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.”
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.
Travelling across tennis, relationships and life with John Lloyd
Ubaldo Scanagatta spoke to John Lloyd about a series of topics on his professional and personal life.
In an exclusive talk with Ubitennis founder Ubaldo Scanagatta, John Lloyd, former British No.1 and Davis Cup Captain provides insights on tennis, a changing world and his personal history
Edited by Kingsley Elliot Kaye
Wimbledon and the recent publication of “Dear John”, John Lloyd’s autobiography, set up the occasion for Ubitennis to meet up with John Lloyd and have a long talk which embraced four decades of tennis and personal anecdotes.
“Friend” is the word which most often recurs in John’s tales and unveils his unique empathy in his relating to people, to life. Always eager to embrace new experiences, yet loyal to his past.
Indeed, John Lloyds’ best run in a major was halted by a friend. In 1977, in fact, he reached the final at the Australian Open, which he lost in five sets to Vitas Gerulatis:
“The Slam in Australia wasn’t like it is now. It was still a big tournament, but some of the big players didn’t come over because it was over Christmas. I got to the final. I should have won that match. I lost in five sets to my friend Vitas, which was a big disappointment although if I was going to lose with someone, he’s the guy because, you know, he was a great guy. It was one of the saddest days when he passed away at 40 years old with that tragedy with the carbon dioxide poisoning.“
John is not a person who allows rear-view perspective to indulge in regrets, yet in terms of tennis he admits he regrets never managing to make a breakthrough at Wimbledon, where he says he always suffered from a self-inflicted pressure:
“For some reason at Wimbledon I never played my best tennis. I won two mixed doubles, which was great [in 1983 and in 1984 with Wendy Turnbull] but in singles I was always very disappointed with my performances. I had a couple of big wins. I beat my friend Roscoe Tanner when he was seeded number 3 and a lot of people thought he was going to win the title that year. I beat him on court number 1 but it was typical of my Wimbledon performances that I lost the next day to a German player called Karl Meiler who I should have beaten [after comfortably winning the first two sets he ended up losing in 9 7 in the fifth]. I let myself down after having one of the best wins of my career. And that was my Wimbledon story.“
“Dear John” was written with Phil Jones, BBC journalist, while the foreword is by a tennis great, and friend, Bjorn Borg:
“Bjorn is a good friend of mine. We’ve had many good times together when we played and also when we played on the senior tour. Bjorn is a lovely man and I called him up and asked him and he said no problem, I’d love to do it. We’ve had so many good stories. I’ve always thought he is one of the greatest champions of all time. I beat him once in Monte Carlo on clay [1975, 60 57 64, in the quarterfinals]. It was probably my best ever win although there are rumours he was out until four in the morning with some ladies…but that’s not my fault!“
When we mention how there was a moment when he became very popular also outside the world of tennis, owing to his romance with Chris Evert, John opens up about the difficulties in getting married so young and to a worldwide tennis star:
“We had some good times. We were married for 8 years but we were too young, both 24, on the tennis circuit, going to different places. If we had been married 10 years later we could have had a chance. We had some good times and some bad times, but we are still friends. I married into someone who was a huge legend. It was fortunate I was well known in Britain so I was used to having press around and that kind of stuff, but it was nothing like until I got married with Chris. It opened a lot of doors to me, to be honest. I met people I wouldn’t have met before. We went to wonderful places, met amazing people.“
As well as broadcasting for BBC, John Lloyd’s working life spans from selling real estate for Sotheby’s in Western Palm Beach, where he is currently living, to some coaching, and some tennis lessons in Mar-a-Lago club run by Donald Trump, former US president and a man who built a financial empire with real estate. Mr Trump’s knack for business is well proved by a story John recalls:
“I’ve known Mr Trump for 40 years. I saw him about three months ago at the golf club and had a chat with him. He said “John, how about you doing some celebrity lessons at Mar-a-Lago?” I said “Mr President, that could be good”. He said “This is what we will do: I’ll tell the director of the club and you’ll charge 500 $ an hour. So that’s good and I’ll take half.” “That’s a good deal” I said. So that was the president. He knows how to do business. There was no negotiation. It was like I’ll take 250, but 250 is not bad so I’ll do that.“
Donald Trump is only one of the celebrities John Lloyd met in his journeying around the world and that he writes about:
“I do a lot of name dropping. I’m very good at that. I’ve been around with a lot of celebrities. I’ve had some funny stories about celebrities that people would like to hear, I hope. I’ve been fortunate. I’ve met presidents, the queen, the royal family, I’ve met billionaires, amazing businessmen.
“I’m a boy from a place called Leigh-on-Sea in Essex, a small town. From a family below middle class. And I’ve seen every country in the world I’ve wanted to be. I’ve been very very fortunate.“
We can infer that John Lloyd’s autobiography is not just an album of tennis memories:
“I think that the word “great” in tennis is a very overused word. I think great players are players that have won slams in singles. I was a good player and a good player cannot write a book on just what he did on the court. But I’ve been very fortunate in my life. I’ve lived in four decades of professional tennis. I came in at the end of the Rod Laver era, and then came in with my era which was Borg, Connors and McEnroe. Then I went into the next era where I was Davis Cup captain with Henman, Rusedski, and Agassi, Sampras. Then the TV puts me into another one. So this book is really stories more than anything and I’m proud of it. But there’s also some serious stuff. I do a chapter about when six years ago I had prostate cancer and I’m very honest about that.
“I also talk about my family and my son, who I’m very proud of. He had an addictive problem and he’s been clean now for thirteen years. When I wrote the book he asked me if I was going to mention it and I said no. And he said I want you to, because maybe it will help someone. So that was a very emotional and difficult chapter to write, about that period in my life which was without doubt the worst period, but then it became the most wonderful period to see my son turn out to be this amazing person.
Venturing back to tennis, since John has just spoken about players who were and still are good friends of his, we ask him if there were players he actually didn’t get along with. We learn that the toughest times came as a Davis Cup Captain:
“I struggled a little bit with Andy Murray at times. I put in the book how much I admire him as a player, but I struggled a bit with his behaviour with coaches, the way he would say things to them. To be honest, it was one of my fears when I took the Davis Cup job that he was going to be on the court with me. I always thought to myself that if someone behaved like that and I was coaching them, I would just walk out, no matter how much they paid me. But as a Davis Cup captain, you can’t do that. I got really nervous about it. Then I came up with a good idea. At the time when I was captain he was being coached by Brad Gilbert. So I asked Brad to give me some instructions when Andy was playing, and he agreed to. And when Andy was coming up to me and I could see he was mad, I told Andy, for instance, “Andy you need to come in to the net on the forehand more.” And he was about to say something, and I said, pointing at Brad, “He told me to tell you! It was him!” So Brad got all the shouting and I just gave him [Andy] the towel.
“I struggled with Greg Rusedski a little bit too. He was fine on my team but, after he left, he was then trying to get my job and made a few remarks about me on TV, that I was picking the wrong players, the wrong chords, that kind of stuff that I wouldn’t do, sure.“
This is the prompt that leads up to a comparison between tennis of different eras and John has a few prickly ideas.
“Most players were good in my era. There were some guys that I struggled with a little bit, but, you know, we didn’t have entourages around us the way they do now. We had a group and we’d play matches, we’d be in the locker room and the guy who lost, it was like “Let’s go out tonight.” Now they’ve got managers and physiotherapists and parents, they are in all these groups… I always say to people I’m envious of how much money the players of today make, of course I would love that, but they don’t have as good a time as we had. I have friends that I still see. And I’m lucky I wasn’t in the era with cell phones and Ipads. I would probably have got locked up about twenty times for the things I did, but nobody could catch me.“
As John has sailed through so many tennis eras and is well docked in the current harbours, we ask him if he expected players to be able to win twenty and more slams, and three players to win 62 [63, after Wimbledon 2022]. We also cannot but be curious to hear his say on the GOAT debate:
“It’s a remarkable feat that these three players have done. I also wrote a chapter on this, called records. I like all those players but one of the things I like about Djokovic is that he is not scared to tell you that he wants to win the most titles, that’s his goal. Rafa and Roger come up with all this rubbish where they say “Oh no, that’s not my concern.” That’s just lies, of course it is. It’s in your DNA. Records are records, that’s what you live for if you are a player. And for them to say that is nonsense.
“Who is the greatest of all time? It’s a fun conversation. I thought for sure that Novak was going to win more and then Nadal does what he does. I still think Novak is going to win more in the end, but for me when I talk about the greatest and all this, I switch it a little bit to say that what Rafa has done at the French Open, the 14 there, is the greatest sports achievement in any sport in history. So for me, whether he finishes second or third in terms of slams is not important. It’s a miracle he played 16 French Opens and won 14. It’s impossible what he did. That to me is the greatest achievement anyone has ever done.“
(EXCLUSIVE) Anne Keothavong Reacts To British Success At Wimbledon
The captain of the British Billie Jean king Cup team tells Ubitennis she believes her players can keep the momentum going beyond the grass swing.
This year’s Wimbledon Championships have without a doubt been a success for British tennis.
It all began during the first week when 10 Brits secured a place in the second round of the tournament – six in the men’s draw and four in the women’s. Making it the most successful start to the Grand Slam by British players since 1984. Continuing the momentum Liam Broady and Katie Boulter secured a place in the third round. Meanwhile, Heather Watson made it to the last 16 for the first time on her 12th attempt.
The stand-out Brit this year though has been Cameron Norrie who is only the fourth man from his country to reach the last four of Wimbledon in the Open Era. The breakthrough by the 26-year-old has been one in the making following a series of successes he has achieved on the ATP Tour. Norrie, who has featured in nine ATP finals since May 2021, will take on top seed Novak Djokovic in the semi-finals on Friday.
Watching the success from the sidelines is Anne Keothavong who is the current captain of the British Billie Jean King Cup team. As a player, she cracked the world’s top 50 in 2009 and was the first female player from her country to do so for 16 years. She played in 24 Grand Slam main draws during a 13-year period.
As it is with every Wimbledon, the task for the LTA is to continue the momentum generated by their players beyond the grass season. Something Keothavong thinks will be certainly possible.
“That’s the challenge. All the British players – men and women – have had an unbelievable grass-court season, not just Wimbledon,” she tells Ubitennis.
“Naturally there is a kind of a break to regroup after everything that has gone on but they will be back in training in no time and getting ready for the hardcourt season.”
Due to the ban on Russian and Belarussian players playing at British events this year, no ranking points have been issued. Undoubtedly an annoyance for the likes of Watson and Norrie but they have made peace with the situation already.
Keothavong is one of those nurturing the best female players in her country and providing any possible help if asked to. The British women have been thriving in recent months, especially Emma Raduanu who became the first qualifier in history to win a major title at the US Open. In total there are six Brits in the WTA top 200 and a further two younger players just outside. 21-year-old Francesca Jones is 219th and 20-year-old Sonay Kartal is 226th.
“On the women’s side, all of those players have so much confidence,” said Keothavong. “Their ranking is going in the right direction, they are able to enter tournaments which they might not have been able to do at the start of the grass-court season. It’s a good place to be but they need to remain focused and keep doing what they can do.”
The tennis community is described by some as a family. An analogy Keothavong can certainly relate to as she describes herself as a ‘big sister’ to the other girls. Throughout Wimbledon, the home players have spoken out in support of each other with Norrie mentioning their participation in the Battle Of The Brits exhibition helped them form a closer bond.
“If you ask them (the players) they probably say I am like a big sister to them,” she said. “In my role as Billie jean king cup captain, I guess it is important that I do maintain a good relationship with all of the players. I follow their progress and if they need extra support they know I’m there.”
“It’s really important to have that relationship with them as captain and we need to be open with each other. I don’t invade their privacy but they know if they need anything I’m there.”
Under Keothavong’s guidance, the British Billie Jean King Cup team has won six out of their last eight ties since 2019. Their only losses were to the formidable Czech Republic (2-3) earlier this year and Slovakia (1-3) in February 2021.
The team will return to action later this year in the Finals which will be held in Glasgow. Britain has been drawn in the same group as Spain and Kazakhstan.
(VIDEO EXCLUSIVE) Brad Gilbert Makes A Bold prediction on Sinner, Backs Kyrgios To Trouble Nadal
Ubitennis has an exclusive interview with the legendary coach of Andre Agassi, Andy Roddick and Andy Murray.
When it comes to looking at the current status of men’s tennis Brad Gilbert is perhaps one of the best people to speak to.
The American reached a high of world No.4 as a player, as well as winning 20 ATP Tour titles. After retiring from the sport in the mid-1990s he has become one of the most well-known coaches in the sport after working with an array of top names. Besides that, he is also an author and commentator on the sport.
Ubitennis caught up with Gilbert at The All England Club where he spoke highly of Italy’s Jannik Sinner who led Novak Djokovic by two sets before losing in the quarter-finals. He also looks ahead to Nick Kyrgios’ semi-final clash with an injured Rafael Nadal.
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