Maria Sharapova - A Closer Look - UBITENNIS
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Maria Sharapova – A Closer Look

Many followers of the game have an opinion about Maria Sharapova both as a player and a person. Mark Winters, who traveled on a portion of her career tennis journey, offers personal insight about the remarkable Russian.

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Wednesday, February 26th, Maria Sharapova, in a story written for Vanity Fair and Vogue, announced she was retiring from competitive tennis. The resulting Maria features created an avalanche of hurrahs. The tales touched on the youngster coming, practically penniless, to the US from Russia with her father; her scoring a career Grand Slam winning all the majors, (including Roland Garros twice). Some mentioned that since the age of 21 she has contended with not only with formidable opponents but nearly constant right shoulder pain. The financial success she enjoyed on and off the court was detailed. Her suspension for using Meldonium was widely covered, as was the fact that the former No. 1 had seen her ranking slip to No. 131 at the end 2019. It disintegrated further, bottoming out at No. 373 when she called it a day. There were enough Hallelujahs to complete an oratorio. There were also a few “she’s not a saint” exhalations. They touched on her being a loner, standoffish and seemingly, haughty. Reading the Maria narratives caused me to reflect on one of tennis’ most unique players who transcended the game.

 

Sharapova was born April 19, 1987 in Nyagan, Russia, after her parents Yuri and Yelana had left the area near Chernobyl where the nuclear meltdown changed their lives as they knew it, in 1986. Two years after her birth, the family moved to Sochi. Shortly before her seventh birthday, she and her father arrived in the US. Her mother, who was unable to obtain a visa, didn’t make the journey.

Most tennis fans are aware that she and her father, Yuri Sharapov, migrated to the US in 1994. They ended up in Bradenton, Florida, after the six-year-old had impressed Martina Navratilova at a 1993 clinic that was held in Moscow. The Hall of Famer suggested that Yuri, who was coaching his daughter, should find an established instructor and suggested contacting Nick Bollettieri, who was based at the IMG Academy in Bradenton.

I first met Sharapova and watched her practice in the spring of 2001, just before she turned 14. She was working with legendary coach Robert Lansdorp in Southern California. He had begun mentoring her when she was 11.

Over the years, Bollettieri has received Clio Prize winning PR concerning his relationship with her. Overlooked is the fact that Rick Macci provided direction after Sharapova first arrived in the United States. But when she signed with IMG in 1995, Macci’s mentoring came to an end.

Lansdorp, who developed a legion of formidable players including Grand Slam tournament winners, Tracy Austin, Pete Sampras and Lindsay Davenport (to name but a few of the standout players he tutored), has received plaudits for his work with Sharapova. Long ago, he brought out that Yuri Sharapov had seen Davenport play and wanted his daughter to have a forehand like hers. So, when she was 11, Maria and Yuri came to Southern California and teamed up with Lansdorp.

The forehand he teaches, as it is produced along with the results it brings about,  is distinctive and renowned. The relaxed, almost rubbery, right arm is pulled wide from the side of the body. The elbow bends and flares out as the racquet extends into the contact point and carries the ball through the hitting zone. The stroke finishes above the left shoulder in a high follow through. The “Lansdorp Drive” uses the entire arm and more important, a “classic” grip, (not an extreme version like the one Nadal employs).

Over the years, having watched countless elite juniors hit forehands, I can quickly identify a player who has worked with Lansdorp based on his/her forehand – bent elbow on the take-back, then the long follow through. The mechanics seem to have been instilled in his players like a tattoo on their psyche. Videos of Austin, Sampras and Davenport hitting forehands during their pro careers clearly marked them as his pupils.

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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.

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Virginia Ruzici (credit Art Seitz)

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.

Simona Halep clinches the title at Wimbledon. (Credit: WTA via Twitter)

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.

 

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Ubaldo Scanagatta’s 2020 Predictions: Tsitsipas To Rise, Federer To Fall And No Major Glory For Serena

For the first time on Ubitennis.net, my predictions for the 2020 season. Last year I got 24 out of 30, how will I fare this time around?

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Dear readers, first off I’d like to thank you for your ever-growing support. For this reason, I’ve decided to publish my annual Crystal… Bald predictions for the 2020 season, a long-standing tradition for my Italian readers.  

 

How did I do last year? Well, my numbers clearly came around, since I nailed the opening 11 prophecies, most of them not as easy to foresee, such as Federer not winning any Majors but reaching the French Open semis and joining the 100 Tournaments Club, or Nadal winning the Roland Garros for the 12th time, Osaka taking the AO, or a NextGen player making a Slam final, as well as the more pessimistic ones on Murray and Del Potro’s fitness – needless to say, I’m proud of this Federeresque record, and I’m pretty sure I won’t be able to replicate it in the future.

Obviously, I badly missed on some others: for instance, I predicted a great year from Sascha Zverev (actually, judging from his 2020 form so far, last year might have actually been triumphant in comparison), and a heroic Serena Williams comeback, whom I thought would tie Margaret Court’s record tally, but I fell a couple of finals short – especially recalling the Centre Court steam-rolling by Halep.

So, now that my ethos and credentials have been shown (sort of), let’s get going with a whole new teleological haul, i.e. what will happen in Year 1 of the new decade:

  1. Federer won’t squander any more match point leads.
  2. 2019 was the last year so thoroughly dominated by two of the Fab Four.
  3. A NextGen will win a Major. Actually, I wouldn’t be surprised if we were in for a brace of youngsters.
  4. Tsitsipas will reach the Top 3 – he is also the likeliest to win a Major.
  5. Nadal won’t be rude to me, and I will be more careful with the phrasing of my questions.
  6. However… Zverev might underperform in the first six months of the season (and especially in Melbourne and Paris) due to the many exhibitions played with Federer that are likely to hinder his conditioning. If that were to happen, I’d be all but compelled to remind Rafa that he said to me: “If Sascha doesn’t win a Major in two years, you’ll be allowed to tell me that I’m a tennis illiterate.” Diplomatic incident alert, y’all.
  7. I will scheme to get Djokovic to say “not too bad” one more time.
  8. I’ll be interviewed by Channel 9, the Down Under network that will broadcast the Australian Open for the first time, whose brass won’t want to miss a chance to discuss my viral gags with the Big Three.
  9. I’ll make peace with Fognini – okay, this is too far.
  10. The new ATP chairman, Andrea Gaudenzi, will deny ever advocating a shortening of sets from 6 to 4 games. A very earnest bloke in the past, he’ll become a politician in his own right – it’s everybody’s fate. He’ll court the powers that be and he’ll forget about the small time reporters who saw him grow into this position.
  11. The NextGen ATP Finals will be moved to Turin in 2021 as a leading-up event to the actual Finals.
  12. Jannik Sinner, Italy’s most promising player, will have a similar progression to Djokovic’s. Nole finished as No.83 at 18 years old, in 2005, before reaching No.16 the following season. Sinner finished last season as No.78, and I believe he could be No.16 by the end of 2020.
  13. Benito Perez Barbadillo, Nadal’s manager, will mellow and learn to appreciate others for what they are, with no prejudice.
  14. Serena Williams won’t win a Major, thus not equalling Margaret Court’s record of 24 Slams. She betrayed me last year by not making it, so I’m tanking her this time around.
  15. Coco Gauff will experience some growing pains early in the year, suffering from the media pressure, but then will rise.
  16. Andreescu and Osaka will meet in a Major final.
  17. Denis Shapovalov will break the Top 10.
  18. The biggest letdown between the ATP No.10 and 20 will be David Goffin.
  19. Nick Kyrgios will rise from the ashes.
  20. Medvedev and Tsitsipas will re-assert their place as Slam contenders.
  21. ATP comebacks of the year: Del Potro and Chung.
  22. More letdowns: Zverev and/or Federer.
  23. ATP Top 5: Djokovic, Tsitsipas, Medvedev, Nadal, Thiem.
  24. WTA Top 5: Andreescu, Osaka, Barty, Halep, Bencic.
  25. WTA comebacks of the year: Muguruza and/or Stephens.
  26. Amanda Anisimova will also stage a comeback after a difficult end to last season.
  27. WTA letdowns: Serena and/or Pliskova.
  28. The biggest letdown between the WTA No. 10 and 20 will be Angelique Kerber.
  29. A final, chauvinistic prophecy: Matteo Berrettini won’t manage to keep the eight spot in the rankings – hopefully, he will get back to the top when the ATP Finals will move to Turin – while Fabio Fognini will come back to the Top 10 early in the year, and the will crash out after Monte carlo.
  30. A final, chauvinistic prophecy, Part II: Italy will have another great year in men’s tennis, with as many as three players in the Top 20.

PS: I know that No.22 will piss off a lot of people, but I’m prepared to take the heat. Happy 2020!

Translated by Tommaso Villa

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Former Rival And Top 10 Star Names Novak Djokovic The Greatest Of All Time

The two-time US Open quarter-finalist has issued his opinion on the Big Three of tennis.

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There is no easy way to establish the greatest men’s tennis player of all time, but according to Janko Tipsarevic it is his fellow compatriot.

 

Tipsarevic, who retired from the tour earlier this year, has named Novak Djokovic as the best player of all time based on his own experiences against the prestigious Big Three. A group that also features Roger Federer and Rafael Nadal. Djokovic is a 16-time grand slam champion who has won more prize money than any other player in the history of the sport (over $139 million). He has also achieved the year-end No.1 spot five times so far in his career.

“I played against everybody, I know who plays them when they are the best version of themselves and, with all due respect to Nadal and Federer … I know that I view this subjectively, but Novak Djokovic is the best tennis player of all time.” Tipsarevic said during an interview with Telegraf.rs.

Interestingly Djokovic is the only member of the trio Tipsarevic has beaten on the tour. Doing so at the 2011 ATP Finals and 2012 Madrid Masters. He lost all three of his meetings with Nadal and six times to Federer.

Others may argue against the 35-year-old by saying Djokovic is yet to win more grand slam titles than the other two players. However, he is the youngest of them all. Tipsarevic believes that it is only a matter of time before Djokovic breaks more records in the sport. Emulating similar comments that have been made by Serena Williams’ coach Patrick Mouratoglou.

“Novak is the best tennis player of all time.” He stated.
“It’s very important that people look at the statistics for these ten years: who did what, who won the most tournaments.”
“I think when it is all over the next three or four years, Novak will statistically outperform the two and be internationally recognized as the best,” he later added.

Despite recently retiring, Tipsarevic will still be seen on the tour in 2020 in a new role. He has been appointed as the new coach for world No.40 Filip Krajinović.

How the Big Three compare

Rafael Nadal

Novak Djokovic

Roger Federer

Age

33

32

38

Grand Slam titles*

19

16

20

Total titles*

84

77

103

Top 10 wins

171

205

224

Prize money earnings 

    $119,601,561

    $139,144,944

        $129,231,891

*ATP tournaments and grand slams only 

 

 

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