2019 has been a roller coaster season for Belarus’ Aryna Sabalenka both on and off the court.
The 21-year-old has claimed a trio of titles on the WTA Tour with all of those occurring in China. Overall, she has won 39 out of 61 matches played, as well as winning the doubles title at the US Open with Elise Mertens. On the other hand, she has also lost her opening match at seven tournaments this year and failed get back-to-back wins in three out of the four grand slams she played in.
Sabalenka is currently guided on the tour by Russia’s Dmitry Tursunov. A former top 20 player on the ATP Tour who retired from the sport in 2017. They have been working together for more than a year. It looked as if the partnership had come to an end back in August when both announced on social media that they are ending their collaboration. Sabalenka wrote ‘Thank you for everything and all the best in your future.’ However, the two soon changed their minds after.
“After the US Open, I realized that there was a problem, too many things off the court was diverting my attention from the game and this helped me to win something and find certain sensations.” Sabalenka told Ubitennis.com earlier this month in China.
“I realized how stupid it was to give Dmitry the blame for my failures, so I found a way to recover my relationship with him .”
The mixed season experienced by Sabalenka is one she hopes will help her in the long term. She ends 2019 inside the world’s top 20 for the second year in a row. Becoming one of only four players under the age of 21 to do so on the women’s tour.
“I hope that all this can help me start the next season in a more… intelligent, more experienced way.” She explains. “There is a bit of disappointment with what happened in these months, but at the same time I said to myself, ‘ok, you finally understood’. This means you can work on it and move on. Every player spends moments like that and usually always learns something, I hope it can happen to me too.”
Despite still being a relatively newcomer in the world of coaching, Sabalenka isn’t the first player Tursunov has coached. He had previously worked with compatriot Elena Vesnina and guided her to the 2018 Australian Open doubles finals. During that same year, Vesnina also reached the finals of tournaments in Indian Wells and Madrid under his guidance.
There remains a question as to what the future has in store for Tursunov’s latest partnership. Was their brief break a blessing in disguise or is there more trouble ahead for their working relationship?
“I hope to continue working with Dmitry.” Sabalenka stated.
“We tried to ‘fix’ each other a few things and this helped me stay positive. The intention is simply to move forward because our collaboration is very good and working great, I don’t want to lose him as a coach. If things are going so well, why should I look for someone else?’
“We tried to solve all the problems we had and I think we did it quite well.”
Sabalenka closes out her season with three wins over top 10 players. Defeating Kiki Bertens twice and Ash Barty once.
(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.
EXCLUSIVE: Inside The Melbourne Bubble – ‘Top Names Get Preferential Treatment But That’s Part Of The Tour’
Marcelo Demoliner celebrated his birthday in quarantine, his doubles partner isn’t allowed to leave his room for 14 days and he believes there is a difference in treatment between the top players and others. Yet, he refuses to complain about the situation he finds himself in.
Like his peers, Brazil’s Marcelo Demoliner passes his time in Melbourne quarantine by training, sleeping, eating and posting amusing videos on social media.
Demoliner, who currently has a doubles ranking of world No.44, is required by Australian law to abide by a strict isolation period before he is allowed to play any professional tournament. Although he is allowed to train unless he is deemed to be a close contact of somebody who has tested positive for COVID-19. An unfortunate situation 72 players find themselves in, including Demoliner’s doubles partner Santiago Gonzalez
During an email exchange with UbiTennis the Brazilian sheds light on what he labels as an ‘usual experience’ that has prompted criticism from some players. Roberto Bautista Agut was caught on camera describing conditions as a ‘prison’ in a video leaked to the press. Although he has since apologised for his comments. Demonliner himself is not as critical as others.
“It is an unusual experience that we will remember for a long time,” he told UbiTennis. “It is a very complicated situation that we are going through. Obviously, it is not ideal for us athletes to be able to go out for just 5 hours a day, but mainly for the other 72 players who cannot go out, like my partner Santiago Gonzalez. They have a complicated situation of possibly getting injured after not practicing for 14 days, but it is what it is.’
“We need to understand and adapt to this situation considering Australia did a great job containing Covid.”
With three ATP doubles titles to his name, Demoliner is playing at the Australian Open for the sixth year in a row. He has played on the Tour for over a decade and has been ranked as high as 34th in the world.
Besides the players complaining about food, their rooms and even questioning the transparency of the rule making, Tennis Australia also encountered a slight blip regarding the scheduling of practice.
“I was a little lucky because I stayed in one of the hotels that we don’t need to take transportation to go to the training courts. It made the logistics issue much easier. The other two hotels had problems with transportation and logistics in the first two days, but I have nothing to complain about, honestly.”
Demoliner remains thankful for what Tennis Australia has managed to do in order for the Australian Open to be played. Quarantine can have a big impact on a person mentally, as well as physically. Each day players spend at least 19 hours in their hotel rooms which was no fun for the Brazilian who celebrated his 32nd birthday on Tuesday.
“Without a doubt, it is something we have never been through before. I’m luckily having 5 hours of training daily. I am managing to maintain my physical preparation and rhythm. It is not the ideal, of course, but I can’t even imagine the situation of other players who are in the more restricted quarantine.”
Priority given to the top names
As Demoliner resides in Melbourne, a selected handful of players are spending their time in Adelaide. Under a deal struck by Tennis Australia, officials have agreed for the top three players on the ATP and WTA Tour’s to be based in the city. The idea being is that it will relieve the strain on Melbourne who is hosting in the region of 1200 arrivals.
Craig Tiley, who is the head of Tennis Australia, has insisted that all players will have to follow the same rules wherever they are based. Although some feel that those in Adelaide have some extra privileges such as a private gym they can use outside of the five-hour training bubble. Japan’s Taro Daniel told the Herald Sun: “People in Adelaide are being able to hit with four people on court, so there’s some resentment towards that as well.” Daniel’s view is one echoed also by Demoliner.
“I do believe they are receiving preferential treatment, quite different from us. But this is part of the tour,” he said.
“The top tennis players always had these extras, we are kinda of used to it. We came here knowing that they would have better conditions for practicing, structure, hotels… they also have merits to have achieved all that they have to be the best players in the world. I don’t know if it’s fair, but I believe the conditions could be more similar than they are in this situation.”
Some players were recently bemused by a photo of Naomi Osaka that surfaced on social media before being removed. The reigning US Open champion was pictured on a court with four members of her team, which is more people than what those in Melbourne are allowed to train with.
As the Adelaide contingent continues their preparations, those most unhappy with them are likely to be the 72 players who are in strict quarantine. Demoliner is concerned about the elevated risk of injury that could occur due to the facts they are not allowed to leave their rooms. All players in this situation have been issued with gym equipment to use.
“I think that they will be at a considerable disadvantage compared to who can train. But we need to obey the law of the country, there is not much to do … until the 29th they will have to stay in the room and that is it,” he said.
“Whether it is fair or not, it is not up to me to say because I am not in this situation. The thing about having the other players who didn’t have contact with the positive cases to also stay in the rooms is the concern about the risk of injury, specially for singles players. It will be a tough challenge, especially at the beginning of the season.”
In recent days, officials have been holding video calls with players to discuss ways to address these concerns ahead of the Australian Open. Which will start a week after they are allowed to leave their rooms.
When the tournaments do get underway there are also questions about how the public will react to players who have made headlines across the country for their criticism of the quarantine process. A somewhat sore point for Australian’s with some nationals unable to return home due to the government restrictions. On top of that, people in Melbourne are concerned about a potential outbreak of COVID-19.
“It is a very complex situation. I fully understand the reaction of the Australian population considering the recent events… the effect that the players are bringing, the risks to the population,” Demoliner said of the current circumstances.
“We know this and obviously they are concerned with the whole situation, which is still very uncertain. On our side, though, they did allow us to come here to play. It is important to remember that the decision to welcome us was approved by the Australian Government, otherwise we would not be here.”
Demoliner is one of three Brazilian doubles players ranked to have a top 100 ranking on the ATP Tour along with Bruno Soares and Marcelo Melo.
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