Famous Players, Just Not for their Tennis. - UBITENNIS
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Famous Players, Just Not for their Tennis.

Joshua Mason

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Tennis is a sport that breeds individual stars. Mix in its ability to create equality among the sexes and the glamour and fashion off the court and professionals have the potential to become famous and rich beyond our wildest dreams. The one pre-requisite you would think would be necessary is a world class skill with a racquet and ball. Maybe even some major or tour wins on the CV to really get your name out there. This is not always the case however. Tennis players come in all shapes and sizes and some have become famous for almost everything but Tennis, and here are my top four.

Grigor Dimitrov

The Bulgarian really has become the Casanova of tennis. Blessed with good looks as well as tennis ability the 24-year-old has been linked with Serena Williams in the past, and dated poster girl Maria Sharapova as recently as 2015. To be fair Dimitrov is not completely useless with a racquet and has been likened to the great man Roger Federer before, garnering the nickname ‘baby fed’. His best ever ranking was 8th in 2014 after he had reached the semi-final at Wimbledon. While still young and with plenty time to make himself a household name in Tennis, his reputation as a Casanova doesn’t seem to be waning. If you google him currently you will see his new flame, former Pussy Cat Doll Nicole Scherzinger grace your screen. It seems Dimitrov has chosen his path and with players nowadays becoming millionaires without having to win, Dimitrov is a breed of professional whose motivation seems be in the bedroom more than the practice courts.

Nick Kyrgios

Another young man on the list, but for different reasons. Like Dimitrov, Kyrgios has shown flashes of brilliance and has finished strong twice in majors, reaching the Quarter Finals in both the Australian Open and Wimbledon. His short career has been riddled with controversies however. At Wimbledon 2015, a year after reaching the QF, Kyrgios was booed by fans after looking like he has given up and was ‘tanking’ the match. While he professed his innocence stating “Of course I was trying” many who watched the match saw an insolent teenager who was letting his hot head rule him. In the same year Kyrgios clashed with Stan Wawrinka in the Rogers Cup. Sledging his opponent using many slurs toward Wawrinka’s personal life, and it was picked up by the match’s mics. Kyrgios was fined $10,000. Kyrgios definitely has talent and with Australia lacking a hero, he coud truly be the next ambassador for the great Tennis nation. At just 20 years old the Australian is more known for his controversies, fashion and endorsements, than any Tennis match he has played in however.

Sue Barker

In 2016 Barker turned 59 and received an OBE from the Queen in broadcasting and charity work. You would be forgiven for thinking therefore that those two things are what she does. In Europe Barker maybe remembered fondly as a tennis player, but in Britain her success post Tennis career has seen her name better known for television presenting. Her credits include BBCs Sport’s Personality of the Year from 1994 – 2013 and the long running quiz A Question of Sport, but do people watching truly know who their watching. Sue Barker is the last women to win the French Open from Great Britain. In 1976 she won the Roland Garros title after beating Romata Tomanova 6-2 0-6 6-2. While this should be celebrated just as much as any Andy Murray triumphs unfortunately due to her prowess in front of a Camera, most people now will assume Sue Barker is just an opinion in a power suit.

Anna Kournikova

Last but certainly not least, Anna Kournikova is probably the best example of a Tennis player whose fame came off the court. Although unlucky with injury, if someone says the name Anna Kournikova to you, chances are you’re not picturing her in tennis attire. She was incredibly young when she arrived on the professional circuit and was gaining notoriety as a pretty face even at the age of just 15. She moved to Florida from Moscow at the age of ten to train at Nick Bolletieri’s famed tennis academy. She reached No.8 in the World at her peak but at 21 a herniated disc forced her to leave the circuit. To any other player this would be devastating news and they would be figuring out what they would do next. For Anna it was not the end of the world, she had garnered global fame despite her short stay because of her looks and at her peak Anna Kournikova was one of the most searched words on google. Her retirement was followed by a high profile relationship with singer Enrique Iglesias, and the young Russian even appeared in his music video ‘Escape’. Her notoriety became so high that she had her name given to various items. A white Russian cocktail that uses skimmed milk is called an Anna Kournikova and so is receiving a hand of an Ace and a King in Poker, because ‘though it looks nice, it rarely wins’.

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EXCLUSIVE: How To Survive A Pandemic If You Work In Professional Tennis

Amid the heavy financial implications caused by COVID-19, UbiTennis looks at how two leading sports businesses have managed to survive over the past year.

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World No.1 Novak Djokovic being interviewed by reporters (image via theemiliagroup.com)

At the start of 2020 it was business as usual for Sports communications agency The Emilia Group and their partnership with tennis. January saw them collaborate with one of the sports biggest events, the Australian Open, followed by the Thailand Open a month later. It was all going to plan until the COVID-19 pandemic not only slowed down their business but forced them to find a new direction.

 

Tennis has been one of the heaviest affected sports due to the virus with all professional tournaments being cancelled for months during 2020. Victims included Wimbledon, which hasn’t been cancelled since the Second World War. Across the globe, players were left without any earning opportunities and businesses working in the sport faced a bleak outlook.

“We lost eleven events, most of which were cancelled or postponed in the space of a few weeks in March and April, including major events like the Olympic Games and Wimbledon,” Emilia Group director Eleanor Preston said during an interview.
“We’re a small business and in a matter of a month or so we went from being on course to having one of our most successful years since we started the company ten years ago to having our most challenging year by far.”

Over the past decade, Preston and co-director Faye Andrews have managed to establish The Emilia Group as one of the prominent businesses within the sports directory, the International Tennis Federation, two Grand Slam tournaments and an array of events in Asia have been just some of their clients in recent time. Still, their resume was not enough to shield them from COVID-19 with the company losing an estimated £110,000 in potential or confirmed business last year due to the pandemic.

On the other hand, other companies have had a different experience. LiveWire Sport is a BAFTA-winning content agency who have constructed some of Wimbledon’s most popular videos such as the ‘we cheer for them’ video which was narrated by Roger Federer.

“Working in the digital space meant that actually our ability to do our work was not affected hugely, and demand for the kind of services we offer was still high – albeit many of our clients had to balance up the decrease in revenue from live events with the desire to find a way to still engage with sports fans on a global scale and of course to deliver value for their commercial partners, often via social and digital,” Livewire Director and Co-Founder, Caroline Cheese, said.
“We worked with our existing clients to build campaigns to maintain fan engagement, whether that be via esports and gaming, or maximising archive.”

A change in tactics

Like other industries, diversification was the key for survival. Joining most of the population, The Emilia Group got on board with the use of online video chat platforms by launching their own ‘media lounge’ via Zoom. Their goal was to keep the tennis community together while there was no sport happening. Not only was the idea a success with the Tiebreak Tens group backing them, it is now something they intend to do for the foreseeable future.

“They proved to be really popular because people were really missing the informal interaction that you get at events – the chats in the coffee or the sandwich queue, the laughs and the gossip. We wanted to recreate some of that, albeit virtually,” Preston explains.
“It’s something that we plan to keep doing because we could see journalists having to cover events remotely for a while to come.
“I was a tennis journalist on the Tour before doing this job so I’ve spent a lot of the last twenty years travelling and packing or unpacking a suitcase. Tennis is a travelling circus and I love it but it’s also been nice to slow down and step away from it for a while and remember that tennis isn’t everything.”

https://twitter.com/TheEmiliaGroup/status/1304330706223591425

For LiveWire the timing of the pandemic was ironically advantageous for the launch of a brand new app they have been developing. Its aim is to try and generate content from athletes quicker than before which plays into the hands of the COVID-19 restrictions with those taking part being encouraged to do so from home.

“The  LiveWire Studio app is designed to get high quality video from athletes, ambassadors and fans to video editors as quickly as possible. Its launch proved timely, with many sports organisations looking for a way to film content remotely and to harness the power of user-generated content,” Cheese explained about the project. 

Adapting was another key element for their survival with The Emilia Group receiving a reprieve from the Lawn Tennis Association. With professional events halted last summer, the LTA launched their own series of events for British players.

Their task was to help with the promotion of The Progress Tour which featured a female-only line-up.

“Faye was on-site for that and the tournament itself was very successful. Those early events were so important for showing how tennis could adapt to the pandemic and still host competitions in a safe way,” Preston points out.

The Future

Undoubtedly there is light at the end of the tunnel after what has been a turbulent year. Although the clouds of uncertainty are not going away just yet, Tennis’ return date in 2021 was thrown into chaos due to a plan allowing players to enter Australia in December being ruled against by the government. They will now be arriving from January 14th onwards. Besides questions being raised over the Australian Open, there are also fears even more of the smaller events could be chopped as a consequence in the coming months.

Preston is refusing to reach the point of despair as she aims to recover some of the revenue her company lost, like many around the world she hopes the rapid development of COVID-19 vaccines will help aid the recovery more rapidly when it officially comes into effect.

“There’s reason to be optimistic beyond that because even if the vaccines are rolled out more slowly than we are all hoping, the industry and the Tours have done a great job of adapting and showing that tennis can carry on in a safe and manageable way,” she said.
“I think we’ve all learned that there are different ways of doing things and that can be a good thing because it’s our job to make sure that we keep improving the service we deliver.”

Cheese is also optimistic but admits to having concerns about the long-term impact the pandemic could have on the foundations of sports such as tennis.   

“The fact that we have weathered the storm so far means I think we remain confident about the future. My main concern is for the smaller sports, events, leagues and clubs, as well as for the long-term impact of the pause in grassroots sport,” she said. 

The financial impact of COVID-19 on tennis has been widespread. In Britain, the LTA has seen an estimated 40% fall in income which is roughly £30 million. Meanwhile, across the Atlantic this year’s US Open took place despite a 80% drop in revenue compared to 12 months prior. 

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Alex Olmedo Was More Than Charming…

Alejandro “Alex” Olmedo Rodríguez, the man who came from so little and made so much from being able to play extraordinary tennis, has left many with cherished memories, as Mark Winters’ story brings out…

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Alex Olmedo - Photo USC Athletics

He was born in Arequipa, the second largest city in Peru. It is 678 kilometers from the country’s largest city and its capital, Lima. His hometown is known for its spicy cuisine and the volcanic white stone that is used in the construction of the eye-catching buildings and houses that line the streets. He was the son of the man who took care of the clay tennis courts at the Club Internacional Arequipa. He taught himself to play and spent time working as a ball boy at the club. As a teenager, he made his way to the US and went on to become one of the game’s greats.

 

Though the story of Alejandro “Alex” Olmedo Rodríguez, who passed away on December 9th due to brain cancer at the age of 84 at his home in Encino, California, reads like a fairytale, it is actually a good deal more dramatic than “Once upon a time”…

He first came to the country that would eventually become his home in 1951 to  play in the US National Championship at Forest Hills, New York. In a prelude to threads that would be woven throughout his life, Olmedo lost 6-0, 6-4, 6-1 to Jacque Grigry, who was from Alhambra, California and was a three-time All-American at USC.  Being the best player in Peru, at the beginning of 1954, the seventeen-year-old became an adventurer. In effect he played a role in the yet-to-be-made John Hughes movie “Planes, Trains and Automobiles”. Thanks to money raised in Arequipa, Olmedo, who didn’t speak English at the time, journeyed from Peru to Havana by ship, then to Miami by plane, and came to California on a bus. 

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Alex Olmedo Photo Modesto Junior College

He ended up at Modesto Junior College, in the town of the same name, in Central California. He took English and other classes and played on the school’s tennis team which was one of the best in the state at the time. The 1954 squad included Olmedo, who lost to Pancho Contreras in the State Junior College Singles final, and Joaquin Reyes, who lost to Contreras in the state singles title round the year before. The trio, who were members of the third Modesto Junior College Hall of Fame induction class, moved on to USC. (In the mid-1950s, Modesto’s tennis program was a conduit to USC tennis and their acclaimed coach, George Toley. Players would  finish their two-years at Modesto, then move south to become Trojan competitors.)  

Their “good” on the JC level became even better in NCAA competition. Contreras and Reyes won the NCAA Doubles in 1955. The next year, Olmedo doubled, taking the singles title and then the doubles with Contreras. In 1958, he doubled again earning the singles champion and teamed with Ed Atkinson for the doubles trophy. 

At five feet, ten inches tall, Olmedo wasn’t physically imposing. But, he had a formidable serve produced from a free-flowing motion that featured ballerina-like tip-toe balance as he tossed the ball up. That was merely a prelude to an exacting forehand and deft volleying. He was extremely quick and athletic. He had flair, along with a feel that combined to make him a solid competitor. Yet, the thing that made him a standout was his approach. In a 1959 story in Sports Illustrated, he revealed that from playing, not the advice of coaches, he learned how to play…

Perry T. Jones, the fabled leader of tennis in Southern California from 1930 until his death in 1970, was unrivaled when it came to controlling the game locally, nationally and for that matter, internationally. Aware that Olmedo had lived in the country for more than three years, along with the fact that Peru did not have a Davis Cup team, at the time, Jones recruited the twenty-two year-old  to play for the US. And it just so happened that Jones was the US Davis Cup captain in 1958 and would be again in ’59.

Olmedo, who had made an impression in NCAA play, added to his accomplishments playing Davis Cup for Jones, as a non-US citizen, in the US’s 3-2 victory over Australia.  The 1958 Challenge Round was played on the luxurious grass at the Milton Courts in Brisbane, December 29th through the 31st. The “Chief”, as he had been nicknamed because of his cultural background, was responsible for each one of the winner’s points. He defeated Mal Anderson and Ashley Cooper both in four sets and teamed with Ham Richardson to outlast Anderson and Neale Fraser in an epic five set doubles contest. (Barry MacKay, who lost both his singles matches, was the other US team member; and Jones was the non-playing captain.)

In the semifinals, the US defeated Italy 5-0 on the grass at Royal King’s Park Tennis Club, in Perth, December 19th through the 21st.  In the last match of the tie, Olmedo downed Orlando Sirola, the six foot-seven inch competitor who began playing the game at the age of 22 (in 1950), 20-18, 6-1, 6-4. The thirty-eight games played in the first set established the record for most games in a singles set. (As the holder of the title, Australia was not required to compete in the preliminary rounds of the Davis Cup.)

Olmedo’s trophy collecting continued at even more brisk pace in 1959. At the Australian National Championship at Memorial Drive in Adelaide, January 16th through the 26th, he defeated Fraser, 6-1, 6-2, 3-6, 6-3 in the final. On the lawns at the All England Lawn Tennis Club in London, Olmedo methodically vanquished Rod Laver, 6-4, 6-3, 6-4 in the Wimbledon title round. It was strangely fitting that the match was played on Saturday, July 4th, a holiday celebrated in his adopted country. Looking to join – Jack Crawford of Australia (1933); Fred Perry of Great Britain (1934); Tony Trabert of the US (1955); Lew Hoad of Australia (1956) – as one of the few players to win three of the four majors in a signal season, Fraser gained revenge for his loss in Australia, confounding Olmedo in the US National Championship Singles final, 6-3, 5-7, 6-2, 6-4.

(The incomparable, J. Donald Budge set the standard winning all four of the  Grand Slam singles titles in 1938.) 

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Description automatically generatedFormer stars of the men’s Los Angeles tournament – Ted Schroeder, Alex Olmedo, Ellsworth Vines, Fred Perry, Arthur Ashe and Jack Kramer Photo Mark Winters

Jack Kramer, Joseph Bixler, men’s Los Angeles Tournament Honoree Richard “Pancho” Gonzalez, Honorable Robert Kelleher, Alex Olmedo, Pancho Segura and Bobby Riggs. Cynthia Lum Photo

In 1960, Olmedo joined the professional ranks. He enjoyed moderate success on the Jack Kramer Tour winning the 1960 US Pro title, reaching the semifinals at the Wembley Pro events in 1960 and ’63, as well as being a quarterfinalist at the French Pro tournaments in 1962 and ’64. His competitive pro career came to an end in 1965 when he retired.

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Alex Olmedo at the Beverly Hills Hotel in 1969 with Edda Speisser, a childhood friend from Peru who used to date his younger brother, Jaime.

Shortly after his playing career came to an end, he began another as a teaching professional. Being personable and never too busy to chat made him an institution at the Beverly Hill Hotel. As the Director of Tennis at the legendary spa, he held court for close to forty years.  During that time, he taught (and cajoled in a friendly manner) the likes of Katharine Hepburn and the irrepressible Charlton Heston, who played the game as if he were still Ben-Hur (the role that took him to movie stardom in 1959).

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2011 Southern California Tennis Association Hall of Fame inductee, Kathy May with 2000 SCTA Hall of Famer, Alex Olmedo Photo Cheryl Jones

During the early 1970s before he became US Davis Cup captain, International Tennis Hall of Famer, Tony Trabert worked with Kathy May regularly at her father’s house in Beverly Hills. It was a mere three blocks from Olmedo’s teaching court at the Beverly Hills Hotel. I was fortunate to be able to take part in Trabert’s workouts with May, who is Taylor Fritz’s mother. On a number of occasions, prior to the afternoon’s at David May’s or after they had taken place,  I would drop-in on Olmedo. He treated me like a long-lost friend, often telling me “we had to find time to have a hit …”, or inviting me to come back and have lunch with him. Even more meaningful, whenever I needed quotes for a story I was putting together, he found a way to always be available for a chat. He would not only answer my questions, he would regularly add insights that varied from meaningful, to amusing, to scandalous. He had a magic personality.

Olmedo’s on court success was recognized in 1983 when he became an inaugural member of the Intercollegiate Tennis Association Men’s Hall of Fame. The USC Athletics Hall of Fame enshrined him in 1997. He was inducted into the Southern California Tennis Association Hall of Fame in 2000. The ultimate accolade came in 1987 when Olmedo became a member of the International Tennis Hall of Fame. (And as mentioned above, he was in Modesto Junior College third Hall of Fame class.)

“The Chief” passed away at his Encino, California home. He is survived by Alejandro Jr., his son, along with Amy and Angela, his daughters, as well as four grandchildren.

The man who came from so little and made so much from being able to play extraordinarily well will be remember for much more. The foremost was for giving so many the opportunity to develop a friendship with Alejandro “Alex” Olmedo Rodríguez.

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Luigi Serra, A Great Photographer And Friend Of Ubitennis, Passes Away In Chicago Due To Covid-19

Luigi was 80, but in spirit he was so much younger than that, always cheerful, a friend to all, generous to a fault, a great person with a unique sense of humour. UbiTennis has published hundreds of his beautiful pictures. We have lost a friend.

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It’s a terrible, sad piece news that Gianni Ciaccia gave to me on Thursday evening from Paris. Luigi Serra, an extraordinary personality, born in Florence, with a degree in engineering, who moved to the US many years ago with two great passions, tennis and photography, has left us suddenly, without any warning, in Chicago, struck by this terrible and implacable virus that doesn’t loosen its grip on our lives.

 

Luigi’s is a tremendous personal loss for me, because I loved him and I often spoke to him on the phone to talk about many things and because we also shared a passion for Fiorentina’s football club. He always followed the team’s matches live from the USA – alas, their recent performance doesn’t even remotely compare to those of the two Serie A title clinched in 1956 and 1969, two iterations of the club’s roster he knew like the back of his hand – and he would call me when they were over to comment on them and to ask me, as he did the last time: “Will Prandelli be able to raise La Viola once again? Oh, we never score!” He said this in a Florentine/American pidgin, similar to Alberto Sordi’s “what’sa American!”

A few days ago, I sent him a beautiful article written for Ubitennis.com by Agostino Nigro on the death of Diego Maradona, and I was surprised that he didn’t send me back his comment. It wasn’t like him. I discovered only last night that Luigi had been in the hospital for 15 days. And thinking that a few days earlier, knowing that he also had a home in California, near Palm Springs and next to the tennis courts, I told him: “Why do you go to Chicago in the winter when the weather is much nicer in California and stay in California in the summer when it’s so hot you may die?” He had listed a series of reasons. Every year Luigi came back to Florence, with his very friendly wife Bonnie (I’m not sure if that’s how you spell it, but she came with him to have dinner with us in Settignano one evening three years ago… and it was a very pleasant evening, my wife still laughs about it…), and he wanted to go to Sanesi, a trattoria in Signa where – as he said – “you can eat the best Florentine steak in the world.”

For years he has been sending me his photos, from Indian Wells to New York, everywhere he went to – even to Roland Garros where he asked me to get him a media accreditation – and then he always asked me the same thing: “I come to your house and you make me a Florentine steak! Otherwise, no photos!”. It had become a game we repeated a thousand times. And I would say to him, “Luigi, I don’t like this picture, no steak!”

He had mastered a job that wasn’t his own. He had become very good at it and could make huge sacrifices just to take a good photo. And he was naturally super proud of his creatures. He was – it’s annoying and a pain to use all these past tenses now! – always smiling, mixing Italian and American slang among a thousand of “you know“, always with an alert eye to catch every beautiful girl who he was able to approach innocently with such a rare and irresistible congeniality, even if the age gap exceeded half a century. He could say anything, but no one would ever be hurt for it, so genuine and spontaneous was his approach.

We lived unforgettable moments with him, really funny ones. He took us to Little Italy, to restaurants that he knew perfectly although he lived in Chicago. He had friends everywhere. I never once saw him angry. Never. And, of course, at the last US Open we attended together, in 2019, we ate my usual bresaola with parmesan cheese and olive oil that I invariably brought to Flushing Meadows. We shared those moments so many times.

It was him, in March, who arranged an appointment with Ray Moore, Larry Ellison’s right-hand man and former director of the Indian Wells tournament (before Tommy Haas) for a Skype interview, and he was also a friend of Martin Mulligan’s, the former Wimbledon finalist and three-time champion at the Italian Open, with whom he spoke very often (and to whom it was my turn to give the sad news of his passing). He knew everyone, he was a friend to everyone. About fifteen years ago, he even did a photo shoot for my son, who had come to New York after spending some time at Bollettieri and Evert’s Academies.

There are no less than a few hundred photos taken by Luigi that we have in our archives. Sometimes he used to scold me because, while we had copyrighted his name on the Italian site, there was no copyright on the English home page, Ubitennis.net, which he ended up looking at more than the Italian one. That, instead, was his greatest satisfaction, to see his signature under a beautiful photo. I believe that the best gift we can give him from now on will be to dig out and publish some of his photos as many times as possible, starting with a selection of his best 50 pictures that will be released within the next few hours. And I’m sure that since he is anything but shy, in Heaven he will have already started to take pictures of each saint holding a racquet. Sometimes, sending photos on time was a problem for Luigi, but from up above there I’m sure he will find a way to make things work, as he always did in the end.

Rest in peace my friend, I have lost you but I won’t forget you. I love you and will always think of you. The most affectionate hug to your dear and sweet wife, your Ubaldo.

Article translated by Alice Nagni; edited by Tommaso Villa

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