(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)

Editorial

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.

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Guido Pella during a Men's Singles match at the 2021 US Open, Wednesday, Sep. 1, 2021 in Flushing, NY. (Manuela Davies/USTA)

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.

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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

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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

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Interviews

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.

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Matteo Berrettini (ITA) celebrates as he beats Hubert Hurkacz (POL) in the semi-final of the Gentlemen's Singles on Centre Court at The Championships 2021. Held at The All England Lawn Tennis Club, Wimbledon. Day 11 Friday 09/07/2021. Credit: AELTC/Florian Eisele

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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