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.”
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
EXCLUSIVE: Stefanos Tsitsipas On The Journey Towards His ‘Maximum Potential’
The world No.9 opens up to Ubitennis following his opening match at the Caja Magica.
MADRID: Just minutes after grabbing his opening win at the Madrid Open, eighth seed Stefanos Tsitsipas was already dissecting his performance.
Fresh off claiming his third ATP title last week in Estoril, the Greek battled to a 6-2, 7-5, win over world No.56 Adrian Mannarino. Somebody ranked 47 places lower than him in the ATP standings. Claiming his 24th win of the season, which is more than world No.1 Novak Djokovic, the Greek player admits that he still has work to do.
“I felt like I played well, but I haven’t reached my maximum potential yet,” Tsitsipas told Ubitennis. “I really hope I will play a little bit better in my next match.”
Despite being only 20, Tsitsipas is already an icon in Greek tennis. Being the first player from his country to reach the semi-finals of a major and the highest ranked in the history of men’s tennis. Last year in Toronto he defeated four top 10 players on route to the final. Becoming the youngest-ever player to do so since the ATP Tour was introduced back in 1990.
There is no question when it comes to the talent the Next Gen star has. Yet, the refreshing thing is that he is not overpowered by it. Instead, he is both determined and hungry to become an even better player.
“I’m going to build up my confidence and awareness of what I’m capable of doing on a tennis court. I’ve learned a lot today, despite my win. I’m going to try to improve on that and get even better results in my next match.” He said.
Becoming a better player
Tsitsipas’ drive for improvement was partly behind the success in Estoril last week. His start to the clay season was far from perfect. Losing to world No.14 Daniil Medvedev in Monte Carlo and world No.51 Jan-Lennard Struff in Barcelona.
The turning point occurred shortly after Barcelona. Returning back to the drawing board with his father. Both of his parents have a wealth of experience in tennis. Tsitsipas’ mother, Julia Apostoli, is a former world No.1 junior player who represented the Soviet Union.
“I worked with my dad the week before (Estoril). We worked on the courts and there were some micro-adjustments in order to improve my game. To change something that didn’t work the week before.” He explained.
“I’m grateful for that, I’m grateful that we went back to court, worked hours and hours to perfect those things that we didn’t do well.”
Whilst he appreciates the help he has received, it is by no means the end of it. Questioned about the area of his game that needs further improvement, Tsitsipas believes over-thinking is a problem for him on the court. Something he hopes to solve in his third round match in Madrid. Awaiting him will be either Fernando Verdasco or Karen Khachanov.
“I think to be more aggressive and not waiting too much. Sometimes I am thinking too much and in the end, I miss it. I would say there is a lack of indecision.”
The main stage
Like every other player, the ultimate test occurs at the grand slams. The four tournaments with the highest level of prize money, ranking points, and significance in the sport. The next major will be at Roland Garros. Coincidentally the place where Tsitsipas made his debut in the main draw of a major back in 2017.
He has already illustrated his threat in the premier tournaments. Stunning Roger Federer on route to the semi-finals of the Australian Open in January. Nevertheless, Tsitsipas continues to take a backseat to the Big Four on the tour. Although he is getting ready to pounce like a lion when the opportunity beckons.
“I think it’s all a matter of time. Having players like Nadal, Djokovic, and Federer, I’m definitely happy to see how they perform (in the majors) and it will give me confidence and belief that I can do the same.” He explains.
“So it’s just a matter of time before I’m playing my best tennis. It’s very much related to my confidence as well.”
Overall, Tsitsipas boasts a winning record of 10-7 in the main draws of grand slam tournaments.
EXCLUSIVE: Jelena Ostapenko’s Fight For Form
Ubitennis spoke with the former French Open champion following her loss at the Caja Magica in Madrid.
MADRID: Almost two years have passed since Jelena Ostapenko stunned the women’s tour by winning the French Open at the age of 20. Shortly afterward, she was tipped to be the next star of the sport. Unfortunately, now she finds herself in a new and unwelcome challenge.
2019 has been dominated more by frustration than celebration for the Latvian. Five months in and she has only managed to achieve back-to-back wins once. Doing so at Charleston with triumphs over Johanna Larsson and Shelby Rogers. To put this into perspective, she is currently ranked 98th in the Porsche race to Shenzhen.
Ostapenko’s latest loss occurred at the Caja Magica, venue of the Madrid Open. After producing an emphatic display in her opening match against Anastasia Pavlyuchenkova, she fell short against seventh seed Kiki Bertens. A player who was runner-up at the tournament 12 months ago. Despite glimmers of her top ability, a costly unforced error count of 30 guided Betens to the 6-4, 6-3, win. The downside of Ostapenko’s all or nothing approach to the game.
“I think in general it was not a bad match. Of course, I lost it, but I think the main thing was that I was not afraid to go after the shots. Even though I was missing during some deciding moments, that’s what I have to do with my game.” An upbeat Ostapenko told Ubitennis following the match.
“I have to go for the shots and play aggressive. That’s what brought me good results during 2017.” She added.
There is no denying that the 21-year-old is in the midst of crises on the court. Her last victory over a top 10 player occurred 13 months ago in Miami and her last title on the tour was 17 months ago in Seoul. Leaving Ostapenko facing one question. Where did it all go wrong?
The prime culprit for the results is the formerly injured left wrist in the eyes of the Latvian. In total, she missed three months towards the end of 2018. Meaning that she was unable to train during the pre-season. A crucial time of the year for many player’s.
“It’s hard. I have to get back in form during the year where you don’t have much free time. We play almost every other week sometimes.” She explains. “I’m using every opportunity to have some weeks of practice. Like, if I even have a couple of day’s I’m using it for practice. Just to improve everything.”
The mental demons
Ostapenko, who will turn 22 next month, has never been afraid to express herself on the court. That was visible during her match against Bertens with cries of frustration and glares towards her camp. Her series of blistering winners were ultimately canceled out by her erratic error count. Leaving the question, is Ostapenko’s downfall her own mind?
“I think for sure it’s the mental side because physically I think I’m strong enough.” She admits without hesitation. “In practice, I can play unbelievable and then I go into the match and do some mistakes that I never do. For sure, that’s a mental thing. I think tennis is around 70 percent mental because everything is in the head.’
“My first match here, I played really well and my mind was completely free. I was not afraid to hit the ball and hit so many winners.”
In a bid to overcome those problems, Ostapenko has enlisted to help of people with expertise in the area. Although she admits that there is no magical solution. Instead, she will have to give it time.
“I’m working with a couple of people in that area (of sports psychology). I’m trying to improve, but it’s not easy. I’m a very emotional person and sometimes that helps me, sometimes it doesn’t. I’m working by myself, trying to improve every day.”
Another grand slam title?
While she may lack wins, the belief is no less than it was two years ago when she claimed the French Open crown. Becoming the first unseeded champion of the tournament since 1933 and her country’s maiden grand slam winner.
“I know I can win more grand slams because I’ve already done it once. I’ve shown I can play at that high level.” She said. “However, with my recent injury, it hasn’t been easy this year.
I think I need to play more matches and win more matches. Then I think I will become a dangerous player.”
Just how dangerous she can become remains to be seen. This season has developed a trend of different players winning different tournaments. In fact, Petra Kvitova is the only woman to win multiple titles on the WTA Tour. Nevertheless, there is only one objective for Ostapenko this year.
“To be healthy. To try to stay healthy and enjoy it because I had all this pressure to deal with following the French Open.” The world No.29 stressed.
“Injuries are never fun. It can happen to anyone. You just have to enjoy the moment.”
Now over the first major injury of her career, Ostapenko continues to plot how she will once again rise to the top of the women’s tour. The only question left is when will that happen?
EXCLUSIVE: Former Boris Becker Coach Bob Brett On The Rise Of The Next Generation
The Australian speaks to Ubitennis about the young guns on the tour and his work in Japan.
At the Monte Carlo Masters this week is somebody that needs no introduction to the world of tennis.
Watching from the sidelines is Australian-born Bob Brett. A coach, whose career in the sport spans decades. His resume includes working alongside the likes of Boris Becker, Goran Ivanisevic and Marin Cilic whilst they were at the top of their sport. He also founded a tennis academy in San Remo, Italy and previously served as the head of player development for the British Lawn Tennis Association before resigning in 2015.
Since the days of Brett’s work alongside Becker, the game has changed somewhat. Power is more important than ever in matches and rallies are now more from the baseline than at the net. Something many has adjusted to in recent times. However, Brett believes there are also drawbacks too for the rising stars.
“Now it’s a little bit random I think with the next generation coming up because the game is different.” He said during an interview with Ubitennis. “Before with the ball there was much more trajectory and different things. There were more different opportunities with that to use a drop shot and all sorts of things.’
“Whereas today it is more a less about staying near the baseline, hitting the ball hard, straight and trying to get the winners.”
Few can dispute Brett’s wealth of experience, which amounts to almost 25 years on the ATP Tour. He has seen player’s come and go, but it is the new generation that is intriguing him the most.
“I think definitely (Stefanos) Tsitsipas and (Daniil) Medvedev are players who are coming along.” He stated.
“It’s really interesting for me to come and watch so many players and see how their improvements have been.’
“I think Felix (Auger-Aliassime) and (Denis) Shapovalov are very interesting. To see how they can actually expand in their game is the thing that I think is interesting.”
Despite his expertise, Brett has not made any indication of wanting to work alongside a rising star of the men’s game. When asked directly who would be the ideal Next Gen member for him to coach, the Australian diplomatically sidestepped the question. Although he isn’t afraid to tell them how it is.
“When I watch them, in my thoughts there is something that could be a little bit better here and there.” He explained without mentioning any names.
“I have seen some players and I know that they will need to change (their game). I have even told some of those.”
In Brett’s home country, it is Alex de Minaur who is the brightest prospect. At the age of 20 he has already reached three ATP finals, winning his maiden title at the Sydney International in January. In 2018 he was named newcomer of the year at the annual ATP awards.
De Minaur’s offensive in recent weeks has been halted by a groin injury. Since the Australian Open, he has only been able to play in two tournaments. Reaching the quarter-finals in Acapulco before losing his opening match in Indian Wells.
“He played very well until around the ranking of 24 and he is a very good runner.” Brett commented of his compatriot. “He’s going to need to have a little bit more punch (in his shot-making). Not necessarily forcing it (his shots), but also where to play the ball around the court.’
“It is not always about chasing the ball and I think it would be a bit better if he had a bit more variety.”
At present, Brett’s work takes him to Japan. A country which welcomed their first world No.1 earlier this year in the form of Naomi Osaka. However, Osaka is mainly based in America. Brett has worked in the Asian country for many years alongside both former and current stars of Japanese men’s tennis. The most notable being Shuzo Matsuoka, who achieved a ranking best of 46th in 1992.
“What I really enjoy is trying to get player’s to become better. With the young children and trying to make it a big difference for the Japanese because there was a sort of flat level, and I think they are getting much better with that.” He said.
“They are coming up with a completely different style of what they are playing.”
Brett spends 20 weeks a year working in Japan. His current focus is on the junior players.
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