EXCLUSIVE: Meet Fabrice Sbarro - The Data Analyst Behind Daniil Medvedev's 2019 Breakthrough - UBITENNIS
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EXCLUSIVE: Meet Fabrice Sbarro – The Data Analyst Behind Daniil Medvedev’s 2019 Breakthrough

UbiTennis tells the story of Daniil Medvedev’s data analyst, who contributed to the extraordinary successes of summer 2019 after initially presenting himself in Canada with just a backpack and a head full of numbers

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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.

Gilles Cervara in the box of Daniil Medvedev – ATP Finals 2019 (foto Roberto Zanettin)

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!

ATP

(EXCLUSIVE) Ricardas Berankis’ Coach On Wimbledon Showdown With Rafael Nadal

Dirk Hordorff speaks to UbiTennis about the world No.106 and his chances against the second seed.

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Ricarcas Berankis at Wimbledon (image via http://www.yonex.co.uk/_assets/)

Ricardas Berankis is no stranger to Wimbledon as he marks the 12th anniversary of his first-ever main draw win at the tournament after coming through three rounds of qualifying.

 

A stand-out player in his younger years, the Lithuanian topped the world junior rankings and won the US Open boys title back in 2007 when he defeated Jerzy Janowicz in the final. Transitioning to the pro level was never straightforward for Berankis who is now 32-year-old. Nevertheless, he has made his impression on the Tour with runs to two ATP Tour finals in 2012 (Los Angeles) and 2017 (Moscow). He also won the 2015 US Men’s Clay Court doubles title in Houston alongside Teymuraz Gabashvili.

Today Berankis is ranked 106th in the world, which is 56 places below his career-high. His best performance on the ATP Tour so far this season was in Abu Dubai when he came through qualifying to reach the quarter-finals before losing to Denis Shapovalov. He also reached the final of a Challenger event in Lille.

At Wimbledon this year he started his campaign with a straight-sets win over former semifinalist Sam Querrey. Making it only the fourth time in his career he has won a main draw match at the tournament. His reward is a showdown on Thursday with the formidable Rafael Nadal who is seeking a historic 23rd major title and his third in a row. Nadal defeated Francisco Cerundolo in his opening match.

So can Berankis trouble Nadal on the grass?

The best person to ask is Germany’s Dirk Hordorff who coaches Berankis. The veteran coach has also previously collaborated with the likes of Rainer Schuettler, Lars Burgsmüller, Yen-Hsun Lu, Kristian Pless, Sergiy Stakhovsky, and Vasek Pospisil.

During an email exchange with UbiTennis, Hordorff shared his thoughts about Berankis’ upcoming clash with Nadal.

UBITENNIS: It wasn’t until Melbourne this year that Ricardas played Nadal on the Tour for the first time. He lost the match 6-2, 7-5. What did his team learn from that experience?

HIRDORFF: I was not in Melbourne, but I coached unsuccessfully in a lot of matches against Rafa. He is next to Novak (Djokovic) over so many years as a true champion and a great person outside the court. You learn every match against him and Ricardas is ready for this match.

UBITENNIS: When it comes to playing a member of the Big Three, how do you as a coach go about dealing with Berankis’ mentality?

HIRDORFF: Ricardas played a good first round against Sam Querrey. Nevertheless, to play Rafa is a different issue. You need to concentrate on your abilities and not worry about history.

UBITENNIS: Nadal was sternly tested during his opening match. Does this in any way give a confidence boost towards Berankis or do you think it is irrelevant?

HIRDORFF: Every match starts at zero. What Rafa played yesterday doesn’t affect Ricardas’ match. Anyway, Rafa won his first round quite solidly against a good upcoming player.

UBITENNIS: Whilst the odds might be against Ricardas, it isn’t impossible that he could defeat Nadal. What will the key areas be for him to focus on during their match? (e.g. return position, use of slice etc).

HIRDORFF: Ricardas needs to focus on his abilities and take his fine form from the first round in this match. Rafa is a complete player, so you need to perform well in all aspects of the game.

UBITENNIS: What is the most difficult thing about playing Nadal on the tour?

HORDORFF: He is a complete player with a lot of special strengths. Strong serve, good backhand, fast, perfect coordinate and no weak parts in his game.

UBITENNIS: Ricardas might be 32 but he has shown some good results on the Tour (runner-up at a Challenger event in Lille and QF in Dubai). Given the trend of players playing later into their careers, is his best yet to come?

HIRDORFF: Ricardas had to deal with a lot of health problems. I am sure that the best part of his career is yet to come for him.

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EXCLUSIVE: Ana Ivanovic On Wimbledon Memories, Players To Watch And Her Admiration For Williams

The former world No.1 takes part in a special Q&A with UbiTennis ahead of the Wimbledon Championships.

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Former world No.1 Ana Ivanovic (image via https://twitter.com/anaivanovic)

This year marks the 15th anniversary of Ana Ivanović’s best-ever run at the Wimbledon Championships.

 

Just weeks after reaching her first major final at the French Open, Ivanović scored back-to-back wins over Nadia Petrova and Nicole Vaidišová (who she saved three match points against) to reach the semi-finals. She was eventually knocked out of the tournament by Venus Williams who went on to clinch the title. In total she played in the Wimbledon main draw 12 times and achieved a win-loss record of 24-12.  

Throughout her career Ivanović won 15 WTA titles, including the 2008 French Open. She also reached the final of another eight events. She holds the honors of being the first woman in history to win a major title whilst representing Serbia and the only player from her country to have held the No.1 position on the WTA Tour. Ivanović’s period of 12 weeks at the top is a longer streak than Williams, Garbine Mugurza and Karolina Pliskova.

This December marks the sixth anniversary of when Ivanović announced her retirement from tennis at the age of 29 following a series of physical issues. At the time WTA CEO Steve Simon hailed her as a “true champion and a great ambassador for the sport of women’s tennis.”

Leading up to this year’s Wimbledon Championships, UbiTennis managed to catch up with the former world No.1 who is married to former football star Bastian Schweinsteiger and has two young children. Through an email exchange, she speaks about life as an ex-player and gives her views on the upcoming Wimbledon Championships. She also reveals her desire to remain connected with tennis in the future but would she consider a coaching role on the Tour?

UBITENNIS: This December will mark six years since you announced your retirement. What do you miss the most about playing on the Tour?

IVANOVIĆ: To be honest the most I miss is the excitement of playing at the big courts in front of the fans and crowds. I have many special and unforgettable memories. I miss a lot that feeling. Besides that, the traveling and competing in different countries was always something I enjoyed.

UBITENNIS: Since retiring, how closely do you follow the sport now?

IVANOVIĆ: I still follow – obviously not as close as when I was playing – but I still have some friends on tour, so I like to see how they are doing, and I like to see new faces and to see new exciting players.

UBITENNIS: Wimbledon begins on Monday and you played in the main draw 12 times during your career. What are your happiest memories of the tournament?

IVANOVIĆ: Of course, my happiest memory of Wimbledon is reaching semifinal there, that was definitely a very special year for me. But also, I do remember one very special match for me, I played against Nadia Petrova, we had 7 rain delays, and we played from 11 in the morning until 7pm, and we manage to finish just before another rainstorm. That was definitely a unique experience and something I will always remember.

UBITENNIS: What was the biggest difficulty for you when it came to switching from playing on the clay to grass within such a relatively short time?

IVANOVIĆ: The biggest difficulty for me personally when it comes to switching from clay court to grass court were the movements. Clay court was always my favorite. I have enjoyed moving on clay and sliding which let me feel free. On the grass you sometimes feel like you didn’t have as good grip – at least me personally, so I think that kind of adjustment of timing of the movement was for me the most difficult.

UBITENNIS: This year’s women’s draw is headed by Iga Swiatek who is currently on a 35-match winning streak. How impressed are you by Swiatek and who do you think is her biggest threat at Wimbledon?

IVANOVIĆ: I think Iga has been playing really well, and she is also very composed, I think she handles her nerves well. As we all know, Tennis – or actually every sport – is becoming more and more mental game next to the physical and talent game.

I think maybe Serena has a chance, Ons also, because she uses lots of drop shots, on the grass, that can be tough to play against. As well as Angelique Kerber she loves to play on grass, she won Wimbledon before, so I hope she does well.

UBITENNIS: Wimbledon will see the return of Serena Williams to the tournament. How impressed are you that she continues to play at the age of 40? Has this ever given you the temptation to return to competitive action as you are six years younger than Serena?

IVANOVIĆ: It is amazing to see Serena back, I know she loves to play on the grass. I really admire her for everything she achieved and to still compete at the high level of sport at the age of 40 – it is incredible. I am really looking forward to see how she will do this year. For me personally to come back to competitive sport I don’t see myself in that direction. I have other visions and dreams and something that I want to do, to also give something back to society.

UBITENNIS:  As for the men’s draw, who are you most excited about watching? Do you think anybody other than Rafael Nadal and Novak Djokovic could win?

IVANOVIĆ: Novak and Rafa are both playing really well. I think Novak enjoys playing on grass more than Rafa does, and he is defending his title. Obviously, it is always exciting to watch them as they already have so many Grand Slams, and competing for more.

Others than them, there are many interesting players at the moment and I always say that new upcoming players can surprise the top players in early rounds while they are still kind of warming up. Players like Novak and Rafa gain more confidence and strength when they come further and further in the tournament, so it is more difficult for younger players to take them out in the semis or finals especially when it is played best of five sets at the Grand Slams.

UBITENNIS: You had such an impressive career as a tennis player, are you ever tempted to pass on what you learnt to others in the future as either a coach or advisor on the Tour?

IVANOVIĆ: I don’t really see myself as a coach on tour, but I do want to stay involved, because Tennis has been my life. I have been playing since I was five. I am happy to share my experience and give advise but definitely not as a coach.

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EXCLUSIVE: Daria Kasatkina’s Coach – Swiatek Will Lose One Day, So Why Not At The French Open?

Following the Kasatkina’s milestone win at Roland Garros, her mentor Carlos Martinez speaks exclusively to Ubitennis.

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Carlos Martinez

At the age of 25 Daria Kasatkina is relishing in her best-ever run at a Grand Slam tournament after reaching the semi-finals of the French Open without dropping a set.

 

Kasatkina, who has been ranked as high as 10th in the world, has been in impressive form throughout the tournament so far after dropping a total of just 14 games in her first four matches. To put that into perspective, only three players have conceded fewer games in the women’s draw to reach the last eight of the French Open since 2000. She encountered a slightly trickier test in Wednesday’s quarter-final where she ousted compatriot Veronika Kudermetova 6-4, 7-6(5). A player who earlier in the clay season was runner-up at the Istanbul Open before going on to win the women’s doubles title in Rome.

The world No.20 is now through to the last four of a major for the first time on her 26th attempt. Overseeing her performance is Spanish Coach Carlos Martinez who has been a fixture in her team for three years. Martinez has a wealth of experience in the sport. Besides being a former professional player himself, he has also guided the likes of Svetlana Kuznetsova, Marc Lopez, Kateryna Kozlova and Feliciano Lopez.

“Dasha is generally doing well in this tournament. She’s managing her emotions very good because it is not easy,” Martinez replied when asked about Kasatkina’s French Open run so far.
“At the beginning of the week she had a very good draw because she played against a lucky loser and then in the second round she played against a qualified ranked 200th in the world. She knew she had to win these two matches and that it is not easy to manage her nerves.’
“From that point she started playing much better. Against (Shelby) Rogers she played a very smart match and the exact same against (Camila) Giorgi. Today (in the quarter-finals) was very emotional for her because she played against a fellow Russian.”

According to data from Flashscore, Kasakina has won between 57% and 76% of her first service points during her five matches played at the French Open. Furthermore, she has managed to save 10 out of 19 break points she has faced so far. Whilst they are not flawless statistics, it is the consistency that is bringing her success.

“She is managing very well. She is not playing unbelievable but she’s making very good decisions,” Martinez explains. “This is the work she has been doing in the last couple of weeks during her clay court preparation. We are very happy with the result.”
“(But) we want more. As I told her the train doesn’t come many times and once it passes you have to then catch it.”

Seeking her place in a Grand Slam final for the first time, Kasatkina next takes on Iga Swiatek. A player who has been her nemesis in recent months. She has already played the world No.1 three times in 2022 and lost all of them in straight sets. On the other hand, Kasatkina did beat the Pole in three sets last year on the grass at Eastbourne.

Undoubtedly she will be the underdog in the semi-final given the dominance by her upcoming opponent in recent weeks. Since 2000, only the Williams sisters have won more matches in a row than Swiatek on the WTA Tour.

“Iga is the player who is in the best shape at the moment. She has won her past 33 matches so it won’t be easy. But the thing I said to Dasha is that one day she has to lose, so why not tomorrow? (semi-finals day),” Martinez said of the upcoming match.
“Dasha has the game to try to win. I think it is going to be a good battle. We have nothing to lose and a lot of things to win. So I think it will be an interesting match and I hope that it is going to be a tough battle.’

There is also an extra incentive for Kasakina to win. Should she progress to the final she will enter the top 10 once again for the first time since January 2019.

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