It was only two years ago when Daria Kasatkina was being described as the new face of Russian tennis and a star in the making.
A former French Open junior champion, Kasatkina achieved various accomplishments prior to her 22nd birthday that others could only dream of. Her rise in the sport started in April 2017, when at the age of 19 she defeated Jelena Ostapenko to claim her maiden WTA title at the Charleston Open. Her breakout took place the following year where she lost to Naomi Osaka in the final of Indian Wells and won another Premier title in Moscow. Furthermore, she also reached back-to-back quarter-finals at the French Open and Wimbledon as she eventually peaked at a ranking best of 10th in October 2018.
It looked as if the sport had a potential future No.1 in the making who was on similar trajectories as Osaka and Bianca Andreescu. Then a lacklustre 2019 took place, serving as a stern reminder of how hard it is to rise to the top and yet how easy it is to fall. Last year she lost her opening match at 11 tournaments on the Tour as she struggled to reproduce the results from the previous couple of years.
“It’s obvious that we need to adjust a few things to play at this level. In practice we are fixing these things to get these good feelings back for her,” coach Carlos Martinez told UbiTennis.
Challenged with getting Kasatkina back on the road to top-level tennis is Spanish coach Martinez, a former world No.180 doubles player who is also known for his work with Svetlana Kuznetsova.
The 2020 roller-coaster for Martinez started in February when Kasatkina looked to be once again regaining form with a run to the semi-finals of the Lyon Open in France. It was the Russian’s seventh tournament of the season but the first where she won back-to-back main draw matches. However, a week later the WTA Tour was halted for what ended up being a five-month period due to COVID-19.
“It was very sad for us because she was starting to get some very good rhythm after Lyon,” Martinez reflects. “In my opinion, she lost her (semi-final) match in the right way because she is a player who needs to win matches and get confidence in her game.’
“She had good chances to do well in Indian Wells because of the conditions. It (the Tour break) wasn’t good for us and now we have to regain that rhythm but for sure she will be again at that top level.’
“Our expectation for us is to be good every day,” he added.
Sidelined from competition, there was one godsave with the fact the two could continue training during lockdown at the Club de Tenis Mollet on the outskirts of Barcelona, an academy owned by Martinez himself. During the unscheduled break, he continued to work with Kasatkina with one particular focus in mind – to make her more aggressive.
The return to competition
Opting not to play in any exhibition matches during the break, it was a case of wait and see if the hard work had paid off. Few can cast doubt on Kasatkina’s commitment to the sport, but – as with many of her peers – the question was how she would fare on the Tour after five months away.
The first stop was in the Italian city of Palermo, where the entire WTA Tour resumed. Unfortunately, there would be another blow for Kasatkina as she suffered a leg injury during practice heading into the tournament. She was still able to play, but ended up losing a marathon first round encounter against Jasmine Paolini. There were also mixed fortunes for Kasatkina in her next tournament at the Western and Southern Open in New York where she lost two out of three matches played. She managed to enter the main draw only with the help of a lucky loser spot.
“She couldn’t play her best in Palermo because she injured her leg the day before during practice. She couldn’t be 100 per cent ready to compete. It’s true she played three hours and 10 minutes against Paolini but honestly she couldn’t do more. Her leg wouldn’t let her run,” Martinez reflected.
“In Cincinnati (relocated to New York this year) she played three matches. The second was a good chance for her to qualify for the main draw but she lost a few chances during the second set.’
Kasatkina lost in the first round of Cincinnati to Anette Kontaveit.
So what is the reason for all of these early losses? Is it simply because the now-world No.68 has lost some of her form from two years ago or is there a more complex explanation?
Martinez believes it is the mental side of the game which is letting Kasatkina down at present. When asked how close she is to the type of form which took her into the world’s top 10, he firmly believes she is not too far away. Although the ongoing problem continues to be her mindset.
“She has the game because when she practices she is showing a really good level. When we compete against top players she is winning many times,” he said.
“The problem isn’t with her game, the problem is she needs to believe in herself a little bit more. To go on court and think she is very good. Her game is really consequential of these thoughts.”
“She’s not far away from achieving this. When we talk about the game, we just need to keep adjusting a few things and for sure she will be back (inside the top 10). I don’t know when but she will be back to the top level.”
Patience is a virtue
Over the coming weeks Kasatkina will not have to worry much about her current ranking position thanks to a change in the rules due to COVID-19. The WTA recently revised their system to the “Better of 2019 and 2020” system where a player’s position is based on their 16 best tournament performances between March 2019 and December 2020.
“Fortunately, this year we have no pressure and this is the thing she needs to understand. This year is about fixing a few things, starting again and being back into competition following lockdown,” outlined Martinez.
“There are no goals regarding her result. But I have goals to establish again this pattern of the play that she has to do on the court. This for us is the most important. I know if she starts doing this pattern and believing in herself again, she can do good.”
The next test for Martinez and Kasatkina will be next week’s US Open in what will be the Russian’s 19th consecutive Grand Slam main draw appearance. Although recently the majors have been a thing of misery, with Kasatkina only managing to win two matches since the 2018 US Open.
“The important thing is to understand the philosophy of this game because with this knowledge she will get the goals we are expecting in the future. Of course, for us it is to be back in the top 10 because she has the game to do so. So we just have to be patient and work on this mentality.” Martinez concluded.
Kasatkina will play Marta Kostyuk in the first round at Flushing Meadows.
EXCLUSIVE: How The ATP Plans To Make The Tour More Welcoming For LGBT Players
The governing body of men’s tennis has received praise for taking a proactive approach to the topic with the help of a leading LGBTQ+ organisation and a top research university.
During the first week of the US Open, there was an abundance of rainbow-theme flags and wristbands worn by both players and fans to mark the tournament’s first-ever Open Pride Day.
The event was part of the USTA’s Diversity and Inclusion strategic platform which aims to make tennis more inclusive. Unlike the women’s game, there are no openly LGBTQ+ players on the men’s Tour and there have been few historically, even though various players have spoken of their support for anybody on the Tour who decides to come out. Including Stefanos Tsitsipas and newly crowned US Open champion Daniil Medvedev, who were questioned about the topic following their second round matches. Meanwhile, Canada’s Felix Auger-Aliassime revealed that there is an ongoing survey related to LGBTQ+ issues being conducted by the ATP.
“Recently I’ve started doing a survey inside the ATP about the LGBTQ+ community,” he said. “It’s important these days to be aware of that and to be open-minded and the ATP needs to do that, in today’s time it’s needed.
“The reason we don’t have openly gay players on the ATP Tour, I’m not sure of the reason, but I feel me, as a player, it would be very open, very welcome. Statistically, there should be some, but for now there’s not.”
In response to Auger-Aliassime’s comment, UbiTennis looked into the work currently being done by the ATP alongside two other parties. Their decision to venture into LGBTQ+ representation on the Tour is part of their recent commitment to support the mental health and wellbeing of their players and staff. Last year, in May, they formed partnerships with Headspace and Sporting Chance.
The survey currently being conducted by the ATP started after the governing body of men’s tennis reached out to Lou Englefield, the director of Pride Sports, a UK organisation that focuses on LGBTQ+phobia in sport and aims to improve access to sport for all LGBTQ+ people. Through their connection, they contacted Eric Denison, a behavioural science researcher at Monash University’s School of Social Sciences. Denison was the lead author of the Out on the Fields study, the first international study on homophobia in sport and the largest conducted to date.
“I have been personally impressed with the initiative of the ATP and their desire to find ways to mitigate the broad impact of homophobic behaviour (in particular), not only on gay people, but on all players.” He told UbiTennis during an email exchange.
“We know of no other sporting governing body in the world that has been proactive on LGBTQ+ issues, and has taken a strong focus on engaging with both the LGBTQ+ community and scientists to find solutions.”
Denison says the norm has been for sports bodies to address this issue after they have been either pressured to do so or if the LGBTQ+ community got the ball rolling themselves. Incredibly, research conducted as part of the Out On The Fields initiative documented 30 separate studies which found sports organisations ignored discrimination experienced by LGBTQ+ people in sport.
Monash University has supplied the ATP with a series of scientifically validated questions, which they are using to ‘look under the hood’ at the factors which supports a culture where gay or bisexual players feel they are not welcome. The methodology is similar to a study Denison conducted in 2020 that focused specifically on the team sports rugby union and ice hockey.
“We suspect that tennis isn’t inherently more homophobic than other sports, or traditionally male settings. Instead, there is a disconnect between people’s attitudes towards gay people (e.g. the recent pro-gay comments by top players) and their behaviour, specifically their use of homophobic banter and jokes,” said Denison.
“This behaviour, which is largely habitual, creates a hostile climate for young gay/bi people who drop out or hide their sexuality. This means gay/bi players are invisible in youth tennis and leads to the downstream problem of no professionals. The banter/jokes continue because people think it is harmless.”
The hope is that players will also agree to be interviewed by the researchers for them to get a better understanding. All of the results will then be used by Pride Sports and Monash University to recommend evidence-based solutions. It is unclear as to how long the study will take or when the findings will be ready.
Former top 100 player Brian Vahaly is one of the few players to have been both openly gay and played at the highest level of the men’s game. However, he didn’t fully come to terms with his sexuality until after retiring from the sport at age 27. Speaking to UbiTennis earlier this year, Vahaly shed light on the potential barriers for gay players.
“There were a lot of homophobic jokes made on Tour. It’s a very masculine and competitive environment,” he said. “You don’t see a lot of gay representation, except for the women’s Tour. With me not having the personality of an outspoken advocate (for LGBTQ+ issues), certainly not in my twenties, I needed some time to understand myself. To me, in tennis I didn’t feel like there was anybody to talk to or anybody that was going through anything similar.”
The ATP has spoken with Vahaly about their initiative and he has become ‘quite involved.’ Through their discussions, he got acquainted with Denison for the first time. As a professional, Vahaly peaked at a ranking high of 64th in the world and won five Challenger titles. After retiring from the Tour, he has served on the USTA’s board of directors since 2013.
“I am happy to hear that the ATP is finally taking action to address this issue. I’m impressed they are taking a thoughtful, data-driven approach to make a meaningful difference here,” he told UbiTennis.
The ATP aims to make the men’s Tour more welcoming to potential LGTBQ+ athletes playing either now or in the future. For those who question if such an initiative is important in 2021, you only have to look at the younger demographic.
Sportsnet quoted CDC data from 2019 which showed that 26% of American LGBTQ+ teenagers aged 16 or 17 has contemplated suicide, five times more than those who identify as straight (5%). Among those teenagers who heard homophobic terms, 33% self-harmed and an additional 40% considered doing so.
More than 2000 players around the world currently have an ATP ranking.
2020 Tokyo Olympics, Djokovic on the heat and the new scheduling: “I’m glad they listened to us”
Speaking to Ubitennis, the world number one describes the work that he, Medvedev and Zverev (among others) have done to obtain better playing conditions
So far, the tennis tournament at the 2020 Olympics has made headlines less for the match-play than for the difficult conditions in which it has been taking place due to the heat and the humidity. In the women’s draw, for instance, four players have been forced to retire during their matches: the last one has been particularly shocking, as Paula Badosa was taken off-court on a wheelchair after collapsing late in the first set of her quarter-final match against Marketa Vondrousova. Luckily, these issues appear to have finally caught the attention of the International Tennis Federation: starting tomorrow, no match will be played before 3pm (7am in the UK).
Part of the credit for this (still belated) decision goes to the lobbying and the complaints of the players, as world N.1 Novak Djokovic explained while speaking to Ubitennis CEO Ubaldo Scanagatta in Tokyo: “I’m glad the decision was made to reschedule tomorrow’s opening matches at 3pm. Today we went to speak to the supervisor – when I say ‘we’ I mean myself, Medvedev, and Zverev, along with the team captains. I have spoken to Khachanov and Carreno Busta as well, so the majority of the players who will feature in the quarter finals was of the same opinion.
“Of course I would have wished for this decision to be made a few days ago, but it’s still a good thing,” he added. “Nobody wants to witness incidents like the one that occurred to Badosa.
“The conditions are really brutal. Some people might think that we are just complaining, but all resistance sports (and tennis should be included among them) are taking place later in the day because the combination between the heat and the humidity is really terrible.”
He then concluded: “I’ve been a professional tennis player for almost 20 years and I’ve never experienced such hard conditions for so many consecutive days. It may have have happened once or twice in Miami or New York, but just for one day, whereas in Tokyo the situation is like this every day. I think that this decision will benefit the fans as well, because playing later allows us to play our best – these conditions were just draining for us.”
Article by Lorenzo Colle; translated by Tommaso Villa
Mats Wilander Exclusive: Matteo Berrettini Will Win A Grand Slam
UbiTennis founder Ubaldo Scanagatta speaks to the former world No.1 about Berrettini’s historic win at Wimbledon.
Swedish tennis great Mats Wilander has praised Matteo Berrettini for his run to the Wimbledon Final during a one-to-one interview with UbiTennis.
25-year-old Berrettini has become the first Italian man in history to reach the final of the Grand Slam after beating Hubert Hurkacz 6-3, 6-0, 6-7(3), 6-4. Throughout the clash he was impressive behind his serve where he fired 22 aces and won 86% of his service points. This year he is unbeaten on the grass and is currently on a 10-match winning streak following his triumph at Queen’s last month.
“Breaking the first game of the fourth set is to me the sign that we all look for in players. Whatever happens in the third (set) should not matter and he came straight back,”Wilander tells UbiTennis.
“That’s my indication that he will be one of the best players in the world. He will win a Grand Slam one hundred percent, for sure, if he stays healthy.”
Wilander’s bold prediction centres around Berrettini’s game on both grass and hardcourt. However, he is less optimistic about his chances on the clay at present until his backhand becomes more powerful.
As to why the former world No.1 has so much confidence in Italy’s top player, he says it is his ability to not expose his weaknesses during matches. Drawing parallels between him and Roger Federer. The player Berrettini comprehensively beat in straight sets earlier in the week.
“He knows how to hide his weakness and most great players know how to hide their weaknesses. Roger Federer is the perfect example. His backhand compared to the serve and the forehand. He stays alive with the slice and he comes over (to the net) sometimes when he has to,” he said.
“I think Matteo has figured out that he can stay alive with the slice. But the difference is that he is willing to slice and come in. He’s also double the size of Federer at the net so it is difficult to pass him.”
It wasn’t until the age of eight when Berrettini started to focus more on tennis after being asked by his younger brother to play more. As a professional he has won five ATP titles since 2018 and is the highest ranked ATP player from his country since Corrado Barazzutti back in 1978. He is coached by Vincenzo Santopadre, Marco Gulisano and Umberto Rianna.
“I would be so encouraged if I was coaching him. For the coach it must be like oh my god we are looking at a player who has (good use of his) hands and hides his weakness though the rest of his game,” the seven-time Grand Slam champion commented.
“I don’t why it has taken him a bit longer (to break through). I know he started a little bit later but I think he’s a natural at the big moments.”
On Sunday Berrettini faces the ultimate test against Novak Djokovic who will be seeking his third consecutive Wimbledon title and sixth overall. He has lost to the Serbian twice before on the Tour, including the French Open earlier this year. The Italian enters the final as the underdog but Wilander thinks he shouldn’t be underestimated.
“I think he has a good chance, I really do because that serve (of his) is different and he has a different forehand. He is not afraid to stay alive,” he concluded.
UbiTennis’ full interview with Wilander can be listened to below
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