EXCLUSIVE: Tsvetana Pironkova: "I do feel like I belong in the top 50" - UBITENNIS
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EXCLUSIVE: Tsvetana Pironkova: “I do feel like I belong in the top 50”

Joshua Coase

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Tsvetana Pironkova

Tsvetana Pironkova is happiest when she is on a tennis court, particularly on grass. Her attitude to the game is typified by her response when I asked her about coming from a sporty background and how that affected her growing up. “I never thought that I would do something else, it was always tennis to me.”

 

Her mother is a former swimming champion, her father and coach, a former canoe champion. Sport runs through her blood she tells me, “it was always on the cards!”

Coached by her father Kiril, maintaining a father-daughter relationship and a professional working relationship can be tough, but Tsvetana would not have it any other way. “I think its good for me because it’s always been that way”, she said. “There are pluses and minuses you know, it’s not always easy, but he knows me the best!”

The Bulgarian number one is currently competing at the Aegon Open in Nottingham for the first time and has reached the quarterfinal stages following straight sets victories over Tereza Martincova and Kurumi Nara.

Reflecting on the win over Nara, she said: “I’m really happy with the way I played today. In the beginning, the first three games, I was a bit shaky, but then I quickly found my game and I think I played pretty well.”

The Bulgarian received a medical timeout during the match but she explained that it was just a broken toenail and that the strapping on her right shoulder was just for prevention. “I do have some problems with my shoulder, especially this time of the year, so I felt a bit sore and decided to wear it (the strapping) as a precaution.”

Tsvetana is in Nottingham for the first time, but even after just a few days she has grown fond of the place. “I really love the city and I had the chance to look around a little bit and the tournament is on grass and that’s my favourite surface”, she said. “Too bad that we only have four tournaments in the year, if we could have more I would be very happy!”

It is no surprise that the grass is where she plays her best tennis, it is where the best moments of her career have happened, particularly at SW19. In 2010 Tsvetana reached her first and only Grand Slam semifinal at Wimbledon, where she fell to Vera Zvonareva. The Bulgarian also reached the quarterfinals at The All England Club the following year and always looks back on those moments to use as motivation at this time of the year.

“It’s always nice to have that memory in my head when going back and to know that I am capable of doing it and why not go even further!” She explains: “Every tournament is different and I just go there with no expectations. I really enjoy being there, it’s a very special place for every tennis player and it’s a privilege I think.”

Tsvetana Pironkova

Tsvetana was ranked at just 81 in the world when she burst onto the scene making the semifinals at Wimbledon in 2010. (Photo: Zimbio.com)

Currently ranked at 126 in the world, Tsvetana is disappointed with where she is at, but has made the cut off for the main draw at Wimbledon and is aiming high. “Obviously, I don’t love my ranking at the moment and I do feel like I belong in the top 50”, she said. “But I had maybe five, six, seven months of not the best tennis I was capable of and I’m really looking to improve that.”

Results have not been too kind to her on the WTA Tour this season, only reaching one quarterfinal in Doha prior to her run here in Nottingham. You could say that the grass court season has come at the perfect time for the Bulgarian to pick up her form, but she does not see it that way. “No I don’t think so. Looking at the results you could not say that it’s a good season so far, so every match is important. It doesn’t matter if you win, but obviously everybody wants to. When losing the only thing you can do is move on”, she said.

You never know, sometimes you can lose five matches in a row and these five matches give you the hunger for more and to get back to winning. I think that’s what happened to me and I hope I can continue this”, she added.

Next up at the Aegon Open for the Bulgarian, a last-eight tie with either fifth seed Lucie Safarova or Su-Wei Hsieh. With both of these players going well of late, Tsvetana is understandably cautious about her chances in the match. “It’s tough”, she tells me. “Both are playing pretty well, I see that Hsieh Su-Wei is in good form and Lucie is coming from a doubles title at Roland Garros, so definitely a tough draw.”

Judging by the way she is striking the ball at the Nottingham Tennis Centre so far this week, particularly on the backhand side, Tsvetana has the potential to go all the way here and cause some real damage at Wimbledon if she is to get a favourable draw. It will certainly be very interesting to see what lies in store for the 29-year-old in the weeks ahead.

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EXCLUSIVE: Daniil Medvedev On His Saudi Arabian Debut, No.1 Dreams And Russia’s Olympic Ban

The US Open finalist sat down with Ubitennis earlier this week.

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Within the past 12 months Daniil Medvedev has gone from a promising future prospect to one of the top players in the world of men’s tennis.

 

Up until June this year the 23-year-old was yet to crack the top 10, win a Masters title or reach the second week of a grand slam event. Then shortly after the conclusion of the Wimbledon championships, Medvedev enjoyed an emphatic period of success to achieve all three of those milestones. Within a three-month period he reached six consecutive finals at tournaments ranging from ATP 250 level to a grand slam. Enabling him to peak at a high of fourth in the world back in September.

Unfortunately for Medvedev, his surge came at price towards the end of his season. Losing in the first round of the Paris Masters and then all three of his matches in his ATP Finals debut. Something he blames on mental tiredness.

Not to be disheartened by the loss, the Russian is back on the court this week. He is one of eight players participating in the brand new Diriyah Tennis Cup. An exhibition tournament in Saudi Arabia, which has on offer $1 million for the champion.

“I do think in the middle of a pre-season a tournament like this is good. You can’t just practice for four weeks without knowing how your game is at the moment. Last year I also participated in one in France (Open de Caen).” Medvedev told Ubitennis.com about his decision to play.
“This is how we (my team) decided to do the preparation this year and are going to see how it works out.”

Kicking off his campaign on Thursday against Germany’s Jan-Lennard Struff, Medvedev enjoyed an emphatic start. Disposing of his rival 6-3, 6-1, in less than an hour. Whilst the prize money is undoubtedly an appeal for all of those taking part, the Russian sees this week as a golden opportunity to evaluate his game.

“It is going to be important to see how my game is right now in the middle of the pre-season. To see what I need to improve more, what I need to work more on with my team.” He explained.
“Obviously after my last season, I have a lot of big expectations for 2020, but first of all I need to stay lucid and take it all match-by-match.”

Future dreams

Medvedev and Gael Monfils – Diriyah Tennis Cup (via Twitter, @DiriyahCup)

Given his recent breakthrough, Medvedev is being mentioned as a potential candidate to one day claim the world No.1 position. Since 2004 only four players have managed to hold the honour – Roger Federer, Rafael Nadal, Novak Djokovic and Andy Murray. To add to the pressure, former player Marat Safin has backed his compatriot to achieve the milestone in the future. Safin will be the captain of the Russian team in the ATP Cup, which Medvedev is participating in.

“I believe he can be number one in the world.” Safin told Russian media earlier this week. “His all-around game… we just need to work on certain small things.”

Despite the backing, Medvedev is staying grounded about the prospect. Insisting that he isn’t ‘obsessed’ with the world No.1 ranking. At present, he is more than 4000 points adrift from Nadal in the ATP standings.

“I have been thinking about it (the No.1 spot) since I was six-years-old, but the thing is that I’m not obsessed with it,” said Medvedev. “For example, if I was 40 and during my career, I achieved a best ranking of number two in the world, It would not change my life completely.’
“Of course working hard and playing so many tournaments you want to achieve the best ranking possible.” He added.

With his eyes on the grand slams next year, 2020 also gives Medvedev the chance to make his Olympic debut. However, it isn’t as simple as that. Earlier this week the Russian sporting federation was banned from major sporting events by the World Anti-Doping Agency (WADA) due to various violations. An investigation found that the Russian Anti-doping agency (RUSDA) deliberately tampered with athletes samples to hide positive tests.

The ITF notes that Russian tennis has never been linked to the controversy, however, players such as Medvedev will be under sanction. Unless the ban is overturned, they are only allowed to play at the event as neutral athletes.

“To be honest as a tennis player it is a little bit tough to talk about these things because I live in Monaco and we get tested in every country around the world. From 20 to 30 doping tests.” Medvedev states.
“I know what happened, but I don’t know how to react to it because I’m not in this (the Russian) federation.”

Asked if he will still play in the Olympics, which will be held in Tokyo, Medvedev cautiously replied ‘I think so.’ Although he is far from certain in doing so.

“Looking at this decision, it’s disappointing that me as a Russian player, who hasn’t nothing to do with this, will have to play without a flag. It is a little bit strange for me. I don’t know why this decision was made exactly so I don’t know if it was the right decision.” He concluded.

Medvedev ended 2019 with 59 wins on the ATP Tour. More than any other player this year.

Interview conducted by Alessandro Stella in Saudi Arabia

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EXCLUSIVE: The Big Business Of Data Analytics In Tennis

Ubitennis speaks with the founder of Tennis Data company Sportiii, whose company is currently working with Stan Wawrinka’s coach Magnus Norman.

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Mike james with doubles player Ante Pavic and Tomislav Brkic at a Challenger tournament.

As tennis players head into their off-season, it is normally the same routine. A couple of days of rest followed by numerous training blocks to get them ready for the following season. They are guided by their coaches, physios and for a growing number with the help of a computer by their side.

 

With technology continuing to rapidly develop, the use of data statistics is becoming big business in the world of tennis. A method where players analyse the numbers behind their performance. Ranging from their service percentages to the average length of rallies they are playing. The idea being that their training is then customised to take into account those figures.

However, how much of a big deal is it?

Mike James is the founder of Sportiii Analytics. A company that provides detailed information on player’s strategies and patterns. They have a partnership with the prestigious Good To Great Academy in the pipeline and supply information to Stan Wawrinka’s coaching team. British-based James has more than a decade of experience in coaching and has previously travelled on the tour with the likes of doubles specialists Ante Pavic and Tomislav Brkic. At present Sportiii are working with several ATP and WTA players, but are unable to name them due to a confidentiality agreement.

“We are fortunate enough to be able to use Dartfish. Dartfish created a tagging part of their software package around 10 years ago. It allows us to make customized tagging panels or coding as they say in football or rugby. Essentially, we can tag or code whatever the player, coach or federation wants to look for.” James explained during an interview with Ubitennis.
“We are taking 30 KPI’s (Key Performance Indicators) of information which allows us to take the data and move that into a strategy for the players and their teams to know what is working and what isn’t.”

Tennis is far from the only sport to be influenced by the rapid rise of technology. Although, is it really a necessity? During the 1980s with the likes of John McEnroe and Jimmy Connors, they both managed to achieve highly successful careers without detailed statistical information. Some would argue that they most important aspect is a person’s talent on the court and how they mentally cope with different situations. Not how many rallies they win in under five shots.

Although James points out that without services like his, there is a chance that player’s could be training the wrong areas of their games. Therefore hampering their own development in the sport.

“If we know the 70% of the returns are going back into the court in the men’s game, then we know the first ball after the serve is extremely important. Also, if we know that 70% of the match is between zero and four, the serve and return is vitally important.” He said.
“Players hitting 20, 30, or 40 balls in a row before they have a break. They are not training the game, they might be training the technical aspects of their game but they cannot train tactically playing this many balls without a break.”

A method for the many, not the few

There are still a few stigmas when it comes to companies such as Sportiii. Many would think this service would be something mainly of interest to coaches and nobody else. However, James reveals that this isn’t always the case.

“Of course, some coaches want to know the information, but we have players we deal with without their coaches because they are the ones interested. If it’s going to work best with statistics, numbers and strategy, you’re going to want both the player and coach fully buying in to this way of thinking. That’s going to get the best result for sure.”

Novak Djokovic has previously worked alongside Craig O’Shannessy, who is the founder of Brain Game Tennis and writes numerous statistical articles for atpworldtour.com. Meanwhile, Alexander Zverev once said ‘all the big guys are using data analysis, they just don’t like to talk about it.’ There is clearly a market, but is it only for those who can afford it?

Despite the rise of prize money earnings, the disparity on the tour remains substantial. Rafael Nadal was the highest earner of 2019 on the ATP Tour with $12.8 million in winnings. In contrast, the 300th highest earner, Federico Coria, made just over $81,000. Less than 1% of Nadal’s tally. According to one report from The Telegraph, leading agencies in the tennis data industry are selling their top packages in the region of £80,000 ($103,000) per year.

“We look to do individual tailor made packages depending on a player’s ranking, age, experience, support team, if they are funded by their federation or if they are funded by private sponsors.” James commented on how Sportiii handles the situation.
“But at the end of the day, of course the first part of a player’s budget is for their coach and then maybe the Physio. But I think having an analyst or strategy consultant is becoming higher in the pecking order for players going into 2020.” He added.

The future

James pictured with Magnus Norman (left) and Jonas Arnesen (middle)

Next year Sportiii will officially begin their work with Swedish tennis academy Good To Great, which is located to the north of Stockholm. Regarded as one of the top academies in the country, it was founded by Magnus Norman, Nicklas Kulti and Mikael Tillström. Their role will be providing information to those who use the facility.

“We’re really looking to steepen the learning curve and support their academy pro team. But also help develop their junior players they have coming through.” James explained about the collaboration.
“We support their team with educational workshops and I think this is the next phrase for data analytics. That will be going into junior tennis and not just looking at the top of the game.”

The desire to focus more on the younger generation of athletes emulates that of the ATP with their Next Gen Finals in Milan. An end-of-season event that features the eight best players under the age of 21. At the tournament, they use a series of new innovative methods. Including electronic line calling, the use of a handset to speak with coaches during changeovers and wearable technology.

There is no doubt that the new generation of players is more comfortable with the use of technology. But what does that mean for the future of coaching? Would it be possible that one day the profession could be replaced by a computer instead? This could appeal to those looking to save costs, however James isn’t convinced the complete removal of the human element will happen.

“If players are more certain and confident in knowing what they need to do, in my opinion the level goes up.” He states. “Then, if the level goes up, maybe we are not at the pinnacle of the sport seeing Rafa, Roger, Stan and Novak playing video game tennis. I think we are still going to get another level of tennis in 5-10 years, which is very exciting for the sport.”

It is inevitable that technology will have a greater presence in tennis over the coming years in some shape or form. The only question is where do you draw a line?

To find out more information about Sportiii you can visit www.sportiiianalytics.com or check out their social media pages.

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‘We Try To Fix Each Other’ – Aryna Sabalenka On Turbulent Relationship With Coach

The world No.11 speaks to Ubitennis about the reason why she departed and then reunited with her mentor.

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2019 has been a roller coaster season for Belarus’ Aryna Sabalenka both on and off the court.

 

The 21-year-old has claimed a trio of titles on the WTA Tour with all of those occurring in China. Overall, she has won 39 out of 61 matches played, as well as winning the doubles title at the US Open with Elise Mertens. On the other hand, she has also lost her opening match at seven tournaments this year and failed get back-to-back wins in three out of the four grand slams she played in.

Sabalenka is currently guided on the tour by Russia’s Dmitry Tursunov. A former top 20 player on the ATP Tour who retired from the sport in 2017. They have been working together for more than a year. It looked as if the partnership had come to an end back in August when both announced on social media that they are ending their collaboration. Sabalenka wrote ‘Thank you for everything and all the best in your future.’ However, the two soon changed their minds after.

“After the US Open, I realized that there was a problem, too many things off the court was diverting my attention from the game and this helped me to win something and find certain sensations.” Sabalenka told Ubitennis.com earlier this month in China.
“I realized how stupid it was to give Dmitry the blame for my failures, so I found a way to recover my relationship with him .”

The mixed season experienced by Sabalenka is one she hopes will help her in the long term. She ends 2019 inside the world’s top 20 for the second year in a row. Becoming one of only four players under the age of 21 to do so on the women’s tour.

“I hope that all this can help me start the next season in a more… intelligent, more experienced way.” She explains. “There is a bit of disappointment with what happened in these months, but at the same time I said to myself, ‘ok, you finally understood’. This means you can work on it and move on. Every player spends moments like that and usually always learns something, I hope it can happen to me too.”

Despite still being a relatively newcomer in the world of coaching, Sabalenka isn’t the first player Tursunov has coached. He had previously worked with compatriot Elena Vesnina and guided her to the 2018 Australian Open doubles finals. During that same year, Vesnina also reached the finals of tournaments in Indian Wells and Madrid under his guidance.

There remains a question as to what the future has in store for Tursunov’s latest partnership. Was their brief break a blessing in disguise or is there more trouble ahead for their working relationship?

“I hope to continue working with Dmitry.” Sabalenka stated.
“We tried to ‘fix’ each other a few things and this helped me stay positive. The intention is simply to move forward because our collaboration is very good and working great, I don’t want to lose him as a coach. If things are going so well, why should I look for someone else?’
“We tried to solve all the problems we had and I think we did it quite well.”

Sabalenka closes out her season with three wins over top 10 players. Defeating Kiki Bertens twice and Ash Barty once.

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