EXCLUSIVE: Ian Pearson-Brown Survived His Demons, Now He’s a Driving Force In Making Tennis Inclusive - UBITENNIS
Connect with us

Interviews

EXCLUSIVE: Ian Pearson-Brown Survived His Demons, Now He’s a Driving Force In Making Tennis Inclusive

The tennis coach once struggled with his mental health whilst trying to hide his sexuality. Now he wants to prevent others from going through the same experience.

Published

on

When he was younger Ian Pearson-Brown didn’t want to be gay, he didn’t want anybody to know he was gay and he even attempted suicide as a result of suppressing his sexuality.

Like many in England, he grew up surrounded by sport and was obsessed with it. In school Physical Education was his favourite subject, he had an affection for playing racket sports and football with his friends. Growing up during the 1980s and 1990s there were few openly LGBT athletes, especially in male sports. During this time tennis had Billie Jean King and Martina Navratilova, who were both open about their sexuality.

However, this was no consultation for a boy like Pearson whose only idol was that of Justin Fashanu. The first back footballer to command a £1M transfer fee came out in 1990 but was subjected to harsh media scrutiny. During that period, there were also many misconceptions about AIDS and the LGBT community with one club requesting that Fashanu take an HIV test as part of his medical.

“When I was 13 and realized I was gay everything changed. PE became a lesson filled with anxiety. Male sport in that era was not the most welcoming of environments for anyone who was LGBTQ+ as Justin Fashanu would testify so I felt I had to choose between being into sport or being gay,” Pearson tells UbiTennis.

So which path did he initially choose? Sport was the route he went down and he has managed to form a successful tennis career. He has worked as a coach for more than 20 years and has been recognized for his work. In 2021 the former Newcastle University graduate was named Durham and Cleveland Tennis Development Coach of the Year.

Getting to the position Pearson is now has been hard work, both physically and mentally. Embarking upon working in tennis he concealed his sexuality for a long time in fear of the possible repercussions he may face from both his colleagues and those who he was coaching if he came out. Keeping a huge part of his life secret and the fear of being outed by others took its toll on him.

“I chose to deny my sexuality and live a lie until I was nearly 30,” he explains. “In that time I became a full-time tennis coach working in the North East. My own internal barriers and prejudices combined with a lack of role models in men’s sport led me to believe I couldn’t exist as my authentic self in Tennis.’
“I went through years of depression and anxiety. I attempted to take my own life. I was constantly worried if I was outed that parents wouldn’t bring their kids back to my sessions and my tennis mates would stop speaking to me.”

Pride in Tennis

At the age of 30, Pearson decided enough was enough and started working in tennis as an out gay man. He was encouraged to do so by his partner who is now his husband. The reception he received exceeded expectations and also for him sparked a revelation.

“I began to realise that Tennis does not have to be an intimidating environment for LGBTQ+ people if the subject is talked about openly. So I have spent the last 10 years putting time aside to try and change the culture in our sport.”

Pearson is the founder of Pride in Tennis. A network supporting all British-based LGBTQI+ tennis players, coaches, officials and fans which have been endorsed by the LTA. The initiative came about following an open letter issued by CEO Scott Lloyd asking how tennis can be more diverse. Spotting an opportunity he and a group of volunteers from around the UK has paired up with LTA to create Pride in Tennis which aims to promote, support and educate those about tennis opportunities for the LGBT community.

“Our vision is to make tennis in Britain an environment which is safe and inclusive for all LGBT+ players, coaches, officials and fans to be able to exist as their authentic selves with confidence and without prejudice.”

In February there will be an official launch for the network at the Roehampton Tennis Centre. The training base for many British players during the offseason and throughout the year. Covid-permitting, the event is set to feature keynote speakers, breakout feedback sessions, on-court tennis coaching and even a tennis competition.

Getting to this stage hasn’t been easy. It was less than two years ago Pearson spoke about his frustration of trying to generate enough interest from tennis officials concerning the LGBT community. In June 2020 he told Pride Of The Terraces ‘Whenever I suggest things that other sports are doing to promote visibility and inclusion, I get told ‘we don’t need to do that’, or ‘you don’t want to do that because it’s divisive.’

So what has changed since then?

“In a short space of time the governing body’s perspective has gone from ‘not recognizing the problem’ to wanting to actively challenge the barriers, stigmas and stereotypes that prevent LGBTQ+ people from playing sport,” he explains. “In terms of the general tennis playing population in the clubs and parks around the UK the culture will take time to change but we have plans to put resources and tools in place to help. We have already delivered training accessible to all LTA licensed coaches.”

Working with Newcastle United

Tennis isn’t the only sport where Pearson is fighting to break down the barriers. He is the co-chair of United with Pride, a Newcastle United LGBT+ supporters group that has an official partnership with the Premier League Club. He is also an ambassador for Newcastle’s United As One which encapsulates the club’s work in the fields of diversity, inclusion and welfare.

“In football where there is a more immediate need to tackle homophobic attitudes and behaviours. I have had to learn a great deal of patience when trying to change cultures entrenched in historic misogyny, racism and intolerance,” he explains when comparing tennis to football.
“I have had to learn to have a thick skin when faced with regular online targeted abuse. I have learned that you can’t just preach to the already converted allies but also to those who you may not see eye to eye with and engage with them in the hope of changing their views.”

Pearson has previously spoken on the BBC’s LGBT Sport Podcast about his work and to various other media outlets. Even more so in recent months following the takeover of Newcastle United by a group led by Saudi Arabia’s sovereign wealth fund. In Saudi Arabia there are no laws regarding sexual orientation and LGBT people can be imprisoned.

Now the goal is to incorporate what he has learned from the world of football into the newly formed Pride in Tennis. Recently the ATP conducted a survey on the men’s Tour concerning attitudes towards the LGBT community. The governing body contacted Lou Englefield, who is 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 linked up with Eric Denison, a behavioural science researcher at Monash University’s School of Social Sciences.

“I was delighted to see that at both the Australian and US open’s there has been some dialogue and visibility work conducted by the ATP and WTA,” Pearson commented on the effort being made by tennis’ governing bodies.
“I would say they have come a long way since their official Twitter account unwittingly shared a TikTok containing homophobic slurs and stereotypes. Then taking a full 24hrs to release an apology.’
“However, it is a small step on a long journey to get to the point where the tour is safe for an LGBTQ+ male player, particularly with so many events being held in countries where it is illegal or socially unacceptable to be gay.”

Focus on the foundation of tennis

Pearson’s own personal difficulty in coming out as gay whilst working in sport is not an isolated incident, even though times are changing for the good. The Trevor Project is a nonprofit organisation focus on suicide prevention among LGBT youth in America. Their National Survey on LGBTQ Youth Mental Health in 2021 found that more than two thirds (68%) of respondents didn’t play sport for a school or community league or club. Among the 34,000 respondents a number said one of the reasons why they don’t want to play sports is linked to ‘discrimination or fear of LGBTQ-based discrimination.’

On the other hand, a study called Out In Sports extensively looked into the levels of acceptance athletes in the North American sports system receive when they came out to their peers. The comprehensive study was conducted by leading LGBT sports website Outsports, the University of Winchester and the Sports Equality Foundation. The study analysed responses of 370 athletes who were out to high school teammates, and 630 athletes out to college teammates from America and Canada. More than 95% said their teammates’ responses to them coming out were overall “neutral” to “perfect.” In tennis specifically, 89% said they received a positive response when they came out with the other 11% saying they received a ‘neutral’ response.

“My barriers were internal and went unchallenged by role models such as family members, teachers and coaches. Changes in relationships education and a zero-tolerance approach to homophobic, biphobic and transphobic behaviour in the PE environment will go a long way to help with this,” Pearson commented.
“In the absence of professional role models, (the women’s game may have some LGBTQ+ pioneers but they are still an underrepresented minority), we have to create allies at a grassroots level. Coaches wearing rainbow laces, and venues celebrating pride month.”

It is hoped that Pride in Tennis will be the frontrunner in driving this change in the UK. Their launch at the National Tennis Centre in Roehampton is set to take place on February 13th.

Grand Slam

EXCLUSIVE: Djokovic-Led PTPA Accuse Officials Of Failing To Prioritize Players After Late-Night French Open Finish

Published

on

Court Philippe-Chatrier - Roland Garros 2022 (foto Roberto Delli'Olivo)

The Professional Tennis Players Association (PTPA) has told Ubitennis that organizers are ‘unwilling’ to recognize the issue surrounding late-night matches following a recent example at the French Open involving their co-founder. 

Novak Djokovic didn’t finish his third round match against Lorenzo Musetti until 3:07am on Sunday at the Grand Slam due to an extra match being added to the line-up on Philippe Chatrier. The first week of the tournament has been affected by poor weather with matches getting postponed, cancelled or moved elsewhere at the Grand Slam. Djokovic returned to the court less than 48 hours later to play Francisco Cerundolo where he sustained a knee injury during his five-set victory and has now been forced to withdraw from the tournament. 

In a statement, the PTPA has called for a collective gathering to take place so the issue of late-night matches can be addressed. Recently the WTA and ATP have laid out a framework to stop matches being started beyond 11pm unless both the tournament supervisor and players agree to do so. However, the four major events each have their own governing body and are therefore not affected by these rules. 

“It’s imperative that Grand Slam and tour leaders, tournament organizers, and players – through the PTPA as their advocacy group – come together to explore and determine a solution for preventing late-night finishes, whether that is a curfew or an alternate resolution,” the PTPA told Ubitennis via email. 
“We know that late-night finishes have tremendous negative consequences and force players into unfair, unsafe, and unhealthy working conditions. Yet these late finishes continue to happen because of an unwillingness to acknowledge the issue and prioritize players’ best interests.”

In recent days, some players have spoken out about playing into the early hours of the morning. One of the latest to do so is Ons Jabeur who also sits on the PTPA’s players’ committee. Speaking to reporters following her quarter-final loss to Coco Gauff in Paris, the Tunisian says it ‘isn’t healthy’ to have late-night matches for all of those involved. 

“We deserve a better scheduling. We talked about this in Australia. We are still talking about this here,” said Jabeur.
“Even for you, the journalists, I don’t think it’s healthy to have these night matches. It’s for everybody I’m speaking…
“We have to find a way out so that everybody is happy — the players, the journalists, the full team.
“The ball kids are young and they’re still on the courts when it’s really late. I don’t know if it’s logical to have all that.”

Meanwhile, women’s world No.1 Iga Swiatek says she prefers day sessions because she likes to ‘sleep normally.’ However, the Pole adds that she and her peers need to accept what is thrown at them as they have limited say on such matters. 

When asked about Swiatek’s remarks, PTPA says their objective is to give a voice to those players. The organization was co-founded by Djokovic and Vasel Pospisil, who are both now listed as directors. It aims to campaign for players to have a greater say in the decision-making process as an independent entity. Although they have been accused of trying to divide the sport, which the PTPA denies, and others argue that the Tour’s already have their own player councils. 

“Unfortunately, to Iga’s point, players have historically had no say in scheduling, and that is exactly why the PTPA exists – to amplify their collective voice and to advocate on their behalf.” They said.
“We are committed to protecting players’ well-being and empowering them to compete to their highest ability. It’s long overdue that tennis’ stakeholders come together to explore and vet viable, logical solutions that protect players, and we look forward to being part of the solution.”

Another ongoing argument at the French Open concerns the evening match slot, which featured male players every day at this year’s tournament.  Wednesday will also be the fifth day in a row that the women’s matches have been scheduled to take place before the men’s on their premier court. However, a reason for this happening is due to the women’s semi-finals and final being scheduled a day earlier. 

“There are a multitude of factors that impact scheduling, including matchup quality, but gender should not inherently be one of these factors.” The PTPA states.
“The PTPA believes in equitable opportunity for men’s and women’s players, as indicated in our official principles. No player or matchup should be deprioritized based on gender alone.”

There is yet to be any specific response from French Open organizers regarding the issue of late-night matches and the selection of which players will play in the evening slot. However, these topics will likely be addressed later this week in their annual end-of-tournament press conference.

Continue Reading

Interviews

(EXCLUSIVE) French Open: Alex Corretja On Alcaraz, Sinner And Comparing Swiatek To Nadal

The two-time Roland Garros runner-up shares his views about a group of players ahead of this year’s Grand Slam.

Published

on

The French Open is a place of fond memories for Alex Corretja who won more matches at the event than at the other three Grand Slams combined. 

Corretja, who peaked at a ranking high of No.2 in the world in 1999, twice featured in the title match at Roland Garros. He lost in the 1998 final to Carlos Moya before being denied the trophy yet again three years later by Gustavo Kuerten. Overall, he made 13 consecutive appearances at the tournament before retiring. 

The Spanish 50-year-old continues to work in the sport as a media pundit for Eurosport. Ubitennis managed to catch up with him shortly before this year’s French Open draw took place. In a brief exchange, he shared his views on how Carlos Alcaraz and Jannik Sinner will fare on their return from injury issues. Alcaraz has been troubled by a forearm issue which made him miss a trio of events and Sinner has been nursing a hip problem. Meanwhile, in the women’s draw is the title Iga Swiatek’s to lose? 

UBITENNIS: You are a former Roland Garros finalist. So I guess you have some great memories of the tournament? 

CORRETJA: Yes, you’re right. Roland Garros is probably the most important tournament for me of the majors I played in my career. For at least five years I reached the later stages (of the draw) from quarter-final to final. At the same time, it hurts a little to feel that I was so close to winning the tournament. In the end, I didn’t but I gave 100% I had. I can’t say anything about my tennis. I didn’t do better because the others were better. 

I’m very happy with my collaboration with Eurosport, which gives me the opportunity to do interviews on the court. It’s a great satisfaction for me to talk about Roland Garros. 

UBITENNIS: I’m going to go back to this because I imagine that for Spanish players in general Roland Garros is the tournament of excellence. I want to ask you if Carlo Alcaraz is ready, in your opinion, for the tournament starting next week.

CORRETJA: If his arm doesn’t hurt, he’ll be ready because in Paris he’ll find all the good sensations he couldn’t get from playing during the clay season. 

The first week can be very important for him to build up his confidence, the rhythm that he couldn’t find in tournaments like Rome, Monte Carlo, and Barcelona that he didn’t play. He just played three matches in Madrid and it’s a shame because normally the clay court season is very important for him. But he has to adapt to what he has and I think he’s still in a process of evolution and improvement. He’s still very young, he turned 21 a few days ago and I’m pretty sure that if he doesn’t have any issues with his arm, he’s going to be one of the toughest protagonists to beat in Paris.

It is true that this (year’s) Roland Garros is the most uncertain. For almost 20 years Rafa has always been the top favorite but right now it’s quite unpredictable because no one knows which conditions of form Djokovic will arrive with, how Alcaraz will arrive, how Sinner will arrive, and even Rafa. But we know that these players are special and when they are able to play a little bit and get into a rhythm, they are very dangerous because playing the best of 5 sets with players like that is not easy. 

Roland Garros is very hard and mentally it’s not easy to channel all the emotions. Physically, it’s very demanding. You have to have a lot of patience with the playing conditions. One day it’s very hot, another day it’s very windy. You play night session, day session. Everything changes and then I think some are more adaptable than others.

UBITENNIS: As for Sinner, if you were in his shoes, would you prefer not to risk, maybe looking more to the grass swing, or would you try in every way to step out on court?

CORRETJA: It’s up to him. If he’s fine and doesn’t feel pain, I think it’s normal that he wants to play and not think, “I’ll rest and see what I can do on grass.” 

It’s very difficult to say “No, I’m not going to play Roland Garros because I can take some time”. If he’s not hindered by injuries, it’s normal for him to try to play and then let’s see what happens.

For me, Jannik is a good guy, impressive and very professional, someone very serious who always tries to improve his game. He has a team that I really like with Simone and Darren and all the others. He is an example (for others to follow).

UBITENNIS: Finally, the men’s tournament is the most uncertain we’ve had in the last 20 – 25 years. However, the women’s draw has become like the men’s tournament of the past because we have a favourite (Iga Swiatek) who is like Nadal because she seems unbeatable. What’s your view?

CORRETJA: Well, Swiatek has her own personality and you can’t really make such comparisons, but it’s true that it’s a bit like when Rafa arrived, after winning all the other tournaments he had played before, then he used to come and win again. She’s won three times in Paris and she knows the surface perfectly. It’s going to be very tough to beat Iga because she’s very consistent. I think she’s playing a little bit more aggressively and let’s see how she does it. But she’s hungry to win again and that’s really to be admired because I think she’s a very young player. 

But she has a very strong personality and works a lot psychologically. Physically, I think she moves much better than the others. It was very important for her to beat Sabalenka in Madrid. In fact, after that, she also won the final in Rome. 

Sabalenka may have come up a little tired but at the same time, it was very important for her to endure fatigue and still reach the final because this means that she has also matured a lot and has found a nice system.  

NOTE: The original interview was conducted in Italian by Luca De Gasperi and has been translated into English by Kingsley Elliot Kaye

SEE ALSO: EXCLUSIVE: Ana Ivanovic’s 2024 French Open Picks

Continue Reading

Grand Slam

EXCLUSIVE: Ana Ivanovic’s 2024 French Open Picks

The former world No.1 tells Ubitennis her favourites for this year’s title, what underdogs to look out for and speaks about Dominic Thiem’s farewell.

Published

on

Ana Ivanovic pictured with the 2008 French Open trophy (image via https://x.com/anaivanovic)

16 years have passed since Ana Ivanovic was the player lifting the French Open trophy. 

In 2008, the Serbian socred back-to-back wins over Jelena Jankovic and Dinara Safina en route to the first and only Grand Slam title of her career. At the French Open, Ivanovic won more matches (37) than at any other major event and was also runner-up in 2007 to Justine Henin. 

Now retired from the sport, the 36-year-old continues to keep an eye on what is happening on the Tour in both the men’s and women’s events. So what does she think about this year’s French Open? 

The women’s draw – Is the title Swiatek’s to lose?

Iga Swiatek is targeting a fourth title in Paris which would make her only the fourth female player to achieve this milestone in the Open Era. The Pole is currently on a 12-match winning streak after claiming titles in Madrid and Rome. As for those who are the biggest threat to her, Ivanovic has two names in her mind. 

“I think the biggest threat is Ayna Sabalenka – they (her and Swiatek) played an amazing match in Madrid. It was a very tight one. And Elena Rybakina even though clay is probably not her favourite surface,” Ivanovic tells Ubitennis via email. 

Another player Ivanovic tips as a dark horse is Danielle Collins, who is playing the last season of her career. Since January she already rocketed up the rankings from 54th position to 12th, winning the biggest trophy of her career in Miami. On clay, she won the Charleston Open and more recently reached the semi-finals in Rome. 

“Danielle Collins had an amazing tournament winning back-to-back Miami and Charleston and also playing well in Rome again. I think she is a dark horse for the French Open.” She said.
“She seems to play very freely and enjoy herself out there. She has been in very good form this year, winning a lot of matches. She has a big chance to come far into the second week of the French Open.”

The last player ranked outside the top 10 to win Paris was Barbora Krejcikova in 2021 and the last American to do so was Serena Williams in 2015. 

As for other contenders, Ivanovic hopes a rising star of the sport will perform well. 

“I think now in women’s tennis we see more similar faces in the semifinals and finals. But I would really like to see Mirra Andreeva go far.” She commented about the Russian 17-year-old, who is currently ranked 38th in the world. 

The men’s draw – will Djokovic regain his form in time?

It can be argued with good reason that the men’s draw is the most open it has been in recent editions. Defending champion Novak Djokovic is still to win a title this year and experienced a turbulent time in Rome where he received a blow to the head during a freak accident. Meanwhile, Jannik Sinner and Carlos Alcaraz have been hindered by injury setbacks in recent weeks with both of them missing the last Masters event. 

“There have been a lot of new players in the last few weeks reaching far in the tournaments and beating some top players,” Ivanovic said about the state of men’s tennis.
So we are going to see many new faces on the men’s side. Of course Novak is still the strongest contestant for the title, but also Alcaraz and Sinner.”
“Novak had a little bit tougher clay court season so far than usual, but I think he is for sure peaking his full form for the French Open.”

As for the ‘strongest contestant’, the former world No.1 picks Djokovic and Alcaraz. Although there is a chance of a new Grand Slam champion. So who would Ivanovic pick for glory out of Alexander Zverev, Stefanos Tsitsipas and Casper Ruud?

“Out of the other 3, I would pick Zverev as the highest chance to win the French Open.” She replied.

Thiem’s Paris Swamsong 

Beside chasing for glory, one of the storylines of this year’s event will be the depature of Dominic Thiem who will play in Roland Garros for the last time before retiring later this year. The two-time finalist is playing in the qualifying draw after being controversially denied a wildcard. Whilst some ruled the decision as unfair, Thiem later said he has no hard feelings. 

“Honestly I had a long time to be in a good ranking,” he told reporters earlier this week. “I had enough tournaments and enough time to climb up the ranking and I didn’t do it, so I kind of didn’t deserve it and that’s fine. I had 10 main draw appearances in the last years so that’s more than enough.”

The former US Open champion has been praised by Ivanovic who says it is ‘always great’ to watch him play. Ivanovic played her last Tour-level match in 2016 which was the same year Thiem reached his first of four French Open semi-finals. 

“Dominic had a great career and it’s been always great to watch him play,” she said. 
“It has been very unfortunate with his injuries the last years so it has been tough years for him. I really hope he can do well at the French Open and has a nice farewell.”

During her career, Ivanovic played in 48 Grand Slam main draws and won 15 WTA titles. She held the No.1 ranking for 12 weeks during 2008. 

The French Open main draw will get underway on Sunday. 

Continue Reading

Trending