Heather Watson is disappointed but is remaining positive following her defeat to fourth seed Alison Riske at the Aegon Open in Nottingham on Tuesday.
The British number two is delighted to be back on the grass and is targeting a good run at the home tournaments as she aims to get back into the world’s top 100.
Reflecting on her straight sets defeat to last year’s finalist Riske 6-2, 6-3, Watson said: “It was a tough match today, I knew it would be. Alison was very solid and played very well in all aspects of her game.
“I didn’t feel too bad on the court, I felt a bit flat and gave away too many points especially when I got close and when I broke back. I didn’t feel I did too much wrong, yes I had my chances but she didn’t give me much room to breathe.
“I don’t feel like the scoreline reflects the match but I know she loves the grass and plays very well here and you can see why”, she added.
Looking ahead, Watson is targeting a return to the world’s top 100, she said: “I want to use these weeks to get in the main draw of the US Open. I want to be consistent and that’s why I’m beating myself up a bit about today because I’ve been brought back down to earth, but yeah I want to be consistent every week and not be too hard on myself.”
The British number two enjoyed a good first tournament on grass last week at Surbiton, where she reached the final before losing to Magdalena Rybarikova 6-4, 7-5. Watson, currently ranked at 113 was pleased with the fact that she was able to sleep in her own bed during the event and is looking forward to the rest of the grass court season.
“I just have to stay positive after this one. I had a good week last week and wanted to continue my form here, but it was very tough today”, she said.
Watson has applied for wild cards for the upcoming WTA events in Birmingham and Eastbourne, but is still waiting to find out the verdict as to whether she will be able to play. However, she will be defending her mixed doubles title with partner Henri Kontinen at SW19.
“We will be defending our crown. Well we’ve already got one but we want another one! I want a wildcard into Wimbledon but I don’t know whether I’ll get one, I haven’t even heard about next week yet.”
With the home crowd behind her it looks set to be an enjoyable upcoming few weeks for Watson as she continues to improve her game and build on her current ranking to get back to the level she was at a couple of seasons ago.
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.
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.
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.
EXCLUSIVE: Sasa Ozmo On How Serbia Has Reacted To Djokovic’s Visa Fiasco
UbiTennis looks into how the European nation has reacted to the decision by Australia to refuse Novak Djokovic a visa with the help of one of the country’s most well known tennis journalists.
Those who have ever looked into how to get accurate information about world No.1 Novak Djokovic would have come across Sasa Ozmo.
Based in Belgrade, Ozmo has professionally covered tennis for more than a decade and is a journalist for Sport Klub. He has spoken to Djokovic on multiple occasions, whether that is through press conferences or in one-to-one interviews. He has also written a book called “Sports Journalism”, which aims to help young students/journalists in the profession. During the ATP Finals last November he presented Djokovic with a copy of his book as a token of his gratitude for his role in helping him achieve his childhood dreams.
In recent days Ozmo’s name has gone around the world following the controversial decision to refuse Djokovic entry into Australia. He has either conducted interviews or written columns with Sky News, BBC Radio 5 live, Diario AS (Spain), ABC Radio Australia and The Daily Mail within the past week.
The 20-time Grand Slam champion is currently residing at the Park Hotel which is a quarantine facility in Melbourne. According to legal files submitted by Djokovic’s defence team, they say the tennis star was granted a medical exemption to play the Australian Open and had assurances that he could enter the country. The exemption is that he had Covid-19 within the past six months (he took a PCR test on December 16th) and therefore couldn’t receive a vaccination. However, Federal authorities are arguing that being unvaccinated isn’t a legitimate reason to enter the country and denies giving such assurances.
Djokovic’s Australian Open dreams now hang on the outcome of a court hearing which will take place on Monday. In the meantime, there is anger in his home country with protests taking place and political figures have thrown their support behind him. But what it is the situation really like in Serbia through the eyes of somebody who is experiencing it minute-by-minute?
Ozmo has been in Belgrade where he has witnessed the fiasco unfold. In an interview with UbiTennis he discusses how Serbians are reacting, if there is a fear of a surge in anti-Western views and the possibility that Djokovic might have attended some events after testing positive for COVID-19.
UBITENNIS: It has been four days since the news of Djokovic’s visa refusal broke. How has the reaction been to this in Serbia?
OZMO: Serbian society has reacted with a mixture of disappointment and anger. I think many of Novak’s fans, not only in Serbia, but millions around the world made their peace that Novak might not play the Australian Open this year. Then that exemption came and that got their hopes up. Only for things to go south very quickly.
I think people are mostly outraged by the way he was treated. Just imagine a different situation. If it was an Australian citizen in Serbia treated like this no matter the circumstances, what would the Australian media write and how would the western society react?
For eight hours he was promised rest (whilst in detention at the airport) but he was woken up after two hours. Almost being forced to sign that cancellation (of his visa). He was without his phone for three hours and then in the detention centre. People call it a hotel but it is a euphemism, it’s not a hotel.
It’s normal that people are outraged about it. Especially considering that he is the greatest tennis player their country has ever produced.
UBITENNIS: In the past, there has been various comments from the Serbian press that Novak is treated unfairly due to where he comes from. Now this has happened, is there a concern that there could be a rise in anti-western views in the country which far-right groups might capitalise on?
OZMO: I wouldn’t go that far as to make this so much political. This will eventually blow over and I personally can’t wait to go back and talk tennis. As far as the far right groups and political parties here go, I am glad that unlike many of the European countries there is no far far-right that has so many members in politics like in countries such as France. I don’t think this (Djokovic’s situation) will increase the level of anti-western sentiment (in Serbia) any more than it currently is.
UBITENNIS: In his legal files submitted to the Melbourne Court, Djokovic took a PCR test on December 16th. The following day and on the 18th he is reported to have participated in events or photo shoots. If it is proven that he did attend those events knowing he was positive, what would the reaction be?
OZMO: Novak is not obligated to share anything from his medical files and his brother said that he will never do that. I think it is in his best interest when it comes to his reputation is to clear this up. What was actually the timeline? When did he test positive?
They (Djokovic’s team) won’t speak up until the trial is adjourned but after that I can only assume that some explanation will be given.
UBITENNIS: It appears that Novak isn’t vaccinated and he has his views on this. Whilst some in the western world might be taken back by this stance, there may be a different perspective on this issue in Serbia. Do you think these cultural differences are playing a factor in the fallout?
OZMO: From what I can tell watching the news, this vaccine has had society polarised all over the world. There have been anti-vaccine protests almost all over the world. It is true that the vaccine rate isn’t as high as we hoped for Serbia. It’s about 50 percent but I don’t think it’s cultural differences. Sometimes when the Western world writes about Serbia they don’t understand the atmosphere in the society or the ambiance everything is happening in. For example, the Adria Tour. It looked scandalous from abroad but here simultaneously Serbia had a football match with 30,000/40,000 spectators. The measures were really lost back then. Sometimes people from the West can’t see what’s actually going on in Serbia.
UBITENNIS: Novak is regarded as one of the most mentally strongest players on the men’s Tour. How easy do you think it will be for him to recover from this?
OZMO: I don’t think this will have any negative long-term effect. Of course now he’s pi**ed and emotional. But in the long run, you know, he hasn’t always been a millionaire with a world No.1 in tennis. Once he was a kid and he didn’t have the easiest of childhoods in Serbia with the bombing, poverty and general atmosphere in society. He will be ok, as you said he’s one of the strongest athletes mentally ever.
Sasa Ozmo can be followed on Twitter at https://twitter.com/ozmo_sasa
EXCLUSIVE: Ian Pearson-Brown Survived His Demons, Now He’s a Driving Force In Making Tennis Inclusive
The tennis coach once struggled with his mental health whilst trying to hide his sexuality. Now he wants to prevent others from going through the same experience.
When he was younger Ian Pearson-Brown didn’t want to be gay, he didn’t want anybody to know he was gay and he even attempted suicide as a result of suppressing his sexuality.
Like many in England, he grew up surrounded by sport and was obsessed with it. In school Physical Education was his favourite subject, he had an affection for playing racket sports and football with his friends. Growing up during the 1980s and 1990s there were few openly LGBT athletes, especially in male sports. During this time tennis had Billie Jean King and Martina Navratilova, who were both open about their sexuality.
However, this was no consultation for a boy like Pearson whose only idol was that of Justin Fashanu. The first back footballer to command a £1M transfer fee came out in 1990 but was subjected to harsh media scrutiny. During that period, there were also many misconceptions about AIDS and the LGBT community with one club requesting that Fashanu take an HIV test as part of his medical.
“When I was 13 and realized I was gay everything changed. PE became a lesson filled with anxiety. Male sport in that era was not the most welcoming of environments for anyone who was LGBTQ+ as Justin Fashanu would testify so I felt I had to choose between being into sport or being gay,” Pearson tells UbiTennis.
So which path did he initially choose? Sport was the route he went down and he has managed to form a successful tennis career. He has worked as a coach for more than 20 years and has been recognized for his work. In 2021 the former Newcastle University graduate was named Durham and Cleveland Tennis Development Coach of the Year.
Getting to the position Pearson is now has been hard work, both physically and mentally. Embarking upon working in tennis he concealed his sexuality for a long time in fear of the possible repercussions he may face from both his colleagues and those who he was coaching if he came out. Keeping a huge part of his life secret and the fear of being outed by others took its toll on him.
“I chose to deny my sexuality and live a lie until I was nearly 30,” he explains. “In that time I became a full-time tennis coach working in the North East. My own internal barriers and prejudices combined with a lack of role models in men’s sport led me to believe I couldn’t exist as my authentic self in Tennis.’
“I went through years of depression and anxiety. I attempted to take my own life. I was constantly worried if I was outed that parents wouldn’t bring their kids back to my sessions and my tennis mates would stop speaking to me.”
Pride in Tennis
At the age of 30, Pearson decided enough was enough and started working in tennis as an out gay man. He was encouraged to do so by his partner who is now his husband. The reception he received exceeded expectations and also for him sparked a revelation.
“I began to realise that Tennis does not have to be an intimidating environment for LGBTQ+ people if the subject is talked about openly. So I have spent the last 10 years putting time aside to try and change the culture in our sport.”
Pearson is the founder of Pride in Tennis. A network supporting all British-based LGBTQI+ tennis players, coaches, officials and fans which have been endorsed by the LTA. The initiative came about following an open letter issued by CEO Scott Lloyd asking how tennis can be more diverse. Spotting an opportunity he and a group of volunteers from around the UK has paired up with LTA to create Pride in Tennis which aims to promote, support and educate those about tennis opportunities for the LGBT community.
“Our vision is to make tennis in Britain an environment which is safe and inclusive for all LGBT+ players, coaches, officials and fans to be able to exist as their authentic selves with confidence and without prejudice.”
In February there will be an official launch for the network at the Roehampton Tennis Centre. The training base for many British players during the offseason and throughout the year. Covid-permitting, the event is set to feature keynote speakers, breakout feedback sessions, on-court tennis coaching and even a tennis competition.
Getting to this stage hasn’t been easy. It was less than two years ago Pearson spoke about his frustration of trying to generate enough interest from tennis officials concerning the LGBT community. In June 2020 he told Pride Of The Terraces ‘Whenever I suggest things that other sports are doing to promote visibility and inclusion, I get told ‘we don’t need to do that’, or ‘you don’t want to do that because it’s divisive.’
So what has changed since then?
“In a short space of time the governing body’s perspective has gone from ‘not recognizing the problem’ to wanting to actively challenge the barriers, stigmas and stereotypes that prevent LGBTQ+ people from playing sport,” he explains. “In terms of the general tennis playing population in the clubs and parks around the UK the culture will take time to change but we have plans to put resources and tools in place to help. We have already delivered training accessible to all LTA licensed coaches.”
Working with Newcastle United
Tennis isn’t the only sport where Pearson is fighting to break down the barriers. He is the co-chair of United with Pride, a Newcastle United LGBT+ supporters group that has an official partnership with the Premier League Club. He is also an ambassador for Newcastle’s United As One which encapsulates the club’s work in the fields of diversity, inclusion and welfare.
“In football where there is a more immediate need to tackle homophobic attitudes and behaviours. I have had to learn a great deal of patience when trying to change cultures entrenched in historic misogyny, racism and intolerance,” he explains when comparing tennis to football.
“I have had to learn to have a thick skin when faced with regular online targeted abuse. I have learned that you can’t just preach to the already converted allies but also to those who you may not see eye to eye with and engage with them in the hope of changing their views.”
Pearson has previously spoken on the BBC’s LGBT Sport Podcast about his work and to various other media outlets. Even more so in recent months following the takeover of Newcastle United by a group led by Saudi Arabia’s sovereign wealth fund. In Saudi Arabia there are no laws regarding sexual orientation and LGBT people can be imprisoned.
Now the goal is to incorporate what he has learned from the world of football into the newly formed Pride in Tennis. Recently the ATP conducted a survey on the men’s Tour concerning attitudes towards the LGBT community. The governing body contacted Lou Englefield, who is the director of Pride Sports, a UK organisation that focuses on LGBTQ+phobia in sport and aims to improve access to sport for all LGBTQ+ people. Through their connection, they linked up with Eric Denison, a behavioural science researcher at Monash University’s School of Social Sciences.
“I was delighted to see that at both the Australian and US open’s there has been some dialogue and visibility work conducted by the ATP and WTA,” Pearson commented on the effort being made by tennis’ governing bodies.
“I would say they have come a long way since their official Twitter account unwittingly shared a TikTok containing homophobic slurs and stereotypes. Then taking a full 24hrs to release an apology.’
“However, it is a small step on a long journey to get to the point where the tour is safe for an LGBTQ+ male player, particularly with so many events being held in countries where it is illegal or socially unacceptable to be gay.”
Focus on the foundation of tennis
Pearson’s own personal difficulty in coming out as gay whilst working in sport is not an isolated incident, even though times are changing for the good. The Trevor Project is a nonprofit organisation focus on suicide prevention among LGBT youth in America. Their National Survey on LGBTQ Youth Mental Health in 2021 found that more than two thirds (68%) of respondents didn’t play sport for a school or community league or club. Among the 34,000 respondents a number said one of the reasons why they don’t want to play sports is linked to ‘discrimination or fear of LGBTQ-based discrimination.’
On the other hand, a study called Out In Sports extensively looked into the levels of acceptance athletes in the North American sports system receive when they came out to their peers. The comprehensive study was conducted by leading LGBT sports website Outsports, the University of Winchester and the Sports Equality Foundation. The study analysed responses of 370 athletes who were out to high school teammates, and 630 athletes out to college teammates from America and Canada. More than 95% said their teammates’ responses to them coming out were overall “neutral” to “perfect.” In tennis specifically, 89% said they received a positive response when they came out with the other 11% saying they received a ‘neutral’ response.
“My barriers were internal and went unchallenged by role models such as family members, teachers and coaches. Changes in relationships education and a zero-tolerance approach to homophobic, biphobic and transphobic behaviour in the PE environment will go a long way to help with this,” Pearson commented.
“In the absence of professional role models, (the women’s game may have some LGBTQ+ pioneers but they are still an underrepresented minority), we have to create allies at a grassroots level. Coaches wearing rainbow laces, and venues celebrating pride month.”
It is hoped that Pride in Tennis will be the frontrunner in driving this change in the UK. Their launch at the National Tennis Centre in Roehampton is set to take place on February 13th.
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