The International Tennis Federation (ITF) has told Ubitennis that health and safety of both players and fans is ‘paramount’ as they continue to deal with the evolving threat posed by Covid-19 (aka Coronavirus).
Tennis tournaments have been disrupted worldwide by the illness, which has claimed the lives of more than 3000 people. Although experts estimate that the death rate from Covid-19 is roughly 1% with the elderly and people with pre-existing medical conditions most at risk. Numerous outbreaks around the world have resulted in various ITF, WTA and ATP events getting cancelled or postponed across South Korea, China and Japan. Meanwhile, the final of the Bergamo Challenger was also recently cancelled due to northern Italy being placed on a lockdown.
As experts try to conjure up with a solution to the outbreaks, sporting organisations have been placed under pressure to do what they can to minimise the disease spreading. Heather Bowler is the Executive Director of Communications for the ITF in London. In an email exchange with Ubitennis.net, she stressed that the ITF is taking a ‘case by case’ approach to dealing with the impact of Coronavirus on their events.
“The ITF is constantly monitoring the data and information from the relevant authorities about the evolution the virus and reviews the situation on a daily basis. The situation is different in each country.” She said.
“We monitor WHO notifications, review travel restrictions issued by national authorities and consult with security and medical experts to monitor the situation daily. Decisions about specific events continue to be made on a case by case based on at this time.”
The organisation is responsible for all tournaments that don’t fall in the jurisdiction of either the ATP or WTA. This includes Davis/Fed Cup ties, junior tournaments and the Olympic tennis competition. There has been doubts concerning the Tokyo Olympics going ahead on time, but organisers remain determined that this will not be the case.
Italy has one of the biggest outbreaks of Coronavirus. At least 79 people have died, according an update from the country’s civil protection agency on Tuesday. At present there will be at least 10 ITF singles tournaments taking place from now until the end of April there. Four men’s, four women’s and two juniors. All of the professional tournaments will be hosted in Santa Margherita Di Pula, Sardinia. Meanwhile the junior events are set to be played in Florence and Salsomaggiore Terme (Northern Italy).
Despite the threat, the latest stance is that the ITF has no restrictions implemented on those participating in forthcoming events in Italy. Something that could change in the coming weeks.
“We are monitoring the situation on a country by country basis but have not imposed restrictions on players participating in Italian events.” Ubitennis is told.
Italy is expected to host their most prestigious tennis tournament, the Internazionali BNL d’Italia Rome, in May.
The uncertainty caused by the Covid-19 outbreak places player’s in an uncomfortable position with many planning months in advance of what their schedule will be. For those ranked outside of the top 100, any last-minute changes will likely result in extra costs and panic about where to play instead.
“If a player makes the decision to withdraw from a tournament citing concerns about COVID-19 they will not be fined.” Bowler stated.
There are ongoing conversations between the ITF and the other governing bodies of tennis concerning the ongoing crises. At present their advice is based on information provided by the World Health Organisation in relation to certain countries. Should it deteriorate any further, there is a chance the ITF could make adjustments to their ‘global policy.’
“We are in regular communication with the ATP and WTA. Currently, the evolution of the virus remains specific to each country and decisions relating to events are made on a case by case basis.” The ITF reiterated.
“We are constantly monitoring the situation and the data provided by WHO, as well as the policies and travel restrictions issued by relevant national authorities, together with advice from expert medical and security advisors. Should the situation evolve and the need arise, we will review a global policy.”
How the ITF could review their global policy is unclear. Although in a worse case scenario, it could advise players against playing in certain countries all together if it was deemed that the threat posed was too substantial.
No fans allowed
This weekend will see countries battle it out in the Davis Cup for a place in the 18-team finals later this year. One of those ties, however will be played in mostly silence with no spectators. Japan will host Ecuador in the city of Miki. In a bid to minimise the Coronavirus threat, organisers have decided to suspend mass gatherings of people. Something that has been seen at other sporting events in the country, which is set to host the Olympics in August.
“Health and safety is paramount. We will make the necessary decisions according to the notifications of the relevant authorities and our expert medical and security advisors. The Japan vs Ecuador tie at the Bourbon Beans Dome in Miki, Japan on 6-7 March will be played without spectators. This decision was taken in consultation with the JTA (Japanese Tennis Association) following advice from Japan Sports Agency and the Ministry of Health, Labour and Welfare.”
The problem with Covid-19 is the unpredictability at present. It is thought illness originated from a market in Wuhan, which illegally trades wild animals. As experts get to grip with the science behind the illness, the world of sport is left patiently waiting and hoping for a solution sooner rather than later. Especially for the world of tennis, which hosts numerous top tennis tournaments across Asia during the final quarter of the season.
Despite the mayhem, Bowler is confident that the ITF has the relevant resources to deal with whatever occurs in the future.
“We have dealt with many issues that have had widespread impact and most have their specificities. When dealing with such occurrences, we ensure that we monitor the data closely, remain in close contact with the relevant authorities, constantly monitor and provide information, and, in consultation with the relevant experts ensure we are in the best position possible to make the right decisions about our course of action.” She concluded.
Covid-19 Impact on Tournaments
ATP Challenger Tour
-Anning, China (Week of 20 April 2020) – CANCELLED
-Seoul, South Korea (Week of 27 April 2020 – postponed to August)
-Busan, South Korea (week of 4 May 2020 – postponed to August)
-Gwangju, South Korea (Week of 11 May 2020 – postponed to August)
-Madrid, Spain (Week of 23 March 2020) postponed to October following ATP’s agreement to the club’s request.
-WTA Xi’an Open (April 13-19) CANCELLED
-WTA Kunming Open (April 27-May 3) CANCELLED
-China withdrew from competition in February
-Japan to play Ecuador without spectators
Slam Winner Virginia Ruzici discusses her career and Halep’s future [EXCLUSIVE]
The Romanian manager tells us of her penniless early days and of her greatest adversaries. She also recounts of her mentee’s dream run at the 2019 Championships and of the sport’s resuming play after the lockdown.
UbiTennis has interviewed Virginia Ruzici, the 65-year-old former French Open champion from Romania who has been Simona Halep’s manager since 2008. Now living in Paris with her German husband, she reached the eighth spot in the women’s rankings after her win at Roland Garros in 1978. She reached the final once more two years later, losing to Chris Evert, a bonafide nightmare of an opponent for her, and she also made the semis in 1976, while she reached the quarters at least once in each of the four Majors.
After hanging her racquet for good, she began a management career, working for the Milan Open and IMG, before becoming Simona Halep’s manager in 2008, fetching her partnerships with brands like Lotto, Nike, and Wilson.
However, her early steps in professional tennis were humble to say the least: “In my late teens, I started to travel around Europe with Mariana Simionescu and Florenta Mihai (also top professionals from Romania), and we were always broke, and not just us – Ion Tiriac, later on my manager and now a billionaire, was always looking for ways to eke out a living in those days.
“We had some custom-made Romanian outfits, and we tried to sell them to pay for our hotel rooms, and on a couple of occasions we accepted to be umpires in France for the equivalent of one or two pounds. When we went to the US for the first time, at the beginning we couldn’t even afford to have our own rooms, and the North American swing lasted for four months back then, so we had better make some money quickly!”
Mariana Simionescu, Bjorn Borg’s first wife, was a particularly close acquaintance of Ruzici’s, her perennial roommate and a peer in the political struggles that Eastern Europeans faced back then when crossing over the Iron Curtain: “When we got to a European city, we immediately had to go to the consulate of the next country on our schedule in order to get a visa. So, if we went to Hamburg, I immediately went to the Italian consulate to get a permit to go to Rome the ensuing week.”
Ruzici spent seven straight years in the world Top 20 and won 12 official titles. However, she is adamant that her real tally is miscalculated: “I actually won fourteen tournaments. For some reasons, my wins in Gstaad, Bastad, and Zurich aren’t counted, while I’ve been attributed three wins in Kitzbuhel, where I only scored a brace.”
Her era was dominated by two of the greatest players of all time, Martina Navratilova and Chris Evert. The latter was a particularly tough client for the clay-court specialist, being probably the greatest female player to ever lace up on the surface: “I’ve never won against Chris, out of over 20 meetings. She was always too good for me, especially from a mental standpoint. I was an attacking player, and she just grinded me down on every single point, it was exhausting.
“I’ve never got a win against Martina either, at least officially, since I managed to defeat her during an exhibition match in Turin, and another time I also had a 2-5, 15-40 lead in the third against her in Dallas. Honestly, I wish I’d faced her on clay, because I think I could have brought the challenge to her – the only time we played a ‘clay’ match, we were in today’s Ukraine, and she was 16 or something, but the surface was this yellowish mud that I wouldn’t really call clay.”
Despite never vanquishing her biggest foes, she still racked up quite an impressive list of Top 10 victims, among which she mentions Andrea Jaeger (now an Episcopal preacher), Brit Sue Barker, Hana Mandlikova, Helena Sukova, Wendy Turnbull, and Dianne Fromholtz.
Nowadays, her name is inextricably tied to that of Simona Halep, whom she’s represented since 2008. Ironically, she was initially reluctant to take the job, because after five years with IMG (before that she worked for the Milan Open, spearheading the only women’s edition of the tournament, in 1991, and for Eurosport France) she was tired of being a manager. However, when an Italian promoter, Cino Marchese, counseled otherwise, and after she saw the strides that the teenager had made since she had last seen her, she realised that her fellow countrywoman had what it took to climb the rankings and accomplish something special.
Speaking four languages (Romanian, French, Italian, and English), she immediately started to plant the seeds for some remunerative partnerships, but at first it was hard to get some sponsors to raise their antennae for a diminutive-albeit-pugnacious Eastern European newcomer, even though she had won the Junior French Open right after Virginia came on board. Her first contract was with Lotto, an Italian brand, quite popular in tennis but a far cry from her current Nike deal, which, along with Wilson and a few other contracts, made her the fourth wealthiest female athlete in the world in 2019.
Sure, football die-hard Halep had a contentious relationship with grown-up Slams at first, losing her first three finals, one of them as the overwhelming favourite in Paris against Jelena Ostapenko. Ruzici is unsure whether that was ever a problem: “She lost the first one against Maria Sharapova, who had already won in Paris and who is someone who knows how to bag a Major, and the Australian one against Wozniacki was a nail-biter, ending 7-5 in the third against a former world champion, so they were understandable defeats. It is true, though, that she was crushed after the Ostapenko fiasco, because she was 6-4 3-0 up and suddenly choked, so it might have been a problem at some point.”
Halep finally broke the spell at the 2018 French Open, where she came back to defeat Sloane Stephens, and fulfilled a lifelong dream by winning Wimbledon last year, literally obliterating Serena Williams with a double 6-2 in barely over 50 minutes. Even her mentor was stunned: “She played the match of her life, no doubt about that. Serena had everything to lose, playing for the Slam record, but she admitted herself that she’d never seen Simona play that way, every shot she hit landed exactly where she wanted it to, it was a sight to behold.”
As to why her protégé peaked at the right time, she has a clear explanation: “In the first round, she played a very tight match against another Romanian, Mihaela Buzarnescu, and she might very well have lost that one, and the same goes for most of her matches. Playing such close-call encounters, she felt liberated, and also spent a lot of time on the court, so by the time she played Serena, she was… serene, and her fitness level was superb.”
The Covid-19 hiatus might have been a blessing in disguise for Halep, who injured her foot in Dubai and, according to her manager, would have needed to rest for one or two months anyway. She started to train at her usual pace a month ago, working exclusively on clay due to her affinity with the surface and due to the cheaper price it takes on her joints. Apparently, her training program wasn’t hindered by her coach, Darren Cahill, being unable to fly over from Australia: “She just streams her sessions for him, and he can instruct the on-site coaches to have her do certain drills or others – it’s a bit different than my playing days!”
The world N.2 is scheduled to be the marquee attraction at the first event after play resumes, in Palermo (although Ruzici is non-committal on the issue, she says that hopefully she’ll be ready), and even after then the situation is not very clear, given the spike in Coronavirus cases in the US, a potentially damning blow for Flushing Meadows’ hopes of attracting the best European players: “It’s too early to make a decision, right now she would have to quarantine for two weeks after coming back from New York, so it’s a difficult situation. I’m more optimistic with regards to the French Open, I live in Paris and still wear a mask in public, but the situation has improved a lot and I think that a 50-60% capacity event might actually happen.”
Halep’s ranking is now safe, since her Wimbledon haul will last for one more year, but will she still be at the top for a long time, especially in the wake of what Andy Murray has been saying about a narrowing window for success for older players? “I don’t see her doing what Federer or Serena do, world-class at 38, but I’m sure she’ll still be competing for the biggest prizes in her early-to-mid thirties – don’t forget that she is only going to turn 29 on September 27.”
However Halep’s career progresses from now on, her society with Ruzici has been exceedingly productive for both, and not just in terms of accolades and dough, but in communality in the sporting world too: UbiTennis’s director, Ubaldo Scanagatta, a long-time friend of hers, wants Virginia to be in Palermo with Halep so she can take her to dinner with his family to thank her for the time she’s given to our publication. Ruzici said she will probably eschew that station, but that she would gladly accept his invite during the French Open. It’s a date, then.
EXCLUSIVE: Patrick Mouratoglou Sheds Light On UTS launch And Plans For The Future
The French tennis coach speaks to Ubitennis about how his new event has met his expectations and what his next plans are.
The mastermind behind the newly created Ultimate Tennis Showdown (UTS) has said the event has been seen by an estimated 50% of viewers who hadn’t previously watched tennis before.
Patrick Mouratoglou, who is the coach of Serena Williams, spoke out about the exhibition tournament during a video interview with Ubitennis on Sunday. Held at his academy located in the heart of the French Riviera, the UTS has a unique format compared to traditional tennis with players such as Matteo Berrettini and Stefanos Tsitsipas playing. Matches are played in four 10-minute quarters with players serving twice alternatively. Organisers say their format has been ‘inspired by e-sports with fast-paced action, new rules, and plot twists that will keep you on the edge of your seat.’
The inaugural edition of the tournament will conclude on Sunday evening after taking place during the weekends over the past month. Mouratoglou says he is satisfied with how it has gone because it has been endorsed by those who have taken part.
“We are satisfied because it was a great challenge. We started from zero during the confinement; it was just an idea,” he told UbiTennis.
“Then suddenly we decided to make this idea a reality. We’ve been broadcasting in more than 100 countries.’
“I really like the show (UTS) but it is not about me, it is about the players. So I’m happy because the players really enjoyed playing it.”
Mouratoglou has previously said the aim of his event was to attract a younger and newer fan base to the sport. Claiming that the average age of a tennis fan is 61, which is a number that some have questioned. When asked by UbiTennis about his statement, he insists that it is based on accurate information provided throughout the industry via multiple sources. Going on to add that both the ATP and WTA are aware of it.
As for the UTS, the 50-year-old said that he was partly able to achieve his goals when it comes to the target audience. Providing a glimpse into the demographics of the tournament’s audience that he has knowledge of.
“The goal was to bring new people to tennis and I can say that 50% of our audience were previously not watching tennis,” he said. “Secondly, we wanted to bring younger fans because the average age of a tennis fan is getting older. Our average age is 30-year-old.”
UTS have been held behind closed doors due to the COVID-19 pandemic, so their audience has been in the form of subscribers to their social media accounts and streaming platform utslive.tv. The figures provided have been generated based on two methods. The first is an analysis of their social media users in terms of age as well as other things. Furthermore, it has been based on a questionnaire sent to ‘a majority’ of their subscribers.
The significance of these statistics are hard to read into. In a previous interview with UbiTennis last month, Mouratoglou stated that he aims to attract 50,000 subscribers to his platform. It is, however unclear if that has been met with the UTS deciding that they will not be disclosing their platform information to the public. No reason was given as to why this is the case.
“First of all we don’t give these figures (concerning subscribers). I’m not able to give them to you but I’m able to say something about the typology of fans that was following us. The reach on TV was around 20 million, but platform figures are not public.”
Another element to take into account was that the tournament has also been streamed on other various media channels such as Eurosport, Claro Tennis and the Tennis Channel.
What the future holds
Since the birth of the event, some have accused Mouratoglou of trying to change the sport. An allegation that he denies. Instead, he argues that he is exploring ways of attracting more people to the sport with a shorter format. Interestingly, when asked if the rules on the ATP and WTA Tour’s should be changed, he said no because tennis fans are ‘very conservative.’ However, Mouratoglou is a supporter of implementing on-court coaching and has voiced his support for the method on multiple occasions.
“I think they (ATP/WTA) are doing a great job because the tennis fans are very loyal and they have been able to keep them for a long time,” he explained.
“I don’t think they should change anything because tennis fans are very conservative and wouldn’t be happy. I’m not criticising them at all, but what I am just saying is that the average age of a tennis fan is getting older, it’s a fact. It’s not just tennis, it is sport in general.”
Now UTS-1 is coming to an end, plans are already underway for a second tournament that will also feature female players. With Mouratoglou naming Williams and Coco Gauff are two players he would like to see participate. Even more ambitious is the date for the event, which officials are hoping will be before the start of the US Open.
“We are going to do it again. It’s not completely set yet so I can’t say much,” he reveals. “The goal is to also bring women into the event. We are trying to arrange it to take place before the US Open.’
“The most important thing is that the UTS act as a compliment to the Tour’s and both can work alongside each other.”
It remains to be seen when the event will take place, but Mouratoglou says at the moment the plan is for him and Williams to attend the Western and Southern Open, which will take place in New York. If this is the case, in order for UTS-2 to occur, it needs to happen before August 20th.
The UTS has undoubtedly split opinions among fans in the world of tennis, but its founder is determined to find a way to attract more people to the sport in some capacity. It is unclear as to what will happen in the future, but Mouratoglou is hopeful that he can achieve his goals nonetheless.
“Of course, there are a lot of things to improve but for a start from zero I think it is not too bad,” he concludes.
EXCLUSIVE: ITF Insists Davis Cup ‘Financial Covered’ But Uncertainty And Doubt Remain
The governing body says all is well despite not addressing UbiTennis’ questions surrounding speculation that millions have been lost over the past 12 months.
The International Tennis Federation has defended their decision to cancel the Davis Cup Finals five months before it was set to get underway amid growing speculation surrounding its financial viability.
The finale of the men’s team event, as well as the Fed Cup, have been postponed until 2021 due to the COVID-19 pandemic, which has brought tennis to a standstill since March. It was set to be held at the Caja Magica in Madrid, which is located in the country where investment company Kosmos originated from. Founded by footballer Gerard Pique, Kosmos is the financial driving force behind the Davis Cup revamp after pledging to commit to a 25-year deal worth in the region of $3 billion.
“This is a tough decision to have to make, but delivering an international team event on this scale while guaranteeing the health and safety of all involved ultimately poses too great a risk,” ITF President David Haggerty said in a statement. “It is a complex undertaking and we have made the decision now to provide certainty for players, national associations and fans.”
There is however some confusion over the move and why it was decided so early before the event was set to start. Especially when the same city is set to hold a premier mixed ATP and WTA tournament in September.
UbiTennis has been in contact with the ITF concerning their decision with questions surrounding their motives to cancel the event. French newspaper L’Equipe had previously reported that Kosmos lost millions of euros last year staging the Finals and cancelling this year’s event would actually save them in the region of €18M. Furthermore, it has emerged that the national tennis federations were not consulted about the cancellation prior to it being formally announced.
During an email exchange with the governing body, the ITF did not comment when asked by UbiTennis’ about the financial figures that have been reported in the media.
“The ITF and Kosmos Tennis undertook extensive scenario planning, exploring feasible options to host the event safely. We strongly believe this is the right decision for the players and captains, the National Associations, the event organisers and the competition as a whole. National associations and team captains were informed as soon as we were able to confirm the decision.” The ITF told UbiTennis.
When pressed further as to if the loss of money last year contributed to their decision in 2020, there was no direct reply. Instead the ITF stressed that the event ‘is financially covered’ for 2021. Insisting that the driving force behind their decision was being unable to generate a ‘unique atmosphere’ and ‘make commercial sense.’
“Postponing the Davis Cup Finals was an extremely difficult decision. Delivering an international team event on this scale while guaranteeing the health and safety of all involved was ultimately not feasible at this time given the risks, restrictions, logistical challenges and continuing uncertainty caused by the global COVID-19 pandemic,” the ITF stressed.
“We looked at alternative scenarios, including playing behind closed doors, and selling only a limited number of tickets – but ultimately, they did not (a) fully enable the unique atmosphere that makes Davis Cup great and (b) make good commercial sense. The important thing to note is that the event is financially covered and all stakeholders are already working towards the 2021 edition.“
Whilst there is limited financial information, there are some figures that are known. As a result of the cancellation, Kosmos will not be paying €9M to the tennis federations and €18M to the players. This is according to a member of the German Tennis Federation who says those numbers ‘are not a secret.’
Furthermore, there is also uncertainty over what is going to happen to Kosmos’ agreed payment to the ITF, who launched a ‘job protection scheme’ back in April due to the worldwide pandemic. At the time ITF president David Haggerty took a 30 percent reduction in pay and members of his senior leadership team took a 20 percent drop.
“There will of course be a financial impact of the 2020 event being postponed until next year, but we are now focused on delivering a world-class event in 2021,” the ITF replied when questioned about Kosmos’ payment to them.
Hordorff speaks out
In the wake of there being no Davis Cup Finals, UbiTennis contacted the vice-president of the German Tennis Federation (DTB) to get his perspective on the current situation. Dirk Hordorff has worked in the tennis industry for many years coaching the likes of Janko Tipsarevic, Vasek Pospisil and former world No.5 Rainer Schuettler. For him, he fears that the latest developments could threaten many in the sport financially. Germany was one of the country’s to vote against the Davis Cup changes, which received a 71% backing in the 2018 ITF AGM meeting.
“The cancellation of the Davis Cup in July 2020 at a time where the 1000 ATP/WTA event in Madrid is scheduled for September is only understandable if Kosmos believes that 2020 (Davis Cup Finals) will also produce massive losses as 2019 and they want to try to avoid this,” he said.
“This will bring the ITF and many nations financially in trouble. The German Federation as many other federations like LTA or Tennis Australia were aware of this and voted at the AGM against this project.”
Hordoff later added that the ITF was challenged by Davis Cup captains about their decision to scrap the 2020 finals and the speculation that the move was done to help Kosmos save millions. Although those discussions only took place after the event was officially axed.
“The ITF called DC captains after they cancelled the event. They denied this reason and stated this as a rumour. But in my opinion and with my knowledge I can clearly say that Kosmos refused to play DC 2020. And unfortunately this will not be the last bad news in this matter.” He concluded.
This year is only the 12th time in history and the first since 1945 that a tennis season will conclude without the winners of the Davis Cup being decided.
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