Donna Vekic Thrilled With Unexpected Title At The Aegon Open Nottingham - UBITENNIS
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Donna Vekic Thrilled With Unexpected Title At The Aegon Open Nottingham

Joshua Coase

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Donna Vekic clutches the Elena Baltacha Trophy.

Donna Vekic entered the Press Room with a beaming smile on her face holding the Elena Baltacha Trophy following her comeback victory over Johanna Konta in Nottingham.

 

This victory at the Aegon Open was the 20 year old’s second WTA title of her career and she was made to work hard for it, eventually coming through 2-6, 7-6(3), 7-5 in two hours and 29 minutes.

Describing that winning feeling and her performance, the Croat said: “It’s something I’ve been dreaming of since winning my last title and it kept me going because this feeling is amazing, there is no way to describe it. It keeps me motivated to work even harder.”

Vekic came through another long match in Saturday’s semifinal against fifth seed Lucie Safarova 7-6(5), 3-6, 7-6(4) but was feeling fresh ahead of the final. “I woke this morning quite surprised with how I was feeling”, she said. “I was a little bit mentally tired from the match yesterday, but physically I was feeling really good! I’m going to take it easy tomorrow and get ready for Tuesday”, the Croat added.

Taking on the top seed was not an easy task but the Croat put her victory down to being able to elevate her game to different levels when required that her opponent could not match. She said: “I really didn’t expect to win today, I was just hoping to get into match after the first set because I couldn’t find my rhythm. As my serve improved my return game did as well so I’m happy that I turned that second set around and I just kept getting better and better up until the end.”

Looking back on a long week Vekic has made the most of her time here in the East Midlands, particularly when it comes to food! “I really enjoyed my week here, eating Nandos five times this week! It’s been really great and I look forward to coming back next year.”

The world number 70 will now head to Birmingham to play in the WTA Premier event next week as her Wimbledon preparations continue. The 20-year-old said: “I’m really looking forward to the tournament as I made the final there a few years ago and I’m excited for Wimbledon!”

Exclusive

EXCLUSIVE: ITF Outlines Stance on Holding Events In Eastern Europe Following Russian Attack On Ukraine

The governing body sheds light on their approach to the crises and future tournaments taking place in the region, including a top junior event set to be played next week.

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ITF President David Haggerty at the 2019 ITF Annual General Meeting in Lisbon (photo ITF)

The International Tennis Federation has confirmed to Ubitennis that at least one upcoming tournament has been suspended following the invasion of Ukraine by Russian forces.

 

On Tuesday President Vladimir Putin authorized ‘a special military operation’ against Ukraine to eliminate what he claims is a serious threat and has vowed to demilitarize the nation. The move has prompted widespread outrage from numerous countries and sanctions against Russian officials have been significantly increased. Verified sources have confirmed that the ongoing attack has hit various cities in Ukraine and at least 40 people have been killed.

In the world of sport, there has also been a reaction with Uefa stripping St. Petersburg of hosting the Champions League Final. Meanwhile, Formula One racer Sebastian Vettel has said he will boycott the upcoming Russian Grand Prix and his rival Max Verstappen has called for the event to be cancelled altogether.

So how is tennis reacting to the ongoing development?

Communicating via email, a spokesperson from the ITF confirmed to UbiTennis that following a conversation with the Ukrainian Tennis Federation, they have agreed to suspend one $15k event which was due to take place in April. Furthermore, the decision of staging any upcoming events this year in either Ukraine or Russia will be based on a risk assessment and ‘advice from security experts.

“The ITF believes there is no place in sport for politics but as these current events show, it’s a deeply concerning reality,’ a spokesperson said.
“Our first and highest priority is the health and safety of players and all those travelling, competing, and working these events. In light of this, the ITF and the Ukraine Tennis Federation today decided to postpone a World Tennis Tour $15K tournament that was due to take place in Ukraine this April.”

According to the ITF official calendar, Russia is scheduled to hold multiple events across the junior, professional and senior Tour’s within the next six months. Including the Yeltsin Cup, which is a J1 junior event that is set to begin on Monday. J1 is the second-highest category on the ITF junior Tour after the Grand Slams. Ubitennis understands that discussions about if the event will go ahead are ongoing.

“We’ll continue to keep a very close eye on how this situation evolves. Any further course of action will be decided based on a thorough risk assessment and the advice we receive from security experts and the relevant authorities.” The ITF states.

As of this week, there are currently 11 Russian players ranked in the top 100 with seven of those being on the women’s Tour. Furthermore, Daniil Medvedev will become world No.1 next week following Novak Djokovic’s loss at the Dubai Tennis Championships. Meanwhile, Ukraine has three women’s players in the top 100, including Elina Monfils.

The WTA and ATP are yet to reply to Ubitennis’ query regarding their approach to the crises.

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EXCLUSIVE: Toshi Matsui On Getting ‘Killed’ By Coria, Hitting With Federer And Playing At 43

They say age is just a number and 43-year-old Matsui is proof of this as he speaks to UbiTennis at length about his career. He is currently the oldest active player to hold an ATP ranking.

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Coach Iwai, Roger Federer and Toshi Matsui after training at Japan Open (2006)

Toshi Matsui might not be a household name for many tennis fans but that doesn’t mean his achievements in tennis are not significant.

 

It was back in 1993 when the Japanese player played his first ITF-level match in Hatsuishi. At the time eight out of the current top 10 players on the men’s Tour wasn’t born, Satellites was a category on the ITF circuit before getting later replaced by Futures and Pete Sampras was world No.1. During his career Matsui has played in over 200 Challenger tournaments and even now he continues playing competitively at the age of 43.

Throughout his career, Matsui has dedicated himself to the sport and has had the chance to hit with some of its biggest names. At the 2005 Beijing Open he played against Guillermo Coria, who reached the final of the French Open the year prior.  He ended up losing 6-1, 6-0, but will never forget that encounter.

He looked like a little kid and I was nervous, saying to myself: “ok, let’s see how good he is,” Matsui told UbiTennis. “He was unstoppable and I almost couldn’t win a point. He hardly missed, fought for every single point and to be honest, he “killed” me.”

A year later at the Japan Open he crossed paths with another big name in the sport – Roger Federer. The Swiss Maestro is three years younger than Matsui who is the oldest player to have a singles ranking on the ATP Tour.

“Anytime we met after this, he always had kind words for me. Wherever I travelled on the Tour, if I had the opportunity to see him training I always checked it out,” Matsui said of Federer. “He is still playing at the highest level and how Roger is able to manage his mental motivation and psychical strength after so many years behind him…it is more than amazing. One of my wishes is to hit with him again. It’s gonna be fun, especially now when we both are over 40…”

The veteran player is already embedded in the record books for Japanese tennis after becoming the oldest player to win a national title at the age of 43 years and six months in 2021.

Matsui’s dedication to the Tour has seen him represent his country over four different decades. It is one achievement to maintain a career for so long but it is another thing to do so whilst playing mainly in the lower-level events where prize money is substantially lower. He has been able to do so by playing in domestic events, negotiating sponsorship deals himself and he even has his own online shop to help generate income.  

In 2020 and 2021 Matsui returned to the main stage of men’s tennis after being selected to play in the ATP Cup where he became the oldest man in history to do so. It was the first time in a decade that he has represented his country in a team event.

So what is driving Matsui to continue playing into his 40s? In an exclusive question and answer interview with UbiTennis, he speaks extensively about what has been an extraordinary career.

UBITENNIS: You played your first Challenger tournament back in 1999 and your first ATP Tour event in 2005. What do you remember of those events?

MATSUI: According to my recollection, at that time there were not many challengers and Tour events in Asia, thus I was not feeling comfortable being around elite players.

In 2000, I played my first ATP Challenger Tour event in Yokohama and five years later in Beijing I had my first ATP Tournament, where in the first round I defeated Peng Sun, then I lost to Guillermo Coria who was the French Open finalist a year before. The Argentine player was No. 6 in the world at the time and No. 2 seed in this tournament. He looked like a little kid and I was nervous, saying to myself: “ok, let’s see how good he is”. He was unstoppable and I almost couldn’t win a point. He hardly missed, fought for every single point and to be honest, he “killed” me. (Coria reached the final and only Nadal could defeat him at that tournament). It was a shocking experience for me the way he played.

However, I have played a bunch of matches throughout my career, there was another memorable one: it was the Japanese national singles final in 2006 against Satoshi Iwabuchi, my long-time doubles partner and good friend of mine. I led 5-3, 30-0 with new balls and I lost by 5-7 in the Ariake Coliseum…I was nervous and played under pressure in my first singles final.

UBITENNIS: You have spent more than 20 years as a player on the Tour. What are the biggest changes you have seen?

MATSUI: In my opinion, the biggest improvement nowadays is having more tournaments and several opportunities in Asia – except the last 2 years due to the Asian countries’ lockdowns affected by the pandemic (0 challengers and tour events were organized in 2020 and 2021).

As for further development, it’s the launch of Internet technology. It sounds funny to the new generation that there was a time when we had to fax our entry request, buy flight tickets at the travel agencies and spend a horrific time conducting international calls and so on.

Today, things are less stressful and time consuming. Also, the ATP is more supportive at Challenger level (supervisor, tour manager assists us) than 20 years ago. Regarding the interaction among the players, I can say it was more frequent before than now.

UBITENNIS: How would you describe life as a tennis player on the ITF and Challenger Tours? Do you think the amount of prize money distributed to players in these events is enough to support their careers?  

MATSUI: Playing on ITF/Challenger Tour has always been an issue and a problem is waiting to be resolved. Most tennis players have to find a solution and some option to finance themselves in order to be able to stay alive on the tour.

In my case, for example, I have competed in many domestic tournaments and club matches in Japan as I could. I had sponsor commitments and still have some which I have arranged for myself. I have also built up my fan club (called a an online salon in Japan) and my official webshop. Even my own yuru-chara (the Japanese term for mascot character) was designed  and created by one of my sponsors, Kasa San.

Matsui’s official yuru chara (mascot) designed by Kasa

To earn some extra money, sometimes, I run tennis clinics and play exhibition matches. Furthermore, the prize money in the Japan tennis league is more lucrative than ITF or Challenger Tours. Plus not to mention the fact that there are less expenses.

UBITENNIS: Many players are playing later in their careers, but you are still playing at the age of 43. What motivates you to continue playing and how do you manage your fitness?

MATSUI: To keep and maintain my motivation and fitness was/is never a problem for me. Sure, from time to time we have to face a roller coaster in our lives, but these kinds of situations should teach us how to handle and manage the ups and downs at times. I have my own ways to keep going both mentally and physically.  Obviously, it is crystal clear to me that I will not be able to play forever, nevertheless to assess myself every six months is essential to foresee if I really want to keep bringing this sacrifice to my stamina or not.

According to my schedule, I usually train 6 days a week. Indoors for 3 hours, including exercise in its gym (weightlifting). I also run outdoors in nature, mostly up hills and parks. I practise in the same tennis facility (Kashiwa Tennis Center), where the great Shingo Kunieda, the world No.1 wheelchair player and reigning Olympic champion, also trains. In addition to this, I regularly take massage and acupuncture therapy.

Regarding the latter, I would like to say that 2-3 years ago I met Hajime San who is more than a chiropractor. He helped me a lot to keep me in a good shape with his acupuncture therapy which I would definitely recommend to all other players but also to everyone.  

UBITENNIS: Japan has a reputation for athletes playing later in their careers. Kimiko Date played her last Grand Slam at the age of 45, footballer Kazuyoshi Miura is over the age of 50 and Hiroshi Hoketsu participated in the Olympic equestrian when aged over 70. Is there something about Japanese culture which enables athletes to play for longer or is it just a coincidence?

MATSUI: Maybe, or rather I would say so definitely something in our DNA. Japan has approx. 36 million people aged 65 or older (world’s oldest population) and we have the largest population of people aged 90 or older, 2.3 million including 70K who are 100 years old or above. We respect elderly people, they are always part of our cultural heritage.

The other reason may be found in the diversity of our food. My wife (Tomoyo Takagishi), is a former tennis player and is my greatest help. Since we got married, she has changed my diet to 3 meals per day. She takes care of our kids and my nutrition as well. Since Tomoyo is a certified supplement advisor, she combines the healthiest food for me. She has many excellent recipes and arranges the diversity of the best Japanese cuisines including some raw sweets (similar to organic, without any chemical ingredients).

UBITENNIS: I heard that you have previously hit with Roger Federer. How did that come about?

MATSUI: The last time I had a unique opportunity to hit with Federer happened in 2006 when he came to play at the Japan Open (which he won beating Henman in the final). If I am not mistaken it was the first time that Roger participated in this event. I remember that the speed of the court was so fast and the ball did not bounce so high normally. But interestingly, during our rallies every ball and shot hit by Roger bounced even so high that I was so surprised how he did it.

After our session we took a photo in which we both looked very young. Anytime we met after this, he always had kind words for me. Wherever I travelled on the Tour, if I had the opportunity to see him training I always checked it out. He is still playing at the highest level and how Roger is able to manage his mental motivation and psychical strength after so many years behind him…it is more than amazing. Surely, one of my wishes is to hit with him again. It’s gonna be fun, especially now as we are both over 40…

UBITENNIS: Federer is also over the age of 40 and is recovering from a knee injury, is there any advice you can give him about playing tennis at an older age based on your experiences?

MATSUI: As a matter of fact, there is only a three-year age difference between Roger (40) and me (43). I am sure he is in very good hands and his team, the professionals who assist him, pay attention to every little detail. I wish his rehabilitation is going well and hope to see him again on the court as soon as possible.

I know a really good Japanese acupuncture doctor, so if any issue may occur in his rehab, I am more than welcome to refer Roger to him if his knee or anything does not improve to an appropriate extent.

UBITENNIS: Unlike Federer, you’re ranked outside the top 100 and play on the ITF circuit. How do you manage to continue funding your career at the age of 43?  

MATSUI: I usually don’t play the ITF future tournament, instead I attend mainly challengers and qualifications where I try to sneak into the Tour events. This way, the circumstances are a bit better but I still need to find some source to secure adequate funding. I can’t be grateful enough for one of my long lasting sponsors, the Asia Partnership Fund that has supported me for so long that it seems we are inseparable from each other.

UBITENNIS: Unfortunately, you have been sidelined from action in recent months due to injury, but returned last at the Japanese Tennis Championships. I hear you have broken some records. What were they?

MATSUI: Basically I stayed home since the pandemic started. The only exception was when I was selected to represent my country at the ATP Cup (twice). For me the team competition means a lot, particularly when I can play for my country. I managed to return  to the national squad 10 years after my last Davis Cup appearance (2010).

Team Japan at ATP Cup in 2021 (Captain: Max Mirnyi, players: Kei Nishikori, Yoshihito Nishioka and Toshi Matsui) 

In 2006, under Bob Brett’s supervision, I played in the Davis Cup. We learned a lot from Bob and he had a big impact on the whole team.

In 2020 and one year later, I was a member of Team Japan at the first 2 editions of ATP Cup. At this prestigious event, I achieved another milestone in my career by becoming the oldest player in ATP Cup history. Last November, along with Kaito Uesugi we won the men’s doubles title at the All-Japan national championship. This was my 5th doubles title and the first after 12 years and again I became the oldest Japanese player in our history who won a national championship in any category. I have a feeling that these kinds of records may last for a while…

UBITENNIS: Congratulations on becoming a father once again during the pandemic. Does this alter your perspective about playing on the Tour?

MATSUI: Fortunately, the baby was born in the beginning of the pandemic, so I was able to stay home and spend quality time with my family: my wife, my daughter, Kona and my 9 years old son, Shunki. Then last year, I injured my calf and it took me some months to start my training all over again very carefully. Last autumn, I was so excited and it was kind of fun again to be back to the Tour life. Now I am working on finding a good balance and harmony between tennis and family.

Toshi with his wife Tomoyo, Shunki (son) and Kona (daughter)

UBITENNIS: What are your plans for the future and how much longer do you think you will continue playing?

MATSUI: As long as I am still getting such priceless learning experiences out there, I am ready to play the game. Currently, I focus on protecting my ranking of 217 which will expire in May. So let’s see how it is going to be this year.

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Grand Slam

EXCLUSIVE: An inside Look Into The Australian Open’s Inaugural Pride Day

Why is there a Pride Day taking place and what is its significance? UbiTennis speaks with Dr Ryan Storr who has been involved in the pre-work for the initiative.

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Monday at Melbourne Park will see the likes of Stefanos Tsitsipas and Aryna Sabalenka battle for a place in the quarter-finals but taking place during the same time will be a brand new initiative overseen by Tennis Australia.

AO Pride Day celebrates LGTBQ+ players and fans within the world of tennis. The Rod Laver Arena will be lit up in rainbow colors at night, activities will be taking place throughout the day and there will be a various forms of entertainment put on. Courtney Act, who is best known for finishing runner-up in season six of Rupaul’s Drag Race, will be one of the MC’s taking part. 

 

“For many years we’ve hosted special events for the LGBTI community, such as the international Glam Slam and our pre-AO Pride night, so bringing many of our initiatives together on AO Pride Day is the natural next step,” Tennis Australia CEO Craig Tiley said in a statement.  “I’m delighted we can all come together as a community to celebrate together on this special day, which I have no doubt will become a highly anticipated part of the AO every year.”

One of those who have been part of launching the initiative is Dr Ryan Storr. A social scientist with an extensive history of researching LGBTI issues in sport. He is a research fellow at Swinburne University of Technology and is the co-founder of Proud 2 Play which seeks to facilitate young people from the LGBTI community into sport and exercise. Storr also has roots in tennis after previously working as a coach at Northumbria University and Loughborough University.

UbiTennis speaks with Storr ahead of Pride Day to find out why such an initiative is important and what he has discovered about LGBTI-related tennis issues through his own academic work. We also look into the debate surrounding the decision to have one of the Australia’s Open primary stadiums named after Margaret Court who has previously made various anti-LGBTI comments.

UBITENNIS: Ryan, You have been involved in some of the pre-work for the first Australian Open Pride day. What has that entailed?

DR STORR: It’s been an ongoing process for quite a while. But it basically meant working with Tennis Australia and their Diversity and Inclusion team. Thinking about planning, what the events are, what the aim is and things like that.

I think one of the things I think I have been particularly helpful with is using the research. I did a big piece of research around the impact of inclusion on LGBTI communities, what can be done and so on.

There have been planning groups, emails, working groups – so a lot of planning has gone into this. It is not a one-off project, it has been building for years and I think this one is going to be the biggest one since it is now sponsored and presented by Ralph Lauren. There has been a lot of community engagement, stakeholder engagement and speaking with the community about what we want with this event.

UBITENNIS: Why is it important to have days like these at the Australian Open and what is the overall objective?

DR STORR: The importance of Pride Day, in addition to the Glam Slam which is happening next weekend, is using Tennis Australia’s reach and brand to raise awareness and to invite people in. So when people might think why do we have Pride Day’s? In the context of tennis it is to try and attract new fans. From research and my own research LGBTI fans from across the globe don’t always feel welcome. Sometimes there is a hostile environment during live sporting events so some people might not think to attend or they think about their safety.

It’s basically marketing to the LGBTI community saying we want you to come to our event and we are inclusive. Unfortunately, if they are not told, some may feel it is not a place for them. Especially trans and gender diverse people who can have challenges in terms of accessing bathrooms etc.

UBITENNIS: In the press release Tennis Australia says the day ‘promises to be both an uplifting and educational day for AO fans on-site.’ What about players, will they be able to participate in some way if they wish?

DR STORR: I think there is educational information that’s being given to players. I know Felix Auger-Aliassime was at the first Nations Day which celebrates indigenous and Torres Strait Islander people in Australia. So I think there are opportunities for people to get involved and find out more.

One of the things in particular which I have been involved in is stories and videos around what Pride means and showcasing people’s experiences.

https://twitter.com/AustralianOpen/status/1481877978472906752

UBITENNIS: You are an accomplished social scientist and co-founder of Proud2Play inc. Have you discovered any studies which highlight the impact of events such as these within a sports environment?

DR STORR: One thing that stood out to me when I did research is generally the people who take part in the Glam Slam, GLTA (Gay and Lesbian Tennis Alliance) tournaments and who they are marketing at is an older demographic. So for example the LGBTI clubs are probably for people aged 30 and above, but mainly around 40-50. In the time when they were younger a lot places it (homosexuality) was illegal, we had the HIV/AIDS crises and discrimination was very common.

I think it’s gone 360 and we really need to show that sport has changed in particular. That it is inviting and welcoming for people because it has a long history of discrimination.

There has been quite a bit of research, especially on pride Games about attitudinal change. One of the things to note is that one-off events don’t do that much. They raise awareness, but they are not going to solve homophobia and transphobia in sport. One thing to know about Tennis Australia and the Glam Slam is that there are also other events going on leading up to this (Australian Open Pride). But I think this event in particular highlights Pride and some of the challenges.

My research found that playing tennis in inclusive and safe environments significantly improved the lives of LGBTI people. That’s why these Pride Games and Pride Day’s show a significant increase in mental and social health, as well as overall wellbeing.

UBITENNIS: One thing I noticed when the Australian Open posted their Pride video on social media, it brought up the debate over the Margaret Court Arena and whether it should be renamed due to her history of anti-LGBTI remarks. I was just wondering what your opinion on the matter is being both Australian and a member of the LGBTI community?

DR STORR: The Margaret Court Arena is an interesting and complex topic still. I think Tennis Australia has suggested that they would potentially change the name but unfortunately Melbourne Park is owned and run by the Olympic Park Trust. So in order to do that (renamed a court) it needs to be the Olympic Park Trust.

Tennis Australia doesn’t have the naming rights. I think it potentially will change. The name of John Cain Arena has changed a number of times but I think having that name (showcased on an arena) doesn’t show that Tennis Australia is not inclusive.

Tennis Australia is doing so much work behind the scene and investing money. They have invested in research through the University I was working at. There are not many sports who are investing in this.

I think there is going to be a significant evidence-base (data) to show the positive impact of these events in terms of tickets sold, brand awareness etc.

There is an absolute commitment from Tennis Australia in terms of time, resources, energy and funding. This is all-year round and not just when the Australian Open is on.

UBITENNIS: So what does the future hold when it comes to promoting LGBTI issues in tennis considering there is no openly gay player on the men’s Tour?

DR STORR: I think in the coming years there will be a few more bits going on. I have a colleague, Lou, from Pride Sports UK who has been commissioned to initially do some research and insight around LGBTI inclusion.

Tennis is probably welcoming and inclusive in this respect. I wouldn’t say it is like a player couldn’t come out because it is an individual sport which makes a difference compared to team sports. But the proof will be in the pudding when somebody comes out. I think there is going to be a lot more work from the ATP and the other Grand Slams.

Tennis hasn’t really engaged in LGBTI inclusion. You got Martina Navratilova and Billie Jean King but it is important to engage with LGBTI communities moving on into the future.

You can find out more about Storrs academic work related to LGBTI issues in sport HERE or follow him on twitter.

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