In modern tennis, technology is becoming increasingly significant whether it comes to check ball markings on the court or to record match statistics. Players view the use of such information as key to improving their game or getting the upper hand on their rivals.
It is therefore perhaps unsurprising that Iga Switek has become the latest top name to venture into the world of data. The Polish tennis star, who is the daughter of a former Olympic rower, rose to prominence during her junior years when she won the 2018 Wimbledon Girls’ title at the age of 17, although it was her spectacularly unexpected run to the French Open trophy last year that really elevated her status in the eyes of the tennis world. Now sitting at a career ranking high of ninth in the world, she is coached by Piotr Sierzputowski, the man who decided to recruit a data analyst for their team towards the end of last year.
“It’s important to be on the better side of the coin flip,” 28-year-old Sierzputowski tells UbiTennis.
“I think analytics help you achieve that. That’s one important step to take to improve.”
The person in charge of analysing and reporting the data for Swiatek’s team is British-based Mike James. He is the founder of Sportiii Analytics, a company which specialises in providing detailed information on player strategies and patterns. They have worked with various players, tennis federations and academies, one of which was issuing statistical data to the team of Stan Wawrinka. More recently, Sportiii Analytics has scored a deal to work with the Kazakhstan Tennis Federation.
James’ work in the field clearly impresses Sierzputowski who initially asked for a season review to be conducted for Swiatek. This then led on to a more permanent collaboration.
“He asked me to do a pre-season review and look into her game. We started the project in November, and it went very well. Then after this period, he (Piotr) and the rest of the team liked what I was doing so we decided to work together for 2021,” James explained.
Working on what is described as the ‘game development’, James communicates regularly with Iga’s coach, who then filters the information he receives to the player – his findings are also shared with other team members, such as sports psychologist Daria Abramowicz, who spoke with UbiTennis earlier in the year.
“As a strategy analysis the best way for me is to communicate with the coach, the conditioning coach, and the sports psychologist. They then deliver the information to Iga, because they are on the road with her 24/7. It’s working very well so far this season.”
The use of data analytics in tennis is still relatively new in the large scale of things. One of the most well-known names in this industry is Craig O’Shannessy who has previously collaborated with world No.1 Novak Djokovic in a similar way to what James is currently doing with Swiatek. German player Alexander Zverev once said: “All the big guys are using data analysis, they just don’t like to talk about it.”
Clearly there is a growing demand for data analytics, but what do they actually do and how does it work?
“When Iga is playing events, I am collecting the matches, the data, putting together video highlights, patterns of play, winning patterns, areas of development, areas of focus, and at the end of each tournament I present them (to her team).” James explains about his work.
“It’s a very fluid way of working and also the right way of working with my role, which is still fairly new in tennis.
“I’m delivering information and facts that maybe the conditioning coach, head coach or Iga feel is happening. I’m presenting facts with video and numbers, packaging that together so it is very simple to understand but it also builds confidence and narrows down the areas of what needs to be worked on.”
The French Open beckons
The next test for team Swiatek will be the French Open, where she will be bidding to become the first woman to defend the title since Justine Henin more than a decade ago. Heading into the Grand Slam, she won her first Premier title at the Italian Open by demolishing Karolina Pliskova in the final. Prior to that, she also reached the third round of the Madrid Open before losing to world No.1 Ash Barty.
Reflecting on her development over the past month, James reveals that there are areas of her game which she is producing at an even higher level compared to last year, although he isn’t allowed to identify the specific areas due to confidentiality reasons.
“Her numbers going into the French Open this year are very good. There are some things she is doing as well as last year and some things which she is doing better, which is exciting,” he said.
“There has been a massive improvement in her game this year. What’s exciting is that she turns 20 during the French Open, she’s recently won a 1000 and a 500 event, and she will not reach her peak for another three or four years yet. So it is a really exciting time to be involved with a Next Generation style player who can do many things.”
Whilst Swiatek is on the right path, she faces a tough challenge. Women’s tennis is renowned for its depth. Since 2016, the only player to have won two Grand Slams in a row is Naomi Osaka, who is yet to reign supreme on the clay.
Regardless of what happens at Roland Garros, James’ focus is on the long term heading into what he believes could be another golden era of the WTA Tour, with various stars emerging.
“My objective is to build on Iga’s numbers and on her winning patterns. Make her stronger and develop any weaknesses we see,” he commented on his long-term plans.
“Iga’s game is a game that represents the Next Generation. It’s really exciting in female tennis at the moment, because you have many players that are looking like there could be almost a golden generation in female tennis. Iga is up there with Andreescu, Osaka, Sabalenka and it is a really exciting time.”
So far this year Swiatek has won 19 out of 24 matches played on the Tour, generating prize money earnings of just over $635,000. Besides the Italian Open, she also won a title in Adelaide, making her one of only four players to have already won multiple WTA trophies in 2021.
Swiatek will kick-off her French Open title defence against Slovenia’s Kaja Juvan in the first round.
Maria Sakkari Powers Past Swiatek, Badosa Stuns Sabalenka At WTA Finals
There was a lot of emotion displayed during the second day of the season-ending event.
Maria Sakkari registered her first win at the WTA Finals in Guadalajara, Mexico by beating the Pole Iga Swiatek 6-2, 6-4 in one hour and 26 minutes.
Sakkari, who is the first player from her country to participate in the event, fired 15 winners while the world number nine hit 29 unforced errors in the loss during their latest clash. It is the third time this season the 26-year-old has beaten Swiatek in straight sets after the French Open and Ostrava.
“I think it was a very solid match from my side,” wtatennis.com quoted Sakkari as saying during her press conference. “Obviously my serve really helped my game. I felt quite good with the altitude. I could control my shots pretty well. I think every day I’ll feel even better.
“I actually have a good game to play against [Swiatek]. All three times I played her, I played one of the best matches of the season. Like even today, I think I was very solid in these conditions.”
The first set stayed on serve for the first two games and then it was the world number six who started to put the pressure and managed to get the first break of serve to take an early 2-1 lead. The set continued on serve with the Greek able to consolidate the break and at 4-2 managed to go up a double break and that was enough for her to serve it out.
During the second frame the match stayed on serve until 3-3 when again it was the Athens native who had two chances to break. On the the second time of asking she managed once again to get the crucial break and serve out the match. Towards the end a frustrated Swiatek started to cry on court.
“I’m very proud that I can be the first woman, Greek woman, to actually represent my country into the Top 10 and of course in this tournament. It feels amazing to be able to travel around the world playing these tournaments, being one of the best players, and being from my country. I’m very, very proud of that.” Sakkari commented.
Badosa Smokes Sabalenka
In the other group match of the day, Spain’s Paula Badosa pulled off a shock win by upsetting top seed two Aryna Sabalenka 6-4, 6-0 in one hour and 16 minutes. She was initially down 2-4 in the first set before going on to win 10 straight games to claim the victory.
“I think I played pretty good,” Badosa said. “The conditions are tough here to play, but I think I played an amazing match. She’s an amazing player. I knew I had to play like this. I’m really happy with my match.”
The world number 10 hit 14 winners and served five aces in the win while Belorussian looked rusty hitting 31 unforced errors in the loss.
Badosa now goes to the top her group as she has lost the fewest games so far in the tournament. As for Sabalenka, she admits that a breakdown in her mental game hampered her latest performance.
“After I lost the serve, I was really disappointed in myself and emotionally I was, like, really crazy,” Sabalenka said after the match. “I couldn’t just stop myself and kind of put myself back in the match.”
Badosa will next play Sakkari in the round-robin competition with the winner likely to secure their place in the last four of the tournament. It will be the first Tour meeting between the two players.
“I think she played a very good match today,” Badosa said. “I think the conditions were OK for her, as well. She felt quite good on court. I expect a tough match.”
Sabalenka will next play Swiatek.
“We Hope to Convince Federer to Play”: the Presentation of the 2022 Rolex Monte-Carlo Masters
Director Zeljko Franulovic talked about next year’s tournament, scheduled from April 9-17
The 2022 Rolex Monte-Carlo Masters will take place from April 9-17, so it’s difficult to guess what the pandemic situation will be in six months. At the moment, however, the prevalent hypothesis is that all spectators will need a Covid Pass or to bring proof of a negative test before being allowed in the Montecarlo Country Club at Roquebrune, France. If some players will refuse the vaccine, then they will need to be tested regularly in accordance to the rules devised by the French government.
Other than that, there will be no surprises when it comes to the event’s logistics, since the Country Club has already added a new players lounge and a new press room in the past few years. In 2020 the tournament was cancelled, while in 2021 it took place behind closed doors (while still being televised in 113 countries); the last edition staged with a crowd, in 2019, sold 130,000 tickets, constituting 30% of the total revenue – another 30% came from the sponsors, 30% from media rights (a number that tournament director Zeljko Franulovic hopes to see increase) and 10% from merchandising.
While it’s early days to know whether the tournament will operate at full capacity, Franulovic has made it clear that the organisers are already planning to provide a better covering for the No.2 Court, whose roof has not been at all effective in the past in the event of rain.
The tournament’s tickets can be bought on the official website of the event, but Franulovic has already vowed to reimburse immediately every ticket “if the government and the health authorities should decide to reduce the tournament’s capacity.”
Ticket prices have increased by 2 to 3 percent as compared to 2019, ranging from £25-50 for the qualifiers weekend, £32-75 for the opening rounds, £…-130 for the quarterfinals and semifinals, £65-150 for the final, £360-1250 for a nine-day tickets. Franulovic claims that the prices are in line with those of the other Masters 1000 tournaments.
Finally, Franulovic supports Andrea Gaudenzi’s decision to create a fixed prize money for the next decade. While tournaments like Madrid and Rome are trying to increase their duration from 8 to 12 days, the Monte-Carlo director has claimed that he prefers to remain a week-long event, especially because his is not a combined tournament. As for the players who will feature, Franulovic hopes to convince Roger Federer to participate: “I’m certain that he will give everything he has to be able to stage another comeback on the tour, ma no one knows where he’ll play. However, I think that on the clay he should opt for best-of-three events like Monte-Carlo and Rome rather than the French Open.”
For this and more information, you can watch the video above.
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.
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