EXCLUSIVE: What Is It Really Like Being A Coach Working Inside The US Open Bubble - UBITENNIS
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EXCLUSIVE: What Is It Really Like Being A Coach Working Inside The US Open Bubble

UbiTennis speaks to two tennis professionals in New York about their experiences amid the COVID-19 pandemic.

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You must isolate in your room immediately following a test, agree to stay within a certain location or risk expulsion and pay for 24-hour security if you wish to rent private housing. These are just some of the extreme measures that have been implemented at the US Open.

 

The New York Grand Slam is taking place during unprecedented times due to the COVID-19 pandemic. America knows all too well the severity of the disease with the country recording more than 5 million cases and a record death toll of over 174,000. The fact the US Open and its lead-up tournaments are taking place at all is an achievement in itself. Although for some players such as Ash Barty, Rafael Nadal and Simona Halep they have opted not to play amid health-related concerns.

Those who have travelled to New York find themselves in unfamiliar territory at an event they attend each year. Although it is not just the players who have been affected.

In Adam Lownsbrough, the coach of world No.72 doubles player Miyu Kato, and Garry Cahill, mentor to Russia’s Vitalia Diatchenko, UbiTennis  spoke to two tennis coaches about what life is really like currently on Tour amid the COVID-19 restrictions.

 “Flying for the first time for six months everyone would be slightly nervous, especially long distance, but we also know the risks,” Lownsbrough told UbiTennis about his decision to go to New York.
“Upon arrival at the hotel and the (US Open) site everything was very smooth and the rules clear. You can tell the staff want the event to go smoothly so they have done their best to make everyone feel comfortable and have clarity on the rules.
“On site it’s different, but there is plenty of space to walk around so social distancing is easy. In the restaurant they are using QR codes to order so once you’ve sat down you only stand up again to leave.”


Cahill, who is also known for his collaboration with former player and compatriot Connor Niland, admits that he too was apprehensive upon arrival. Unlike other areas of America, New York has managed to maintain their infection rate and prevent a sudden spike in recent weeks.

I guess nobody knew what to expect but in some ways it’s easier! Less people, easier to get around and no cues in restaurants,” he said.
“I have not seen anyone breaking these rules, it seems to be really well adhered to. Guess people all want the same thing, safe competition,” Cahill added. 

Due to the pandemic, the Western and Southern Open is also being held at the Billie Jean King Tennis Center. Upon arrival, everybody undergoes a test and is told to self-isolate until they learn their result which usually takes 24 hours. Even if their result is negative, they will still be tested throughout their stay. So far the only positive result concerned a worker at the event. Guido Pella and Hugo Dellien are in quarantine after being exposed to somebody who has the virus.

Cahill’s experience of his first test saw him waiting slightly longer than usual. After undergoing the procedure last Sunday, his team wasn’t given the all-clear until Tuesday morning. It is unclear what the delay was but officials have already conducted more than 13,000 tests. For Lownsbrough, his impression of the process was positive.  

“The testing process is well organised and quick. The nose swabs are performed by each individual under clear instructions. From the medical staff we receive the results sent by email/text. Again, it’s very clear and the staff have been excellent.”

‘If people can’t do that then it’s a bit of a joke’

The USTA, who runs the US Open, has put a lot of emphasis on the rules in the year of a global pandemic but how well are they being followed?

Even in recent days at least one of these policies has been adjusted. The insistence of wearing a mask on site has been relaxed due to the humid conditions but social distancing remains a must. This year the USTA have even hired a group of `social distance ambassadors‘ to ensure everyone is keeping a distance from others.  

It seems like protocols are being followed but there were always going to be incidents like any other tournament no matter how minor.

For Lownsbrough, one of his practice sessions started with him seeing litter left on the court from the team prior. Something that is not a new issue for the sport with a debate over plastic bottles erupting during the 2018 Wimbledon Championships following a similar situation.

“The bubble, it is strict but the stricter it is the safer it is in theory. From what I have seen, everyone is respecting it. Some players before our practice left rubbish on the court (used towels, grips, bottles) that could contaminate and can be avoided but sometimes that’s too much to ask of people….” He said.
At the end of the day we are in the middle of a pandemic so we need to protect ourselves and the people around. There are harder things to do in life than wearing masks, washing hands, keeping your distance etc. If people can’t do that then it’s a bit of a joke.”

Lownsbrough, 36, and Cahill, 47, are no newcomers when it comes to life on the Tour. They have previously travelled to an array of Grand Slam tournaments but like their fellow colleagues this is the first time during the pandemic. Undoubtedly the ‘bubble’ will be a new experience for all but are there also some advantages?  

“The obvious on-site benefits are more space to walk around so it feels more relaxed and less intense but it seems pretty much the same as previous events from that side,” Lownsbrough commented.
“Practice courts will have exactly the same access as no fans won’t make any difference to this. It’s easier to move around, less waiting in general, more available seats, and a crazy one but you can charge your phone easily!” Cahill added.

https://twitter.com/usopen/status/1296916103264952320

The final verdict

Now both have experienced life inside the bubble, has it lived up to all the hype?  The USTA will be under close scrutiny over the coming weeks by many, including rival Grand Slams who are currently working on their own plans related to COVID-19. The French Open starts two weeks after the tournament concludes.

In the view of Lownsbrough, expectations have been met with him saying the responsibility now lies on those attending and not those organising the events.

“I think the USTA so far is doing a good job. They have everything in place from what I have seen. It’s down to us as coaches, players, physios to follow the rules,” he said.

Although his fellow coach on the Tour points out some minor improvements he would have liked to see.

Maybe have one or two more hotels as the Marriott is completely full of tennis players. I also feel that it would make it easier if players had access to one or two outside restaurants just to get out of hotels but I understand this would be difficult to police,” Cahill says.

As for the impact on the players themselves, some are wondering if the absence of fans could create a more level-playing ground in the draws? The likes of Serena Williams thrive on the adrenaline created by a packed New York crowd. When that is taken away, what may happen?

“I don’t think so, I think the lack of matches may help lower ranked players,” Cahill commented on this theory.

“To be honest, at most WTA  events, there aren’t that many with big crowds so we are used to it. Obviously, if it was busy it would be nice and more fun. The players are all professional regardless of ranking and number of spectators so will focus on the job in hand.” Lownsbrough weighed in.

Whatever happens over the coming weeks the US Open will be one that will forever be installed in the history of tennis for an array of reasons. Some have gone as far as suggesting that the event will have an asterisk next to it due to the absence of some top names. Drawing parallels to Wimbledon 1973 when a series of top male players boycotted the event in support of another player after their national federation banned them from playing.  

Perhaps the best way to sum up the 2020 US Open is through Cahill’s one-sentence observation.

“It doesn’t feel like New York, it just feels like a tennis club that happens to be in New York.”

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Roland Garros Daily Preview: The Second Major of 2022 Begins on Sunday

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A shot from the grounds of the French Open (twitter.com/rolandgarros)

The second Major of the year is upon us, with its unique Sunday start.  Roland Garros is the only Grand Slam event where first round singles play is spread across three days. 

 

The men’s draw is headlined by 13-time champion Rafael Nadal, defending champion Novak Djokovic, 2021 runner-up Stefanos Tsitsipas, and the ATP’s breakout star of the last 12 months, Carlos Alcaraz.  The 19-year-old Spaniard will play his opening match on Sunday, as will top ATP names like Dominic Thiem and Sascha Zverev.

The women’s draw features 12 Major singles champions, five of whom have won this event: Iga Swiatek, Barbora Krejicikova, Simona Halep, Jelena Ostapenko, and Garbine Muguruza.  The 28-year-old Spaniard plays perpetual draw-buster Kaia Kanepi on Sunday.  The Order of Play also includes the red-hot Ons Jabeur and US Open finalist Leylah Fernandez, who faces France’s Kiki Mladenovic.

Throughout the tournament, this preview will analyze the day’s two most prominent matches, while highlighting the other notable matches on the schedule.  Sunday’s play begins at 11:00am local time.


Ons Jabeur (6) vs. Magda Linette – 11:00am on Court Philippe Chatrier

Outside of Iga Swiatek, Jabeur is the WTA player with the most momentum heading into Paris.  Before losing to Swiatek in the final of Rome, Ons was on an 11-match win streak, coming off her title run in Madrid.  She’s now 17-3 on clay this season, and has reached the fourth round of this tournament the last two years.  She’ll be a considerable favorite against Linette on Sunday, though Magda could easily test the sixth seed.  The 30-year-old from Poland was a quarterfinalist this year at clay events in Charleston and Strasbourg, and she owns victories over some top names at Majors, including Ash Barty and Elina Svitolina.  They’ve met twice before on clay, with both matches going to Jabeur.  That includes a three-set encounter at this event a year ago.  I expect a similar result on Sunday.


Hugo Dellien vs. Dominic Thiem (PR) – 11:00am on Court Simonne Mathieu

Thiem is a two-time French Open finalist, but he is still fighting for his first win in over a year.  Since coming back from his wrist injury, he is 0-6 at all levels, with all those matches occurring on clay.  Earning that elusive win in the best-of-five format may prove challenging for an out-of-form player.  This will be Thiem’s first match against Dellien, a 28-year-old from Bolivia who has played 43 matches on clay this season at all levels.  He’s accumulated 30 wins, and advanced to two Challenger finals.  However, Hugo is yet to defeat a top 40 player this year.  While Dominic is not currently a member of that group, and is not performing at that level, taking out a Major champion at a Grand Slam event remains a daunting task.  At a tournament where Thiem has fond memories of success, I expect Dominic is earn his first win since last May.


Garbine Muguruza (10) vs. Kaia Kanepi – Second on Court Simonne Mathieu

Muguruza is a two-time Major champion, and won the third-biggest title of her career at November’s WTA Finals in Guadalajara.  But since that title run, Muguruza has struggled mightily, with a record of 7-8 in 2022.  She’s won back-to-back matches only once this season.  And in the opening round, she’s drawn one of the sport’s most dangerous floaters.  Kanepi has made a career out of upsetting top seeds at Majors.  As per Tennis Abstract, she owns nine top 10 wins at Grand Slam events, over the likes of Angelique Kerber, Simona Halep, and most recently at January’s Australian Open, Aryna Sabalenka.  Kaia is a seven-time quarterfinalist at Majors, including two times at Roland Garros.  Her only previous meeting with Muguruza took place eight years ago in Melbourne, when Muguruza prevailed in three sets.  But considering Garbine’s recent form, and Kaia’s history at Majors, this match is definitely deserving of an upset alert.


Carlos Alcaraz (6) vs. Juan Ignacio Londero (Q) – Fourth on Court Philippe Chatrier

Alcaraz has rapidly become one of the ATP’s players.  Carlitos is 28-3 in 2022, with four titles.  He is No.3 in the year-to-date rankings, and is within 200 points of the two players ahead of him (Nadal, Tsitsipas).  The teenager arrives in Paris on a 10-match win streak on clay, having taken back-to-back titles in his home country.  Londero is a former top 50 player who reached the fourth round of this event in 2019.  But he is coming off multiple seasons with a losing record, and hasn’t played a match since early-April.  Alcaraz should not have much trouble dismissing Londero on Sunday, though it is always a treat to see the Spaniard’s formidable skills on display.


Leylah Fernandez (17) vs. Kiki Mladenovic – Fourth on Court Suzanne Lenglen

Fernandez has not immediately been able to follow-up on her thrilling US Open run from last summer.  Despite winning a title in Monterrey, she hasn’t reached a quarterfinal at any other event this year.  But still only 19-years-of-age, Leylah undoubtedly has some big results ahead of her.  Mladenovic was top 10 player in 2017, the same year she was a quarterfinalist at her home Slam.  But the Frenchwoman is 2-4 in Paris since, and only 2-10 this season at all levels.  While Kiki will certainly be motivated by the Parisian crowd, it would be surprising if she could upset Leylah, as the Canadian remains a dogged competitor who thrives on big stages.


Other Notable Matches on Sunday:

Sloane Stephens vs. Jule Niemeier (Q) – Stephens was the 2018 runner-up in Paris, and reached the fourth round a year ago.  But she’s 0-4 on clay in 2022.  Niemeier is a 22-year-old German who won an ITF-level event on clay last month.

Grigor Dimitrov (18) vs. Marcos Giron – Dimitrov is only 12-11 lifetime at Roland Garros, though he was a semifinalist in Monte Carlo this season.  This is a rematch from last year’s French Open, when Giron defeated Dimitrov after Grigor retired during the fourth set.

Felix Auger-Aliassime (9) vs. Juan Pablo Varillas (Q) – Auger-Aliassime is still looking for his first main draw win at Roland Garros.  He is 8-6 on clay this year.  Varillas is a 26-year-old from Peru who has won 19 matches on clay this season at all levels.

Maria Sakkari (4) vs. Clara Burel – Sakkari has some scar tissue to overcome at this event, as in last year’s semifinals, she was one point away from defeating eventual champion Barbora Krejicikova.  Burel is a 20-year-old from France who is a former junior No.1.

Sascha Zverev (3) vs. Sebastian Ofner (Q) – Zverev has reached the second week of this tournament four consecutive times.  Ofner is a 26-year-old from Austria who prevailed at a Challenger event in Prague last month.


Sunday’s full Order of Play is here.

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REPORT: French Open Qualifying Match Under Investigation Over Irregular Betting Patterns

An unusual number of bets were placed on the match in three different countries.

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A first round match at this week’s French Open qualifying tournament is being looked into after an abnormally high number of bets was placed, according to a leading French newspaper.

 

L’Equipe have cited police sources saying that the clash between eighth seed Bernabé Zapata Miralles and Dudi Sela has flagged up irregular patterns. Miralles defeated his Israeli rival 6-3, 6-0, in less than an hour. It is understood that the focus of the investigation is on the second set which lasted less than 20 minutes. A total of 32 points was placed in that set with Sela only winning seven of those.

According to the source, an unusually high number of bets were placed on the match in three different countries – Cyprus, Ukraine and Armenia. Prompting judicial authorities to look into the possibility that the match could have been fixed but at present no formal investigation has been confirmed.

“There is no business,” the French Tennis Federation (FFT) was quoted by Le Parisien as saying on the matter.

37-year-old Sela is currently ranked outside the world’s top 400 but managed to get into the qualifying draw with the use of a protected ranking. He has only played in two singles tournaments so far this season with the other being at the Australian Open where he also lost in the first round of qualifying.

Sela confirmed in January that 2022 would be his last as a professional. A former top 30 player, he has reached the final of two ATP events in China (2008) and Atlanta (2014). He also reached the fourth round at Wimbledon in 2009 and has beaten three top 10 players during his career.

Meanwhile, Miralles sealed his place in the French Open main draw on Thursday after coming from a set down to beat Luca Nardi 3-6, 6-4, 6-1.

There is currently no evidence to suggest that either player has been involved in match-fixing. According to statistics from L’Equipe, there has been a 177% increase in online bets concerning the French Open over a five-year period to 128M euros in 2021.

This year players who lose in the first round of qualifying at the French Open will earn €14,000, which is a 40% increase on 2021.

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‘Time To Accept The Situation And Fight’ – Rafael Nadal Targets French Open Despite Foot Concern

After recently returning to the Tour following a rib injury, a flare up of another issue threatens to spoil Nadal’s Paris dreams.

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Image via Roberto Dell’Olivo

Just over a week before the start of the French Open Rafael Nadal once again finds himself nursing a long-term condition that sidelined him from the Tour for months last year.

 

The 21-time Grand Slam champion looked to be in visible discomfort during parts of his clash with Denis Shapovalov in the third round of the Italian Masters on Thursday. After clinching the opening set, Nadal fell 1-6, 7-5, 6-2, to the Canadian who registered his first-ever win over a top 10 player on clay and his 10th overall. He now faces a race against time to be ready for the French Open which he has won a record 13 times.

“I am not injured. I am a player living with an injury. That’s it, it is nothing new. It’s something that is there,” Nadal told reporters in Rome.

35-year-old Nadal suffers from Mueller-Weiss syndrome, which is a degenerative disease that causes a deformity of one of the bones in the central part of the foot. Due to the condition last year he was only able to play in one tournament over a six-month period. In September that year he underwent treatment on his foot but not surgery.

“My day-by-day is difficult, honestly. Even like this, I am trying hard. Of course, it’s difficult for me to accept the situation sometimes,” the former world No.1 said of his condition. “It can be frustrating that a lot of days I can’t practice the proper way.”

The setback occurred during what was only Nadal’s second tournament since returning to action following a rib injury. At last week’s Madrid Open he reached the quarter-finals before losing to compatriot Carlos Alcaraz. Nadal’s recent misfortunes follow what has been a blistering start to the season for him. He started 2022 by winning 20 matches in a row before losing to Taylor Fritz in Indian Wells. His win-loss for the season currently stands at 23-3 with three titles won, including the Australian Open.

During his visit to Roland Garros this year Nadal will be joined by his doctor who will be keeping a close eye on his foot. As to how much the condition could hinder his campaign in the French capital, the Spaniard admits that he doesn’t know due to its unpredictability.

First thing that I need to do is to not have pain to practice, that’s it. And the negative thing is today it’s not possible for me to play. But maybe in two days things will be better, that’s the thing that I have with my foot,” he explained.

Nadal is the most successful player in French Open history with a total of 105 main draw wins. In fact, the only players to have ever beaten him at the tournament are Novak Djokovic twice and Sweden’s Robin Soderling.

“It’s time to accept the situation and fight. That’s it. Honestly, I can’t say anything more now,” Nadal continued.
“I still have a goal (to be ready for the French Open) in one week and a couple of days. I’m going to keep dreaming about that goal.”

Nadal has played just five matches on clay this season heading into the French Open.

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