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Andy Murray Aims To Get Back On Track In Roland Garros

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Andy Murray (zimbio.com)

Three-time grand slam champion Andy Murray is hoping that playing at the French Open will revive his form after a lacklustre past couple of months.

 

The world No.1 will enter next week’s French Open with one title to his name this season. Murray’s roller coaster 2017 has seen him suffer from a bout of the shingles and cope with a elbow injury. On the clay, he has won four out of the eight matches he has played. At the Barcelona Open he progressed to the semifinals, but has failed to reach the last eight at the last three Masters 1000 tournaments.

“The last two or three months have been tough. The start of the year was actually ok.” Murray reflected during an interview with Eurosport.
“It’s not been the best preparation in terms of my level coming in (to the French Open). I have to see what happens when the tournament starts.”

Murray’s wait-and-see approach is a risky one. The top seed at Roland Garros, he is set to be the underdog against nine-time champion Rafael Nadal. Then there is Novak Djokovic, who has enlisted the help of Andre Agassi to tackle his patchy form, and the unpredictable Stan Wawrinka.

“I think physically I’m getting there.” Said Murray. “Obviously anytime you have a slight injury or setback, it takes a little bit of time. You have to be patient.”

The challenge

In an ongoing quest to return to the form that saw him dominate the men’s tour during the second half of 2016. Murray aims to thrive upon the pressure of playing in a grand slam. Last year he became the first British male to reach a French Open final since Bunny Austin in 1937. So far the Brit has won 34 out of 43 matches played in the tournament throughout his career.

“I think for me anyway, the tournaments that get me the most excited and the most pumped for, are the slams.” He explained.
“Over the year’s I’ve generally found a way to play better tennis at the grand slams and I’m hoping that starts again and kicks me on for the rest of the year.”

Guiding the Brit will be the formidable Ivan Lendl, who was once Murray’s full time coach. The Czech oversaw the world No.1 during one of the most successful periods of his career. Between 2012-2014 Murray won two grand slam titles, four ATP trophies (Queen’s, Miami and Brisbane twice) and one Olympic gold medal.

Lendl’s inclusion into the team came earlier than expected following Murray’s below-par run on the clay. The aim isn’t to overhaul Murray’s game, but to provide a ‘fresh voice.’

“I think when things are going badly, getting a fresh voice and a fresh pair of eyes to watch your practices, to give you different advice, different views can help. I’m hoping that’s the case here (in Paris).” He said.
“He’s always been very helpful to me and a big additional to my team over the years. I had my best results when he has been part of my team.”

The French Open men’s draw will take place on Friday with play starting on Sunday.

Interviews

EXCLUSIVE: Patrick Mouratoglou On UTS, Gauff, Tsitsipas And Williams

Recently UbiTennis spoke to the acclaimed tennis coach about the development of the Ultimate Tennis Showdown and his work with some of the world’s best players.

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Patrick Mouratoglou is a very successful coach, as well as an entrepreneur and a tennis analyst on TV – about to turn 51 (on June 8), his résumé wouldn’t need any more boosting.

However, in the last year the coach of Serena Williams has also become a tournament director for his brainchild, the Ultimate Tennis Showdown. The fourth edition took place on May 24-25 at his own Mouratoglou Academy, a gargantuan sports complex in Biot, France: the winner was Corentin Moutet, who prevailed over a stacked competitive field while managing to master the innovative rules that characterise this exhibition – the French coach is experimenting ways to make the game more intense and captivating. During the event, Mouratoglou spoke to Ubitennis about the purpose of the UTS and much else.

 

Patrick, are you satisfied with the fourth edition of the UTS?

I am very happy about it. We have introduced several innovations from last year. The public feedback has been overwhelmingly positive, and that’s the most important thing, certainly more important than how I feel about it. Our format tries to engage with the younger generations, and especially with those kids who aren’t tennis fans yet. We have invited people who aren’t that much into the game, and they have spent the whole day here, asking for more. So the response has been good, both from the public and from the players – it’s essential for them to be having fun for the show to be captivating. They are very determined to win, and can get very annoyed when they lose. Some of them struggle with the new rules, but they still want to win. This is what I want to see, their passion for tennis.

Let’s recap some of the new rules: no second serve, coaching is allowed, and the sets have a time limit. To what extent are you trying to change the game?

I would say that the UTS is like a laboratory. A billion people watch tennis, and most of them are not very young. With the UTS we are trying to speak to these young people, and we are trying to come up with an ideal format for that. This is why we are tinkering with the rules in each edition: we will respond to the feedback we receive until we’ll have reached the ideal solution. We really want to engage with young people and non-tennis fans. Kids watch Netflix and play videogames, but they don’t follow tennis – we want to offer them a game that can lure them in.

You have also introduced a card system, like special moves that a player can use, for instance, to double the value of a point or to force the opponent to come to the net behind his serve…

If you are a coach, you work by creating different game situations: for instance, if I want to work on baseline play, I will ask the player to only hit second serves. If I want them to be more aggressive, I will ask them to pretend that the next point is worth double. That’s the point, our format wants to be a training mode for the players and the coaches. The card system, in our opinion, is also a way to make the game more interesting, because it adds a new strategic variant. In general, our objective is to make the game more dynamic by cutting on dead-air moments, which are the ones that could bore the newcomers.

Okay, let’s talk about the players you work with. Coco Gauff just dominated in Parma, and is doing very well in Paris. Do you think she’s able to handle the pressure?

Nobody is more used to dealing with the pressure than Coco. She won the Orange Bowl at 12, she played a Junior Slam final at the US Open at 13 and a half, the youngest ever to do it, and at 15 she qualified for Wimbledon and beat Venus Williams. The spotlight was always on her, and yet she managed to get some good results. She’s not completely unfazed by the pressure, obviously, but she can handle it, even though it’s not always easy. She already has a good baggage of experience.

Tsitsipas is having an amazing season, and is trying to win his first Major at the French Open – can he do it?

He always plays to win, that’s his thing, he has a very strong self-belief. In Paris, he will play to win the tournament, and I think he can. Nadal is the favourite, as usual, but this year the gap might be closing a little, and the difference between him and the other contenders will diminish as time passes. Djokovic can beat him on the clay too, Rublev beat him in Monte Carlo, and Stefanos had a match point against him in the Barcelona final. Rafa is clearly the greatest of all time on the clay, and he’s still the best, especially with the three-out-of-five format. I am curious, however, to see if he could still handle two five-setters in a row, and I believe he could find himself in that situation, because there are many who could push him.

Let’s switch to Serena Williams: how is she doing?

Had you asked me a couple weeks ago, I would have probably said, “not great.” But she’s doing a lot better now! She lost early in the two events she played in Italy, in Rome and Parma, something she’s not used to – that’s proof that she wasn’t ready to compete at the highest level. However, I think she understood it herself, and after Parma we’ve worked very hard, and now she’s improving a little bit every single day.

Interview by Gianluca Sartori; translated by Tommaso Villa

EDITORS NOTE: Original interview was published on ubitennis.com and conducted prior to the start of the 2021 French Open. 

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Grand Slam

EXCLUSIVE French Open Preview: Djokovic Must Improve His Second Serve, Barty Among Three Contenders For Women’s Title

Can Rafael Nadal be stopped at Roland Garros? What areas of Novak Djokovic’s game have let him down in the past? What makes Ash Barty different from others? UbiTennis turns to an expert in tennis analytics for answers.

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Pallina al Roland Garros 2021 (foto Twitter @rolandgarros)

Over the coming two weeks, the world’s best tennis players will lock horns in Paris as they bid to win the most prestigious clay court event of the calendar.

The 125th French Open is once again taking place in late spring after last year’s edition was postponed due to the COVID-19 pandemic – this edition has been delayed too, but only by a week. Leading up to the Grand Slam, organisers revealed a statue of 13-time champion Rafael Nadal to mark his dominance. The question is: can he continue his winning momentum against the formidable Novak Djokovic and the next generation of players poised to replace him when he retires?

 

As for the women, Iga Swiatek seeks to become the first player since Justin Henin more than a decade ago to defend her title. In the usually unpredictable women’s draw, she faces stiff opposition from the likes of Ash Barty, Naomi Osaka and Aryna Sabalenka. Then there is the question of how Serena Williams will fair.

Ahead of the tournament, UbiTennis spoke to tennis coach and analyst Mike James about what tennis fans should expect at the French Open. James is the founder of Sportiii Analytics and is in charge of providing technical data to Swiatek’s team. His company has also recently secured a deal to work with the Kazakhstan Tennis Federation.

UBITENNIS: Rafael Nadal is statistically the most dominant player at the French Open. If players want to stop him, what areas of his game do you think they should be attacking when playing him?

JAMES: To Beat Rafa on clay is the most challenging thing to do in sport, let alone tennis. He has a 98% win record at the French Open (100-2). When I’ve scouted him in the past on other surfaces, it’s always been about attacking and going fast into his forehand. Then exposing the space (on the court). Not going into the backhand too early (in rallies) because the backhand is devastating.

But ultimately it’s on his terms on clay. The only time really when somebody came onto the clay court and took it to him was Robin Söderling. The deal with Robin was very simple. He had power to produce over four-and-a-half hours and repeat a high level of forehand and backhands that allowed him to go over the line that day.

Rafa doesn’t have any holes in his game and this is the challenge for every player. They have to hope he is 10 or 20 percent off and to be having their career-best day.

UBITENNIS: Novak Djokovic has incredibly only won the French Open once. Have you ever noticed any traits in his game which explains why he hasn’t been so fortunate compared to other Slams, besides the fact he has played Nadal?

JAMES: Novak has had an amazing career on the clay but he has only won the French Open once. He has losses to Cecchinato, Theim…… From a numbers point of view you can really see it’s the second serve and the second serve returns that he’s not the highest level at.

If you look at the second serve return ratings in 2019, he was actually ranked 23rd in the world on clay. On second serves, he was ranked just outside the top 10. So actually for all his quality at the back of the court, his second serve and second serve numbers are not quite at the highest level compared to Rafa, Thiem, Tsitsipas and these guys. This is an area of the game that I will look at in terms of improvements. (If he has) it is really going to help him against Thiem and Rafa this year.

UBITENNIS: Outside of the Big Three, who should be considered the biggest contender(s) for the men’s title and why?

JAMES: I think outside the Big Three, the number one at the moment for sure is Tsitsipas.  He’s won titles lately, had match points against Rafa in Barcelona and really looks like a quality operator on the clay. He has all the toolkit to produce his best tennis on clay. It suits his game. He’s also creative which I think suits him because he has a bit more time.

Outside of this, maybe Casper Ruud is a dark horse pushing into the second week.

UBITENNIS: On the women’s side Ash Barty has been quite impressive on the clay and she is a former champion. There is a lot of depth in the women’s game, but would you rank her as the top name to watch out for?

JAMES: Ash Barty has had a good season at the moment. She hasn’t been home and it’s an incredible run for her. I think that, if she is fully fit, she is definitely one of the favourites. I think Iga (Swiatek) is in that mix as well, and Aryna Sabalenka. They would be my top three to have a shot at the title. Of course in the women’s game there could always be a dark horse but I feel they are established on the clay and are the main contenders.

UBITENNIS: Another Barty question – what areas of her game stand out compared to her peers and why?

JAMES: I think Barty’s game is ultimately like Swiatek, Andreescu and Osaka. These top players can do everything, which never used to be the case on the women’s tour. From a strategic point of view, looking at Barty, this year her T-serve is probably the best in the world at the moment. Her ability to slice and change the rhythm is fantastic. On returns, as well, she is making many. She really does have the quality and mentality. She is so calm and so focused, you don’t see her getting too pumped or too down. This is a huge benefit going into the French Open.

UBITENNIS: There is also Serena Williams and her quest for No.24. She’s obviously one of the most powerful on the WTA Tour, but what areas of her game does she need to ensure is at its best and why?

JAMES: Ultimately, she has not played enough tennis over the last 18 months, which is first and foremost. I think age is unfortunately catching up with her a little bit. Her movement on clay is not as good as it is on a hardcourt, and the girls get a little bit more time against her. Even when she is producing a lot of power on the clay. I think it’s going to be very, very tough for her to even get through the first week, unfortunately. She’s been an amazing player and ambassador for the women’s game, but I think it’s time for the Next Generation. 

UBITENNIS: Who would you view as the biggest underdogs in the tournament?

JAMES: Biggest underdogs that actually have a chance to do something, on the men’s side, are Casper Ruud or Jannik Sinner. On the female side, it is a lottery. There are some very interesting players at the moment that are doing well. I think Coco Gauff has shown that she can compete on the clay. Winning the title in Parma has been a great boost for her, and she also had a great match against Swiatek in Rome.

UBITENNIS: Finally, night sessions are being held for the first time. How problematic could this be for players considering there may be quite a considerable change in conditions compared to daytime? Is there an easy solution to this or not, based on your experience?

JAMES: Night sessions are going to be very interesting. They are going to make conditions heavy. I think for somebody like Iga (Swiatek) this is going to be a great situation for the ball to be heavy. For some players who are not very powerful, I think it’s going to be a challenge for them when the ball gets damp and heavy. The scheduling for the player if they finish late poses other issues too: their recovery, cool down and sleeping patterns are also going to be affected. So this will be a real challenge for players this season and a unique situation for the French Open.

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Interviews

EXCLUSIVE: Iga Swiatek’s Newest Weapon Ahead Of The French Open – Data Analytics

UbiTennis speaks exclusively with Mike James, who has been hired by a member of Swiatek’s team to provide statistical information to help improve her game on the Tour.

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Iga Swiatek at the 2021 Madrid Open (image via Media Hub Mutua Madrid Open)

In modern tennis, technology is becoming increasingly significant whether it comes to check ball markings on the court or to record match statistics. Players view the use of such information as key to improving their game or getting the upper hand on their rivals.

 

It is therefore perhaps unsurprising that Iga Switek has become the latest top name to venture into the world of data. The Polish tennis star, who is the daughter of a former Olympic rower, rose to prominence during her junior years when she won the 2018 Wimbledon Girls’ title at the age of 17, although it was her spectacularly unexpected run to the French Open trophy last year that really elevated her status in the eyes of the tennis world. Now sitting at a career ranking high of ninth in the world, she is coached by Piotr Sierzputowski, the man who decided to recruit a data analyst for their team towards the end of last year.

“It’s important to be on the better side of the coin flip,” 28-year-old Sierzputowski tells UbiTennis.
“I think analytics help you achieve that. That’s one important step to take to improve.”

The person in charge of analysing and reporting the data for Swiatek’s team is British-based Mike James. He is the founder of Sportiii Analytics, a company which specialises in providing detailed information on player strategies and patterns. They have worked with various players, tennis federations and academies, one of which was issuing statistical data to the team of Stan Wawrinka. More recently, Sportiii Analytics has scored a deal to work with the Kazakhstan Tennis Federation.

James’ work in the field clearly impresses Sierzputowski who initially asked for a season review to be conducted for Swiatek. This then led on to a more permanent collaboration.

“He asked me to do a pre-season review and look into her game. We started the project in November, and it went very well. Then after this period, he (Piotr) and the rest of the team liked what I was doing so we decided to work together for 2021,” James explained.

https://twitter.com/mikejamestennis/status/1385641261760196612

Working on what is described as the ‘game development’, James communicates regularly with Iga’s coach, who then filters the information he receives to the player – his findings are also shared with other team members, such as sports psychologist Daria Abramowicz, who spoke with UbiTennis earlier in the year.

“As a strategy analysis the best way for me is to communicate with the coach, the conditioning coach, and the sports psychologist. They then deliver the information to Iga, because they are on the road with her 24/7. It’s working very well so far this season.”

The use of data analytics in tennis is still relatively new in the large scale of things. One of the most well-known names in this industry is Craig O’Shannessy who has previously collaborated with world No.1 Novak Djokovic in a similar way to what James is currently doing with Swiatek. German player Alexander Zverev once said: “All the big guys are using data analysis, they just don’t like to talk about it.”

Clearly there is a growing demand for data analytics, but what do they actually do and how does it work?

“When Iga is playing events, I am collecting the matches, the data, putting together video highlights, patterns of play, winning patterns, areas of development, areas of focus, and at the end of each tournament I present them (to her team).” James explains about his work.
“It’s a very fluid way of working and also the right way of working with my role, which is still fairly new in tennis.
“I’m delivering information and facts that maybe the conditioning coach, head coach or Iga feel is happening. I’m presenting facts with video and numbers, packaging that together so it is very simple to understand but it also builds confidence and narrows down the areas of what needs to be worked on.”

The French Open beckons

https://twitter.com/iga_swiatek/status/1397619040835809282

The next test for team Swiatek will be the French Open, where she will be bidding to become the first woman to defend the title since Justine Henin more than a decade ago. Heading into the Grand Slam, she won her first Premier title at the Italian Open by demolishing Karolina Pliskova in the final. Prior to that, she also reached the third round of the Madrid Open before losing to world No.1 Ash Barty.

Reflecting on her development over the past month, James reveals that there are areas of her game which she is producing at an even higher level compared to last year, although he isn’t allowed to identify the specific areas due to confidentiality reasons.

“Her numbers going into the French Open this year are very good. There are some things she is doing as well as last year and some things which she is doing better, which is exciting,” he said.
“There has been a massive improvement in her game this year. What’s exciting is that she turns 20 during the French Open, she’s recently won a 1000 and a 500 event, and she will not reach her peak for another three or four years yet. So it is a really exciting time to be involved with a Next Generation style player who can do many things.”

Whilst Swiatek is on the right path, she faces a tough challenge. Women’s tennis is renowned for its depth. Since 2016, the only player to have won two Grand Slams in a row is Naomi Osaka, who is yet to reign supreme on the clay.

Regardless of what happens at Roland Garros, James’ focus is on the long term heading into what he believes could be another golden era of the WTA Tour, with various stars emerging.

“My objective is to build on Iga’s numbers and on her winning patterns. Make her stronger and develop any weaknesses we see,” he commented on his long-term plans.
“Iga’s game is a game that represents the Next Generation. It’s really exciting in female tennis at the moment, because you have many players that are looking like there could be almost a golden generation in female tennis. Iga is up there with Andreescu, Osaka, Sabalenka and it is a really exciting time.”

So far this year Swiatek has won 19 out of 24 matches played on the Tour, generating prize money earnings of just over $635,000. Besides the Italian Open, she also won a title in Adelaide, making her one of only four players to have already won multiple WTA trophies in 2021.

Swiatek will kick-off her French Open title defence against Slovenia’s Kaja Juvan in the first round. 

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