EXCLUSIVE: Jelena Ostapenko's Fight For Form - UBITENNIS
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EXCLUSIVE: Jelena Ostapenko’s Fight For Form

Ubitennis spoke with the former French Open champion following her loss at the Caja Magica in Madrid.

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Jelena Ostapenko (photo by chryslène caillaud, copyright @Sport Vision)

MADRID: Almost two years have passed since Jelena Ostapenko stunned the women’s tour by winning the French Open at the age of 20. Shortly afterward, she was tipped to be the next star of the sport. Unfortunately, now she finds herself in a new and unwelcome challenge.

 

2019 has been dominated more by frustration than celebration for the Latvian. Five months in and she has only managed to achieve back-to-back wins once. Doing so at Charleston with triumphs over Johanna Larsson and Shelby Rogers. To put this into perspective, she is currently ranked 98th in the Porsche race to Shenzhen.

Ostapenko’s latest loss occurred at the Caja Magica, venue of the Madrid Open. After producing an emphatic display in her opening match against Anastasia Pavlyuchenkova, she fell short against seventh seed Kiki Bertens. A player who was runner-up at the tournament 12 months ago. Despite glimmers of her top ability, a costly unforced error count of 30 guided Betens to the 6-4, 6-3, win. The downside of Ostapenko’s all or nothing approach to the game.

“I think in general it was not a bad match. Of course, I lost it, but I think the main thing was that I was not afraid to go after the shots. Even though I was missing during some deciding moments, that’s what I have to do with my game.” An upbeat Ostapenko told Ubitennis following the match.
“I have to go for the shots and play aggressive. That’s what brought me good results during 2017.” She added.

There is no denying that the 21-year-old is in the midst of crises on the court. Her last victory over a top 10 player occurred 13 months ago in Miami and her last title on the tour was 17 months ago in Seoul. Leaving Ostapenko facing one question. Where did it all go wrong?

The prime culprit for the results is the formerly injured left wrist in the eyes of the Latvian. In total, she missed three months towards the end of 2018. Meaning that she was unable to train during the pre-season. A crucial time of the year for many player’s.

“It’s hard. I have to get back in form during the year where you don’t have much free time. We play almost every other week sometimes.” She explains. “I’m using every opportunity to have some weeks of practice. Like, if I even have a couple of day’s I’m using it for practice. Just to improve everything.”

The mental demons

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Ostapenko, who will turn 22 next month, has never been afraid to express herself on the court. That was visible during her match against Bertens with cries of frustration and glares towards her camp. Her series of blistering winners were ultimately canceled out by her erratic error count. Leaving the question, is Ostapenko’s downfall her own mind?

“I think for sure it’s the mental side because physically I think I’m strong enough.” She admits without hesitation. “In practice, I can play unbelievable and then I go into the match and do some mistakes that I never do. For sure, that’s a mental thing. I think tennis is around 70 percent mental because everything is in the head.’ 
“My first match here, I played really well and my mind was completely free. I was not afraid to hit the ball and hit so many winners.”

In a bid to overcome those problems, Ostapenko has enlisted to help of people with expertise in the area. Although she admits that there is no magical solution. Instead, she will have to give it time.

“I’m working with a couple of people in that area (of sports psychology). I’m trying to improve, but it’s not easy. I’m a very emotional person and sometimes that helps me, sometimes it doesn’t. I’m working by myself, trying to improve every day.”

Another grand slam title?

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While she may lack wins, the belief is no less than it was two years ago when she claimed the French Open crown. Becoming the first unseeded champion of the tournament since 1933 and her country’s maiden grand slam winner.

“I know I can win more grand slams because I’ve already done it once. I’ve shown I can play at that high level.” She said. “However, with my recent injury, it hasn’t been easy this year.
I think I need to play more matches and win more matches. Then I think I will become a dangerous player.”

Just how dangerous she can become remains to be seen. This season has developed a trend of different players winning different tournaments. In fact, Petra Kvitova is the only woman to win multiple titles on the WTA Tour. Nevertheless, there is only one objective for Ostapenko this year.

“To be healthy. To try to stay healthy and enjoy it because I had all this pressure to deal with following the French Open.” The world No.29 stressed.
“Injuries are never fun. It can happen to anyone. You just have to enjoy the moment.”

Now over the first major injury of her career, Ostapenko continues to plot how she will once again rise to the top of the women’s tour. The only question left is when will that happen?

Exclusive

Boris Becker and Justine Henin: “Off-court pressure might have made Djokovic lose his cool”

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Eurosport invited UbiTennis’s CEO Ubaldo Scanagatta to join a Q&A with the former Slam champions and world numbers ones, who dicussed the 2020 US Open (but refused to pick a winner for either draw).

 

Justine Henin and Boris Becker need no introduction: seven Slam titles and three years finished as the world N.1 for the 38-year-old Belgian, six and one for the German, now 52 (he was never actually ranked at the top at the end of a season, but won the ATP Player of the Year award in 1989, when he won two Majors). They are definitely cognizant of what it takes and means to get to the end of a US Open fortnight (Henin won it twice, Becker once), although the 2020 milieu is a bona fide unknown for pretty much everybody in tennis. 

This is why they have accepted to join a Q&A session of about half an hour, organised by Eurosport (the channel that they both work for, and that we thank once again for the invite), during which they tackled many subjects, mostly revolving around Novak Djokovic, his default loss at the hands of Pablo Carreno Busta, and the future of the PTPA, his new players’ union – Becker coached the Serbian for three seasons (winning six Slams).

Here’s the full transcript:

D: We are almost at the end of the tournament, and we have seen many controversial decisions. What will be the most important lesson to be taken for the rest of the season?
HENIN: I don’t know, it’s an interesting question. We are all wondering how we feel about this tournament. I’m glad that it took place despite the absence of the fans, who can still watch on TV, while the players can still do their jobs and are fully aware of the situation. What we can learn is that this is a unique situation fo everyone. We need to remember that nobody is perfect and that these are exceptional circumstances, but we all need to adapt – players, officials, tournaments, everybody. Our job is about adapting, so I think it’s normal to have witnessed all these ups-and-downs. Anyway, we also need to keep in mind that we are only talking about tennis, which gives us great emotions but is not the most important thing right now. The tournament hasn’t been perfect, but it’s a good start, everyone is okay, and we all need to learn our own lessons.  

Q: I was at the O2 when Djokovic was booed for double faulting, and we are talking about someone who has won 17 Slams. Does he get the respect he deserves?
BECKER: I don’t think so, it’s a very good point. In men’s tennis, fans are divided between Federer and Nadal. And then here comes Djokovic who crashes the party – this is why he gets so much criticism. Right now, he is in a s**tstorm because of what he did against Carreno, but he took responsibility for his actions and apologised, firstly to the woman, then to the USTA and to the players. Nobody is perfect. Roger double faults, Rafa double faults, they don’t get booed. 

Q: How does he take it?
BECKER: He doesn’t like it, nobody would. He’s a people person, he does a lot of charity work in Serbia through his foundation. And yet people only talk about him when he breaks the rules. He is a champion, he always wants to win, but sometimes he makes mistakes too.

Q: Justine, do you think that there is a lack of respect for Djokovic and for what he has achieved?
HENIN: It’s very strange. Personally, I respect the champion he is. You can like or not his on-court personality. We are witnessing a golden age in men’s tennis because of the Big Three, but also because of all the players who are coming up behind them. Novak is different from Rafa and Roger, and he also broke onto the scene a little later, ma we have to have the utmost respect for what he’s doing in tennis.

D: Will this premature elimination in New York help him at the French Open?
BECKER: I like your positive attitude, very forward-looking! Novak is still digesting what happened, but he has to view this episode as an opportunity to make some noise on the court and to win more. The question is whether he will play in Rome before Paris – he is very popular in Italy. I think he is a contender at the French Open, he and Thiem can challenge Nadal.

Q: Will the players be more careful because of what happened to him?
HENIN: We are all human beings. It reminds us that we need some humility and that players can make mistakes. In the end, even if Novak is a champion, he can still make mistakes. It’s not easy to control the pressure and one’s emotions during a match. It’s a lesson for all of us, not just for the players. The rule is good because we have to protect the officials and the fans. Maybe some people think that it should be changed, but I don’t agree, because it pushes the players to control their emotions and frustrations. However, it was bad luck in Novak’s case.

D (UbiTennis): I’d like to ask Justine what she thinks about the PTPA, and whether it will be successful.
HENIN: I think Boris has more details about it, I’m not too informed on the subject. We want the players to be united and to be represented in the right way in tournaments. It’s hard for me to judge which is the best way to achieve this. There are many different opinions on the matter. Boris, what do you think?
BECKER: The ATP was founded in 1972 by the players. Over time, it became the ATP Tour, which has two sides: the players and the tournaments. Apparently, many players don’t feel that they are being well-represented by the ATP, and this is the reason why the new association was created. I would like to see them involve female players. I would like for the ATP and the WTA to do something together. This is the only mistake I see. But in principle I think it’s right that the players should have a voice within the ATP, whose structure is different than it was in 1972.

Justine Henin – Wimbledon 2010 (Credit: @Gianni Ciaccia)

Q (UbiTennis): Why do you think Nadal and Federer didn’t concur with Novak’s message? I don’t think he wants to fight with the Players Council, and I think he wants to involve some women as well, from what I understand.
BECKER: I think that Federer and Nadal have different agendas. They are making history, and they also don’t have a personal history of political involvement, which is a smart thing to do, according to some. But they are also the most famous faces in men’s tennis. There should have been a unanimous decision over the new association, but there are many different opinions. Therefore, Nadal and Federer’s interests are not the same as Djokovic’s. I’d like to see the ATP and the WTA unite, but I don’t think we have that right now.  

Q: Could the ball abuse violation be softened in some cases, in order to avoid episodes like the one involving Djokovic, who hit the lineswoman in a clearly unintentional way?  
HENIN: I think that the rule is fair, but this is just my opinion. Where would we draw the line, were we to soften it? Many people think that the decision with Djokovic was too harsh because Bedene wasn’t disqualified the previous week, but I think that the two episodes are completely different. I have never seen anyone on a tennis court who tried to hurt somebody intentionally, but you can hurt people even unintentionally, and we need to control these cases by creating limits that shouldn’t be broken. It also serves as a message to everybody else. We are not perfect, but we need to be examples and to inspire people. I also think that this is an experience that can be used to grow. I have never been involved in something like this, but I’m sure it will be tough for Novak’s ego. It also means that he isn’t a machine, and I like that. Back to the point, I wouldn’t change the rule.

BECKER: I mostly agree with Justine. It was tough for Novak, and you know I’m a fan of his, but in a certain way he has been lucky, because that woman could have been hurt a lot worse. The rule is clear. Novak had already hit a ball against the wall, and he was clearly frustrated, he was dominated by his own emotions. We shouldn’t think that he is a bad person, we both know that emotions come out during a match, and that it is part of human nature to misbehave when things are not going our way. I wouldn’t change the rule, because players are role models. This was an unfortunate instance, but the decision was right

On page 2, the interview will shift to the mental toll that tennis players have to shoulder, as well as to Becker’s vacation with Bjorn Borg and to Kim Clijsters’ comeback

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EXCLUSIVE: Coach Of Daria Kasatkina Eyeing Top 10 Return

After almost 20 weeks of practicing during lockdown in Spain the coach of Daria Kasatkina, Carlos Martinez, tells UbiTennis what’s next in their campaign to return back to the top of women’s tennis.

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It was only two years ago when Daria Kasatkina was being described as the new face of Russian tennis and a star in the making.

 

A former French Open junior champion, Kasatkina achieved various accomplishments prior to her 22nd birthday that others could only dream of. Her rise in the sport started in April 2017, when at the age of 19 she defeated Jelena Ostapenko to claim her maiden WTA title at the Charleston Open. Her breakout took place the following year where she lost to Naomi Osaka in the final of Indian Wells and won another Premier title in Moscow. Furthermore, she also reached back-to-back quarter-finals at the French Open and Wimbledon as she eventually peaked at a ranking best of 10th in October 2018.

It looked as if the sport had a potential future No.1 in the making who was on similar trajectories as Osaka and Bianca Andreescu. Then a lacklustre 2019 took place, serving as a stern reminder of how hard it is to rise to the top and yet how easy it is to fall. Last year she lost her opening match at 11 tournaments on the Tour as she struggled to reproduce the results from the previous couple of years.

“It’s obvious that we need to adjust a few things to play at this level. In practice we are fixing these things to get these good feelings back for her,” coach Carlos Martinez told UbiTennis. 

Challenged with getting Kasatkina back on the road to top-level tennis is Spanish coach Martinez, a former world No.180 doubles player who is also known for his work with Svetlana Kuznetsova.

The 2020 roller-coaster for Martinez started in February when Kasatkina looked to be once again regaining form with a run to the semi-finals of the Lyon Open in France. It was the Russian’s seventh tournament of the season but the first where she won back-to-back main draw matches. However, a week later the WTA Tour was halted for what ended up being a five-month period due to COVID-19.

“It was very sad for us because she was starting to get some very good rhythm after Lyon,”  Martinez reflects. “In my opinion, she lost her (semi-final) match in the right way because she is a player who needs to win matches and get confidence in her game.’
She had good chances to do well in Indian Wells because of the conditions. It (the Tour break) wasn’t good for us and now we have to regain that rhythm but for sure she will be again at that top level.’
“Our expectation for us is to be good every day,”
he added.

Sidelined from competition, there was one godsave with the fact the two could continue training during lockdown at the Club de Tenis Mollet on the outskirts of Barcelona, an academy owned by Martinez himself. During the unscheduled break, he continued to work with Kasatkina with one particular focus in mind – to make her more aggressive.

“We (Kasatkina’s team) tried to make her play more aggressive on the court because she is a consistent player. Trying to be a bit closer to the court when she feels the opportunity to go inside. Basically, we were working on this and to also be more regular on serve to win a bit more.”

The return to competition

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Opting not to play in any exhibition matches during the break, it was a case of wait and see if the hard work had paid off. Few can cast doubt on Kasatkina’s commitment to the sport, but – as with many of her peers – the question was how she would fare on the Tour after five months away.

The first stop was in the Italian city of Palermo, where the entire WTA Tour resumed. Unfortunately, there would be another blow for Kasatkina as she suffered a leg injury during practice heading into the tournament. She was still able to play, but ended up losing a marathon first round encounter against Jasmine Paolini. There were also mixed fortunes for Kasatkina in her next tournament at the Western and Southern Open in New York where she lost two out of three matches played. She managed to enter the main draw only with the help of a lucky loser spot.

She couldn’t play her best in Palermo because she injured her leg the day before during practice. She couldn’t be 100 per cent ready to compete. It’s true she played three hours and 10 minutes against Paolini but honestly she couldn’t do more. Her leg wouldn’t let her run,” Martinez reflected.
“In Cincinnati (relocated to New York this year) she played three matches. The second was a good chance for her to qualify for the main draw but she lost a few chances during the second set.’

Kasatkina lost in the first round of Cincinnati to Anette Kontaveit.

So what is the reason for all of these early losses? Is it simply because the now-world No.68 has lost some of her form from two years ago or is there a more complex explanation?

Martinez believes it is the mental side of the game which is letting Kasatkina down at present. When asked how close she is to the type of form which took her into the world’s top 10, he firmly believes she is not too far away. Although the ongoing problem continues to be her mindset.

She has the game because when she practices she is showing a really good level. When we compete against top players she is winning many times,” he said.
“The problem isn’t with her game, the problem is she needs to believe in herself a little bit more. To go on court and think she is very good. Her game is really consequential of these thoughts.”
“She’s not far away from achieving this. When we talk about the game, we just need to keep adjusting a few things and for sure she will be back (inside the top 10). I don’t know when but she will be back to the top level.”

Patience is a virtue

Over the coming weeks Kasatkina will not have to worry much about her current ranking position thanks to a change in the rules due to COVID-19. The WTA recently revised their system to the “Better of 2019 and 2020” system where a player’s position is based on their 16 best tournament performances between March 2019 and December 2020.

“Fortunately, this year we have no pressure and this is the thing she needs to understand. This year is about fixing a few things, starting again and being back into competition following lockdown,” outlined Martinez.
“There are no goals regarding her result. But I have goals to establish again this pattern of the play that she has to do on the court. This for us is the most important. I know if she starts doing this pattern and believing in herself again, she can do good.”

The next test for Martinez and Kasatkina will be next week’s US Open in what will be the Russian’s 19th consecutive Grand Slam main draw appearance. Although recently the majors have been a thing of misery, with Kasatkina only managing to win two matches since the 2018 US Open.

The important thing is to understand the philosophy of this game because with this knowledge she will get the goals we are expecting in the future. Of course, for us it is to be back in the top 10 because she has the game to do so. So we just have to be patient and work on this mentality.” Martinez concluded.

Kasatkina will play Marta Kostyuk in the first round at Flushing Meadows.

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EXCLUSIVE: A US Open Preview Through The Eyes Of A Tennis Data Analyst

Who is Novak Djokovic’s biggest threat in New York? Is Serena Williams the heavy favourite to win the title? UbiTennis speaks with the founder of Sportiii Analytics, Mike James, to find out his forecasts for the tournament.

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The 2020 season has been one of the strangest in recent memory due to the COVID-19 pandemic, so can it be argued that predicting what may happen at next week’s US Open is impossible?

 

The sport was suspended for five months, with competitive women’s tennis resuming in July and the men’s game following on in August. Evidently, rustiness will be one of the key issues for players as they play within the New York ‘bubble’ – and they could also be more prone to injury should they have to endure long matches in the humid conditions.

 However, thanks to the growing demand for statistical data in the sport, it is still possible to generate some idea of what may occur over the two-week period.

British-based Mike James is the mastermind behind Sportiii Analytics, a company who specialise in providing detailed information on player strategies and patterns to their clients on both the ATP and WTA Tours. Their portfolio includes previously providing information to the coaching team of Stan Wawrinka. James created Sportiii to meet the growing trend and demand in the sport.

At Sportiii Analytics we focus on over 30 Key Performance Indicators with some of the key areas being serve plus one pattern (of play) and return plus one pattern (of play), as well as a player’s final shot court position,” James told UbiTennis.
“We’ve created our model from several years of experience at the Tour level with the help from some of the best coaches on both ATP & WTA Tours.”

There is also the obvious question about how reliable data can be at present due to the Tour break. James, who has a wealth of experience and started this year working with the team of Serbian rising star Miomir Kecmanović, admits it will be a slightly different challenge to normal.

“We have to do our best to get historical data from the first two months of the season. Luckily it was all played on hard courts, which gives us a better judgment,” he explains.
“The Western & Southern Open will be a big help for myself and Sportiii Analytics looking at any new trends or changes in players’ games leading into the US Open.”

Tennis coach and Sportiii Analytics founder Mike James

Looking ahead to New York, James has used his findings to answer a few questions UbiTennis has about the upcoming major as he outlines, among other interesting topics, who Novak Djokovic’s biggest threat is and why.

How does Sportiii Analytics work with players?
A lot of the work we do is confidential but we currently support several top 100 players in both singles and doubles on both Tour’s.
We have two main purposes at this level, the first is gathering the player data and strategy patterns we’re working on in order to help them and their team know their optimum winning patterns. The second is opponent scouting and finding key weaknesses to help support a winning gameplan.

So who are the biggest performers in the men’s game?
Under pressure leaders on hard courts (which is calculated by the ATP by adding the percentage of break points converted and saved, percentage of tie-breaks won and percentage of deciding sets won) gives Novak Djokovic the best numbers. Dominic Thiem is next and – surprisingly to some – Gael Monfils is the highest ranked player behind those two. The in-form Andrey Rublev follows just behind.

Looking ahead to the US Open what is the likelihood of a player outside the top 10 winning?
I think the fact seven of the top 10 females are not playing and there’s no Roger or Rafa make the challenge of players outside the top 10 much greater this year than in previous US Opens. Also, I think having no crowd at the tournament will make the matches more even.

Based on the figures, who are Novak Djokovic’s most dangerous opponents leading up to the Grand Slam?
From a serve perspective Matteo Berrettini, Stefanos Tsitsipas and Thiem lead the way for winning 1st and 2nd serve points on hard courts in the last 52 weeks. The serve will be more important this year as the court surface is quicker than previous years. If I had to pick one player on a hard court to challenge Novak it would be Thiem.

What about Serena Williams, is she really as much of a heavy favourite as many believe?
One hundred percent she is the major favourite. With big players like Simona Halep and Bianca Andreescu – who usually gives Serena trouble – not in attendance, this creates a great opportunity for this year’s event. If Serena is focused she will win her 24th Slam.

Looking at the wider picture, should we expect many seeds to fall due to the lack of tennis recently?
The best players are where they are for a reason. I can’t see a trend of top seeds exiting early unless we go back to only 16 seeds instead of 32.

What about the underdogs? Who should we look out for in the coming days to spring a surprise?
On the women’s side I can see Coco Gauff making big strides over the next two weeks. On the men’s side we could easily see Jannick Sinner having his breakthrough tournament.

Let’s put Djokovic to one side for the moment. If we look at the next four highest ranked players taking part (Thiem, Medvedev, Tsitsipas and Zverev) who stands out the most and why?
At the moment Thiem has been the most consistent across the whole season and most active with exhibition events during the Tour break. His experience of reaching Slam [capital ‘S’?] finals gives him the edge over the others.

Who is your money on to win the US Open?
Djokovic and Williams.

You can learn more about Mike James by visiting https://www.sportiiianalytics.com

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