“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”.
(EXCLUSIVE) Q&A With Daria Abramowicz – The Psychologist Behind Iga Switek’s Historic French Open Run
From dealing with pressure on the Tour to what makes tennis unique compared to other sports. UbiTennis conducts an in-depth interview with Abramowicz who knows personally what it is like to be an athlete, coach and psychologist.
Daria Abramowicz may only be in her early thirties but she has already established herself as one of the best known sports psychologists in women’s tennis.
A former competitive sailor from Poland, Abramowicz boasts an impressive resume in the world of sports. During her career, she has worked as both a coach and athlete. Although it is the field of psychology which is best known for. A graduate of the SWPS University of Social Sciences and Humanities she studied psychology with a specialization in clinical psychology before switching focus to sports for her postgraduate studies. She has worked with national teams of both swimmers and cyclists, as well as tennis players.
It was at last year’s French Open when Abramowicz’s name within the tennis circuit started to explode. Working with Iga Swiatek, she helped guide her to the title in what was an historic occasion. Not only did Swiatek become the first Polish player in history to win a major title, she achieved the milestone in clinical form by not dropping a set in the entire tournament. Something that hadn’t been achieved since Justine Henin back in 2007.
“She just made me smarter. I know more about sports and I know more about psychology and I can understand my own feelings and I can say them out loud.” The world No.16 once commented on her work with Abramowicz.
With the French Open swiftly approaching and Swiatek facing the daunting prospect of trying to defend her title, UbiTennis spoke to her sports psychologist about her current training, as well as a closer look at tennis.
UBITENNIS: Daria you have worked in a variety of sports. From the view of a sports psychologist, what is it that makes tennis stand out compared to others?
ABRAMOWICZ: You know, every sport is different somehow. It has its own specifics and has its own details. It’s unique.
In tennis, from my point of view, it’s kind of a sport which is based on pauses, breaks. You have this short break between rallies, points, games, sets and matches. Then from a wider perspective, you have breaks between tournaments. This is really relevant in terms of how we approach tennis in terms of mental preparation. When do you use the mental training tools and how do you use it? How do you keep focus, manage stress and regulate emotions?
I think that the differences are the unique qualities of tennis that go far beyond what is happening on court. Tennis is extremely closely connected to business. It’s one of these sports that’s the business aspect is really important and it’s extremely relevant for people to understand how to connect these two areas. How to manage the time and put the effort into some scenarios. I do think that this connection to tennis is one thing that makes it unique.
The other is that the high-performance level is kind of unique. Travelling across the world for eight to nine months per year and you have to go to all these places every single year for sometimes 15 or even 20 years. It’s extremely challenging. How to be yourself in it and how to keep the social support system and how to enjoy all that for so many years.
These are the most relevant qualities.
UBITENNIS: There will be a lot of pressure on Iga Swiatek over the next couple of months leading up to her French Open title defence. What are you going to do differently with Iga compared to 12 months ago in terms of preparation?
ABRAMOWICZ: We are definitely talking about higher expectations. External but also internal expectations as Iga obviously has some.
There are some things that we are doing differently with this being one of them. There’s a lot of things that we do completely the same as we would have done if she didn’t win (the French Open). We are working on focusing on the performance and single tasks. We have discussed a lot about recovery and are implementing some tools.
It’s kind of a myth that everything has changed. There are a lot of things that are similar.
I think it is a combination of these two things. If an athlete is able to be solely focused on the performance, the quality and the single task. It just fades away that he or she is a defending champion and the expectations are lower I think.
UBITENNIS: How is Iga’s preparation going after having to pull out of Stuttgart?
ABRAMOWICZ: This is kind of the top-secret stuff for the team. We are practising on the clay, having some high-quality preparation before Madrid, Rome and the French Open. That’s how it is. The team has decided that it’s relevant and the key is to prepare well for the clay season.
UBITENNIS: After the Miami Open, Iga posted a written piece on social media opening up about her experiences. Some players on the Tour are quite introverted and don’t like sharing too much as they don’t want to show any weaknesses. Do you see any correlation between a player being more open about things and an improvement in their performance on court? Would you advise other players to do the same?
ABRAMOWICZ: There are more athletes who are open about their experiences on social media. This is a change that is happening in sport right now. For example, there is this website called The Players Tribune where you can read a lot of statements and blogs written by professional athletes. I think they have extreme value.
Sometimes this is kind of a way to show people what an athlete is thinking, how they are approaching the sport and what the particular experience does mean to them.
I tend to say that you are in your sport on your own terms and you can share a bit of light on how you approach things.
It might be a little bit helpful in terms of how you approach the sport. Writing might be like a breath of fresh air that helps you solve some things and work them out.
It also helps avoid hate speech. I think that it helps people understand that high-performance sport is not all rainbows. It’s challenging, sometimes lonely and sometimes you can feel helpless. It’s human.
UBITENNIS: You once said in an interview that sports psychology is still a bit stigmatized. What do you mean by this and what do you think tennis can do to overcome this?
ABRAMOWICZ: I did sort of say that sports psychology is stigmatised but I mean that Psychology (in general) is stigmatised. Seeking psychologists for help concerns the whole society and not only the sports environment.
I do not think that tennis itself is able to help overcome this. But every single athlete, every single human who is vocal about how important it is to implement mental preparation and taking care of their mental health has the same importance as their physical health. It’s valuable and helps raise awareness.
UBITENNIS: Some players ranked outside the top 100 may not be able to work with a psychologist due to financial constraints. What can be done to help these players?
ABRAMOWICZ: I used to say and I repeat this on every single occasion that I have that the coach is always the person who is the closest to an athlete. He or she knows the player the best and has a lot of tools to work with an athlete. Not only in terms of tennis drills or strength and conditioning, but also about the mental aspect of the game.
If there is no possibility to work with a psychologist, psychology has some tools to help (athletes) work online. It’s absolutely an everyday thing, especially right now during the pandemic. It turns out that we are able to use online for almost everything.
The coaches are great people so sharing their resources with athletes so I would advise them to invest in their relationship. Also, social support systems are extremely important.
UBITENNIS: Poland also has a top player on the men’s Tour with Hubert Hurkacz. I was wondering if you have spotted any differences in the mental approach to tennis by the men compared to women? If yes, why do you think these differences occur?
ABRAMOWICZ: We could write a book about the differences between women and men. They obviously occur in terms of emotions, managing stress and focus sometimes. But the most important differences are actually connected to the way they are practising. Dealing with recovery and keeping in touch with social support systems.
At the end of the day every one of us is an individual and gender isn’t the key to how a particular human behaves.
Men are less intent to share their emotional state and their mood. For example in society, why do we have more data about women’s depression? Because men sometimes share their emotions less. Which is also relevant to sports.
Gender is just social psychology and biology, and that’s why differences occur. This is how we should approach each relationship, in a unique way.
UBITENNIS: You have also worked a lot on the mental health side of the sport. It has been documented that physical activity improves a person’s mental health and tennis’ governing bodies are making progress on this subject in recent years. Based on your experience, what more do you feel can be done to support players who might be experiencing some sort of issue?
ABRAMOWICZ: Psychology and sports are actually developing really well and it’s starting to have this tendency that we are not just talking anymore about the mental training and mental preparation for an athlete to use their potential the most effectively during competition. But also we’re talking more about mental health, especially during this pandemic. I think that all governing bodies, including tennis, should focus more on mental health.
I think there is a space for education and raising awareness in terms of how to use mental training tools and how technology could support this area. The most important thing to me is to work against stigma and raise awareness in terms of taking care of mental health.
(EXCLUSIVE) Meet Carlos Martinez: The Man In Charge Of Daria Kasatkina’s Resurgence
As one of only two women to have won multiple WTA titles during the first quarter of 2021, Kasatkina looks to be on her way back towards the top. Coach Carlos Martinez speaks to UbiTennis about his work with the Russian star and why they are not working with any expectations.
It seems like Daria Kasatkina is a Tour veteran after making her WTA Debut back in 2013 but she is still at the tender age of 23.
A Former world No.3 junior player who once won the French Open girls’ title, Kasatkina was billed as a star of the future from a young age. By 18 she had broken into the world’s top 100 and scored a win over top 20 player Carla Suarez Navarro. Three years later she rose to a ranking high of ninth in 2017 and looked to be on the path of becoming a star of the sport. However, Kasatkina’s roller-coaster career hasn’t been without its blips. A series of disappointing results and confidence setbacks during 2019 lead to her dropping to as low as 75th last year.
After the period of frustration, the right-handed Russian is getting herself back on track under the careful watch of her coach Carlos Martinez. A former player on the men’s Tour who has also worked with the likes of Svetlana Kuznetsova, Marc Lopez, Kateryna Kozlova and Feliciano Lopez. Kasatkina has already won two titles this year in Melbourne and St Petersburg. The only other player to have won multiple trophies in the women’s game so far this season is world No.1 Ash Barty. Overall, she has recorded 15 wins in 2021 which is the fourth-highest on the Tour.
“For me the key was the hard work with her during the preseason and during the last few months of last season. She was doing well, especially after the clay courts (last Autumn). She got confident,” Martinez tells UbiTennis about Kasatkina’s resurgence.
“One thing we were talking about was our expectations. We don’t have any this year because for us the most important thing is to go day-by-day. When we talk about our work it’s day-by-day and this is what she did really well. That’s why we have started the season like this.’
“Of course, we didn’t expect this but the truth is she is playing well. Not amazing, but she is managing the matches very good and has more confidence.”
Sandwiched between the two titles won was a first-round defeat to Alize Cornet at the Dubai Tennis Championships. Her earliest loss in a tournament since the US Open. Ironically the setback turned out to be a blessing in disguise.
“Dubai was like an alarm. Not like an alarm at the end of a tournament when you win and relax a little bit. She didn’t relax much but we had a few problems with the visas and stuff. So she had to take some time and we couldn’t prepare very well,” Martinez reflected.
“It’s true we flew to Dubai a couple days before the tournament but conditions were different for her than Australia.’
“The ball was flying too much for her and she didn’t like it. But she did a good job afterwards when we flew to Moscow to prepare well indoors. After this, she got into a good shape.”
Within four months Kasatkina has almost cut her ranking in half (72 to 37). Although both her and Martinez admits there is still work to be done. Her biggest win during that period was over Petra Martic who was ranked 18th at the time during their clash in Melbourne. Her only meeting with a top 10 opponent was at the Australian Open where she lost 6-7(5), 3-6, to Aryna Sabalenka.
Martinez now has the task of trying to ensure his player continues her form over the coming weeks. A job that is easier said than done in women’s tennis given the depth of the game. Kasatkina has already experienced what it is like to stumble on the Tour. Something her team is eager to avoid.
“We know how difficult it is to be at the top and to keep this rhythm. To win two titles in five tournaments is super difficult,” he said.
“With the mental part, it’s true that we talk and talk. She was living this experience in 2018 and we can’t get into the same hole. That’s why I insist (on talking) a lot.’
“Tennis is super difficult and then when you win a tournament, next week it will be a totally different story. You have to start from Zero. That’s why I think she understands what our way is to get success and I hope it’s going to happen from now during the clay season.”
Big things to come on clay?
Fortunately for the world No.37 she will soon be starting her campaign on the European clay. A surface that brings her fond memories. Out of all the Grand Slams, she has won the most matches at the French Open with a win-loss record of 10-5. Reaching the quarter-finals back in 2018. Although she has only won one title on the clay in her career which was back in 2017 at the Volvo Open in Charleston.
“She prefers to play on the clay. In my opinion, she can play well anywhere,” Martinez states.
“We are preparing for the clay court season but we are not doing anything different between the hard court and clay court. Talking about the tactical or technical things. Technically you can of course change a few things but our job is the same.”
One of the intriguing aspects of the clay swing for Kasatkina is how her team plans to assess how successful it goes. One would think it would be simply related to match results but her coach points out that there is something more significant that needs to be focused on.
“A good clay court season for her in my opinion would be keeping this level mentally and with her tennis that she has shown in the last tournaments. I think she can do big things but I can’t measure which one is going to be the result which makes me happy,” he explains.
“The most important thing is to get the level and once you get the level things will go well on the court. You’re gonna get success for sure in the long term. This was my philosophy when I started working with her and I think this is working. I will not change my mentality.”
Looking further ahead Kasatkina has her eyes on securing a place in the Tokyo Olympics. She made her Olympic debut back in 2016 by reaching the quarter-finals in both singles and doubles. Although trying to book a place in the tournament is far from easy given the number of Russian players bidding for selection. The country currently has five women in the top 40 with Kasatkina being the fourth highest.
“The Olympics are one of our goals because she is not in a bad position,” Martinez outlines. “It’s going to be tough because there are many very good Russian players. Kudermetova, Kuznetsova, Pavlychenkova and Alexandrova are also fighting for these positions. So it’s going to be a tough battle and I hope we get this goal.”
The games were meant to take place last year but were postponed due to the COVID-19 pandemic. As a result international fans are banned from attending the event in a bid to minimise a risk of an outbreak. Meanwhile, a debate is ongoing in tennis about if players should be vaccinated or not. Something that tennis’ governing bodies have urged players to do but some are hesitant.
“The vaccination is one that everybody has to get because it is for our health,” Martinez weighs in on the debate. “Health is the most important thing in life so I think we are going to be very happy when we have our vaccine. Of course, everybody has their doubts about the consequences but in my opinion it’s super important.”
No Change To Olympic Qualifying Criteria Despite Updated ATP Ranking System
UbiTennis also finds out why women can take part in the Olympics at a younger age than men!
The International Tennis Federation has confirmed to UbiTennis that the qualifying criteria for the Olympic Games will not be adjusted following a recent announcement from the governing body of the men’s Tour.
Earlier in the week the ATP announced that they will be using their revised ranking system until the week of August 9th to support players during the COVID-19 pandemic. Under the rules a player’s position will take into account tournaments played between March 4 – August 5th 2019. The reason is because all of those events did not take place in 2020 due to the pandemic. Although the ‘Best of’ period from 2019 will only be counted at 50% until 2022. For example, Roger Federer won 1000 points at the 2019 Miami Open and can therefore keep 500 points even though he is not playing the event this year. Furthermore, the same tournament can’t be used twice in the calculations so players will keep either 50% of points from what they earned in 2019 or the full value of this year depending on which one is the highest.
Whilst the move has been made to support those during the pandemic, some critics have argued that it could have a negative impact on players trying to climb the rankings. It is possible that a player who has won a series of matches in recent weeks may not be able to overtake somebody who produced a strong run of results 12 months or so ago.
One event this could affect is the Olympic Games which partly determine a player’s entry based on their rankings, as well as other factors. Although the International Tennis Federation confirms that they will not be making any changes to their system.
“The ITF has no plans to change its current Olympic Qualification System which has been approved by the IOC for the Olympic Tennis Event,” a spokesperson told UbiTennis. “Tour Rankings only form one element of the entry and eligibility requirements for the Olympic Games and have been updated to provide for the disruption to the tournament calendar caused by the pandemic.”
The only adjustment that has been made is that if a player hasn’t met the minimum entry criteria regarding Davis Cup or Fed Cup ties. If any ties they were set to play in was cancelled due to issues related to COVID-19 is classed as a ‘special circumstance.’
One confusing part of the criteria is the minimum age of eligibility. Despite tennis being one of the top sports for equality the rules state that WTA players are eligible to play the games if they have reached the age of 14 by the opening day of the Olympic Tennis event. This is a year younger than their male counterparts.
“These ages have been determined in consultation with the ATP and WTA, respectively,” the ITF explained.
“Age eligibility is an extremely important topic. The WTA has done much research in this area and have an established policy determined by data.”
The Olympic Tennis event will start on July 24th.
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