Just 13 days ago in Stuttgart, Barty and Sabalenka competed in the championship match, with Barty coming back from a set down to win the title, claiming 12 of the last 15 games. On Saturday, Sabalenka looks to avenge that loss, and even their head-to-head at 4-4. The women’s doubles championship will also be decided, between two of the top three seeds.
On the men’s side, the singles and doubles semifinals will be played. Sascha Zverev hit a subpar Rafael Nadal right off the court on Friday, and just 24 hours later will try to take out the next-best clay courter of the last few years, Dominic Thiem. Saturday will be a busy day for Zverev, as he’s also a semifinalist in doubles. In the other singles semifinal, Matteo Berrettini and Casper Ruud will do battle, with the winner achieving their first Masters 1000 final.
Throughout the tournament, this preview will analyze the two most prominent matches of the day, and note the other intriguing matchups on the schedule. Saturday’s play will begin at 1:30pm local time.
Dominic Thiem (3) vs. Sascha Zverev (5) – Not Before 4:00pm on Manolo Santana Stadium
This will be their first encounter since their dramatic, yet rather ugly US Open final, where Thiem came back from two sets down to eventually prevail in a fifth set tiebreak. Overall Dominic leads their head-to-head 8-2, and 4-1 on clay. The Austrian has claimed their last four meetings, with Zverev’s last victory coming in the final of this event three years ago.
Both men struggled with some nagging injuries prior to this event, but both have looked sharp to this stage. Thiem overcame a one-set deficit on Friday against John Isner, while Zverev is yet to drop a set. Defeating Nadal on clay is always a big achievement, especially when it’s your first time doing so. It will be interesting to see if Sascha can maintain his high level from a day prior. Zverev struck 28 winners on Friday, compared to only six by Nadal.
In last year’s US Open final, the winner of each set was the player who won a higher percentage of first serve points. If you’re Sascha Zverev, there has to be some baggage from blowing a two-set lead in his first career Major final. In a rivalry that has strongly favored Thiem, I like the reigning US Open champion to reach his third final in Madrid.
Ash Barty (1) vs. Aryna Sabalenka (5) – Not Before 6:30pm on Manolo Santana Stadium
They’ve already met twice this year, in Miami and Stuttgart, with Barty taking both matches in a third set by a score of 6-3. In their Stuttgart final, converting break points was a key difference. Barty broke five times, while Sabalenka only claimed two out of 10 break points. That exemplifies the composure of the world No.1, who has won 16 out of her last 18 deciding sets.
Sabalenka hasn’t faced a deciding set this fortnight, as she’s been dominating all competition. No opponent has claimed more than three games in a set. Aryna has spent about three less hours on court than Barty, though that shouldn’t be a significant factor on Saturday. Both players had a day of rest on Friday, and comfortably won their Thursday semifinals in straight sets.
Barty has amassed several impressive streaks: 9 straight match wins, 16 straight on red clay, and 10 straight victories over top 10 opposition. She’s also prevailed in 10 of her last 12 finals. Similarly, Sabalenka has won seven of her last nine finals. Yet as impressive as the Belarusian has been, winning 32 of her last 38 matches, she’s only 1-3 during that span against the top 10. If these two go the distance again, it’s harder for Sabalenka to maintain her level than Barty. And Ash possesses many more backup plans in her arsenal. In what should be another tight contest, I give the slight edge to Barty to earn her fourth title of the year.
Other Notable Matches on Saturday:
Matteo Berrettini (8) vs. Casper Ruud – Berrettini is on a seven-match win streak, dating back to his title run two weeks ago in Belgrade. Ruud is into his third consecutive Masters 1000 semifinal on clay, and all 14 of his wins at this level have come on this surface. Casper has been serving spectacularly, as he’s yet to be broken at this event, facing only one break point thus far. They’ve split two previous meetings, with the clay court clash going to Ruud in straight sets, two years ago at Roland Garros.
Barbora Krejcikova and Katerina Siniakova (2) vs. Gabriela Dabrowski and Demi Schuurs (3) – Krejcikova and Siniakova won the Gippsland Trophy earlier this season, and reached the final of the Australian Open. This is the first tournament for Dabrowski and Schuurs as a team.
Nikola Mektic and Mate Pavic (2) vs. Sander Gille and Joran Vliegen – Mektic and Pavic have now won 31 of 34 matches since teaming up for 2021. Their Belgian opponents won the Singapore Open earlier this year, then went on a five-match losing streak before reaching the final of Munich last week.
Marcel Granollers and Horacio Zeballos (3) vs. Tim Puetz and Sascha Zverev – Granollers and Zeballos are looking to reach their second final of the season. This is Puetz and Zverev’s second event this season as a team. In Miami, the Germans defeated Granollers and Zeballos in straight sets.
Saturday’s full Order of Play is here.
Bianca Andreescu looking to improve in Eastbourne
The Canadian will try to build some momentum going into Wimbledon, where she has never won a main draw encounter.
Bianca Andreescu spoke to the media today ahead of the Viking International in Eastbourne, where she is looking for a better result this week after crashing out in the first round in Berlin.
“Last week wasn’t as good as I expected for my first tournament back, but I haven’t played on grass in three years and I haven’t gotten that many matches this year with other things. I have been practicing on grass, however, so hopefully I can progress this week.”
On a more positive note, she was pleased to hear of the news that the Québec provincial goverment had approved the decision to host the National Bank Open formerly known as the Rogers Cup in Montreal this summer in August. “It’s super exciting going back to defend my title.”
Andreescu went into more detail as to why she hasn’t played a lot of matches this year while admitting that she is not a very patient person.
“I had to really grow through the years to improve that, but there are so many different circumstances that keep getting thrown at me, so my patience keeps getting tested. So far I think I am dealing with it OK and I know it’s going to continue to improve, so I need to stay patient with that as well.”
The Canadian was asked what she learned about herself this year and during this period.
“Perserverance in not playing, but rather continuing to fight and to train and and dealing with what is being thrown at me – this is one the of the most important things I learnt. I feel some days are harder than others, but I am still here and I am still fighting and I want to win.”
The Toronto native even took the time to talk about the first time she played Wimbledon back in 2017 and the fact at the time she was playing qualifying.
“It does feel like a long time ago although it really isn’t. I remember when I qualified, I was playing very well in the qualifying and then the main draw came around and I was overwhelmed by everything. I remember feeling confident but at the same time thinking, ‘oh my god I am finally here’ and it showed during my match. However, I came out super happy of my match even if I lost.”
The Canadian talked about the opportunity of playing this year’s tournament as a top seed, something she is looking forward to.
“It’s cool to think that I get to be a top seed at Wimbledon, where it will be my second main draw appearance. This time I don’t have to go through qualifying, so I do feel more confident going into the tournament. I am just going to take it match after match and feel like I can get more matches in this week.”
The world number seven recounted what the last year was like and how crazy it was leading into the pandemic.
“After doing so well in 2019 I got injured and I was off for six months. I was ready to play Indian Wells, my first tournament back, and that tournament is when everything started – I went there for three days before coming home. After that I did not move for six month besides training, which was super hard for me to deal with.”
Andreescu added she always tries to see things in a positive way and that she is a big believer in the fact that everything happens for a reason and that all she can do is move forward.
“It seemed like the world was crashing down but I wanted to be as grateful as I can because I know other people have it way worse. That really keeps me going, I try to have that big picture in my mind all the time.”
The Canadian spoke about her expectations going into this week’s tournament and Wimbledon next week and she thinks it’s completely different to the last time she played.
“In 2017 I was coming in as world number 150 in the world with no pressure, just going out there and doing what I love to do. Now it’s different, because there is more pressure and more expectations that I try not to focus on, but it’s hard and it’s a new circumstance. I need to learn how to deal with that a little bit better.”
Bianca Andreescu is the third seed this week in Eastbourne and she was originally drawn to face Madison Keys in the first round. However, Keys pulled out, and now the Canadian will face a different American, Christina Mchale.
Samsonova Reaches Final in Berlin after Stunning Azarenka
The Russian qualifier beats the Belarusian in straight sets. She will face the fifth seed, Belinda Bencic.
Liudmila Samsonova continued her dream run at the Bett1 Open in Berlin, this time beating the world number 16 Victoria Azarenka quite comfortably with a score of 6-4, 6-2 in only an hour and six minutes on Steffi Graff Stadion. “It’s all incredible for me, so new and I am happy and it’s unbelievable for me”.
The world number 106 had the better start to the match, earning the first two breakpoints of the match and getting an early 2-0 lead before the Minsk, Belarus native had two chances to go back on serve – the Russian, however, saved both and held serve.
It stayed on serve until 5-3m when the world number 106 had two set points on her opponents serve, but Azarenka would save both and the Russian would serve out the first set.
The second set was a mirror image of the first one, with the 22-year-old getting two more breakpoints and breaking to take an early 1-0 lead which she would later manage to turn into a double break.
At 4-0, the Russian had a chance to break again setting up a breakpoint with a powerful forehand winner, but the Belarusian would save both with two big serves.
At 5-2, Samsonova served out the match to book her spot in Sundays final where she will face the number five seed Belinda Bencic, who earlier in the day booked her spot in the final by beating Alize Cornet in straight sets.
In her post-match press conference, Samsonova gave her thoughts on Sunday’s match against another tough opponent in Bencic.
“I’m sure it’s going to be another tough match because she plays very good on this surface and she’s a good player, so I will try to do my best and focus on my game and we will see.”
This will be the first time Belinda Bencic and Liudmila Samsonova will meet in a WTA match.
Personal Branding In The World Of Tennis: The Case Study Of The Big Four
How did Federer, Nadal, Djokovic and Murray build their own brands?
Sportsmen have always had passionate and devoted fans, but becoming more visible implies the development of one’s own personal branding – but what is it? It is the practice of actively positioning oneself in the market and building a “valuable narrative”, creating a brand, a mark or a “mnemonic” to support this message, association, expectation and/or “faith” in the mind of a “consumer” (or enthusiast, team, sponsor, etc).
The term “personal branding” was coined by Tom Peters, a business management expert, in the late 1990s, in his essay “The Brand Called You”, which examines the role of marketing in creating a distinctive image in the American corporate world. Although that essay is over 20 years old, its contents are even more relevant in today’s hyper-saturated, hyper-competitive and hyper-connected world, in which differentiation strategies are becoming increasingly complex. The sports market is in fact characterised by a high degree of complexity as it encompasses a multitude of actors, each of them with certain characteristics and interests.
Following the categorization of sports marketing, personal branding can be understood as being incorporated into the marketing of individual athletes, and as a branch of sports marketing.
Initially, sports marketing exclusively pertained product placement and product sales. Only towards the end of the 1970s did the use of sports as a marketing tool really begin to catch the collective corporate imagination. However, a distinction must be made between sports sponsorship – which mainly concerns brand awareness – and sports marketing, which focuses on the creation of sponsorship contracts. Personal branding is about creating a connection between the sports icon and the brand, then communicating it to the consumer, trying to find as many points in common between the company’s history and that of the icon in order to create a “narrative” that has to be understandable and appreciated by the consumer. The increasing popularity of sports and the resulting media coverage meant that the best players were able to capture the hearts and minds of the public, thus starting to transcend their own discipline. Interestingly, companies don’t just look at investment return in money terms, their primary aim being to create emotional bonds with consumers. Sports marketing is now based on creating passion for the consumer and gaining their hearts and minds, an outcome that advertising campaigns alone are not always able to achieve.
THE NIKE-JORDAN PARTNERSHIP MARKS A WATERSHED MOMENT
An experience that has certainly changed sports marketing has involved basketball icon Michael Jordan, who, signed to the sports giant Nike, has become so important that it is felt by consumers as being a different branch, separated from the Oregon company. We often hear “these shoes are Jordans”, or “this shirt is a Jordan”, completely omitting the fact that the full brand is “Nike Jordan”. On this account, at the end of 1997 the Portland company realised that the “Jordan” brand was so strong it could become a sub-brand of Nike, and that was how “The Jordan Brand” was born. To celebrate this, the first AIR model was released: the “AIR Jordan XIII”. From then on, Jordan shoes no longer sported Nike’s swoosh but only the “Jumpman” logo.
Back to the world of tennis and some years earlier, the first successful brands were those of ex-players such as Lacoste, Perry and Tacchini, who gave life to important companies selling sports clothing and accessories, entrepreneurial initiatives that leveraged specific marketing tools for sports equipment and clothing.
All these entrepreneurial cases have one thing in common: the establishment of the production and marketing companies took place after the specific tennis player had ended his sports career, exploiting – in the case of Lacoste and Perry – a fame already acquired, but limited only to enthusiasts of the game. These brands, although no longer dominant, are still present on the market today. Lacoste can still boast the sponsorship of three WTA and five ATP players in the Top 50 of their respective rankings, including recent Australian Open finalists Djokovic and Medvedev. Fred Perry resurfaced in 2009 as a sponsor of Andy Murray’s, and has been organising a major youth tournament in the UK since 2019. Sergio Tacchini has recently reappeared as a technical sponsor, after having been the dominating force in tennis merchandising during the 1980s – as for Lacoste and Fred Perry, we are talking about brands which are strongly linked to their national context.
THE CURRENT SITUATION IN TENNIS ENDORSEMENTS
Even today, the largest number of sponsorships of a tennis player concerns sports clothing and accessories:
The distribution of the brands has changed, however, as can be seen when looking at the Top 30 on both the WTA and ATP tours.
So, what has changed? The context variables (external and internal) are simply different, and there is a greater awareness on the part of successful athletes about the value of their image. The external environment is made of factors apparently furthest away from the endorsing company, including technologies, demographics and social trends, economic issues, politics, laws, concepts of environmental sustainability. The internal environment consists in variables such as: resources, skills, the ability to provide services, customer-oriented culture, performance of departments, suppliers and outsourcing, sponsorships, marketing channels (sales outlets, financial companies, communication) and the role of the general public. These variables converge in the SWOT matrix (Strength-Weakness-Opportunities-Threats), which in turn flows into the marketing plans, allowing experts to mitigate risks, improve process efficiency and the decisional effectiveness of the marketing activities.
Advertising and marketing strategies have evolved over the past 30 years, and no tactics that companies and organisations use to get the consumers’ attention has undergone more transformations than sports endorsing. In the past decades, advertising executives could buy large amounts of advertising space on television networks and “bomb” viewers with ads. The formula was simple: whoever spent the most, won. Today, however, as consumers watch less television and the selection of viewing options has increased exponentially, brands are forced to diversify and invest money to find new ways to engage potential customers. It took years of low incomes to realise that simply paying for your logo to appear alongside that of a professional sports team, buying TV commercials or advertising in stadiums during matches no longer provided the same profit it used to.
So, if the notion of getting a high return on investment from traditional advertising campaigns is almost dead, how can companies achieve success for their brands in terms of consumers’ appreciation? They need to leverage customer passions and promote brand relationships: collaborations today aim to improve the experience of the consumer or enthusiast and are based on building relevant connection points between the customer, the athlete and the corporate brand he/she represents.
Today we are witnessing a proliferation of personal brands, such as those listed below. Normally they are sub-brands, with some exceptions like that of Roger Federer, able to buy back his “RF” logo after a long legal battle with Nike. Self-referencing brands are just the tip of an iceberg in a brand-building strategy to obtain a long and successful career outside of sports. Even after an athlete’s sporting career is over, many carry their personal brand with them, just like Michael Jordan.
The distance between sports fans and champions has diminished, as social media and the web contribute to create emotional involvement and loyalty, together with traditional channels. Some general rules can be identified in the construction of a strong brand identity:
- Create coherence between the personality and the values of the athlete and his/her personal brand. It’s important to create a personal story that puts the athlete under an authentic light, which is not too far from his true character. There is no need to create a discrepancy between your real story and the image you intend to communicate externally. So, you must always check that the personal narrative is aligned with the core of the person.
- Promotion of philanthropic causes. Showing of the selflessness of sportsmen is manifested in causes where there are strong inequalities. Athletes who sincerely try to help solve even a small problem will not only be invested with the merits of positivity in solving the problem but will also benefit from a significant impact on their personal brand’s value and positioning.
- Control of one’s own personal branding in detail. Keeping control of even the smallest detail makes it possible to think of forming really interesting PR strategies for brand development that can target narrow segments of professionals, whilst ordinary fans may not even be aware of it.
- Select appropriate tools apt to interact with each of the important segments of the target audience. In most cases, when building athletes’ brands, one opts to use only a standard set of channels and tools. Today it is enough to take your personal brand to the top, as in reality no one is trying to achieve more in the sport, but in the near future this will not be enough anymore, given the enormous competitive pressures. Therefore, it is necessary to invest 80% more to obtain a substantial 100%. The world around us is developing fast, and athletes have to work hard to stay in the conversation.
- Each action must be framed within the context of the positioning of the personal brand. An athlete who has global visibility must pay attention to all personal actions, as this is relevant to the positioning of his brand, built around his personality and individual beliefs.
THE PERSONAL BRANDS OF PROFESSIONAL TENNIS PLAYERS
In order to find the aforementioned characteristics, a small empirical research was conducted on the personal sites and philanthropic initiatives of the so called “Fab Four”. Their sales in relation to their foundations or academies are summarized below:
Although Sir Andrew Barron Murray does not have a foundation or a clothing collection with his personal brand, he is involved in several philanthropic initiatives. Both Murray and Djokovic have personal pages on Sina Weibo, a Chinese microblogging site, which is in fact a hybrid of Twitter and Facebook, and is one of the most popular sites in China. Djokovic’s numerical approach to social media is also very original, given that his site has a counter that adds up all his fans interactions scattered across the various social media channels, reporting the latest tweets.
Nadal’s conception of the relationship with his fans is instead more traditional: it includes a sort of virtual bulletin board with many pictures taken in the company of his devoted followers. Federer moves along similar lines, using the classic channels, namely Facebook, Instagram and Twitter, with a gallery of historical photos of the matches played in his professional seasons. Moreover, the fact that other tennis players such as Stan Wawrinka, Stefanos Tsitsipas, Marco Cecchinato, and more recently Jannik Sinner have chosen to create their personal brands, with the aim of improving their communication and marketing strategy, needs also to be remarked.
Why is personal branding becoming more and more common? If we look at those who already have a brand, the answer is closely linked to the business of professional sport, and is simply the ability of an athlete to generate a return from their image. Analysing the concept with a critical spirit and keeping in mind the goal of maximising incomes for a sportsman during his or her short career, there are three basic reasons for building a “personal sports brand”:
- Relevance of their Image, which triggers the Fear of losing it
- Level of importance, which will change throughout a professional athlete’s career span.
In the beginning or mid-career, a personal brand or a support logo are forms of efficient involvement of sponsoring companies, because they indicate the values that an athlete possesses and that a brand could exploit via an endorsement. As the athlete heads towards the twilight of his professional career, the motivation becomes fear and relevance or, more precisely, the fear of not being relevant anymore. The skills of a professional athlete will naturally establish a certain positioning in the minds of the stakeholders, but an active cure of a market position derived from this ability is a strategic undertaking that requires not only a change in the mentality of an individual, but, above all, a shift in managerial culture to encourage athletes to think long-term and beyond the immediacy of their physical ability.
Cultivating the mental and physical well-being of a professional sportsman is the job of a manager or a coach, but when it comes to thinking ahead, many athletes are woefully unprepared. A retired athlete will come from a world where everything revolves around him and will land on another where he quickly loses the spotlight.
Therefore, strong brand recognition will generate opportunities for athletes throughout their careers, and once they stop playing the game, the effectiveness with which they have defined, positioned and built their image and values will have an impact on their future after tennis. If they postpone the aforementioned definition of their brand for too long, the lack of relevance they fear so much will undermine the value they offer to society, in which standing out requires far more than a logo.
Article by Andrea Canella; translated by Alessandro Valentini; edited by Tommaso Villa
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