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: Alexander Zverev Will Be Stronger Than Ever After US Open Heartbreak
UbiTennis speaks with the vice president of the German Tennis Federation, Dirk Hordorff, about Zverev’s New York breakthrough and what is next for him.
Alexander Zverev struggled to hold back the tears moments after missing out on his maiden US Open title but one person thinks the experience has a silver lining.
Dirk Hordorff has hailed his compatriot’s run during an interview with UbiTennis. At Flushing Meadows a determined Zverev was at times far from his best after coming back from a set down in three of his matches en route to the final. Standing in his way of the trophy was Austria’s Dominic Thiem who he has known since his teenage years. After racing to a two-set lead, Zverev was unable to maintain his stronghold as Thiem rallied back to win. To add to the frustration Zverev served for the title whilst leading 5-3 in the decider.
“It’s impressive how good Sascha handled his first final. The result, as Dominic said, was that both of them deserved to be Champions and for me they showed a fantastic fight with the closest possible result,” Hordorff told UbiTennis.
“I believe both will profit from this success and Sascha will be a stronger player after the US Open than before the US Open.”
Hordorff is a veteran in the world of tennis who has worked alongside the likes of Rainer Schuettler, Vasek Pospisil and Janko Tipsarevic. Besides his work in his home country of Germany, he was also a Davis Cup and Olympic coach for Taiwan. At present his role within the German Tennis Federation (DTB) focuses on High Performance Sport. In his view, Zverev couldn’t have done any more in the US Open final.
“I don’t think it would be fair to think about mistakes and what he did wrong when he started with a two-set lead, stayed competitive over the next two and had a lot of chances in the final set,” he argues.
“Sascha played against one of the best players in the world who played three finals before. Dominic was the favourite, the higher ranked player. Sascha gave all he had on the court and for me deserves a lot of respect for his performance.”
The 23-year-old has long been tipped as one of the players likely to take over from the reign of the Big Three in the future. A trio consisting of Novak Djokovic, Roger Federer and Rafael Nadal who are all at least 10 years older than the German. He has been ranked as high as third in the world and is only one out of five active players to win three or more Masters 1000 titles. The others are the Big Three contingent, as well as Andy Murray.
Along with the success comes a greater burden of expectation. Something the world No.7 has grown accustomed to during his time as a player. He is mentored on the Tour by his father Alexander. A former player himself who represented the Soviet Union and won two gold medals at the 1985 Summer Universiade. Furthermore, Zverev has also enlisted the help of Spain’s David Ferrer.
“He has achieved a lot very early in his career and fulfilled the expectations which is not easy,” Hordorff reflects. “Winning the ATP Finals in London two years ago was a great performance. This year to reach the semifinals of the Australian Open in January, now the Final in New York at the US Open shows his talent and his possibilities for the future.
“For sure this success will raise the expectations and the pressure for him.”
The US Open provided tennis fans with a reminder of what a major final is like without a member of the Big Three present. Something that hadn’t happened on the Tour since 2014 at the same tournament. Although it is hard to judge how much of a breakthrough this was given Djokovic got disqualified, Federer was injured and Nadal opted not to play due to health-related concerns.
“The Top Three have dominated the last two decades and they are being challenged by the upcoming generation,” said the DTB vice-president. “Thiem, Zverev and Stefanos Tsitsipas are all making big progress. But when will the next generation take over nobody can say. Nevertheless, it’s interesting having more players fighting for the top spot. Tennis will profit from this rivalry.”
A boom in Germany?
It was a year before Zverev was born when a German man last lifted a Grand Slam trophy with Boris Becker triumphing at the 1996 Australian Open. Despite the country’s well established tennis system Becker and Michael Stich are the only men to have won a major title in the Open Era. The hope for the DTB is that Zverev will be the country’s third and trigger a surge in popularity.
Although credit must also be given to the women too, especially Angelique Kerber’s achievements in recent years where she has won a trio of major titles and spent 34 weeks as world No.1. The 14th longest period held by a female player in history. The first belongs to another German in the form of Steffi Graf (377 weeks).
“Germany is very happy to have Angelique Kerber as a Grand Slam Champion and former No.1 in the world, as well as Zverev who is a top male player in the world,” said Hordorff. “For sure it will help the DTB to raise the promotion of Tennis. And we are very positive on the great Impact Sascha will have in the upcoming years for tennis in Germany.”
According to one report published on Tennisnet, an average of 800,000 viewers watched Zverev’s US Open clash in Germany which continued into the early hours of Monday morning. In comparison Thiem’s broadcast on ServusTV attracted 400,000 viewers in what was a 30% market share among viewers aged 12 and over. Germany’s population is roughly eight times bigger than that of Austria.
The question is will Zverev’s breakthrough have a bigger impact on his home country than that of Kerber? It is tough to measure and one Hordorff himself is refusing to go into.
“I don’t think we should try to compare,” he states. “Kerber’s success was great, and she still has a very positive Impact for Tennis in Germany. Zverev reaching the final at the US Open also will help German Tennis and I hope he will reach in the future similar success Angie reached in the past years.’
“It’s great to have such successful players and I am sure that both will help a lot for tennis in Germany.”
Zverev will return to action next week at the French Open where he will be bidding to go beyond the quarter-final stage for the first time in his career.
Zverev’s career in numbers
3 – his highest ranking which was first achieved back in 2017
11 – number of ATP titles he has won
14 – number of times he has won a match in five sets
24 – wins over top 10 players
235 – number of ATP Tour wins
$22,561,920 – prize money he has won so far in his career which is the 16th highest in the ATP Tour history
Boris Becker and Justine Henin: “Off-court pressure might have made Djokovic lose his cool”
Eurosport invited UbiTennis’s CEO Ubaldo Scanagatta to join a Q&A with the former Slam champions and world numbers ones, who dicussed the 2020 US Open (but refused to pick a winner for either draw).
Justine Henin and Boris Becker need no introduction: seven Slam titles and three years finished as the world N.1 for the 38-year-old Belgian, six and one for the German, now 52 (he was never actually ranked at the top at the end of a season, but won the ATP Player of the Year award in 1989, when he won two Majors). They are definitely cognizant of what it takes and means to get to the end of a US Open fortnight (Henin won it twice, Becker once), although the 2020 milieu is a bona fide unknown for pretty much everybody in tennis.
This is why they have accepted to join a Q&A session of about half an hour, organised by Eurosport (the channel that they both work for, and that we thank once again for the invite), during which they tackled many subjects, mostly revolving around Novak Djokovic, his default loss at the hands of Pablo Carreno Busta, and the future of the PTPA, his new players’ union – Becker coached the Serbian for three seasons (winning six Slams).
Here’s the full transcript:
D: We are almost at the end of the tournament, and we have seen many controversial decisions. What will be the most important lesson to be taken for the rest of the season?
HENIN: I don’t know, it’s an interesting question. We are all wondering how we feel about this tournament. I’m glad that it took place despite the absence of the fans, who can still watch on TV, while the players can still do their jobs and are fully aware of the situation. What we can learn is that this is a unique situation fo everyone. We need to remember that nobody is perfect and that these are exceptional circumstances, but we all need to adapt – players, officials, tournaments, everybody. Our job is about adapting, so I think it’s normal to have witnessed all these ups-and-downs. Anyway, we also need to keep in mind that we are only talking about tennis, which gives us great emotions but is not the most important thing right now. The tournament hasn’t been perfect, but it’s a good start, everyone is okay, and we all need to learn our own lessons.
Q: I was at the O2 when Djokovic was booed for double faulting, and we are talking about someone who has won 17 Slams. Does he get the respect he deserves?
BECKER: I don’t think so, it’s a very good point. In men’s tennis, fans are divided between Federer and Nadal. And then here comes Djokovic who crashes the party – this is why he gets so much criticism. Right now, he is in a s**tstorm because of what he did against Carreno, but he took responsibility for his actions and apologised, firstly to the woman, then to the USTA and to the players. Nobody is perfect. Roger double faults, Rafa double faults, they don’t get booed.
Q: How does he take it?
BECKER: He doesn’t like it, nobody would. He’s a people person, he does a lot of charity work in Serbia through his foundation. And yet people only talk about him when he breaks the rules. He is a champion, he always wants to win, but sometimes he makes mistakes too.
Q: Justine, do you think that there is a lack of respect for Djokovic and for what he has achieved?
HENIN: It’s very strange. Personally, I respect the champion he is. You can like or not his on-court personality. We are witnessing a golden age in men’s tennis because of the Big Three, but also because of all the players who are coming up behind them. Novak is different from Rafa and Roger, and he also broke onto the scene a little later, ma we have to have the utmost respect for what he’s doing in tennis.
D: Will this premature elimination in New York help him at the French Open?
BECKER: I like your positive attitude, very forward-looking! Novak is still digesting what happened, but he has to view this episode as an opportunity to make some noise on the court and to win more. The question is whether he will play in Rome before Paris – he is very popular in Italy. I think he is a contender at the French Open, he and Thiem can challenge Nadal.
Q: Will the players be more careful because of what happened to him?
HENIN: We are all human beings. It reminds us that we need some humility and that players can make mistakes. In the end, even if Novak is a champion, he can still make mistakes. It’s not easy to control the pressure and one’s emotions during a match. It’s a lesson for all of us, not just for the players. The rule is good because we have to protect the officials and the fans. Maybe some people think that it should be changed, but I don’t agree, because it pushes the players to control their emotions and frustrations. However, it was bad luck in Novak’s case.
D (UbiTennis): I’d like to ask Justine what she thinks about the PTPA, and whether it will be successful.
HENIN: I think Boris has more details about it, I’m not too informed on the subject. We want the players to be united and to be represented in the right way in tournaments. It’s hard for me to judge which is the best way to achieve this. There are many different opinions on the matter. Boris, what do you think?
BECKER: The ATP was founded in 1972 by the players. Over time, it became the ATP Tour, which has two sides: the players and the tournaments. Apparently, many players don’t feel that they are being well-represented by the ATP, and this is the reason why the new association was created. I would like to see them involve female players. I would like for the ATP and the WTA to do something together. This is the only mistake I see. But in principle I think it’s right that the players should have a voice within the ATP, whose structure is different than it was in 1972.
Q (UbiTennis): Why do you think Nadal and Federer didn’t concur with Novak’s message? I don’t think he wants to fight with the Players Council, and I think he wants to involve some women as well, from what I understand.
BECKER: I think that Federer and Nadal have different agendas. They are making history, and they also don’t have a personal history of political involvement, which is a smart thing to do, according to some. But they are also the most famous faces in men’s tennis. There should have been a unanimous decision over the new association, but there are many different opinions. Therefore, Nadal and Federer’s interests are not the same as Djokovic’s. I’d like to see the ATP and the WTA unite, but I don’t think we have that right now.
Q: Could the ball abuse violation be softened in some cases, in order to avoid episodes like the one involving Djokovic, who hit the lineswoman in a clearly unintentional way?
HENIN: I think that the rule is fair, but this is just my opinion. Where would we draw the line, were we to soften it? Many people think that the decision with Djokovic was too harsh because Bedene wasn’t disqualified the previous week, but I think that the two episodes are completely different. I have never seen anyone on a tennis court who tried to hurt somebody intentionally, but you can hurt people even unintentionally, and we need to control these cases by creating limits that shouldn’t be broken. It also serves as a message to everybody else. We are not perfect, but we need to be examples and to inspire people. I also think that this is an experience that can be used to grow. I have never been involved in something like this, but I’m sure it will be tough for Novak’s ego. It also means that he isn’t a machine, and I like that. Back to the point, I wouldn’t change the rule.
BECKER: I mostly agree with Justine. It was tough for Novak, and you know I’m a fan of his, but in a certain way he has been lucky, because that woman could have been hurt a lot worse. The rule is clear. Novak had already hit a ball against the wall, and he was clearly frustrated, he was dominated by his own emotions. We shouldn’t think that he is a bad person, we both know that emotions come out during a match, and that it is part of human nature to misbehave when things are not going our way. I wouldn’t change the rule, because players are role models. This was an unfortunate instance, but the decision was right
On page 2, the interview will shift to the mental toll that tennis players have to shoulder, as well as to Becker’s vacation with Bjorn Borg and to Kim Clijsters’ comeback
EXCLUSIVE: Coach Of Daria Kasatkina Eyeing Top 10 Return
After almost 20 weeks of practicing during lockdown in Spain the coach of Daria Kasatkina, Carlos Martinez, tells UbiTennis what’s next in their campaign to return back to the top of women’s tennis.
It was only two years ago when Daria Kasatkina was being described as the new face of Russian tennis and a star in the making.
A former French Open junior champion, Kasatkina achieved various accomplishments prior to her 22nd birthday that others could only dream of. Her rise in the sport started in April 2017, when at the age of 19 she defeated Jelena Ostapenko to claim her maiden WTA title at the Charleston Open. Her breakout took place the following year where she lost to Naomi Osaka in the final of Indian Wells and won another Premier title in Moscow. Furthermore, she also reached back-to-back quarter-finals at the French Open and Wimbledon as she eventually peaked at a ranking best of 10th in October 2018.
It looked as if the sport had a potential future No.1 in the making who was on similar trajectories as Osaka and Bianca Andreescu. Then a lacklustre 2019 took place, serving as a stern reminder of how hard it is to rise to the top and yet how easy it is to fall. Last year she lost her opening match at 11 tournaments on the Tour as she struggled to reproduce the results from the previous couple of years.
“It’s obvious that we need to adjust a few things to play at this level. In practice we are fixing these things to get these good feelings back for her,” coach Carlos Martinez told UbiTennis.
Challenged with getting Kasatkina back on the road to top-level tennis is Spanish coach Martinez, a former world No.180 doubles player who is also known for his work with Svetlana Kuznetsova.
The 2020 roller-coaster for Martinez started in February when Kasatkina looked to be once again regaining form with a run to the semi-finals of the Lyon Open in France. It was the Russian’s seventh tournament of the season but the first where she won back-to-back main draw matches. However, a week later the WTA Tour was halted for what ended up being a five-month period due to COVID-19.
“It was very sad for us because she was starting to get some very good rhythm after Lyon,” Martinez reflects. “In my opinion, she lost her (semi-final) match in the right way because she is a player who needs to win matches and get confidence in her game.’
“She had good chances to do well in Indian Wells because of the conditions. It (the Tour break) wasn’t good for us and now we have to regain that rhythm but for sure she will be again at that top level.’
“Our expectation for us is to be good every day,” he added.
Sidelined from competition, there was one godsave with the fact the two could continue training during lockdown at the Club de Tenis Mollet on the outskirts of Barcelona, an academy owned by Martinez himself. During the unscheduled break, he continued to work with Kasatkina with one particular focus in mind – to make her more aggressive.
The return to competition
Opting not to play in any exhibition matches during the break, it was a case of wait and see if the hard work had paid off. Few can cast doubt on Kasatkina’s commitment to the sport, but – as with many of her peers – the question was how she would fare on the Tour after five months away.
The first stop was in the Italian city of Palermo, where the entire WTA Tour resumed. Unfortunately, there would be another blow for Kasatkina as she suffered a leg injury during practice heading into the tournament. She was still able to play, but ended up losing a marathon first round encounter against Jasmine Paolini. There were also mixed fortunes for Kasatkina in her next tournament at the Western and Southern Open in New York where she lost two out of three matches played. She managed to enter the main draw only with the help of a lucky loser spot.
“She couldn’t play her best in Palermo because she injured her leg the day before during practice. She couldn’t be 100 per cent ready to compete. It’s true she played three hours and 10 minutes against Paolini but honestly she couldn’t do more. Her leg wouldn’t let her run,” Martinez reflected.
“In Cincinnati (relocated to New York this year) she played three matches. The second was a good chance for her to qualify for the main draw but she lost a few chances during the second set.’
Kasatkina lost in the first round of Cincinnati to Anette Kontaveit.
So what is the reason for all of these early losses? Is it simply because the now-world No.68 has lost some of her form from two years ago or is there a more complex explanation?
Martinez believes it is the mental side of the game which is letting Kasatkina down at present. When asked how close she is to the type of form which took her into the world’s top 10, he firmly believes she is not too far away. Although the ongoing problem continues to be her mindset.
“She has the game because when she practices she is showing a really good level. When we compete against top players she is winning many times,” he said.
“The problem isn’t with her game, the problem is she needs to believe in herself a little bit more. To go on court and think she is very good. Her game is really consequential of these thoughts.”
“She’s not far away from achieving this. When we talk about the game, we just need to keep adjusting a few things and for sure she will be back (inside the top 10). I don’t know when but she will be back to the top level.”
Patience is a virtue
Over the coming weeks Kasatkina will not have to worry much about her current ranking position thanks to a change in the rules due to COVID-19. The WTA recently revised their system to the “Better of 2019 and 2020” system where a player’s position is based on their 16 best tournament performances between March 2019 and December 2020.
“Fortunately, this year we have no pressure and this is the thing she needs to understand. This year is about fixing a few things, starting again and being back into competition following lockdown,” outlined Martinez.
“There are no goals regarding her result. But I have goals to establish again this pattern of the play that she has to do on the court. This for us is the most important. I know if she starts doing this pattern and believing in herself again, she can do good.”
The next test for Martinez and Kasatkina will be next week’s US Open in what will be the Russian’s 19th consecutive Grand Slam main draw appearance. Although recently the majors have been a thing of misery, with Kasatkina only managing to win two matches since the 2018 US Open.
“The important thing is to understand the philosophy of this game because with this knowledge she will get the goals we are expecting in the future. Of course, for us it is to be back in the top 10 because she has the game to do so. So we just have to be patient and work on this mentality.” Martinez concluded.
Kasatkina will play Marta Kostyuk in the first round at Flushing Meadows.
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