A Doping Ban And Frosty Friendships Failed To Stop Maria Sharapova Becoming A Tennis Icon - UBITENNIS
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A Doping Ban And Frosty Friendships Failed To Stop Maria Sharapova Becoming A Tennis Icon

The inspiring, complicated and controversial career of one of Russia’s most renowned players of all time.

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In an ideal world Maria Sharapova’s legacy will be her five grand slam titles or the fact she is the third youngest woman in history to win a Wimbledon title. However, it was never that simple for the former tennis superstar throughout her career.

 

On Wednesday the Russian announced her immediate retirement from tennis at the age of 32. She chose to make her announcement in a heartfelt article written for Vanity Fair. In it she elegantly wrote ‘tennis- I’m saying goodbye.’ The decision comes after months of injury setbacks, particularly concerning her shoulder, side-lining Sharapova from the tour. She hasn’t played since losing in the first round at the Australian Open to Donna Vekic, but few expected that to be the last match of her career.

“In giving my life to tennis, tennis gave me a life. I’ll miss it everyday. I’ll miss the training and my daily routine: waking up at dawn, lacing my left shoe before my right, and closing the court’s gate before I hit my first ball of the day. I’ll miss my team, my coaches. I’ll miss the moments sitting with my father on the practice court bench. The handshakes—win or lose—and the athletes, whether they knew it or not, who pushed me to be my best.” Sharapova wrote.
“Looking back now, I realize that tennis has been my mountain. My path has been filled with valleys and detours, but the views from its peak were incredible. After 28 years and five Grand Slam titles, though, I’m ready to scale another mountain—to compete on a different type of terrain.”

Renowned for her fighting spirit displayed on the court, Sharapova achieved numerous milestones by the age of 18 that many others would dream of doing in their entire careers. Including winning the 2004 Wimbledon championships at the age of 17 before rising to world No.1 a year later. Despite her inexperience at the time, she managed to make herself a household name worldwide and laid the foundations to becoming one of the most prestigious female athletes in the world.

Over the coming years, she would record 98 victories over top 10 players, win 36 WTA titles (including five majors) and spend a total of 21 weeks as world No.1. Furthermore, she finished 13 seasons inside the world’s top 20 and is the third highest earning player in the history of the WTA Tour with $38.8 million in prize money earned.

It is hard to describe how extraordinary Sharapova’s career has been and to a degree subjective too. According to Forbes magazine her total career earnings are estimated to be in the region of $325 million. A figure includes her prize money, endorsements and appearances over the years. To put that into perspective, only Serena Williams has made more ($350 million). Williams is six years older than her.

“One of the keys to my success was that I never looked back and I never looked forward. I believed that if I kept grinding and grinding, I could push myself to an incredible place. But there is no mastering tennis—you must simply keep heeding the demands of the court while trying to quiet those incessant thoughts in the back of your mind.”

Highly respected, but not loved by all

Maria Sharapova at the US Open 2018 (photo via Twitter @usopen)

Throughout her career, the Russian was very much focused on her tennis and not making friends on the tour. She once said ‘I’m not really friendly or close to many players. I have not a lot of friends away from the courts.’ One of her biggest critics on the tour was Dominika Cibulkova, who she played seven times on the tour between 2008-2018.

“She’s a totally unlikeable person,” Cibulkova once said of Sharapova. “Arrogant, conceited and cold. When I sit beside her in the locker room, she won’t even say hello.”

It is Sharapova’s rivalry and relationship with Williams which was the most publicised. Two years ago she released a memoir titled Unstoppable: My life so far that reportedly featured the name of her American nemesis an estimated 100 times. In one chapter she wrote ‘I think Serena hated me for being the skinny kid who beat her, against all odds, at Wimbledon. But mostly I think she hated me for hearing her cry.’ Sharapova later claimed that she heard Williams telling a friend that she ‘will never lose to that little b**** again.’

Inevitably Williams was questioned about the book during the 2018 French Open. Diplomatically she assured that she had no ‘negative feelings’ against Sharapova, but did question the accuracy of her account.

“I wanted to read the book and I was really excited for it to come out and I was really happy for her.” Williams said of Sharapova.
“And then the book was a lot about me. I was surprised about that, to be honest. I was,like ‘Oh, okay.’ I didn’t expect to be reading a book about me, that wasn’t necessarily true.”

The introverted approach from the former world No.1, who has a active social life outside of the sport, was something she had from a young age. Legendary tennis coach Nick Bollettieri first got acquainted with her when she was nine at his academy.

“One her work is done, she’s gone,” he told The Independent in a previous interview.
“She doesn’t like to hang around. There’s no bullshitting afterwards with the other players. It’s all business.”

The ban that could have destroyed her

Little did she know that her popularity on the tour would decline further. In 2016 the sports world was stunned when Sharapova conducted a press conference as a venue that she famously described as having ‘an ugly carpet.’ Unfortunately that was the only humorous thing on that occasion. In a broadcast that was streamed live around the world, she confirmed she has failed a drugs test. The culprit was meldonium, which was added to the list of prohibited substances just months before. Naturally, she protested her innocence, but the suspicion remained.

Less than 12 months before her statement, she was one of the most, if not the most, sought after female athletes. In fact Forbes.com named her as the world’s most marketable female athlete of 2015.

“In so many ways, I feel like something I love was taken away from me and it will feel really good to have it back. Tennis is my passion and I have missed it.” She commented on her ban.

Initially slammed with a 24-month ban, it was reduced to 15 months after the Court of Arbitration for Sport (CAS) ruled that she was not an ‘intentional doper.’ Not that their verdict reduced the critical comments. Usually when an athlete is sanctioned for doping, they suffer a freefall in endorsements. Yet, in Sharapova’s case many jumped to her defence. Nike, Porsche, Evian and Head all maintained their links. The only exception was Tag Heuer who decided not to renew a previous deal. Few athletes in the world have the ability to do that, but Sharapova somehow did.

“I don’t think there’s too many athletes that could have had those type of relationships with people, decision-makers that knew her really well and the character of her, and where willing to hang in there, to wait, instead of terminating, but suspending the contract. That was really the key. Everybody had termination clauses and they decided to suspend and wait,” agent Max Eisenbud once said in an interview with Forbes.

Fighting until she decided to stop

When she returned to the sport following the ban, Sharapova once again faced the hostility of her rivals. Top names such as Caroline Wozniacki and Andy Murray questioned the decision to award her wild cards following a drugs ban. Nevertheless, like throughout the majority of her career, she was defiant and undeterred by what others think .

“I don’t think it’s for them to really have an opinion because they don’t have the facts. Those are the types of words that make headlines and they will be used as headlines. But ultimately, this is my career and I faced it head on. I admitted my mistake and I went about it and I served my suspension and now I’m back.” She told BBC Sport in 2017.

Sharapova managed to build up her tennis career and returned as a familiar figure on the tour, but she was no longer the player she was earlier in her career. Winning the Tianjin Open almost three years ago would turn out to be her last taste of silverware in professional tennis. She would eventually end back in the world’s top 30 before injury would be the start of the end. Numerous shoulder problems sidelined her from actions for days, then weeks. After fighting for so long, she finally gave in after her experience during last year’s US Open.

“Shoulder injuries are nothing new for me — over time my tendons have frayed like a string. I’ve had multiple surgeries — once in 2008; another procedure last year — and spent countless months in physical therapy. Just stepping onto the court that day felt like a final victory, when of course it should have been merely the first step toward victory. I share this not to garner pity, but to paint my new reality: My body had become a distraction.”

Sharapova will not be remembered as the player everybody loved and sadly her doping ban taints her career. Yet she still managed to remain one of the sport’s most iconic and influential figures for more than a decade. Many people would have never been able to do this, but Sharapova was one in a million.

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Alex Olmedo Was More Than Charming…

Alejandro “Alex” Olmedo Rodríguez, the man who came from so little and made so much from being able to play extraordinary tennis, has left many with cherished memories, as Mark Winters’ story brings out…

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Alex Olmedo - Photo USC Athletics

He was born in Arequipa, the second largest city in Peru. It is 678 kilometers from the country’s largest city and its capital, Lima. His hometown is known for its spicy cuisine and the volcanic white stone that is used in the construction of the eye-catching buildings and houses that line the streets. He was the son of the man who took care of the clay tennis courts at the Club Internacional Arequipa. He taught himself to play and spent time working as a ball boy at the club. As a teenager, he made his way to the US and went on to become one of the game’s greats.

 

Though the story of Alejandro “Alex” Olmedo Rodríguez, who passed away on December 9th due to brain cancer at the age of 84 at his home in Encino, California, reads like a fairytale, it is actually a good deal more dramatic than “Once upon a time”…

He first came to the country that would eventually become his home in 1951 to  play in the US National Championship at Forest Hills, New York. In a prelude to threads that would be woven throughout his life, Olmedo lost 6-0, 6-4, 6-1 to Jacque Grigry, who was from Alhambra, California and was a three-time All-American at USC.  Being the best player in Peru, at the beginning of 1954, the seventeen-year-old became an adventurer. In effect he played a role in the yet-to-be-made John Hughes movie “Planes, Trains and Automobiles”. Thanks to money raised in Arequipa, Olmedo, who didn’t speak English at the time, journeyed from Peru to Havana by ship, then to Miami by plane, and came to California on a bus. 

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Alex Olmedo Photo Modesto Junior College

He ended up at Modesto Junior College, in the town of the same name, in Central California. He took English and other classes and played on the school’s tennis team which was one of the best in the state at the time. The 1954 squad included Olmedo, who lost to Pancho Contreras in the State Junior College Singles final, and Joaquin Reyes, who lost to Contreras in the state singles title round the year before. The trio, who were members of the third Modesto Junior College Hall of Fame induction class, moved on to USC. (In the mid-1950s, Modesto’s tennis program was a conduit to USC tennis and their acclaimed coach, George Toley. Players would  finish their two-years at Modesto, then move south to become Trojan competitors.)  

Their “good” on the JC level became even better in NCAA competition. Contreras and Reyes won the NCAA Doubles in 1955. The next year, Olmedo doubled, taking the singles title and then the doubles with Contreras. In 1958, he doubled again earning the singles champion and teamed with Ed Atkinson for the doubles trophy. 

At five feet, ten inches tall, Olmedo wasn’t physically imposing. But, he had a formidable serve produced from a free-flowing motion that featured ballerina-like tip-toe balance as he tossed the ball up. That was merely a prelude to an exacting forehand and deft volleying. He was extremely quick and athletic. He had flair, along with a feel that combined to make him a solid competitor. Yet, the thing that made him a standout was his approach. In a 1959 story in Sports Illustrated, he revealed that from playing, not the advice of coaches, he learned how to play…

Perry T. Jones, the fabled leader of tennis in Southern California from 1930 until his death in 1970, was unrivaled when it came to controlling the game locally, nationally and for that matter, internationally. Aware that Olmedo had lived in the country for more than three years, along with the fact that Peru did not have a Davis Cup team, at the time, Jones recruited the twenty-two year-old  to play for the US. And it just so happened that Jones was the US Davis Cup captain in 1958 and would be again in ’59.

Olmedo, who had made an impression in NCAA play, added to his accomplishments playing Davis Cup for Jones, as a non-US citizen, in the US’s 3-2 victory over Australia.  The 1958 Challenge Round was played on the luxurious grass at the Milton Courts in Brisbane, December 29th through the 31st. The “Chief”, as he had been nicknamed because of his cultural background, was responsible for each one of the winner’s points. He defeated Mal Anderson and Ashley Cooper both in four sets and teamed with Ham Richardson to outlast Anderson and Neale Fraser in an epic five set doubles contest. (Barry MacKay, who lost both his singles matches, was the other US team member; and Jones was the non-playing captain.)

In the semifinals, the US defeated Italy 5-0 on the grass at Royal King’s Park Tennis Club, in Perth, December 19th through the 21st.  In the last match of the tie, Olmedo downed Orlando Sirola, the six foot-seven inch competitor who began playing the game at the age of 22 (in 1950), 20-18, 6-1, 6-4. The thirty-eight games played in the first set established the record for most games in a singles set. (As the holder of the title, Australia was not required to compete in the preliminary rounds of the Davis Cup.)

Olmedo’s trophy collecting continued at even more brisk pace in 1959. At the Australian National Championship at Memorial Drive in Adelaide, January 16th through the 26th, he defeated Fraser, 6-1, 6-2, 3-6, 6-3 in the final. On the lawns at the All England Lawn Tennis Club in London, Olmedo methodically vanquished Rod Laver, 6-4, 6-3, 6-4 in the Wimbledon title round. It was strangely fitting that the match was played on Saturday, July 4th, a holiday celebrated in his adopted country. Looking to join – Jack Crawford of Australia (1933); Fred Perry of Great Britain (1934); Tony Trabert of the US (1955); Lew Hoad of Australia (1956) – as one of the few players to win three of the four majors in a signal season, Fraser gained revenge for his loss in Australia, confounding Olmedo in the US National Championship Singles final, 6-3, 5-7, 6-2, 6-4.

(The incomparable, J. Donald Budge set the standard winning all four of the  Grand Slam singles titles in 1938.) 

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Description automatically generatedFormer stars of the men’s Los Angeles tournament – Ted Schroeder, Alex Olmedo, Ellsworth Vines, Fred Perry, Arthur Ashe and Jack Kramer Photo Mark Winters

Jack Kramer, Joseph Bixler, men’s Los Angeles Tournament Honoree Richard “Pancho” Gonzalez, Honorable Robert Kelleher, Alex Olmedo, Pancho Segura and Bobby Riggs. Cynthia Lum Photo

In 1960, Olmedo joined the professional ranks. He enjoyed moderate success on the Jack Kramer Tour winning the 1960 US Pro title, reaching the semifinals at the Wembley Pro events in 1960 and ’63, as well as being a quarterfinalist at the French Pro tournaments in 1962 and ’64. His competitive pro career came to an end in 1965 when he retired.

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Alex Olmedo at the Beverly Hills Hotel in 1969 with Edda Speisser, a childhood friend from Peru who used to date his younger brother, Jaime.

Shortly after his playing career came to an end, he began another as a teaching professional. Being personable and never too busy to chat made him an institution at the Beverly Hill Hotel. As the Director of Tennis at the legendary spa, he held court for close to forty years.  During that time, he taught (and cajoled in a friendly manner) the likes of Katharine Hepburn and the irrepressible Charlton Heston, who played the game as if he were still Ben-Hur (the role that took him to movie stardom in 1959).

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2011 Southern California Tennis Association Hall of Fame inductee, Kathy May with 2000 SCTA Hall of Famer, Alex Olmedo Photo Cheryl Jones

During the early 1970s before he became US Davis Cup captain, International Tennis Hall of Famer, Tony Trabert worked with Kathy May regularly at her father’s house in Beverly Hills. It was a mere three blocks from Olmedo’s teaching court at the Beverly Hills Hotel. I was fortunate to be able to take part in Trabert’s workouts with May, who is Taylor Fritz’s mother. On a number of occasions, prior to the afternoon’s at David May’s or after they had taken place,  I would drop-in on Olmedo. He treated me like a long-lost friend, often telling me “we had to find time to have a hit …”, or inviting me to come back and have lunch with him. Even more meaningful, whenever I needed quotes for a story I was putting together, he found a way to always be available for a chat. He would not only answer my questions, he would regularly add insights that varied from meaningful, to amusing, to scandalous. He had a magic personality.

Olmedo’s on court success was recognized in 1983 when he became an inaugural member of the Intercollegiate Tennis Association Men’s Hall of Fame. The USC Athletics Hall of Fame enshrined him in 1997. He was inducted into the Southern California Tennis Association Hall of Fame in 2000. The ultimate accolade came in 1987 when Olmedo became a member of the International Tennis Hall of Fame. (And as mentioned above, he was in Modesto Junior College third Hall of Fame class.)

“The Chief” passed away at his Encino, California home. He is survived by Alejandro Jr., his son, along with Amy and Angela, his daughters, as well as four grandchildren.

The man who came from so little and made so much from being able to play extraordinarily well will be remember for much more. The foremost was for giving so many the opportunity to develop a friendship with Alejandro “Alex” Olmedo Rodríguez.

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It Isn’t Just Football Who Are Mourning The Loss Of Diego Maradona

The world of football has lost one of its icons and tennis has lost a loyal fan.

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Diego Maradona (image via Sky Sports Tennis Twitter)

It was during the 2013 Dubai Tennis Championships when Diego Armando Maradona stated that tennis was his second favourite sport after his beloved football.

 

The Argentinian sporting icon was a passionate and enthusiastic follower for more than 30 years until his death on Wednesday due to a heart attack. Regularly he would be seen watching matches in crowds at various tournaments. One of the earliest anecdotes took place in 1984 when he turned up to watch the French Open final and cheered on John McEnroe, who was taking on Ivan Lendl. Swiss journalist Rene Stauffer was sitting next to him and remembers the iconic figure ‘cheering like crazy.

Of course it was his fellow countrymen and women who Maradona was most interested in supporting. One in particular was Juan Martin del Potro who won the 2009 US Open. He once joked ‘Next week I’ll be the one training del Potro myself. I will ask Franco Davin to step aside and Diego will train del Potro.‘ He appeared to have a great amount of respect for the former world No.3 who is one of thousands mourning his death.

I feel that you return to the place that belongs to you, HEAVEN. For me you will never die. Rest in peace,” Del Potro wrote on Twitter.

After retiring from professional football in 1997 Maradona encountered his own personal demons as he battled with health issues and drug addiction. Nevertheless, his passion for sport never suffered. Attending various Davis Cup ties, he was usually seen shouting and cheering for his countrymen. He even had his own VIP box sporting his country’s flag with the words ‘The Maradona family is here‘ during the 2017 final between Argentina and Croatia.

https://twitter.com/DavisCup/status/1331644021622575108

Despite his calibre, Maradona said that he was star struck to meet some of tennis’ top names. One of those was former world No.1 Caroline Wozniacki who got talking to him during the Dubai Tennis Championships seven years ago. At the time Maradona was an ambassador for the Dubai Sports Council (DSC).

“I had the pleasure to meet Caroline Wozniacki. She is one of the top players and she is very beautiful and a very nice girl,” he said. “Despite her ranking and all her achievements, she came to say hello to me, although I’m the one who wanted to get up and go and greet her.”

As for the three giants of men’s tennis, Maradona cheered them on and spoke to them on numerous occasions. Wheather that was in person or via video message.

For Rafael Nadal this year marks the 10th anniversary of when the two spoke with each other at the ATP World Tour Finals in London. When the news broke of Maradona’s death he was one of the first to pay tribute.

“One of the greatest sportsmen in history, Diego Maradona, has left us. What he did in football will remain. My deepest and most heartfelt condolences to his family, the world of football, and to all of Argentina.” He wrote on social media.

It was in the same tournament as Nadal when Novak Djokovic once said ‘to have him as a supporter is an incredible honour and a pleasure.‘ A few months on from that, the two briefly spent time together in Abu Dubai as the Serbian conducted his off-season training.

One of Maradona’s final interactions with tennis before his death took place last year when Roger Federer played an exhibition match in Buenos Aires. In a video message broadcasted on the screens of the stadium he said to the Swiss ‘you were, you are and will be the greatest. There’s no other like you.‘ Words that brought tears to the eye of the 20-time Grand Slam champion. Originally the two had planned to meet in person but were unable to due to Maradona’s health.

https://twitter.com/canal_tenis/status/1197369560430710784

It was just three weeks ago when world No.9 Diego Schwartzman spoke out about the influence the footballing great has had on his country. The two never met in person but like many others, he was an idol for the tennis star.

“He’s been a sports idol since I was a kid. I’ve seen it on YouTube, not only, I’ve seen it on TV too. I’ve never seen him for real. He’s one of my soccer idols and I love soccer.” Schwartzman said.
“Wherever we go, everyone knows Argentina thanks to Maradona! This is the reason why I have the first name, Diego.”

Argentina has declared three days of national mourning following Maradona’s death.

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The ATP Finals Exceeded Expectations But There Was No Changing Of The Guard

Daniil Medvedev has shown how a player outside of the Big Three can shine at one of the most significant tournaments in men’s tennis but it is wrong to read too much into this achievement.

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Daniil Medvedev with the Nitto ATP Finals trophy (image via https://twitter.com/DaniilMedwed)

On Sunday afternoon the 2020 tennis season ended with a pulsating showdown between two of the biggest names outside of the formidable Big Three.

 

Daniil Medvedev held his nerve to fight back and edge out Dominic Thiem in an enthralling roller-coaster encounter that lasted almost three hours. Besides claiming the biggest title of his career to date, the Russian has become only the fourth player in history to defeat the world’s top three players at the same tournament, following in the footsteps of Boris Becker, Novak Djokovic and David Nalbandian.

In the aftermath of Medvedev’s victory came the inevitable question – is this the start of a new era in men’s tennis? For over the last decade the Tour has been dominated by Djokovic, Roger Federer and Rafael Nadal. Between them they have won 57 Grand Slam titles and shared the No.1 position continuously since August 2017. In fact, since February 2nd 2004, Andy Murray is the only other player outside of the trio to have held the top position.

“Hopefully all of us young guys will keep pushing and will have some great rivalries,” Medvedev told reporters on Sunday.
“Hopefully we can be there for a long time, maybe pushing the other generations back because that’s how we can be close to the Top 3.”

Medvedev’s emphatic performance at the end-of-season event showed that he has what it takes to scale the top of the game but recent history suggests that too much shouldn’t be read into it. Remarkably no member of the Big Three has won the event since Djokovic in 2015. Instead there have been five different champions most recently with each of those years raising hopes that there could be a changing of the guard on the Tour.

However, those hopes have never fully materialised. Prior to Medvedev, the four most recent ATP Finals champions have failed to win multiple titles the following year. In the case of 2017 winner Grigor Dimitrov, he hasn’t won a trophy of any sort since.

ATP Finals championTitles won over the next 12 monthsBest Grand Slam run over next 12 monthsYear-end ranking 12 months later
Andy Murray (2016)1French Open SF16 (down 15)
Grigor Dimitrov (2017)0Australian Open QF19 (down 16)
Alexander Zverev (2018)1French Open QF 7 (down 4)
Stefanos Tsitsipas (2019)1French Open SF 6 (no change)


It can be argued that the numbers above fail to tell the full story. For example Andy Murray’s injury woes started to hinder him the year after he won the tournament and Tsitsipas’ season has been marred by the COVID-19 pandemic. Although it does illustrate that staying at the very top of the game on a consistent basis without beng a member of the Big Three is a tough ask, raising questions about if the landscape of men’s tennis will ever change before Djokovic and co retire?

“There is going to be a time when they are not around anymore, then it’s going to be so important to keep all the tennis fans and to keep them with this great sport,” world No.3 Thiem explains.
“I think that’s our challenge, that we perform well and play great in big tournaments to become huge stars ourselves.
“It’s super important for tennis in general because they (the Big Three) gave so much to the sport. That’s our challenge to keep all those people with tennis and to maybe continue their story.”

Thiem boasts the honour of having at least five wins over every member of the trio, something  that has only ever been achieved by Murray. In London he defeated both Nadal and Djokovic which was something Medvedev also managed to achieve during the same week.

Veteran journalist Steve Flink perhaps is one of the most knowledgeable figures when it comes to the evolution of men’s tennis in the Open Era. His work in the sport dates back to 1972 when he was a statistician covering the US Open for CBS and working alongside the iconic Bud Collins. In a video chat with UbiTennis, Flink notes the recent shortcomings by ATP Finals champions but is hopeful that 2021 could be different.

“I don’t think we should put too much stock on this. On the other hand, Medvedev has ended the year strong and Thiem has now finally won a major at the US Open. You have to believe that these two guys will be threatening (for titles) next year with Thiem challenging for his second major and Medvedev to maybe win his first. So maybe there will be some more equity in men’s tennis,” he said.

Only time will tell about what may happen next year and if Medvedev’s ATP Finals triumph will have any impact at all. The only certainty is that more people are starting to talk about the other guys and that is a victory in itself for the future of the sport.

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