn a few things, but we just try to be Ilkley as best as we can be. We put on a festival for the members, we try our best to give the players the best experience we can offer. When you try to be someone else, I believe you set yourself up for failure, we just want to be quite unique, and I think we have achieved that: the buzz and the atmosphere around here is quite different.

This event is at the highest possible level in the ATP Challenger Tour and at the highest possible level in the Women’s ITF World Tour: is there any appetite to go further?

We are the new kid on the block, we are here, we are delivering and we want to push ourselves to go wherever this might take us. It’s a fine balance because we are at a level that the members of our club really enjoy: I am both the Tournament Director and the Club Manager and at the moment I have a very good control of the event, and we like that. We are open to challenge ourselves and try something bigger, we like the combined event, and we wouldn’t say no should the opportunity present itself.

There is a week “for sale” on the ATP Tour at the moment: it would be the week after your current slot. Are you aware of it?
Yes, I am.

Have you thought about applying?
The next week is a tough week because it’s the week immediately before Wimbledon and it is at the same time as the Wimbledon ‘qualies’. We need to be aware of the amount of tennis that we would have with that new date compared to what we have now: the two ‘Challengers’ we are hosting now showcase great tennis players, there is the romance of a potential wild card for Wimbledon. You have to be sure what you give up, the grass isn’t always greener on the other side, but we could do that as well: I am not afraid to do a back to back!

Have you thought of organizing other events throughout the year?
We have looked at different things, but the nature of the club is a members’ club, it’s key that we don’t take too much time away from the members and their ability to play on their courts. We have to be careful not to turn this facility into just a tournament venue, because our members and their families need to come first.

But the two things should not necessarily be mutually exclusive. Everybody in the world of tennis knows that Alexander Zverev loves Yorkshire and Yorkshire’s accent: the videos of him interacting with Johanthan Pinfield at Roland Garros have become viral. Have you thought of organizing and event to get him up here, or any other player for that matter?
We do need to look at how we attract the bigger names, it’s something we are missing out a little bit. Of course, we get wild card request, normally they go to the Brits [through the LTA]: potentially it would be nice to have a ‘club wild card’, an invite we can dispose of at our leisure so that we can attract a player that maybe hasn’t gotten in at Queen’s or wants to play a bit more on grass.

What was the biggest challenge that you faced this year?
Nothing major, nothing detrimental. I believe the big improvement we need to look into is how we would handle the eventuality of playing the final rounds indoor, should the weather not cooperate. At the moment we have no facilities to host spectators in our indoor courts, and we don’t really have a way to easily accommodate 800-900 people, so this is one aspect that we will need to improve for the next editions.

 

 

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