EXCLUSIVE: Iga Swiatek’s Newest Weapon Ahead Of The French Open - Data Analytics - UBITENNIS
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EXCLUSIVE: Iga Swiatek’s Newest Weapon Ahead Of The French Open – Data Analytics

UbiTennis speaks exclusively with Mike James, who has been hired by a member of Swiatek’s team to provide statistical information to help improve her game on the Tour.

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Iga Swiatek at the 2021 Madrid Open (image via Media Hub Mutua Madrid Open)

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.

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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

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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. 

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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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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