Written by Federico Bertelli
There is a little known story that is worth telling: the story of Fabrice Sbarro, data analyst, creator of the Tennisprofiler website and tennis trainer (in strict order) who took part in Daniil Medvedev’s pyrotechnic 2019 summer performance, together with his historical coach Gilles Cervara.
We interviewed Fabrice via Zoom during these COVID days, and in the end we got so much material that we decided to divide it into three parts: in a first part we outline the story of Fabrice and how he entered in the Medvedev team, in the second part we will tell some background on the incredible Russian summer seen by an insider. The third part will be dedicated to some thoughts about data in tennis and beyond.
The full interview anyway is available at this link and below is a list of some highlights of the video interview:
- the beginning of the collaboration with the Medvedev team (at 5:50 minutes)
- the backstage of Wawrinka-Medvedev, Australian Open 2020 (15:13)
- the rise of Berrettini (19:54)
- the collaboration with Mahut at the London Masters 2019 (9.50pm)
- Murray (31:40)
CHAPTER 1 – THE BEGINNING
We have a very interesting story about a Swiss boy who perhaps was ahead of his time. And these days of no tennis played, ideas and insights are even more welcome. First let’s frame the character: Fabrice Sbarro, a 40-year-old Swiss that has been carrying out statistical analysis on tennis courts with match charting for the last 13 years. Sbarro has always had a passion for tennis but unlike other peers he has started coaching at ITF and WTA level very early, in his early 20’s. Fabrice has tried it all, but the world of tennis is not only about the scintillating legend we all know. And it is not even only about the realm of the top 10 or of all those brave professionals who battle for their professional life to stay in the top 100.
Tennis is also a purgatory made up of challengers, futures and national tournaments with prize money of a few thousand euros. A mountain to climb one step at a time, made of many slopes that must be overcome in order to access tennis elite. Among his clients Mr. Sbarro was also able to coach a future WTA top 150; in the end he was very close in getting it right and reach the very top of the game, but in the end he was not able to take that final little decisive step. For years, therefore, Fabrice has tasted all the bittersweet of the secondary tournaments, putting in a lot of passion and effort, sometimes driving cars for hours, only to see his player losing in the first round.
The pieces of the puzzle needed for leading a good player to the world’s very best are a lot and few times they fit together, and unfortunately this was not the case for the players trained by Fabrice.
All this activity, however, which has lasted for over a decade, has not been useless because it has prompted the Swiss coach to search for a new path to success. And this research led him to the world of data analysis to obtain a practical framework. The idea was to map tennis matches, to create a significant database on which to build his coaching analysis. A really tall order (tennis nerds will surely know the match charting project by Jeff Sackman, conceived as a community effort of dozens of fans. The concept is similar, but in this case the effort is made by one person).
However, little by little, this idea that arose almost by chance in the mind of Fabrice, became more and more central: and in the end Mr Sbarro came to a conclusion: stop striving for success through direct coaching, without a real prospect of success. And it was not easy at the time, because at the beginning – over 10 years ago – he was seen by his colleagues as an alien or a crazy person. But he took the challenge more and more seriously and made it the core of his business. And the further he went, the more the Swiss became aware of the potential of his work, especially considering what is happening in other professional leagues.
Data analysis in other sports over the years has become a tool needed to compete, as happens in the NBA – a sport that it has now become the realm of advanced statistics. The shooting map in NBA parquets has changed dramatically in the last 5 to 10 years. If we try to represent the advanced statistics as a product and we wanted to describe the degree of maturity in the different sports, probably the situation would be a graph like this:
In tennis we are clearly behind other sports such as football or basketball. In football, for example we can look at Liverpool that reached two consecutive Champions League finals. A small (?) Part of the credit for this result also goes to its cutting edge team of data scientists. Or on a more advanced stage of the curve we find the NBA where the moneyball paradigm has now become widely established.
In the end, Fabrice decided to make statistical analysis its full-time business. As of the beginning of 2020 Fabrice has recorded more than one million points (to give an idea, during the iconic Wimbledon 2019 final, lasted 5 hours, 422 points were played; applying the rule of thumb we can say that tracing a million points implies an estimated effort of 12,000 hours of work). And in pursuing this effort Fabrice has focused on the ATP and WTA elite, or the top 100 in the ranking of the last few years, in order to build a solid and significant database. In short, one brick at a time, Fabrice began to make himself known, moving from scepticism to curiosity and finally to the deserved attention. We are therefore ready for the second part of this journey, in which hard work has begun to pay dividends and in which the pieces of the puzzle finally begin to fall into place. We are ready to rewind the tape and go to Montreal’s ATP tournament in July 2019.
CHAPTER 2 – THE CRAZY SUMMER of 2019
This is arguably the most enjoyable part of the interview, the fabulous summer of 2019. Try to imagine yourself putting yourself in Fabrice’s shoes. You worked hard to earn the right to have an opportunity, but for years not even a glimpse. You have continued the coaching activity for over a decade, hoping to find the real crack, a player who could have reached the top 100. But without success. Then deciding to invest fully in this new activity, going big with data analysis and deciding to change your business card: from coach to data analyst. Yes, it is true, the first contacts begin even before 2019, but still some pieces are not connecting as they should.
So, in the summer of 2019, when the last job relationship as coach of a player at ITF level expired, during a course in Switzerland Fabrice met Gilles Simon’s coach, Etienne Laforgue, a neuroscience expert. For a couple of years, the 35-year-old French tennis player had trusted this new coach in order to improve the biomechanical imperfections of his game and thus extend his career. Sbarro’s idea on that occasion was simply to do some networking and find a complement to his work. Instead Laforgue unexpectedly gave him the opportunity he has been waiting for: “Why don’t you take some kind of roadshow among people in the ATP Tour to present your works? I can introduce you to some coaches I know. “ And so, two weeks after this chat, it is time to prepare the backpack, and get a flight ticket to Montreal: it is the year in which the Canadian Masters 1000 is played in the most famous francophone city of the country.
As Fabrice tells us (from the minute 5:50 of the interview), out of nowhere, he finds himself into an elite tournament, with the best 50 players in the world. He knew very well those guys, but only on paper, after having spent thousands of hours studying them. And here comes the big occasion for Fabrice, while crossing the path crosses of Gilles Cervara, the coach of Medvedev, who grants him an audience. Sbarro thus presents his methodology and Cervara was intrigued by the pitch. Cervara is in fact a coach open to innovation and Fabrice is a perfect fit for Cervara’s needs: someone who knows how to read data by providing actionable insights, allowing to optimize the process of match preparation.
“Ok Fabrice, I’ll give you a shot, let’s try to prepare Daniil’s next match with Kyle Edmund.” The two turn out to collaborate in the preparation of a match by examining the statistical ideas produced by the Swiss analyst. The match we are talking about is the second round match between Medvedev and Edmund, a tough opponent, ranked in the top 30s, who dispatched the day before Nick Kyrgios, who won Washington at the beginning of the American swing against Medvedev. The game ends 6-3 6-0. After the match, Sbarro’s phone rings: it’s Cervara. “Ok Fabrice, we have to talk, for this tournament we will prepare all Daniil’s matches together”. The Russian’s next matches will be Garin, Thiem and Kachanov. Result: three wins, six sets won, 0 lost and first final for the Russian in a Masters 1000 against Nadal. Nadal in that occasion was too strong, but still an impressive run for the Russian.
Let’s recap: seven days earlier Fabrice was flying to Canada armed only with his own ideas. Now he has managed to join a top player team and make his contribution to help him reach the final in a Masters 1000. After Montreal, Cervara invites the boy from Switzerland to help him also for the following tournament, the second Masters 1000 of the American summer, the Western and Southern Open. Cincinnati is a tournament that sometimes holds surprises, like in 2017 when Kyrgios and Dimitrov met in the final. In 2019, the surprise is Medvedev, who beats Djokovic in an incredible match that grants him the access to the final, and gave him the momentum to get rid of Goffin in the final to raise the first 1000 trophy of his career. To make a long story short, Fabrice undoubtedly found himself in the right place and at the right time, helping Medvedev to become the man to watch in the 2019 summer.
But maybe it is better to listen to Fabrice’s own words:
“Obviously I have only made a contribution in all this, it was Daniil who stepped in on court; however, I think I helped him in taking on the last step that sometimes makes the difference. Let’s put it this way, I gave my contribution so that Daniil could improve his performance by the marginal 1% he needed to really break through.”
In short, after Cincinnati the wind has definitely started to change for Fabrice: during the US Open, the collaboration relationship with the Medvedev team was not yet exclusive and, in the meantime, also the Wawrinka team had asked a test with the Swiss analyst. But would you believe it? The Wawrinka-Medvedev showdown was scheduled in the quarterfinals, and therefore Fabrice had to politely decline the request of the Stananimal team: who would have said it just a couple of months before, Fabrice was refusing to collaborate with a 3 times Grand Slam winner!
The second part of our interview with Sbarro will be published later this week!
Lorenzo Musetti: “A Year with Few Peaks, but I’ve Improved as a Tennis Player and Physically” [Exclusive]
Our correspondent in Sofia interviewed Italian talent Lorenzo Musetti, who is taking on Jack Draper this afternoon
Lorenzo Musetti is the top seed in the ATP 250 that together with Metz closes the season of “regular” tournaments, just before the ATP Finals in Turin. Exempted from the first round, he’s waiting to make his debut in the Bulgarian capital where last year at the beginning of October he was halted in the semifinals by Marc-Andrea Huesler, the future winner of the tournament. With our correspondent in Sofia, Ivan Mrankov, he compared this season with 2022, but also about the Davis Cup, and Jannik Sinner.
“Greetings from Ubaldo. It’s the last tournament, how do you rate your season? Was it maybe less positive than last year when you won two tournaments? But there are improvements in all areas of your game and it’s also normal for younger players to have a less rewarding year after their first breakthrough. Do you feel improved, do you think it was a positive season?”
“It’s not been an easy season, but as you said, it’s also been a season in which I have been settling in. In the middle part I was able to find a very good continuity in terms of results. Of course, it started off a bit badly. As I had played so much at the end of last season, it was perhaps more complicated to start the new year in high gear. So it took me a while to get going, I played very well from Monte Carlo. Let’s say it was a season with few peaks. Last year, the weeks in Hamburg, Naples, Paris-Bercy were very high in terms of level.”
“For sure I feel improved in terms of tennis and physically, I’m working hard, even if people sometimes only see the results but not what’s behind them. It was a season of firsts. Even if we consider the example of Jannik, last year he had a season of adaptation, different from the standards he has displayed on court this year. And I also hope next year to be more focused, more concrete in terms of results, attitude and everything.”
“You’re part of the Davis Cup team again this year, so your season will end pretty late. Do you think you’ll be able to prepare better than last year as you have the same amount of time to rest and train? And last question, what do you think your chances for Davis are? Since the USA, Russia, Spain are missing… Our editor wrote that Italy is the favourite along with Djokovic’s Serbia.”
“I think other teams as well, like Australia and Canada who won last year. The Davis Cup is a unique event, not always the team with the best ranked players comes out the winner. And the doubles rubber is fundamental. Having Jannik in our team gives us a great hand. I think he’s playing his best tennis right now. I wish him all the best in Turin and that he can join us as late as possible. It’s a huge boost for us.
“In terms of preparation, almost all the players have a month, December, to prepare for Australia. Unfortunately, when we all play so much, we have to adapt. We could do with more days off and obviously more weeks to load, work and prepare for the season. But you have to be good at making do with what we’ve got. And also, during the year, we have to specially focus on maintaining injury prevention.”
EXCLUSIVE: Coach Gilles Cervara On Medvedev’s Vienna Defeat, Sinner’s Rise And The Future
By Federico Bertelli
At the end of the final, once the confetti had settled and the staff began to dismantle the court, Ubitennis exchanged a few words with Gilles Cervara, the coach of Daniil Medvedev, following the conclusion of the Vienna Open. Medvedev was ousted 7-6(7), 4-6, 6-3, by Jannik Sinner in a thrilling final.
QUESTION: It was an incredible match, one of the best of the year, what are your immediate feelings?
CERVARA: I’m really disappointed and somewhat angry. However, Sinner played an incredible match. I mean, to score a point against him today was very difficult because at any moment he could hit a winner with one of his “laser shots” as I call them; and even when Daniil managed to hit well and make him run, you got the feeling that he could send the ball back; he managed to defend very quickly and deeply and then turn the momentum of the exchange. And even when Daniil managed to serve good first serves, Sinner responded very well. Daniil was very brave to come back into the match and he also had his chances to win and he really pushed Jannik to the limit; unfortunately, though, in the end, the match went in Jannik’s direction.
QUESTION: It could have really ended with either Jannik or Daniil’s victory; if you had to say, were you more impressed by Jannik’s improvement in the offensive phase or the defensive phase?
CERVARA: I would say that there have been improvements in every aspect of his game. I’m really happy for him and his team. It’s always a nice thing when you see someone who manages to improve so much and works so seriously. I see them every week for many months and to see the level they are reaching is remarkable. In general, it is rewarding and significant to see the results when one has worked so hard. Then in general, Jannik is good both in defense and in attack. He manages to put so much speed to his shots effortlessly and now he is playing without making the mistakes he did before (the same observation was also made by Medvedev in the press conference). Playing against him now is really a great challenge and even his first serve now is faster. He’s playing better and better in every aspect and winning finals gives great confidence for the future. And in general, it’s good for tennis that there are so many players capable of reaching such a high level.
QUESTION: Can we say then that Jannik has now reached the same level as Daniil, Novak, and Carlos?
CERVARA: Yes, definitely, he’s just started to reach these levels and to win consistently, in big events against top players; the challenge for him will be to confirm himself at this level and in the Grand Slam tournaments; I just hope it doesn’t happen against us (smiling).
QUESTION: This year has been excellent for Daniil, even though there have been some difficulties at the beginning; for example, in Australia, he lost to Korda and for a few weeks even dropped out of the top ten; but then what changed? Was there something that clicked?
CERVARA: That period was difficult; after the Australian Open, it was complicated as a coach; I told Daniil at the time that it was not a disgrace to lose to Korda, who was playing well and perhaps Daniil at the same time was not at 100% and was not able to beat that day’s version of Korda; but in any case, there was nothing to be ashamed of, the important thing was to remain calm and analyze why we had lost against that type of player, what had put Daniil in difficulty and work on it to rebuild confidence. But it’s not automatic, otherwise, it would be easy. At those times the challenge for a coach is precisely to rebuild the player’s confidence; this is something you do day by day, and every day was a challenge and it was not easy. You need to maintain a fighting spirit, look for solutions, and accept the moments of difficulty. I am happy to have remained strong, to have maintained trust and inner calm to try to be the best version of myself and the best possible coach at that time. Daniil is someone who wants to fight, find solutions and win, even when he goes crazy on the court. We both tried to do our best and since he has great talent and has the ability to reach a high level, so in the end he found the way back to winning and to being “on fire,” a bit like Sinner now who is putting together a series of victories.
QUESTION: One last question, from a physical standpoint Daniil this year has had an extraordinary season and will end up playing more than 80 matches; in the coming years do you think he will reduce his commitments (curiously, this was also an aspect touched upon by Medvedev in the press conference)?
CERVARA: It’s a good question, and it’s a question that only top players when they have more experience can afford to ask themselves. A bit like Novak who now does not play all the tournaments and focuses only on the most important ones. But you can afford to make these considerations only if you win and it’s a question we will start to ask ourselves also with Daniil; he is now 27 years old, runs a lot, has a taxing tennis game. He has already won the most important tournaments and consequently, he will have to focus on those and perhaps set aside some lesser ones.
(EXCLUSIVE) Bryan Shelton, Father And Coach Of Ben: “A Break After Tokyo? He Didn’t Even Consider It”
“A win gives you confidence. A loss teaches you something more about yourself,” says the father-coach of the young American. “Sinner? A genuine and smiling person.”
by Federico Bertelli
If Carlos Alcaraz and Jannik Sinner are increasingly establishing themselves as the present of men’s tennis, there are already those who are eager to challenge them. And the name on everyone’s lips right now is Ben Shelton. The 21-year-old American, fresh from winning his first tournament in Tokyo, has risen to the world’s number 15 spot with a powerful and effervescent game, and he recently also had the satisfaction of beating the Italian number 1 Jannik Sinner (in Shanghai).
Earlier this week at the Vienna Open Ubitennis had an exclusive interview with Bryan Shelton, Ben’s father and coach.
Bryan, 57 years old and a native of Florida, has an impressive past as a professional tennis player, with two ATP singles titles under his belt (both on the grass of Newport in the two-year period 1991-92), a best ranking of world number 55, and even a mixed doubles final at the 1992 French Open, partnering with Lori McNeil. His best Grand Slam placement is the fourth round of Wimbledon in 1994, where he was defeated by the Swede Christian Bergström.
UBITENNIS: First of all, we appreciate your time and patience, Mr. Shelton. Well, I have many questions, but the first that comes to mind is this: For the first time, Ben played against a great player like Ruud on the clay in Barcelona, he showed a great attitude. He wasn’t afraid at all to face a Roland Garros finalist. What’s your perspective on his attitude? What has changed?
BRYAN: “I think he’s a great competitor; he loves to compete regardless of the level. Whether it’s a Challenger, ATP, or a Grand Slam tournament, he sees it as an opportunity to showcase his talent, his personality, and to have fun. And to challenge himself and get the chance to play against the best like Casper, Jannik, and others. He’s always excited. We left Tokyo yesterday (Monday), and we’ve just arrived here (Vienna). I must say he’s eager to play now. Many players, after a tournament, might think about taking a week off, but he never even considered a break. He wants to play again, you know? He loves the challenge. I like that he has that attitude because I think it’s special. Even when he’s not feeling 100%, he doesn’t look for excuses; he wants to compete. He wants to train; he wants to push. We just have to make sure he doesn’t push too hard”.
UBITENNIS: So, in terms of competitive spirit, you’ve never seen him be scared. For example, when he started college in the USA, did you ever see him be scared of some big player, or was he always like “Ok, go for it and let’s do our best”?
BRYAN: “I think he’s unique in that sense because he looks forward to those moments. Especially the more people watching, the better he plays. For me, it was the opposite. I’d see the big stadium and play a bit scared. One thing’s for sure; I know he’s very different from me. So my goal is not to set limits on him. To say everything is possible. And you just have to keep working hard. You need to keep learning from every experience, whether you win or lose. Both are positives. A win gives you confidence. A loss lets you learn more about yourself and your game and what you need to do to keep improving. So everything is positive, nothing is negative, I think that’s the mindset I want him to have every day; it’s like he always has something to gain. And if you think you have something to gain, then you’re not scared. For sure”.
UBITENNIS: Talking perhaps about the most important match of his career so far, the one against Djokovic at the US Open. After that game, how did he feel? Was it like, “I’m sorry I lost. I’m sorry I didn’t do this or that” or was it more like “I stuck to my plan. I did my best, and next time will be better”?
BRYAN: “I think it was the latter. He felt really good about the tournament. He accomplished some things there. Especially after a season where he wasn’t winning many matches. Coming there and winning all those matches (five) gave him confidence. And playing against Djokovic with confidence, I think was fantastic. He lost the match against a great champion. So I think he just learned from the match, went back to watch the video, really took time after the US Open to reflect on what he needs to do to keep improving so he can someday win that kind of match. Identifying things he can do better. And then get back to work.”
UBITENNIS: What do you think of Sinner this year? Because in my opinion, he’s really improving, starting to put something different in his game. He’s not just a big hitter, but sometimes he comes to the net, varies with drop shots, and is showing various new solutions.
BRYAN: “Yes, I think he’s an extraordinary player. An extraordinary person, you know, genuine. When you see him off the court, he’s always ready to greet you, to smile at you, and you have to admire his kindness, so we appreciate that. And then the tennis, for me, he’s definitely one of the top 5 in the world. He’s serving well, playing well from the baseline, returning well, and now he’s starting to come forward and execute at the net. I love seeing this in players because I want the same for Ben. I want him to continue developing to become a complete player. He’s a good example for Ben, someone young who’s also working to become complete. It’s a great opportunity, again, to play against one of the best.”
UBITENNIS: Last question: in a sport as competitive and individualistic as tennis, it’s hard to get along with other players and have friends. Because once you step onto the court, that’s your enemy. Which players does Ben get along best with? Does he have friends here? He’s relatively new on the circuit. He’s like a freshman.
BRYAN: “Oh, it’s funny. He has friends everywhere, you know. And I think his closest friends are the ones he knows best, like Maki McDonald, Tommy Paul, Taylor Fritz. These guys have really welcomed him into the American tennis fraternity, and also Francis Tiafoe. All these guys have been very, very kind to him, welcoming him. So it’s been nice to see; then he has friends like Dan Evans, who treat him a bit like a little brother, you know. They put him in his place sometimes, but you know, in a playful and fun way. We’ve also met some nice coaches out here. For us, it’s essential to enjoy the time off the court as well as on it. It’s important to wear a smile, greet people, get to know them and learn more about them. I want him to go beyond just tennis.”
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