(EXCLUSIVE) Q&A With Daria Abramowicz - The Psychologist Behind Iga Switek's Historic French Open Run - UBITENNIS
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(EXCLUSIVE) Q&A With Daria Abramowicz – The Psychologist Behind Iga Switek’s Historic French Open Run

From dealing with pressure on the Tour to what makes tennis unique compared to other sports. UbiTennis conducts an in-depth interview with Abramowicz who knows personally what it is like to be an athlete, coach and psychologist.

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Daria Abramowicz (image via https://www.facebook.com/abramowiczdaria)

Daria Abramowicz may only be in her early thirties but she has already established herself as one of the best known sports psychologists in women’s tennis.

A former competitive sailor from Poland, Abramowicz boasts an impressive resume in the world of sports. During her career, she has worked as both a coach and athlete. Although it is the field of psychology which is best known for. A graduate of the SWPS University of Social Sciences and Humanities she studied psychology with a specialization in clinical psychology before switching focus to sports for her postgraduate studies. She has worked with national teams of both swimmers and cyclists, as well as tennis players.

It was at last year’s French Open when Abramowicz’s name within the tennis circuit started to explode. Working with Iga Swiatek, she helped guide her to the title in what was an historic occasion. Not only did Swiatek become the first Polish player in history to win a major title, she achieved the milestone in clinical form by not dropping a set in the entire tournament. Something that hadn’t been achieved since Justine Henin back in 2007.

She just made me smarter. I know more about sports and I know more about psychology and I can understand my own feelings and I can say them out loud.” The world No.16 once commented on her work with Abramowicz.

With the French Open swiftly approaching and Swiatek facing the daunting prospect of trying to defend her title, UbiTennis spoke to her sports psychologist about her current training, as well as a closer look at tennis.

UBITENNIS: Daria you have worked in a variety of sports. From the view of a sports psychologist, what is it that makes tennis stand out compared to others?

ABRAMOWICZ: You know, every sport is different somehow. It has its own specifics and has its own details. It’s unique.

In tennis, from my point of view, it’s kind of a sport which is based on pauses, breaks. You have this short break between rallies, points, games, sets and matches. Then from a wider perspective, you have breaks between tournaments. This is really relevant in terms of how we approach tennis in terms of mental preparation. When do you use the mental training tools and how do you use it? How do you keep focus, manage stress and regulate emotions?

I think that the differences are the unique qualities of tennis that go far beyond what is happening on court. Tennis is extremely closely connected to business. It’s one of these sports that’s the business aspect is really important and it’s extremely relevant for people to understand how to connect these two areas. How to manage the time and put the effort into some scenarios. I do think that this connection to tennis is one thing that makes it unique.

The other is that the high-performance level is kind of unique. Travelling across the world for eight to nine months per year and you have to go to all these places every single year for sometimes 15 or even 20 years. It’s extremely challenging. How to be yourself in it and how to keep the social support system and how to enjoy all that for so many years.

These are the most relevant qualities.

UBITENNIS: There will be a lot of pressure on Iga Swiatek over the next couple of months leading up to her French Open title defence. What are you going to do differently with Iga compared to 12 months ago in terms of preparation?

ABRAMOWICZ: We are definitely talking about higher expectations. External but also internal expectations as Iga obviously has some.

There are some things that we are doing differently with this being one of them. There’s a lot of things that we do completely the same as we would have done if she didn’t win (the French Open). We are working on focusing on the performance and single tasks. We have discussed a lot about recovery and are implementing some tools.

It’s kind of a myth that everything has changed. There are a lot of things that are similar.

I think it is a combination of these two things. If an athlete is able to be solely focused on the performance, the quality and the single task. It just fades away that he or she is a defending champion and the expectations are lower I think.

UBITENNIS: How is Iga’s preparation going after having to pull out of Stuttgart?

ABRAMOWICZ: This is kind of the top-secret stuff for the team. We are practising on the clay, having some high-quality preparation before Madrid, Rome and the French Open. That’s how it is. The team has decided that it’s relevant and the key is to prepare well for the clay season.

UBITENNIS: After the Miami Open, Iga posted a written piece on social media opening up about her experiences. Some players on the Tour are quite introverted and don’t like sharing too much as they don’t want to show any weaknesses. Do you see any correlation between a player being more open about things and an improvement in their performance on court? Would you advise other players to do the same?

ABRAMOWICZ: There are more athletes who are open about their experiences on social media. This is a change that is happening in sport right now. For example, there is this website called The Players Tribune where you can read a lot of statements and blogs written by professional athletes. I think they have extreme value.

Sometimes this is kind of a way to show people what an athlete is thinking, how they are approaching the sport and what the particular experience does mean to them.

I tend to say that you are in your sport on your own terms and you can share a bit of light on how you approach things.

It might be a little bit helpful in terms of how you approach the sport. Writing might be like a breath of fresh air that helps you solve some things and work them out.

It also helps avoid hate speech. I think that it helps people understand that high-performance sport is not all rainbows. It’s challenging, sometimes lonely and sometimes you can feel helpless. It’s human.

UBITENNIS: You once said in an interview that sports psychology is still a bit stigmatized. What do you mean by this and what do you think tennis can do to overcome this?

ABRAMOWICZ: I did sort of say that sports psychology is stigmatised but I mean that Psychology (in general) is stigmatised. Seeking psychologists for help concerns the whole society and not only the sports environment.

I do not think that tennis itself is able to help overcome this. But every single athlete, every single human who is vocal about how important it is to implement mental preparation and taking care of their mental health has  the same importance as their physical health. It’s valuable and helps raise awareness.

UBITENNIS: Some players ranked outside the top 100 may not be able to work with a psychologist due to financial constraints. What can be done to help these players?

ABRAMOWICZ: I used to say and I repeat this on every single occasion that I have that the coach is always the person who is the closest to an athlete. He or she knows the player the best and has a lot of tools to work with an athlete. Not only in terms of tennis drills or strength and conditioning, but also about the mental aspect of the game.

If there is no possibility to work with a psychologist, psychology has some tools to help (athletes) work online. It’s absolutely an everyday thing, especially right now during the pandemic. It turns out that we are able to use online for almost everything.

The coaches are great people so sharing their resources with athletes so I would advise them to invest in their relationship. Also, social support systems are extremely important.

UBITENNIS: Poland also has a top player on the men’s Tour with Hubert Hurkacz. I was wondering if you have spotted any differences in the mental approach to tennis by the men compared to women? If yes, why do you think these differences occur?

ABRAMOWICZ: We could write a book about the differences between women and men. They obviously occur in terms of emotions, managing stress and focus sometimes. But the most important differences are actually connected to the way they are practising. Dealing with recovery and keeping in touch with social support systems.

At the end of the day every one of us is an individual and gender isn’t the key to how a particular human behaves.

Men are less intent to share their emotional state and their mood. For example in society, why do we have more data about women’s depression? Because men sometimes share their emotions less. Which is also relevant to sports.

Gender is just social psychology and biology, and that’s why differences occur. This is how we should approach each relationship, in a unique way.

UBITENNIS: You have also worked a lot on the mental health side of the sport. It has been documented that physical activity improves a person’s mental health and tennis’ governing bodies are making progress on this subject in recent years. Based on your experience, what more do you feel can be done to support players who might be experiencing some sort of issue?

ABRAMOWICZ: Psychology and sports are actually developing really well and it’s starting to have this tendency that we are not just talking anymore about the mental training and mental preparation for an athlete to use their potential the most effectively during competition. But also we’re talking more about mental health, especially during this pandemic. I think that all governing bodies, including tennis, should focus more on mental health.

I think there is a space for education and raising awareness in terms of how to use mental training tools and how technology could support this area. The most important thing to me is to work against stigma and raise awareness in terms of taking care of mental health.  

Daria can be followed on Twitter or Facebook. Her website (which is in Polish) is www.dariaabramowicz.com)

Interviews

EXCLUSIVE: Q&A With Simona Halep’s New Coach Carlos Martinez

After working with the likes of Daria Kasatkina and Svetlana Kuznetsova, Martinez reveals details to Ubitennis about his new role.

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SIMONA HALEP OF ROMANIA - PHOTO: MATEO VILLALBA / MMO

Earlier this week at the Miami Open Simona Halep marked her return to professional tennis with a well-fought battle against Paula Badosa which she lost in three sets.

The encounter was the first time Halep has played on the Tour since successfully appealing against her doping ban. She was initially issued with a four-year suspension after testing positive for Roxadustat and having irregularities in her Athlete Biological Passport (ABP). Then the sentence was slashed to nine months following an appeal to the Court of Arbitration for Sport (CAS) which concluded on the balance of probabilities that Halep had unintentionally consumed a contaminated substance and dismissed her ABP charge. 

Mentoring the former world No.1 now is Carlos Martinez who has spoken to Ubitennis about their new collaboration. The Spaniard is a former player himself who was ranked inside the top 200 in doubles and the top 500 in singles. As a coach, he has trained top players such as Svetlana Kuznetsova, Daria Kasatkina, Clara Tauson, Marc Lopez and Feliciano Lopez. 

So how did the two join forces and does Martinez believe Halep has what it takes to return to the pinnacle of women’s tennis after an 18-month absence? 

UBITENNIS: How did you and Simona come about working together?

MARTINEZ: She (Halep) texted me and asked me about my situation. If I would be interested in working with her. Of course, I said yes that I would be open to working with her. 

Then Darren Cahill, who is one of the past coaches of Simona, contacted me and asked me if I would like to work with her. Of course, I said yes. This was my first contact with Simona. 

UBITENNIS: Simona played her first match against Badosa earlier this week. For somebody who hasn’t played on the Tour for over a year, what impressed you most about her performance? 

MARTINEZ: I watched her full match and I was impressed because she had no time to prepare. The level that she was showing was very good and she had this same champion gem, as I describe it. She was competing very well but didn’t have a lot of gasoline (at the end of the match) because she couldn’t work (on her game) the last couple of weeks. That’s why she was very tired at the end and Badosa was playing well. It was a good beginning for her because she could be on the court, happy and enjoying the process. 

UBITENNIS: Did you see any specific areas in her game that she needs to improve on? 

MARTINEZ: It is too soon to talk about what I want to work with her on. Simona has good experience and we need to get to know each other well. Talk about how we are going to build her career again which is her second opportunity. 

Then we will see what kind of things (to work on). Of course, I have an idea but I need to talk with her and agree on everything. I am a person who likes to listen and talk with the players. During the process, I will see what I have to do and it’s going to be very nice. 

UBITENNIS: After her first round loss in Miami, Simona told reporters that it was too early to set out any plans or goals for the future. As a coach, is it more of a challenge to train somebody in this situation? 

MARTINEZ: I agree with Simona that the most important thing right now is to be healthy and to recover her shape. Work well on her tennis and fitness area. Then after a few weeks, we will see what the main goals are going to be. At the beginning of her comeback, the most important thing is to be on the court, prepare well and to recover her level. Once she recovers her level I am one hundred percent sure that she is going to get the goals that she wants. 

UBITENNIS: 18 months is a lot of time to be out of the sport. Do you think Simona can return to the top of the women’s Tour if she avoids any injury problems?

MARTINEZ: I am sure when Simona gets back into her best shape she will compete with the best players on the best courts. She will be one of the players who will have chances to win big events. 

Now she needs time and we have to be patient. But with this kind of player when they are that good, you have to be ready for any result. The ambition Simona has is going to be very important for her to get the goals that she wants. 

UBITENNIS: You have worked with Kasatkina, Kuznetsova, Tauson etc. Is there anything about Simona that makes her different? 

MARTINEZ: All of those players have good things and these things make them different. Simona is also similar but at the same time different. 

Kuznetsova is a Grand Slam champion, and Simona is a double Grand Slam champion. Both of them are very good players. It is a pleasure for me to work with Simona because in my opinion she can return to the top level and this is what we are going to fight for together. 

UBNITENNIS: Simona’s return has gained mass media interest. Similar to when Maria Sharapova returned after her doping suspension. Is there a concern that this could have a negative impact on her and do you have a plan in place to deal with this? 

MARTINEZ: Simona is a very smart girl. She knows she is innocent and it shows (Martinez makes references to the CAS verdict). This is going to be a good motivation for her and this is why she has been fighting to prove her innocence all this time. 

I always thought she was innocent and in my opinion, this will be a good motivation for her. She’s going to try to do her best again and she knows how difficult it is to be back at the top level but she going to fight for this. Hopefully, soon she will be fighting for the big titles. 

UBITENNIS: Finally, How has the women’s Tour changed over the past 18 months during Halep’s absence? 

MARTINEZ: The Tour keeps improving because there are young players who are in better condition. They are bigger and stronger. But it is not just about power. It is not just about running super fast. 

The knowledge of tennis is very important and Simona is one of the smartest players on the Tour. She has the ability to beat these kinds of game styles with her knowledge. She is a fighter which is a big difference between the young and older players. She has more experience, is mentally stronger and this is going to be good for her. Oh course the Tour has changed but Simona will adapt. She showed against Badosa, who can hit strong shots, that she could manage her game well. I think it’s going to be fine. 

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Interviews

EXCLUSIVE: Bullying, No Welfare Checks And Little Empathy – A Coach’s Experience With Tennis’ Anti-Doping Body

In an eye-opening interview with Ubitennis, the coach of former top 100 player Kamil Majchrzak speaks out about the International Tennis Integrity Agency who are accused of deliberately making an example out of the tennis star for their own purposes.

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Poland's Kamil Majchrzak (photo via X)

Tennis’ anti-doping body has been under scrutiny in recent days following the reinstatement of Simona Halep.

The former world No.1 had been banned from the sport for four years after testing positive for the banned substance Roxadustat, as well as having abnormalities in her Athletes Biological Passport (ABP). The penalty was handed to her following a hearing with an independent panel. The International Tennis Integrity Agency (ITIA) at one stage pushed for her to be banned for six years. However, an appeal to the Court of Arbitration for Sport (CAS) substantially reduced her ban to nine months after concluding she likely consumed a contaminated substance and dismissed the ABP violation charge. The significance of such a reduction has risen questions about the integrity of ITIA’s “independent tribunal.”

Halep, who has earned more than $40M in prize money during her career, had the luxury of being able to afford to take the ITIA to court. But what happens to those who can’t afford to do so?

In 2022 Kamil Majchrzak was steadily rising up the ATP rankings, peaking at a career-high of 75th and ending the season in the top 80. For the first time, he had played in the main draw of all four Grand Slams and reached the quarter-finals or better at three Tour-level events within the same year. Then his hard work disappeared. 

Majchrzak was provisionally suspended after testing positive for three banned substances (SARM S-22, LGD-4033 and PPARδ agonists). Eventually, he proved his positive samples were due to contaminated isotonic drinks but he was still suspended for 13 months under the liability rule which states players have ultimate responsibility to ensure they are taking legal substances. Due to cramping during the US Open swing, Majchrzak had consulted with a reputable dietitian in Poland. The dietitian works with numerous Olympic and professional athletes and had recommended the same isotonic drinks which had been used and tested without any problems.

What was not publicly reported at the time was the ordeal that the Pole and his team experienced, until now.

“In many of the cases of athletes, they only test positive once. A lot of athletes can explain that either by passing the blame to someone in the team or through contamination. There’s been some wild and wonderful stories. I’m not for one second, implying that they are not truthful or accurate, but some of them are quite fanciful,” Majchrzak’s coach, Marcel du Coudray, told Ubitennis during a lengthy phone call.  
“In our case, the burden of proof was huge, because Kamil had four positive tests in the space of 5 weeks. It meant that we had to have a very accurate explanation. And the scientific evidence had to be extremely accurate. So our burden of proof was incredibly high.”

Du Coudray is no stranger to the world of tennis with his previous pupils including Nikolay Davydenko, John Peers and Henri Kontinen. However, dealing with the ITIA was a completely new ordeal.

“The ITIA tried to imply that because he failed four tests, he was more guilty even though we could prove the contamination,” he explained.
“They said to us ‘We want to make an example out of Kamil’ and they didn’t care.’
“We felt comfortable with our case and told the ITIA that we were prepared to take the ITIA to CAS.The scientific evidence required to explain the findings of 4 positive tests (with 3 different contaminants) in 5 weeks is much higher than just a one off test. In addition, the amounts detected were microscopic, at least 1000 times less than required to begin to have any effect. Given this overwhelming proof, we were astounded by ITIA’s attitude towards the case”

When Majchrzak and his team discussed the possibility of taking the case to CAS, they noticed a change in the communication from the ITIA. Something that appears to be a deliberate tactic in the eyes of Du Coudray.

“They went silent for a number of weeks, they wouldn’t reply to anything, or simply delayed answering,” he said. 
“Our lawyers had said that they often do this if you want to take them on. They give you no option. They make you an initial offer to agree to a sanction, but if you want to go to CAS, they’re going to delay the process so much longer that you would have been better off accepting the initial offer.”

The accusation of the ITIA taking a while to deal with players is something that has been brought up before. Halep might have ended up being awarded a nine-month ban but she missed 18 months of the Tour. Meanwhile, Tara Moore failed a drugs test in May 2022 but a panel didn’t conclude that contamination was the cause until December 2023.

Trying to prove a player’s innocence isn’t a cheap process. Du Coudray estimated that it cost a couple thousand euros to send the substance in question to a lab to investigate. Furthermore, players pay for each test that is conducted rather than in bulk. This is why it is not feasible to test every supplement before consuming them. 

‘The ITIA bullies athletes’

After considering his options, Majchrzak opted not to take his case to CAS out of fear that the process could end up sidelining him from the sport for even longer. A warning that was issued to his team by his lawyers.

“There’s no question about it. The ITIA bullies athletes into accepting these punishments,” Du Coudray states. 
“They don’t particularly care how long the cases take because it doesn’t matter to them. Athletes are entitled to a fair hearing but there is no way that this process is fair. Athletes are in a race against time, it’s their time, and it’s their career time that has a very finite duration.
“The ITIA has an infinite number of days. They can take as long as they want and I want to say that they have a much larger budget because they’re playing with somebody else’s money, it’s not their own.
“Their tone also pressures you into accepting their offered sanction. We weren’t really discussing with them whether we could beat them or not – Kamil was able to prove his innocence and prove beyond any doubt that it was accidental contamination. It was whether we wanted to accept the length of time that they would force us into.”

Throughout Majchrzak’s suspension, he didn’t receive any sort of welfare check because no such system was in place. Both he and Du Coudray spoke to a medical professional for help with their mental health due to the toll the process took on both of them.

“There were some very, very dark months immediately after the positive test. And the pressure that is put on the athlete is very heavy. If you are feeling a certain way, please get in touch with a professional, whether the athlete is guilty or not. What we don’t want to have happen is that it’s going to cost someone their life.”

Reform and the future

The ITIA was set up as an independent body in 2021 by the seven governing bodies of tennis – ATP, WTA, ITF and the four Grand Slams. Their objective is to ‘promote, encourage, enhance and safeguard the integrity of their professional tennis events worldwide.’ Besides doping, they are also responsible for protecting the sport from corruption offences such as match-fixing.

However, Du Coudray and others have concerns about how the organization operates. The question is can changes be made or is there a case for the entire organization to be disbanded?

“Having dealt with the personalities there I think they are quite egotistical. They would not welcome any accountability just given how they have spoken to the athletes and the interactions that we’ve had,” he commented.
“I don’t know these people individually. But they do come across as being incredibly arrogant. So I’m not sure that they would welcome any reform.
“I don’t think it needs to be disbanded because I would love to have a system that is transparent. There’s no room for doping in sports. But when you have players like Kamil tested 15/20 times a year and we know of other players who don’t get tested more than one or two times. 
“I don’t know what the perfect answers are. But definitely, there needs to be very intense discussion and concrete changes made.”

Majchrzak returned to the Tour during the first week in January at an ITF event in Tunisia where he came through qualifying en route to winning the title. Since then, he has won a second ITF title, a Challenger event in Rwanda and reached the semi-finals of another Challenger that was also held in Rwanda. 

He is now ranked 396th in the world. However, his team is not getting too carried away when it comes to managing expectations.

“It would be a heavy burden to put such a strict timeline on it by the end of the year,” Du Coudray replied when asked if Majchrzak is targeting the top 100 before the year ends. “Kamil’s playing very well. We have to get through this year. Making sure that we are as well prepared for each level as we go up the rankings as possible. As we get higher and higher it is going to get more and more difficult.”

The coming months will be another battle for Majchrzak and his team but this time it will be on the court. 

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EXCLUSIVE: Ex-No.1 Ana Ivanovic Backs Jannik Sinner To Wins More Slams

The former tennis star shares her thoughts about Italy’s new sporting sensation with Ubitennis.

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Image via https://twitter.com/anaivanovic/

Jannik Sinner’s triumph at the Australian Open was ‘incredible’ in the eyes of fellow Grand Slam winner Ana Ivanovic. 

At Melbourne Park Sinner became the first Italian player to win the tournament after staging an epic fightback against Daniil Medvedev in the final where he clawed his way back from two sets down to win. Something that has only been achieved in a title match at the Australian Open once before by Rafael Nadal. Earlier in the tournament, he also scored wins over fifth seed Andrey Rublev before ending Novak Djokovic’s 33-match winning streak in the semi-finals. 

The triumph of the 22-year-old has been hailed by Ivanovic who was two years younger than Sinner when she won the 2008 French Open. Ivanovic was one of the stars of women’s tennis during her playing days, winning 15 Tour-level titles and spending 12 weeks as world No.1. She was also runner-up at the 2007 French Open and 2008 Australian Open. 

It was incredible,” Ivanovic tells Ubitennis of Sinner’s latest achievement. “The way he played the whole tournament. He really showed mental strength and endurance. The way he strikes the ball with such a sweet spot was great to watch.”

One of those guiding Sinner on the Tour is experienced coach Darren Cahill who has also coached Ivanovic as part of the Adidas Player Development Program. Cahill has worked with some of the biggest names of the sport with his past clients also including Andy Murray, Lleyton Hewitt and Simona Halep. 

While the Australian is known by many in the sport, what is it like to work alongside him?

I always enjoyed working with Darren because he is so knowledgeable about tennis,” Ivanovic explained. 
“He was always giving me the best advice in the moments when you are the most under pressure. He always found words to calm me down and to point me in the right direction. 
“I was very happy when I saw him in Jannik’s box.”

Besides Cahill, Sinner’s team also includes co-coach Simone Vagnozzi, physio Giacomo Naldi and fitness trainer Umberto Ferrara.

Fame and the future 

Sinner was already a popular figure in his native Italy with thousands cheering on his run to the final of the ATP Finals in Turin last November. Shortly afterwards, he led his country to the Davis Cup title which was celebrated by a visit to the Quirinale Palace (residence of the Italian president) where he and his team mates were greeted by President Sergio Mattarella. 

However, his popularity has surged following his Australian Open win with his Instagram following reportedly increasing by around 800,000 to a total of 2.4M. To put that into context, the only active ATP players to have a larger following than him are Rafael Nadal, Djokovic, Carlos Alcaraz and Nick Kyrgios. 

He has held a one-to-one meeting with the Prime Minister of Italy, received congratulations from the Pope and visited the historic Rome Colosseum alongside two government ministers (Gennaro Sangiuliano and Daniela Santanché). 

It is fair to say that the tennis star’s profile is exploding which itself could pose a new challenge. Fortunately, Ivanovic has some advice for Sinner to follow in the coming months.  

“Now it is a different time with much more assent on social media vs in 2008 (when Ivanovic won the French Open),” she said. 
“I think the most important is to follow his path and his training, but I am sure he is doing that. He has a good team and support system behind him, so he can focus on his goals and rhythm.”

Should he stay on his path, the question remains how good could he become in the future? He is only the fifth Italian player to win a major singles title and the first man to do so since 1976. He also has 10 other ATP titles to his name and reached the semi-finals at Wimbledon last year. 

“He has a really good overall game style. He is mentally and physically super strong,” Ivanovic commented.
“If he just keeps doing what he is doing there are many more Grand Slam titles for him. I really enjoy watching him. He seems like a very nice person, which is very beautiful to see.”

Ivanovic, who married former football player Bastian Schweinsteiger and has three children, attended the Linz Open in Austria last week as a guest of honor. She recently announced a partnership with haircare company Schwarzkopf and has served as a National Ambassador for UNICEF Serbia since 2007. 

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