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

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

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The Club de Tenis Mollet in Barcelona

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Kasatkina is a champion’

Martinez pictured with Kasatkina

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Provisional list of players confirmed for the tournament

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

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EXCLUSIVE: Love, Not Money, Drives The Palermo Open As Chief Welcomes Idea Of Second Event In 2020

Tournament director Oliviero Palma tells UbiTennis Palermo is being staged ‘as an act love for tennis’ despite the tournament facing losses in the region of 50,000 euros.

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Five months since the last professional tennis tournament took place, the task of restarting the WTA Tour relies on a tournament taking place on the Italian island of Sicily.

 

The Palermo Open officially marks the return of WTA tennis following its lengthy suspension due to the devastating COVID-19 pandemic. All eyes will be placed upon the event which has already experienced its fair share of obstacles. Wimbledon champion Simona Halep withdrew due to ‘travelling anxiety’ despite being assured that she will be exempt from quarantine rules. On top of that, a player in the qualifying draw pulled out after testing positive for the Coronavirus over the weekend. These scenarios are the ones set to become the new normal for the rest of the year at least.

Overseeing events taking place this week is long-time tournament director Oliviero Palma, who admits that ‘everything is different’ in 2020. Due to the current climate, the number of people allowed to enter the 1500-capacity centre court has been slashed to 350 and the prize money pot has been cut by $27,500. Nevertheless, the 31st edition of the tournament boasts a strong field with every seed being in the world’s top 30. Croatia’s Petra Martic is the highest ranked at 15th.  

“The first tournament after the suspension is more concerned with the safety aspect firstly. Sport comes after,” Palma told ubitennis.net. “Even though we had little time, we are being able to control and foresee all kinds of situations.’
“The world has been waiting for the first tournament post- Covid with the public and to understand whether we can go back to normal, although with all due precautions.’
“Previous tasks do not count now, this is not the 31st Palermo Ladies Open, this is the first tournament after lockdown. Everything is different.”

Even with balls being hit on the courts at the Country Time Club, which is the venue of the Palermo Open, it is evident that there is a lot of uncertainty in the air. Within the past two weeks all events in China have been scrapped, Japan has lost its premier women’s event and the Madrid Open is on the brink of being cancelled. Meanwhile, in Italy the country’s biggest tournament in Rome scheduled for September has been warned not to welcome fans to the event.

Given the circumstances, the fact Palermo is happening at all is an achievement in itself. Palma says his event has been able to go ahead due to a lower number of cases of COVID-19 and what he describes as ‘faith’ from the local government.

The Sicilian government had and has faith in the 31st Palermo Ladies Open and opened the Centre Court to a limited number of spectators, exactly to test this opportunity. I’m so concentrated on my tournament I haven’t had the possibility to follow Internazionali d’italia,” he said.

Thousands of euros will be lost

Image via https://twitter.com/LadiesOpenPA

Palma doesn’t sugarcoat the fact his event isn’t taking place without a significant economic hit. In a recent interview with Reuters he said the event will ‘bear losses’ in order for the Tour to start again. But how significant will these losses be?

“This is an act of love for tennis. We didn’t look at the balance sheet, this year,” he explains to UbiTennis.
“Our marketing experts explained to us that we will have to evaluate the revenues over this and the next year. Losses, however, are estimated to be around 50,000 euros.”

Instead of dwelling on the financial turmoil that many other tennis tournaments are also facing, Palma and his team hope to lead the way when it comes to their COVID-19 testing. Players undergo two types of tests called polymerase chain reaction (PCR) and Serological.

“Thanks to the strictness of protocols, we successfully intercepted a positive case,” Palma said in reference to Saturday’s announcement.
“The protocol dictates that players arrive in Palermo having already undergone (about 4 days before) a PCR test. As soon as they arrive, they do a serologic and a PCR test. They then go to their hotel room, which they can’t leave until we have the test result, normally within12 hours. As she receives the negative result, she leaves isolation, receives the badge and can start training.”

The player who reportedly tested positive was Bulgaria’s Viktoriya Tomova who did  not show any symptoms at the time. Tomova was the only player to withdraw from qualifying due to ‘illness’ but there has been no official confirmation.

Tomova highlights the complexities faced by players and tournaments with guidelines being constantly updated. For example, in an interview by The Hindustan Times on July 29th quoted Palma saying that players could ‘have a tour of the city if they wish to, since the virus is barely circulating.’ However, since the interview his view on this matter has somewhat changed.

“WTA protocols do not encourage tourism or city tours; on the contrary, they are highly discouraged,” Palma points out.

Whatever happens this week, Palermo will forever remain the event which kick-started the world of tennis during the troublesome COVID-19 pandemic. As other tournaments start to disappear, the WTA and ATP have a lot of space to fill during the final quarter of this season. So what about having a second Palermo Open or an equivalent in the region later this year?

 “Why not! We would only need to see the conditions,” Palma concluded.

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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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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.

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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.




 

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