“To be honest, I didn’t really understand much of his serve. I still don’t understand most of what happened out there”. This is how Thomas Fabbiano started his post-match press conference after his 6-7(15) 6-2 6-4 3-6 7-6(5) victory against Reilly Opelka in the second round of the 2019 Australian Open.
The match was a tennis rendition of David vs Goliath, as 1.73m (5-foot-6) Fabbiano was facing 2.11m (6-foot-9) Opelka, who served 67 aces during the 3h14’ match but still couldn’t come out on top of his shorter opponent. Fabbiano didn’t know how many aces he had to face during the match, he had to ask the journalists in the room: “Sixty-seven? And how many did I do? Only two?” Yes, Opelka scored more aces with his second serve (3) than Fabbiano with his first serve (2).
Opelka’s final tally was the fifth-highest number of aces anyone has ever scored in a tennis match: the legendary 2010 Wimbledon first round between Isner and Mahut (113 for Isner, 103 for Mahut) takes up the first two spots of this special ranking, with Ivo Karlovic occupying position n.3 and n.4 (78 aces in Davis Cup against Radek Stefanek in 2009 and 75 aces against Horacio Zeballos at the 2017 Australian Open).
“It was a very difficult match, different from any other. I am very happy I was able to stay in the game and swallow all the frustration for, at times, not being able to touch the ball for many points in a row. The flip side of the coin is that I didn’t run that much in this match: I probably covered more ground doing my ‘walkarounds’ to find concentration rather than during rallies”.
The problem with facing Opelka’s serve stems not only from the sheer speed of the shot but also from the angle of attack which makes the ball bounce very high. On the second game, one of the aces saw the ball whizz past Fabbiano not on the left or on the right, but ABOVE his head: he just couldn’t get to the ball above him with his two-handed backhand.
“I tried to mix it up while returning, tried to give him different looks and change my strategy from time to time. On some points I would just pick a side and move as he struck the ball, on other occasions I would put try to read the direction, but not much worked. I focused on taking care of my serve and getting into the rallies, his groundstrokes need to improve a lot for this level of tennis”.
During the fifth set tie-break, Fabbiano was able to obtain two crucial minibreaks on Opelka’s first three points of serve, both times on the American’s first serve. “I decided to give him an even different look, doing something I had never done before: I positioned right outside the doubles alley while he was serving from the ad court. I wanted to let him know that if he wanted to ace me he had to go down the T, but he served wide anyway, and I managed to get the point”.
Although he is very happy he got the win, Fabbiano hopes he will not have to repeat a similar experience too soon: “If tennis was like this every day, I would never play it, and I would never be interested in following it. But fortunately for us, there are only a few players who play like that: Isner, Karlovic, and possibly Raonic. With a bit of luck, I won’t have to face any of them for some time”.
Alex Corretja: “I’ll tell you who can win the gold medal if Djokovic doesn’t go to the Olympics”
The two-time French Open finalist, now working for Eurosport, makes his predictions for the 2020 Olympics
Former world N.2 Alex Corretja, the winner of the 1998 ATP Finals (then known as the ATP Tour World Championships) now works with Eurosport, and, while he won’t be in Tokyo, he will still cover the Olympic Games and provide match commentary in Spanish.
During a brief rendez-vous with Ubitennis CEO Ubaldo Scanagatta, Corretja made a prediction for the men’s singles event at the upcoming Olympic event, which at the moment is slated to feature billboard names such as Novak Djokovic, Daniil Medvedev, Stefanos Tsitsipas and Matteo Berrettini. Here’s their chat:
EXCLUSIVE: Wimbledon Says No To Replacing Line Umpires With Hawk-Eye, But Others Say Yes
Electronic line calling has become a regular feature in the world of tennis and is set to expand over the coming years. However, such a development will have big implications on the sports tradition, as well as on those working in it.
Wimbledon has always taken pride in its ability to combine tradition with modern technology. Players are required to wear all white, those invited to sit in the Royal Box must dress smartly, and hundreds of people congregate on the ‘Henman Hill’ to watch the play unfold every year. These traditions have made the tournament unique in the sporting world. However, given the growing presence of technology, one of said traditions is under threat.
The use of computer vision systems such as Hawk-Eye has revolutionised the sport in recent years, with more tournaments than ever turning to the technology. Using automated player tracking cameras and intelligent production software, officials can establish whether a ball is in or out with the use of a computer. Its margin of error is claimed to be in the region of 2.2mm but one study argues that the difference could be up to 10mm.
“Hawk-Eye’s goal is to implement our software wherever it is desired or required to ensure that sports are made fairer, safer and better informed by whatever means we can. In tennis, we develop our technologies to meet the needs of the likes of the ATP and WTA for them to use to serve their objectives, if that means we’re at every event, it means that we’re one-step closer to our goal,” a Hawk-Eye spokesperson told UbiTennis.
Ironically the COVID-19 pandemic has been an advantage for those working on such technology. With organisers eager to limit the number of people on court due to the virus, many have gone down this avenue. One of the most notable is the US Open, which used the software on the majority of their courts last year and will use it to replace line umpires in 2021. Meanwhile, this year’s Australian Open was the first major to be played without lines judges.
However, such technology doesn’t come cheap. The exact price is unclear with Hawk-Eye telling UbiTennis they are ‘unable to provide such information at this time.’ One academic paper by Dr Yu-Po Wong from Stanford University estimates the cost of a ‘professional system’ to be in the region of $60-$70,000.
“We are always evolving and developing our technologies to be as accessible as possible, and work with event organisers to support them in making it affordable for their events,” Hawk-Eye states.
“Our Electronic Line Calling System in tennis is a combination of robust software and hardware, and requires highly trained operators. As an example, we often generate revenue for events by opening up opportunities for sponsorship and fan engagement. Hawk-Eye is focused on making our technologies as efficient and streamlined as possible, while we continually work on pushing the boundaries of sports technology.”
The disappearance of lines judges
One of the biggest concerns some have about this technology is the risk it poses to those working at tournaments. Should more tournaments rely on Hawk-Eye or similar, it is inevitable that the traditional use of lines officials will disappear. The New York Times previously reported that the 2020 US Open slashed their number of judges from roughly 350 to less than 100 following a decision to use Hawk-Eye Live on 15 out of its 17 courts.
“Over the past 18 months, we’re proud to have contributed towards the safe and successful delivery of events which otherwise may not have gone ahead during the pandemic. As a technology provider it is never the intention that our creations “replace” or make anyone redundant- as a technology provider that isn’t within our power,” they outline.
Richard Ings was a top chair umpire from 1986 to 1993 before going on to become the director of officiating for the ATP Tour for four years (2001-2005). Like many others in the industry, his pathway into becoming a Tour umpire was via the experience of calling lines from the side of the court.
“I started out calling lines. First at smaller events and then in the finals of major events. I then started chair umpiring. First at smaller events then larger events and gaining my international qualification gold badge equivalent at 19. I was then hired by the MIPTC ad a professional salaried unite at 20,” he tells UbiTennis about his career. “Lines (calling) has been a critical and necessary step in an official’s career path. That’s gone now. Working up the tables to major pro events as a line umpire is now gone. All those major event line jobs have been taken away.”
Ings believes that, as the technology gets cheaper over time, these roles will even start to go at lower-level tournaments at some stage, something he describes as ‘sad’ and an ‘end of an era.’ However, he believes there are positives too.
“The game will still need chair umpires. They won’t need the core skills of calling lines. So line calling experience is not required in this new world. It’s sad, sure, and good people will lose their link with the game as officials. But the quality of line calling will go up. Accuracy and consistency will go up. And that’s what officiating is all about,” he points out.
So is it only a matter of time before every tournament will be switching to electronic line calling?
Wimbledon first tested Hawk-Eye back in 2004 before implementing it on their two premier courts three years later. Now it is currently used on Centre Court, as well as Courts 1, 2, 3, 12 and 18. Ten cameras are built around each of those courts: they capture 60 high-resolution images per second. At least five of those cameras cover every ball bounce. It is said that the Hawk-Eye Live team is made up of less than 30 people.
Whilst there is high praise, The All England Club tells UbiTennis they don’t intend to solely rely on the system just yet.
“Line umpires remain an important element of our officiating set-up at The Championships, and there are no plans to switch to electronic line-calling,” they said in a statement.
Wimbledon’s view is one which is also echoed by the WTA when it comes to the running of their tournaments, although they are monitoring the impact of electronic line calling on what they describe as the ‘tennis community.’
“The WTA supports the use of automated line calling in order to limit the number of personnel at tournaments that are operating during COVID-19, creating a safer landscape for players, staff and officials themselves to work in. The WTA will continue to support live electronic line calling where appropriate for the remainder of the 2021 season while monitoring its impact closely on the tennis community. Line officials are and continue to be an important and highly valued part of the WTA Tour,” the WTA outlined.
Hawk-Eye Live will be used throughout the upcoming US Open series. In May, the USTA, ATP and WTA confirmed the use of electronic line calling at the US Open, ATP Atlanta Open , ATP Citi Open, National Bank Open (ATP Toronto and WTA Montreal), ATP Western & Southern Open, WTA Cincinnati, ATP Winston-Salem Open and WTA Tennis in the Land.
As for the Lines Judges who will be affected, there appears to be no program in motion aimed at redeploying them to another area of the sport. Hawk-Eye says they have no comment on this matter because it is “not an element within our control.”
EXCLUSIVE: Brian Vahaly on coming to terms with his sexuality, dealing with hate and making tennis inclusive
When former world No.64 Brian Vahaly spoke openly about being gay in a podcast in 2017 he received over 1000 hate messages which included threats to take his children away. Yet he is resilient and hopes his journey to acceptance is one others will be inspired by.
America’s Brian Vahaly might have never won an ATP Tour title during his career but many consider him as a trailblazer in the world of tennis.
As a youngster the American showed immense promise on the junior Tour when he captured the Easter Bowl 18s title and broke into the world’s top 20. Following his success, Vahaly didn’t transition immediately to the Pro circuit and instead played college tennis in order to get his degree first. An approach which wasn’t as common back in the late 1990s as it is now. Representing the University of Virginia he earned All-American honours and reached the final of the prestigious NCAA championships whilst unseeded.
As a professional Vahaly peaked at a ranking high of 64th in the world and won five Challenger titles. During his career he played the likes of Michael Chang, Andre Agassi, Juan Carlos Ferrero, Lleyton Hewitt, Carlos Moya and Gustavo Kurten.
Towards the end of his career, injury started to hinder his performance on the Tour. The former college sports star retired in 2006 at the age of 27 but it was 11 years after that when he first spoke openly about being gay in a podcast. A courageous move Vahaly hopes will inspire others despite some of the negativity he received. He tells UbiTennis that following the podcast he shockingly received more than 1000 hate messages. In the Open Era there has never been an openly gay player participating in a Grand Slam tournament.
Now serving on the board of directors and thriving in the world of business, Vahaly speaks to UbiTennis about his journey to acceptance, making men’s tennis more welcoming to LGBT players, coping with his mental health as a player and many more topics.
Life as a player
UBITENNIS: You are a former world No.64 player who won five Challenger titles and played in seven Grand Slam main draws. What is the best memory of your career?
VAHALY: I think about it in a couple different ways. First, I was able to compete against Michael Chang, who was sort of my childhood role model. Being able to beat him was a personal achievement.
Secondly, reaching the quarter-finals of Indian Wells back in 2003 where I beat Juan Carlo Ferrero [who would have become world N.1 for eight weeks later that year], Fernando Gonzalez and Tommy Robredo. That was a big moment for me in my career.
UBITENNIS: Before you started life on the ATP Tour, you were also a regular on the college circuit.
VAHALY: I played at the University of Virginia and I was there for four years. I got my college degree and back then not a lot of college graduates were going on to the ATP Tour. There were only just a few. So I was proud at the time to be the only college graduate in the top 100. That has since changed considerably with John Isner and Steve Johnson among others. So it’s exciting to see more people going via the college route. For me personally getting my education (first) was very important to me.
Coming to terms with his sexuality
UBITENNIS: Towards the end of your career you suffered from injury and previously said you needed to be away from the sport in order to deal with issues concerning your personal life. Why did you feel the need to leave the sport completely in order to address your personal issues?
VAHALY: It was a rotator cuff issue and I had a bunch of surgeries. At that time most careers were done by the time players reached their late 20s. Obviously a lot has changed with some of my peers still playing when I thought it was time to exit.
I started to come to terms with my sexuality, and I was trying to understand who I am. I just didn’t feel safe or included in the sports field. More specifically tennis, it was a very conservative environment. So for me, when I stopped playing I very much disappeared from my friends, my tennis world and even my family a little bit. That way I could figure out more about myself and what I wanted. It’s a self-exploration process for sure and at the time I didn’t feel like tennis was a safe enough space for me to do that.
UBITENNIS: You said tennis was a very conservative environment for you. What do you mean by this?
VAHALY: There were a lot of homophobic jokes made on Tour. It’s a very masculine and competitive environment. You don’t see a lot of gay representation, except for the women’s Tour. With me not having the personality of an outspoken advocate (for LGBT issues), certainly not in my twenties, I needed some time to understand myself. To me, in tennis I didn’t feel like there was anybody to talk to or anybody that was going through anything similar.
UBITENNIS: Do you ever wonder how different your career might have been if you publicly came out whilst still playing?
VAHALY: I don’t allow myself to think about it because I don’t want to think about ‘what if’. I do wonder if I would have been able to play more freely and maybe the quality of my tennis would have improved. But I do know during that time in the 2000s I would have felt very uncomfortable travelling internationally. There were certain countries which used to be very unwelcoming towards gay people in general.
To me there was a risk component to coming out, as well as a financial fear. How would sponsorships respond? You sort of don’t know what you don’t know. When you worked 25 years as a tennis player it was just a risk I wasn’t willing to take.
“People were telling me they knew where I live and they were coming to take my children away”
UBITENNIS: Nowadays there is a lot of talk about mental health concerning players such as Naomi Osaka. 15 years ago these discussions weren’t as prominent, so how did managed to cope personally with life on the Tour?
VAHALY: When I was on the Tour I had a sports psychologist, a woman called Alexis Castorri. She has worked with a lot of Grand Slam champions. She was really influential for me in terms of getting the most out of my tennis career and after I finished competing. Helping my transition from the Tour and coming to terms with my sexuality.
Mental health is critical to me. I’ve had a psychologist now for 19 years. I continue to do it (use these services) and I will always have tremendous support for anybody who wants to prioritise that aspect of their life.
UBITENNIS: It was back in 2017 when you spoke publicly about your sexuality for the first time. Were you expecting the kind of reaction you received?
VAHALY: I knew it was important for me to speak my truth when given the opportunity. I just wanted to say it and move on a little bit. I didn’t foresee myself being an advocate. But I didn’t want to feel like I was hiding and there was a part of me, even though I was already married, felt like I was hiding from the sports world. That was a process for me.
After having kids, it changed the way I thought about everything and I felt I needed to step up in a way. I’m very much an introvert, so I was quite happy living a very private life but kids have a way of changing your priorities.
UBITENNIS: Ever since you have opened up about your sexuality, have you heard from any other athletes seeking help or advice?
VAHALY: There has been no word from tennis players, which is fine. I certainly did hear from people that I grew up playing college and junior tennis with. But not on the Pro Tour.
After the podcast came out I got quite a significant amount of negative e-mails. Probably a little over 1000 messages from people who were very disgusted by the fact two men were having children (together). A lot of really strong hate came in my direction. Where I was fortunate is that I came out later in life and I was well prepared for that kind of hate so it didn’t necessarily impact me the same way.
When people were telling me they knew where I live and they were coming to take my children away, it was a little scary. My experience was not entirely filled with warm and fuzzy acceptance.
I have to be understanding that there is a significant part of the United States and the world who do not believe it is acceptable the way my family lives. I have to be OK with that. Part of what sports prepare you for is adversity and dealing with people who are tough.
ATP far from perfect when it comes to LGBT inclusivity
UBITENNIS: On the ATP Tour there are no openly LGBT members which may or may not be a coincidence. Do you feel the men’s Tour needs to do more to make the sport more welcoming?
VAHALY: If you look at what the NFL and NBA is doing compared to what the ATP is doing – it’s not really the same. One of the reasons why I serve on the board of directors on the USTA is to change the US Open. How can we have a Pride day? How can we have events and visibly show we support it? The USTA and US Open have taken some great strides over the last two years.
I do believe the ATP, certainly as the governing body of men’s professional tennis, if they were more open and accepting in their messaging, it would help. At this stage they have chosen not to do that.
I will say that the Australian Open has done an exceptional job and I hope that continues to expand. I’m not looking to go into these environments and preach, I’m just trying to promote visibility and acceptance so LGBT people feel that they can join the sport.
UBITENNIS: When it comes to LGBT sports the big story in recent days has been NFL player Carl Nassib coming out. How important is it?
VAHALY: They (NFL and tennis) are different sports but I think it helps. NFL in the United States is one of the most macho sports out there. Seeing how the fans and teams react is really important.
I thought Carl handled it very well. He posted about it (coming out) and moved on. It doesn’t need to be a big topic of conversation. I believe this as well, which is why I went with the podcast.
That just continues to change hearts and minds around the country. When people can see them (gay athletes) out there competing, just as tough and just as successful in the athletics sphere. It (change of views) happens slowly but I think certainly all athletes are paying attention to acceptance levels and the reactions of your teammates.
Advice to others and what the future holds
UBITENNIS: Given all that you have been through. What advice would you give to somebody else who may be going through what you once experience?
VAHALY: Find somebody to talk to, somebody you trust. Know that people like us are there if you have questions. It’s just nice to have somebody to talk to who can help you learn about yourself. What I try to do is in terms of putting my family forward is that we live a pretty ‘normal life.’ I have two kids, I have a house and I walked my kids to preschool this morning. It doesn’t have to be such a defining characteristic of who you are. In the sports world, it feels that it is magnified, but what I want to show is that you can have a great athletic career, meet somebody and have a family no matter your sexuality.
UBITENNIS: So now you’re have been retired from the Tour for a few years, would you consider returning in the form of a coach or mentor if an opportunity arises?
VAHALY: I honestly don’t think I would be a great coach. I am pretty good at strategy but as it relates to technique and mechanics. It’s just not my skill set. I have moved into the business world and I like it. I have had some great success with life outside of tennis.
Also, I don’t know if travel would appeal to me any more. It worked as a single guy in his twenties but in a family with kids I want to spend time at home raising my boys.
If I can be helpful to athletes by giving my input on mental toughness, strategy and things I feel that I excelled at which got me to a high level (as a tennis player). I am always happy to share my point of view.
UBITENNIS: So what have you learned as a tennis player which has helped you in the world of business?
VAHALY: I love tennis and what it taught me in terms of dealing with defeat, victory, changing strategies, different variables and crisis management. What it has done for me is that I am very competitive in the working world but I also have very good intuition and decision making skills. I have found that transitioning into the work environment from sport, that some people are a lot smarter than I am but they are using the wrong pieces of information to make a decision. I credit all my business success to the traits I learned on the tennis court.
Vahaly now lives in Washington with his husband Bill Jones and they are parents of two twin boys. He currently is the Chief Executive Officer of Youfit Health Clubs.
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