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?

Interviews

EXCLUSIVE: Carlos Martinez Outlines Plan For Women-Only Charity Event In Barcelona

Ubitennis speaks with one of the top coaches on the WTA Tour about his plans for a one-off tournament that will feature a series of top 100 players.

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The Club de Tenis Mollet in Barcelona

Two months have passed since the world of tennis came to a halt with the BNP Paribas Open in Indian Wells getting cancelled for the first time in its history. Since then no tournament has been played due to the COVID-19 pandemic with many questioning if or when the 2020 season will resume.

 

In light of the uncertainty, tennis federations around the world have taken matters into their own hands with a series of events being played in accordance with their laws regarding the pandemic. The Czech Republic, Germany, Austria and America are just some of those taking this approach. Meanwhile, in Rafael Nadal’s homeland of Spain, one prominent coach on the WTA Tour has plans for his own event.

Carlos Martinez is a familiar face in the world of women’s tennis. Under his guidance, he oversaw Svetlana Kuznetsova win two WTA titles during 2016 to qualify for the WTA Finals that year. In 2018 he coached Margarita Gasparyan to win the Tashkent Open whilst ranked 299th in the world. Now he is working alongside former top 10 player Daria Kasatkina.

Martinez is organising a 32-player event at the Club de Tenis Mollet on the outskirts of Barcelona. An academy located just over 20KM from the Real Club de Tennis Barcelona, which hosts the most prestigious men’s tournament in the city every year.

“The dates of the tournament will depend on when the tour will start but it will more or less be between the end of July and end August,” Martinez told Ubitennis.
“The format is the same as the normal situation with tournaments, but I will design four groups with eight players and they will all play against each other in the group. Then the first two players of each group will go straight to the main draw. Then they will play quarters, semis and final.”

The tournament is set to feature a field similar to what you might expect to see at a WTA International. Those interested in playing the women-only event includes Kasatkina, Carla Suarez Navarro, Kristina Mladenovic, Marie Bouzkova and Sara Errani. Other players have also expressed interest but their participation depends on travel restrictions. There will be no prize money available with funds instead going to local hospitals located near the venue.

Martinez, who was a former top 200 doubles player on the ATP Tour before switching to coaching, believes events like his are vital for those in the sport given the current situation. Professional tennis tournaments have been given the provision return date of July 13th, but it is speculated that this deadline could be extended over the coming weeks.

“This tournament will be very important for all players because all of them can play a minimum seven matches and maximum 10 so it is the best practice for all of them before the circuit will start again,” he explains.
“After some weeks of practice they need to compete again and the best way is to do it like this. Thinking about my player (Daria Kasatkina) is the best way for her after practicing for a long time.”

Kasatkina is a champion’

Martinez pictured with Kasatkina

Fortunately for Martinez, he has been able to continue his work with Kasatkina as best as he can throughout the lockdown. The Russian is currently based in Barcelona and enjoyed a mixed start to 2020 by winning nine out of 16 matches played. Her best run occurred at Lyon Open where she reached the semi-finals. Lyon was one of the last tournaments to take place before the Tour shutdown.

“Daria is fortunately living in Barcelona and it helps a lot because she can come every day to my club and work hard as always,” Martinez said of the world No.66.
“I mix weeks by practicing and few days resting because like this she can come with more motivation. At this moment it is not easy for players to be motivated because they don’t know when they’re gonna play tournaments again. She shows me every day that she is a champion and very ambitious.”

Kasatkina has been ranked as high as 10th in the world back in 2018 and is also a two-time Grand Slam quarter-finalist. Reaching those milestones during the same year she broke into the top 10.

Undoubtedly the 23-year-old Russian will be a key attraction in the upcoming tournament. Martinez’s hope is that the event will not only benefit the players, but Spanish tennis fans as well. Last week the country’s most prestigious tournament in Madrid was meant to be played with uncertainty over its chances of taking place later this year. Meanwhile the upcoming Davis Cup Finals, which is held at the same venue, is also in serious doubt.

“I think that it is very important to organize these kinds of tournaments because it’s a very good opportunity to watch the best players in our country,” he said.
“All of them are travelling all season and it is very difficult for spectators to follow them. Also for the players it is very comfortable and brings them nice emotions where they played a long time ago (on the Tour).’
“But in the end the players like to play big events and travel around the world.”

Whilst Martinez’s event is full of intrigue and excitement, it is by no means a substitute for the WTA Tour. Something he hopes will be returning sooner rather than later.

“In my opinion they have to start as soon as the pandemic will be controlled. If it can be this season better, if not as soon as possible after pandemic,” Martinez concludes.
“All players are a bit nervous because they have no idea and that makes it more difficult.”

For now it is a waiting game to see when the sport will return. However, thanks to the likes of Martinez, officials are trying to fill the void whilst giving something back to society at the same time. Something that has to be commended.

Provisional list of players confirmed for the tournament

  • Kristina Mladenovic FRA (No.42)
  • Marie Bouzkova CZE (No.47)
  • Jil Tiechman SWI (No.63)
  • Daria Kasatkina RUS (No.66)
  • Carla Suarez Navarro ESP (No.68)
  • Arantxa Rus NED (No.70)
  • Nina Stojanovic SRB (No.86)
  • Sara Errani ITA (No.169)

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Interviews

Tennis Like “The Godfather”: Seven Families Fighting For Power (Video-Interview With Mary Carillo)

Ubaldo Scanagatta, Steve Flink and Mary Carillo look into their crystal balls and discuss the future of tennis. The chances of seeing tennis played at Flushing Meadows in 2020 and how the fight at the top will shape the sport in the near future

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This new interview by chief editor Ubaldo Scanagatta sees two A-list guest talk tennis with him: recurring guest start Steve Flink, one of the very few journalists to be inducted into the Tennis Hall of Fame is joined by former pro player and award-winning TV analyst Mary Carillo, who has been Top 50 in singles during the ‘70s and won the mixed doubles title at Roland Garros in 1977 together with John McEnroe.

 

This is the second performance for this ‘trio’ that debuted in 2016 on Tennis Channel with a very lively round table. Social distancing rules have now forced this second gathering to be moved to a video-conference, with Ubaldo hosting from his house in Florence, Italy and the two Americans being in their respective residences of New York and Naples, Florida.

The wide-ranging conversation started from the memories of that 1977 French Open, just a few weeks before John McEnroe reached the semifinals at Wimbledon starting from qualifying, and went on to cover the possibility that the US Open is going to be played as planned, the new Italian-powered leadership for the ATP and their plans to join forces with the WTA and the Majors (just like Billie Jean King wanted to), Agassi’s reactions to Djokovic’s idea of letting his body heal itself and a risque parallel between tennis’ governance and “The Godfather”.

 

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ATP

Uncertainty, Anxiety And Optimism: What It Is Like To Work In A Sport That Has Come To A Standstill

From travelling the world for tennis to self-isolation with an uncertain future, Ubitennis sheds light on those in the tennis industry directly affected by COVID-19…

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Just three months ago tennis coach and tactical analyst Mike James travelled the globe providing his expertise on the ATP Tour.

 

The founder of Tennis Data company Sportiii Analytics is working with the team of former world No.1 junior player Miomir Kecmanović, who reached the semi-finals of the New York Open in February. James’ job is to provide relevant data to Kecmanović based on the matches he played and travelled to the Doha Open in January.

“The year started well. I was out in Doha with the team. Miomir made the semi-finals, he beat (Jo-Wilfried) Tsonga, (Marton) Fucsovics and it was a really good tournament. He lost to (Andrey) Rublev, who has been on fire this year,” James reflected.
“The last tournament I was involved with was Acapulco and he had a great win against Alex de Minaur before losing to the champion Rafael Nadal.’
“He has had a good year in the sense of making good progress with his development and analytical side.”

Relishing in his job on the Tour, it all started to come crashing down on March 9th. A date that triggered the beginning of the longest suspension of play in the history of modern tennis. In what had originally been thought to be a serious health threat in China alone, the coronavirus swept through the world in devastating fashion. It is no longer safe to travel to certain areas as experts continue to research into a remedy to contain the previously unknown virus.

In light of the serious health threat, it was only a matter of time before the global sport of tennis would suffer. At first Indian Wells was cancelled, then Miami, then all events until April and now the suspension has been extended to at least July 13th. Leading the lower ranked players anxious about how they will make ends meat over the coming weeks. Some have already returned back to studying and others have embarked upon the online coaching.

James isn’t a pro, but he is one of the hundreds of behind the scenes workers affected by the suspension. At a glance, some would think tennis starts and stops with the player, but there’s much more to that. There are their physios, coaches, hitting partners and so on. In most circumstances, if the player cannot generate any income, their support staff will not get paid. The exceptions are those making big money at the top.

“My role is predominately based on playing matches on the Tour. So when he (Kecmanović) is not playing, there is not too much for me to do,” James explained.
“I am doing a lot of work behind the scenes with the game development and helping support him. But obviously there is a limit to how far that can go when he is not playing.”

Leicester-based James is not immune to the hardship despite his credentials. His previous role was supporting Magnus Norman for team Stan Wawrinka and other players he has worked with include doubles specialists Ante Pavic and Tomislav Brkic.

Fortunately, he and other British coaches has been given a lifeline by the British government and their pledge to support self-employed people like him. Although in other countries, it is a very different situation.

“Tennis coaches, physios and players are a self-employed entity. So everyone has their own individual case,” he explains.
“I’m from the UK and our government has been amazing in supporting self-employed people and furlong 80% of my last tax return.’
“I’m doing some online consultancy and a few other things to keep me busy, but the reality is my main income comes from the professional Tour.”

From worldwide travel to virtually house confinement

James pictured with Magnus Norman (left) and Jonas Arnesen (middle)

Like most of the world, James finds himself in lockdown waiting for the pandemic to reach a point where he can soon return back to everyday life. When that will be is unknown. Coming to terms with the prospect of being told what you can and can’t do it tough for anybody regardless of their job.

Perhaps the biggest issue a person may encounter at this time is their mental health. In one survey conducted by the American Psychiatric Association, 36% of respondents have said the pandemic has had a serious impact on their mental health. These findings will differ between countries and even sports, but the issue remains very much a serious factor in all forms of life.

“Personally, I am going through positive and negative moments of emotion,” James commented on his own circumstances.
“The positive thing is that we are all in this together and the coronavirus is not discriminated against in any walk of life.’
“Originally when Indian Wells was cancelled there was a mini panic in my household. Everybody around me was saying why was I getting so upset and anxious. I was aware then that I could see into the future and the domino effect that could be happening.”

The tennis community appears to be uniting in order to support each other through these times. For example the top 100 players on the ATP Tour have their own WhatsApp group, but it is secret as to what they discuss. James himself is also seizing the benefits of technology.

“I’m over-communicating with everybody at the moment, I’m speaking on WhatsApp, Zoom, Houseparty and everything I can do to communicate with guys around the Tour,” he said.
“Everybody is trying to feed off each other in regards to what the Tour will look like when we come back. I think that will be down to the length of time the Tour is away will affect what the Tour looks like when it comes back.”

As to when the sport will come back, it is very much a case of the unknown. The United States Tennis Association recently published a statement saying they intend to host the US Open as scheduled later this summer. Something that former players such as Amelie Maureasmo and Janko Tipsarevic have doubts about.

James also shares the view that the current July deadline of tennis returning will not happen. At present there has been more than one million cases of COVID-19 worldwide, according to John Hopkins University. More significant for tennis, is that America is yet to reach its peak of the epidemic. A country that is currently scheduled to host no fewer than six ATP events between July-September.

“Do I think it (the tour) will be back on July 13th? No, because of the current situation. I think if it gets postponed until September and if the first tournament is the US Open, the issue with the tennis tour is that it can’t start back at 25 or 50 percent capacity with tournaments because it would affect the rankings too much,” he believes.
“The tennis tour has to start back fully – ITF’s, Challengers, main Tour. If that doesn’t happen then basically the Tour can’t start back. So my concern is maybe 2020 is now finished.”

The LTA lifeline

On Friday the British Lawn Tennis Association (LTA) announced a £20 million aid package to support players, venues and coaches around the country with the help of grants to players outside the top 100 (as long as they don’t have an existing governing grant). Britain has 11 male players in the world’s top 400, but only three of those are in the top 100 – Dan Evans (28), Kyle Edmund (44) and Cameron Norrie (77).

Support staff like James are also set to benefit from the scheme that aims to maintain the standard of British tennis throughout the ongoing crises.

“What the LTA did was unprecedented from any federation. I think it is an amazing gesture with them (the LTA) putting £20M back into the game. Supporting coaches with £4 million set aside. That will hopefully support somebody like myself, but I don’t know yet how much I could receive.”

It is understood that the ATP and WTA are also coming up with their own plans as to how they can help compensate players who have lost earnings. It is unclear as to if this will extend to anybody else working in the sport.

There is also another element to all of this. The Tour has been able to grow over the years due to their sponsorship deals, but with the economy taking a battering there could be more problems ahead.

“Tennis is a global sport and massively relies on sponsorship. From ATP 250s down. On the WTA side, it is even more. If there is a global meltdown the first thing companies stop doing is putting money in sponsorships. The longer this goes on, the more it will change the way the tennis tour looks.” James warns.

Light at the end of the tunnel

James pictured with Tomislav Brkic (left) and Ante Pavic (right)

Six weeks have already passed since the last ATP Tournaments were played. During the last weekend of February Nadal triumphed at the Mexican Open and Novak Djokovic was triumphant in Dubai. Undoubtedly those involved in the sport are now suffering mentally, physically and financially. But can it be possible that the devastating pandemic could have a silver lining for the future?

Tennis is a unique sport due to the way it is structured. No fewer than seven bodies are involved in the sport. Each with their own objectives and agenda. A situation that has previously proved problematic when it comes to reaching a mutual agreement. So it may be that COVID-19 ironically unites them once and for all.

“I want to say that it will be different for the better and I think if the organisations actually communicate and come together during this period and create more solidarity. I believe tennis could come out in a much better way,” James says with optimism.

So what could the future of the Tour look like? That depends on who you ask with various personalities in the sport having their own view. As for James, how the sport changes will depend on how long the Tour suspension lasts for.

“I think in regards to prize money, International travel, rankings, Tour structure that could all very well change. But this all depends on the length (of the suspension).” He said.
“If the whole year is written off there are a whole lot of people behind the scenes who have got to look at what 2021 looks like and how we get tennis back. Which is the most important thing.”

With people fighting for their health around the world, it all seems very trivial to consider what may happen to a sport in the coming weeks.

At the time of his despair, James does see the bigger picture. Whilst he resides at home, somebody close to him is in the midst of the covid-19 battlefield, providing him with a stern reality check.

“My wife is a nurse and they are on the front-line. The job they’re doing is unbelievable.” He said.
“I think I’m quite fortunate to be at home, safe and waiting for this to ride out.’
“You have to stay positive and over-communicate with people.”

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