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EXCLUSIVE: Start Spreading The News – The New York Open Wants To Be a ‘500’

NEW YORK – An interview with the New York Open Tournament Director, Josh Ripple, reveals origin and ambitions of the Big Apple’s newest tournament

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The launch of a new tournament is always a very complex affair. Doing it in the ultra-competitive New York City market, and for more having a “peripheric” (yet refurbished) arena as a location, is even harder. Some fans may have turned up their nose seeing the empty stands at the New York Open during the first days of the competition, more similar to what is being witnessed at some Asian tournament than what the North American crowds are accustomed to, but the first edition of the tournament that has inherited the ATP of Memphis’ rich history has ended without any visible glitch, both semifinals and the finals all went to distance, and the final weekend attracted decent crowds to the Nassau Veterans Memorial Coliseum in Uniondale, approximately 50 kilometers from Manhattan.

 

With the exception of the controversial incident between Ryan Harrison and Donald Young during their first round match and the unfortunate comment made by Adrian Mannarino about the remote location of the venue at the end of his tournament (“thank goodness my girlfriend was here this week, or I would have killed myself”), players and fans alike generally appreciated the atmosphere of the tournament and it was particularly praised the proximity to the arena of the official hotel, the Marriott Long Island, located adjacent to the main parking lot, 200 meters from the main entrance and served by an underground corridor allowing players to make the ‘journey’ almost entirely indoor.

A few hours before the final we were given the opportunity to have a long chat with Josh Ripple, the New York Open Tournament Director, who explained us the reasons for having an indoor ATP tournament in New York and what plans are in store for the future of this event.

How did you get the idea to move the tournament from Memphis to New York City?
My company, GF Sports, acquired the rights for the ATP tournament in Memphis in June 2015, after having previously purchased the rights to the ATP event in Atlanta. Our aim was to bring some of our assets to the New York Area, since we are a Manhattan-based company, but we immediately realized it would be a very hard task due to the scarcity of buildings available to host an event like a tennis tournament. When we took over in Memphis, the event was struggling financially, and we needed to find a way out of that downward spiral. In late 2016 we started looking for an alternative location and it so happened that our leadership learned that NYCB Live, the company running the Nassau Coliseum, was looking for new tenants. There we had it: a large, legacy building, with an important history, completely renovated, without an NBA or NHL tenant, and in close proximity of New York City. In a few months, we reached an agreement and we announced the tournament in April 2017.

How long does the agreement last?
We signed for 10 years, so we are going to be here for the long-haul.

How did you get the idea of this peculiar set-up, with two perpendicular courts?
Partly it is due to ATP requirements, and partly to our brilliant creative team. The Nassau Coliseum has retractable seats and this allowed to fit two courts in the main arena. The perpendicular layout was the best way to do it: I have been around a long time and I remember when indoor tournaments in the USA had two parallel courts, divided by a net. There were noise issues, ball issues, umpiring issues, and generally speaking players didn’t like it.

The tournament is called “New York Open”, but we are not in New York City, Manhattan is quite far away. How do you think you will be able to attract fans from the city and include them in your catchment area?
Of course, the ideal solution for us would be to host the tournament in Manhattan, at the Madison Square Garden, or in Brooklyn at the Barclays Center. But that is not going to happen, because of the NBA and NHL team playing there. We are here because this facility was available to us and initially we are going to cater for the Long Island market.
The greater result for us is that the tournament has been accepted by the tennis community: crowds have been lighter at the beginning, but during the weekend we started to get some traction. It will probably take us a couple of years to get to the situation where we have shuttles from one of the LIRR train stations to the venue in order to facilitate access for New Yorkers. The question will be how you get the people who are working in Manhattan to come here in time for the evening matches. Then it will be up to us to deal with session times and transportation issues. But the first couple of years we are looking at penetrating the Long Island market, that could easily sustain this event.

Don’t you think that the relatively remote location of the tournament may represent a negative aspect for the players, who may associate the name “New York” to a range of activities such as restaurants and shows that are hard to access from here?
Maybe, but in my experience, players are quite simple creatures, and very focused on the task at hand. Give them convenient training courts, a hotel close by and great food and they will be happy. After all, players don’t have to be here for two weeks, this isn’t a Slam, they will get here just before the tournament starts and as soon as they lose they will head down to Delray Beach to wherever their next event is. I don’t see much need for insular activities.
Of course, if a player wants to catch a Broadway show, he can do that, but it’s going to be a bit of a hassle. Through the company running the building, Brooklyn Sports Entertainment, who own the Brooklyn Nets and also own a stake in the New York Islanders, we were able to organize the players’ party at a Nets game on Friday night. Everyone had a great time, the game went to a double overtime, so it was even more exciting, but it took us 1 hour and 20 minutes to get from here to the Barclays Center on Friday evening: that may have discouraged many players from taking trips to the City.
In essence, during this first year of operations, the distance from the City did not emerge as a problem.

With the event being held in February in North America on an indoor court, do you think it will be a problem for you to attract players given that you are rather isolated in the calendar?
Of course, if you are looking at playing other tournaments like this in the USA, you can’t do that, because all the other indoor events in this part of the season are in Europe. For this reason, I believe it will be difficult for us to attract European players: it’s too early for them to come to the USA in mid-February, it’s much easier for them to play Rotterdam and the other indoor event in Europe. This event is going to be amazingly successful if some of the young Americans manage to break into Top 15-20, otherwise we’ll keep having the blend of players we have had this year. As you know the top players demand appearance fees that, for the time being, make no sense for us, so we know that in the short term we are not going to be able to get them here.
When we started the company, GF Sports, our mission statement was to keep tournaments in the USA, provide stages for the young Americans to play on and become stars, and produce the best tournaments that we can produce. So we will always be a bit US-centric.

You mentioned that your company also manages the ATP in Atlanta: how do you see the future of that event?
The deal that we inherited from Atlanta was a fantastic deal: at the time of the move from Norcross, in 2011, a real estate development company was building an outdoor mall in Atlantic Station and they were looking for events to promote their project. However, deals like that don’t come around very often: the original contract was for seven years, so this will be the last edition in Atlantic Station and, as things stand now, we will be looking for a new home for the 2019 tournament. The event has done well during the past several years, the crowd likes it, so we would prefer to stay in Atlanta to maintain the brand awareness that has been created throughout the years, but if we have to move to a different location, we will embrace the challenge of launching in a new city exactly the way we have done here in New York, although frankly I’d prefer not having to do it.

Finally, if you could picture a perfect scenario for this tournament in five years, what would it look like?
Our dream would be to be upgraded to 500, but we know it’s difficult and it’s mainly outside of our control. We would like to have a situation where we are credible in the mind of players, so that we can attract a field that comes here because it is a big-time place to play. Also, I would like to get to the stage where we could change the configuration of the arena mid-week, removing the second court and switching from a 6,500-seat configuration for the main court to a 12,000-seat configuration. Finally, I would love to be able to build tented practice courts outside the venue, where fans could go and watch the practice sessions. At the moment this is not financially feasible, but we hope to get there soon.

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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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From Serena Williams’ Return To Strycova’s Rise: Coaches Shed Light on Their players At Wimbledon

On the eve of women’s semi-finals day at Wimbledon, the coaches working behind the scenes share their thoughts.

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WIMBLEDON: On Thursday the four women taking to Center Court to play their semi-final matches will not be the only nervous people in the stadium. Watching from the sidelines will be their coaches. Who are tasked with the responsibility of trying to guide their players to grand slam glory.

 

24 hours before the matches took place, the mentors of Elina Svitolina, Serena Williams and Barbora Strycova spoke with the media. The latest initiative by the WTA, who has increasingly conducted more media sessions with coaches. Something the ATP Tour is yet to do. The only person missing from the session was Daniel Dobre. Dobre, who is the coach of Simona Halep, declined the invitation. Worried that he may jinx the former world No.1 if he spoke. Shortly after Dobre spoke in public at the French Open, Halep lost.

Svitolina’s British asset

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Being British Andrew Bettles knows Wimbledon very well. He is a former junior player who once featured in the boy’s draw. Unfortunately for Somerset-born Bettles, he admits that he was ‘not good enough’ to embark upon professional tennis. However, he has always made an impact on the WTA Tour at the age of 26.

“It’s amazing. Growing up Wimbledon has always been so special. To be around it is amazing for me personally.” Said Bettles.
“I wasn’t a good enough player, but the coaching side always fascinated me. I’ve been lucky to work with some amazing coaches, and I’ve been lucky that Elina has given me this opportunity to be her coach.”

A former hitting partner to Ana Ivanovic, he was eventually promoted to the coach of Svitolina, who has become the first woman from her country to reach the last four of a grand slam. Svitolina will play Halep in her semi-final match and leads their head-to-head 4-3.

“It’s always been a good match-up.” Bettles previewed. “I think the key is to be aggressive and kind of maybe take a bit of control from the baseline. Then see if she can dictate the point.”
“The grass is playing pretty slow so it is about being more aggressive. The Grass is a leveler, but you can use it to your advantage as well. “ He added.

Whilst he may still be considered a newcomer to the world of coaching, Bettles has already proven that he knows what he is doing. Guiding his player to the WTA Finals title last year.

“I think because we are similar ages we get on very well. I can understand what she is going through and we are good friends. It’s not like I’m the boss. We talk things through and work things out together.” The Brit commented about their partnership.

Five facts about Bettles
-Graduated from Boise State University in 2014 with a degree in English Lit
-He was Boise State University’s No.1 singles player
-A former national champion in juniors
-Worked with Ivanovic between 2015-2016, before joining Svitolina’s team in 2017.
-During a very brief time on the Futures tour, he peaked at a high of 917th and won $5,968 in prize money.

Serena’s rock

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Patrick Mouratoglou is undoubtedly one of the most well-known coaches in the world of women’s tennis. He has been guiding Serena Williams on the tour after working with a wealth of players on both the men’s and women’s tour.

It has been a turbulent season for the Mouratoglou-Williams team. Injury issues with Williams’ ankle and knee has hampered her training sessions and tournament schedule. Wimbledon is only the sixth WTA tournament of 2019 for the 37-year-old.

“I think she is in a good place at the moment. I think she is happy.” The Frenchman said ahead of Williams’ match against Strycova.
“She has been pain-free for three weeks and feels so much lighter.’
“When you focus on your pain so much because you’re in pain, it is difficult to prepare well for tournaments. You have to adapt to that pain to play tournaments.”

Williams has undoubtedly been gathering in momentum as the Wimbledon tournament has progressed. She has dropped two sets in five matches played. Scoring wins over seeded players Juia Georges in the third round and Carla Saurez Navarro in the fourth. In the quarter-finals, she edged her way past Alison Riske. One of the most in-form players on grass this season.

“In the last match (against Riske) you could see that she was able to raise her game when necessary, which was one of her trademarks. Everything is positive.” Said Mouratoglou.
“She started really slow in the tournament in terms of the level of play. I think the second round match was a key moment. I said afterward (to Serena) that it was the first time she was really struggling with her game and she dug deep and the next two sets were so much better. She felt her game better.”

Quietly confident of more success on Thursday at The All England Club, Williams’ mentor says her game is suited for the grass.

“Serve and return are two of her biggest assets. On the grass when you have those two things you have a big advantage and that is probably why she has had so much success on that surface.”

The American has won more matches (106) and more titles (8) than any other active player on the surface. This year is her 16th main draw appearance at Wimbledon.

Five facts about Mouratoglou
-Started coaching at the age of 26
-Previously coached Marcos Baghdatis (2005-06), Anastasia Pavlyuchenkova (2006-08), Yanina Wickmayer (2010), Aravane Rezai (2009-2010), Laura Robson (2010-11), Jeremy Chardy (2011) and Grigor Dimitrov (2011-12)
– 84% of Williams’ time as world No.1 has been under his guidance
-Founder of the prestigious Mouratoglou Tennis Academy
-Also works as a TV commentator

The late bloomer

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At the age of 33 Strycova is relishing in her best ever run at a grand slam tournament. Whilst not being the most powerful player on the tour, she counteracts speed with the use of slice, as well as the serve and volley. Reminiscent of how the game used to be played in the past. Strycova’s play proved too much for her opponent in the previous round.

“When you are playing against a player like (Johanna) Konta, who is more powerful than you, you have to find a way to eliminate that and play something different.” Explained coach Lukas Dlouhy.
“Hopefully we can find some tactic for Serena as well.”

Dlouhy is one of two coaches working with the Czech. The other is David Kotyza, who used to collaborate with Petra Kvitova. Strycova is also an accomplished doubles player and is currently ranked third in the world.

“We started 18 months ago together with Barbora. Some tournaments David goes to and some tournament I am going to.” Dlouhy commented about the setup.
“We just have to make a right schedule and that’s it.’
“We are working together so there are no disagreements.”

Refusing to give any details about the game plan for the upcoming match, which is likely to be similar to the one she used against Konta, Strycova’s mentor believes Williams can be beaten. Even though she hasn’t won a set in their three previous meetings on the tour.

“When you have a 0-3 record against Serena it’s tough. But she’s trying and she wants to win. She isn’t just going there to participate.” He said.
“It different because she was younger and had a different type of game. Now she is at the top of her game.’
“Serena has won everything, but she has days when you can beat her. So hopefully we can find out a way about how to do it.”

Known for her sometimes fiery attitude on the court, Dlouhy admits that it isn’t always easy to work with the former top 20 player. However, the positives outweigh the negatives.

“She has a lot of emotions. So some days it is tough to be in her box. Otherwise, she’s a good girl. She’s working and doing everything right. It’s enjoyable to be with her.” He concluded.

Five facts about Dlouhy 
-A former world No.5 in doubles
-Played hockey as a teenager, but chose to focus fully on tennis at the age of 15
-Won 10 ATP doubles titles, including the French Open and the US Open in 2009.
-Growing up his tennis idol was Yevgeny Kafelnikov
-Earned more than $3 million in prize money during his professional career.

The women’s semi-finals will get underway at 13:00 on Thursday. The first match will be Svitolina against Halep followed by Williams’ clash with Strycova.

 

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