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!

Grand Slam

EXCLUSIVE: Djokovic-Led PTPA Accuse Officials Of Failing To Prioritize Players After Late-Night French Open Finish

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Court Philippe-Chatrier - Roland Garros 2022 (foto Roberto Delli'Olivo)

The Professional Tennis Players Association (PTPA) has told Ubitennis that organizers are ‘unwilling’ to recognize the issue surrounding late-night matches following a recent example at the French Open involving their co-founder. 

Novak Djokovic didn’t finish his third round match against Lorenzo Musetti until 3:07am on Sunday at the Grand Slam due to an extra match being added to the line-up on Philippe Chatrier. The first week of the tournament has been affected by poor weather with matches getting postponed, cancelled or moved elsewhere at the Grand Slam. Djokovic returned to the court less than 48 hours later to play Francisco Cerundolo where he sustained a knee injury during his five-set victory and has now been forced to withdraw from the tournament. 

In a statement, the PTPA has called for a collective gathering to take place so the issue of late-night matches can be addressed. Recently the WTA and ATP have laid out a framework to stop matches being started beyond 11pm unless both the tournament supervisor and players agree to do so. However, the four major events each have their own governing body and are therefore not affected by these rules. 

“It’s imperative that Grand Slam and tour leaders, tournament organizers, and players – through the PTPA as their advocacy group – come together to explore and determine a solution for preventing late-night finishes, whether that is a curfew or an alternate resolution,” the PTPA told Ubitennis via email. 
“We know that late-night finishes have tremendous negative consequences and force players into unfair, unsafe, and unhealthy working conditions. Yet these late finishes continue to happen because of an unwillingness to acknowledge the issue and prioritize players’ best interests.”

In recent days, some players have spoken out about playing into the early hours of the morning. One of the latest to do so is Ons Jabeur who also sits on the PTPA’s players’ committee. Speaking to reporters following her quarter-final loss to Coco Gauff in Paris, the Tunisian says it ‘isn’t healthy’ to have late-night matches for all of those involved. 

“We deserve a better scheduling. We talked about this in Australia. We are still talking about this here,” said Jabeur.
“Even for you, the journalists, I don’t think it’s healthy to have these night matches. It’s for everybody I’m speaking…
“We have to find a way out so that everybody is happy — the players, the journalists, the full team.
“The ball kids are young and they’re still on the courts when it’s really late. I don’t know if it’s logical to have all that.”

Meanwhile, women’s world No.1 Iga Swiatek says she prefers day sessions because she likes to ‘sleep normally.’ However, the Pole adds that she and her peers need to accept what is thrown at them as they have limited say on such matters. 

When asked about Swiatek’s remarks, PTPA says their objective is to give a voice to those players. The organization was co-founded by Djokovic and Vasel Pospisil, who are both now listed as directors. It aims to campaign for players to have a greater say in the decision-making process as an independent entity. Although they have been accused of trying to divide the sport, which the PTPA denies, and others argue that the Tour’s already have their own player councils. 

“Unfortunately, to Iga’s point, players have historically had no say in scheduling, and that is exactly why the PTPA exists – to amplify their collective voice and to advocate on their behalf.” They said.
“We are committed to protecting players’ well-being and empowering them to compete to their highest ability. It’s long overdue that tennis’ stakeholders come together to explore and vet viable, logical solutions that protect players, and we look forward to being part of the solution.”

Another ongoing argument at the French Open concerns the evening match slot, which featured male players every day at this year’s tournament.  Wednesday will also be the fifth day in a row that the women’s matches have been scheduled to take place before the men’s on their premier court. However, a reason for this happening is due to the women’s semi-finals and final being scheduled a day earlier. 

“There are a multitude of factors that impact scheduling, including matchup quality, but gender should not inherently be one of these factors.” The PTPA states.
“The PTPA believes in equitable opportunity for men’s and women’s players, as indicated in our official principles. No player or matchup should be deprioritized based on gender alone.”

There is yet to be any specific response from French Open organizers regarding the issue of late-night matches and the selection of which players will play in the evening slot. However, these topics will likely be addressed later this week in their annual end-of-tournament press conference.

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Interviews

(EXCLUSIVE) French Open: Alex Corretja On Alcaraz, Sinner And Comparing Swiatek To Nadal

The two-time Roland Garros runner-up shares his views about a group of players ahead of this year’s Grand Slam.

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The French Open is a place of fond memories for Alex Corretja who won more matches at the event than at the other three Grand Slams combined. 

Corretja, who peaked at a ranking high of No.2 in the world in 1999, twice featured in the title match at Roland Garros. He lost in the 1998 final to Carlos Moya before being denied the trophy yet again three years later by Gustavo Kuerten. Overall, he made 13 consecutive appearances at the tournament before retiring. 

The Spanish 50-year-old continues to work in the sport as a media pundit for Eurosport. Ubitennis managed to catch up with him shortly before this year’s French Open draw took place. In a brief exchange, he shared his views on how Carlos Alcaraz and Jannik Sinner will fare on their return from injury issues. Alcaraz has been troubled by a forearm issue which made him miss a trio of events and Sinner has been nursing a hip problem. Meanwhile, in the women’s draw is the title Iga Swiatek’s to lose? 

UBITENNIS: You are a former Roland Garros finalist. So I guess you have some great memories of the tournament? 

CORRETJA: Yes, you’re right. Roland Garros is probably the most important tournament for me of the majors I played in my career. For at least five years I reached the later stages (of the draw) from quarter-final to final. At the same time, it hurts a little to feel that I was so close to winning the tournament. In the end, I didn’t but I gave 100% I had. I can’t say anything about my tennis. I didn’t do better because the others were better. 

I’m very happy with my collaboration with Eurosport, which gives me the opportunity to do interviews on the court. It’s a great satisfaction for me to talk about Roland Garros. 

UBITENNIS: I’m going to go back to this because I imagine that for Spanish players in general Roland Garros is the tournament of excellence. I want to ask you if Carlo Alcaraz is ready, in your opinion, for the tournament starting next week.

CORRETJA: If his arm doesn’t hurt, he’ll be ready because in Paris he’ll find all the good sensations he couldn’t get from playing during the clay season. 

The first week can be very important for him to build up his confidence, the rhythm that he couldn’t find in tournaments like Rome, Monte Carlo, and Barcelona that he didn’t play. He just played three matches in Madrid and it’s a shame because normally the clay court season is very important for him. But he has to adapt to what he has and I think he’s still in a process of evolution and improvement. He’s still very young, he turned 21 a few days ago and I’m pretty sure that if he doesn’t have any issues with his arm, he’s going to be one of the toughest protagonists to beat in Paris.

It is true that this (year’s) Roland Garros is the most uncertain. For almost 20 years Rafa has always been the top favorite but right now it’s quite unpredictable because no one knows which conditions of form Djokovic will arrive with, how Alcaraz will arrive, how Sinner will arrive, and even Rafa. But we know that these players are special and when they are able to play a little bit and get into a rhythm, they are very dangerous because playing the best of 5 sets with players like that is not easy. 

Roland Garros is very hard and mentally it’s not easy to channel all the emotions. Physically, it’s very demanding. You have to have a lot of patience with the playing conditions. One day it’s very hot, another day it’s very windy. You play night session, day session. Everything changes and then I think some are more adaptable than others.

UBITENNIS: As for Sinner, if you were in his shoes, would you prefer not to risk, maybe looking more to the grass swing, or would you try in every way to step out on court?

CORRETJA: It’s up to him. If he’s fine and doesn’t feel pain, I think it’s normal that he wants to play and not think, “I’ll rest and see what I can do on grass.” 

It’s very difficult to say “No, I’m not going to play Roland Garros because I can take some time”. If he’s not hindered by injuries, it’s normal for him to try to play and then let’s see what happens.

For me, Jannik is a good guy, impressive and very professional, someone very serious who always tries to improve his game. He has a team that I really like with Simone and Darren and all the others. He is an example (for others to follow).

UBITENNIS: Finally, the men’s tournament is the most uncertain we’ve had in the last 20 – 25 years. However, the women’s draw has become like the men’s tournament of the past because we have a favourite (Iga Swiatek) who is like Nadal because she seems unbeatable. What’s your view?

CORRETJA: Well, Swiatek has her own personality and you can’t really make such comparisons, but it’s true that it’s a bit like when Rafa arrived, after winning all the other tournaments he had played before, then he used to come and win again. She’s won three times in Paris and she knows the surface perfectly. It’s going to be very tough to beat Iga because she’s very consistent. I think she’s playing a little bit more aggressively and let’s see how she does it. But she’s hungry to win again and that’s really to be admired because I think she’s a very young player. 

But she has a very strong personality and works a lot psychologically. Physically, I think she moves much better than the others. It was very important for her to beat Sabalenka in Madrid. In fact, after that, she also won the final in Rome. 

Sabalenka may have come up a little tired but at the same time, it was very important for her to endure fatigue and still reach the final because this means that she has also matured a lot and has found a nice system.  

NOTE: The original interview was conducted in Italian by Luca De Gasperi and has been translated into English by Kingsley Elliot Kaye

SEE ALSO: EXCLUSIVE: Ana Ivanovic’s 2024 French Open Picks

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Grand Slam

EXCLUSIVE: Ana Ivanovic’s 2024 French Open Picks

The former world No.1 tells Ubitennis her favourites for this year’s title, what underdogs to look out for and speaks about Dominic Thiem’s farewell.

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Ana Ivanovic pictured with the 2008 French Open trophy (image via https://x.com/anaivanovic)

16 years have passed since Ana Ivanovic was the player lifting the French Open trophy. 

In 2008, the Serbian socred back-to-back wins over Jelena Jankovic and Dinara Safina en route to the first and only Grand Slam title of her career. At the French Open, Ivanovic won more matches (37) than at any other major event and was also runner-up in 2007 to Justine Henin. 

Now retired from the sport, the 36-year-old continues to keep an eye on what is happening on the Tour in both the men’s and women’s events. So what does she think about this year’s French Open? 

The women’s draw – Is the title Swiatek’s to lose?

Iga Swiatek is targeting a fourth title in Paris which would make her only the fourth female player to achieve this milestone in the Open Era. The Pole is currently on a 12-match winning streak after claiming titles in Madrid and Rome. As for those who are the biggest threat to her, Ivanovic has two names in her mind. 

“I think the biggest threat is Ayna Sabalenka – they (her and Swiatek) played an amazing match in Madrid. It was a very tight one. And Elena Rybakina even though clay is probably not her favourite surface,” Ivanovic tells Ubitennis via email. 

Another player Ivanovic tips as a dark horse is Danielle Collins, who is playing the last season of her career. Since January she already rocketed up the rankings from 54th position to 12th, winning the biggest trophy of her career in Miami. On clay, she won the Charleston Open and more recently reached the semi-finals in Rome. 

“Danielle Collins had an amazing tournament winning back-to-back Miami and Charleston and also playing well in Rome again. I think she is a dark horse for the French Open.” She said.
“She seems to play very freely and enjoy herself out there. She has been in very good form this year, winning a lot of matches. She has a big chance to come far into the second week of the French Open.”

The last player ranked outside the top 10 to win Paris was Barbora Krejcikova in 2021 and the last American to do so was Serena Williams in 2015. 

As for other contenders, Ivanovic hopes a rising star of the sport will perform well. 

“I think now in women’s tennis we see more similar faces in the semifinals and finals. But I would really like to see Mirra Andreeva go far.” She commented about the Russian 17-year-old, who is currently ranked 38th in the world. 

The men’s draw – will Djokovic regain his form in time?

It can be argued with good reason that the men’s draw is the most open it has been in recent editions. Defending champion Novak Djokovic is still to win a title this year and experienced a turbulent time in Rome where he received a blow to the head during a freak accident. Meanwhile, Jannik Sinner and Carlos Alcaraz have been hindered by injury setbacks in recent weeks with both of them missing the last Masters event. 

“There have been a lot of new players in the last few weeks reaching far in the tournaments and beating some top players,” Ivanovic said about the state of men’s tennis.
So we are going to see many new faces on the men’s side. Of course Novak is still the strongest contestant for the title, but also Alcaraz and Sinner.”
“Novak had a little bit tougher clay court season so far than usual, but I think he is for sure peaking his full form for the French Open.”

As for the ‘strongest contestant’, the former world No.1 picks Djokovic and Alcaraz. Although there is a chance of a new Grand Slam champion. So who would Ivanovic pick for glory out of Alexander Zverev, Stefanos Tsitsipas and Casper Ruud?

“Out of the other 3, I would pick Zverev as the highest chance to win the French Open.” She replied.

Thiem’s Paris Swamsong 

Beside chasing for glory, one of the storylines of this year’s event will be the depature of Dominic Thiem who will play in Roland Garros for the last time before retiring later this year. The two-time finalist is playing in the qualifying draw after being controversially denied a wildcard. Whilst some ruled the decision as unfair, Thiem later said he has no hard feelings. 

“Honestly I had a long time to be in a good ranking,” he told reporters earlier this week. “I had enough tournaments and enough time to climb up the ranking and I didn’t do it, so I kind of didn’t deserve it and that’s fine. I had 10 main draw appearances in the last years so that’s more than enough.”

The former US Open champion has been praised by Ivanovic who says it is ‘always great’ to watch him play. Ivanovic played her last Tour-level match in 2016 which was the same year Thiem reached his first of four French Open semi-finals. 

“Dominic had a great career and it’s been always great to watch him play,” she said. 
“It has been very unfortunate with his injuries the last years so it has been tough years for him. I really hope he can do well at the French Open and has a nice farewell.”

During her career, Ivanovic played in 48 Grand Slam main draws and won 15 WTA titles. She held the No.1 ranking for 12 weeks during 2008. 

The French Open main draw will get underway on Sunday. 

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