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

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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.

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EXCLUSIVE: Felix Auger-Aliassime Previews Musetti Semi-Final, Aims For ATP Finals Spot

Felix Auger-Aliassime spoke to UbiTennis about his semi-final in Florence with Lorenzo Musetti.

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Felix Auger-Aliassime (@AlemTenis - Twitter)

UbiTennis director Ubaldo Scanagatta spoke with Felix Auger-Aliassime after his 6-3 6-4 quarter-final victory over Brandon Nakashima in Florence.

 

The Canadian is into the last four at the ATP 250 event in Florence after defeating Brandon Nakashima in a routine straight sets victory in Italy.

Despite being broken in the opening game, Auger-Aliassime remained calm and collected as he secured victory in 90 minutes.

Next for Auger-Aliassime is Lorenzo Musetti who he has lost to twice with one of those meetings happening in Monte-Carlo this year.

In an exclusive interview with UbiTennis director Ubaldo Scanagatta, Auger-Aliassime spoke about why the match-up has been tough for him in the past and whether their meetings on clay will impact this match.

The world number 13 also spoke about aiming to reach the ATP Finals in Turin and how much it would mean to him be a part of the elite eight at the end of the year.

Scanagatta: Here we are with Felix Auger-Aliassime who won quite easily against Nakashima, Am I wrong if I say quite easily or easier?

Auger-Aliassime: Easier. It’s always relative to your level and the perspective you want to look at it because the score. I got broken first came and come back well, it’s always tough to come back from a break down but I did well to bounce back from the first game and then I played a great set of tennis in the first set, a really good level. Then again starting the second set very good, so then holding serve until the end. So it was a great match and a great performance but I had to play my best tennis in order to win like this.

Scanagatta: Listen, can I give you good news? Tonight you are eighth in the race, 20 points more than Fritz because Fritz 2,885 and you went to 2,905.

Auger-Aliassime: You know they have it on the internet?

Scanagatta: Yes but they had to take away 45, not everybody knows that you have already completed, you are only 20 points ahead, sometimes UbiTennis is better. Apart from that you have to play Musetti and against Musetti you are down 2-1, you won Barcelona, where he had to retire but was up one set and then the other two was always played on clay. Is this better for you? Because today Musetti said I like very much this surface and I have more time and so on.

Auger-Aliassime: Look, he’s been playing very well.

Scanagatta: Have you seen him today?

Auger-Aliassime: I watched a little bit of the match today. Seemed like he was playing very good. He was hitting the ball very well, aggressive and precise. He’s a good player and he’s one of the top young players. You know I lost twice to him so of course it proves the quality that he has not only against me but he beat a lot of good players so I have to be ready for a tough match. I think potentially it can be the toughest match that maybe I have to play this week. So I have to be ready for that.

Scanagatta: He is going to have his best ranking next Monday, he will be 24 and only 23 if he would win the tournament, 24 already for being in the semi-final. What do you remember of those matches when you played him? What you recall?

Auger-Aliassime: Well he has a great touch as we all know, especially on clay he was very precise and a great touch mixing it well, the backhand. We had a close match in Lyon, I don’t remember Lyon very well but I remember the first time and of course this year in Monte-Carlo where he played really good and I wasn’t serving well and being as aggressive as I am today. But he was playing really well, backhand cross and down the line, forehand was very aggressive so he is a good player and a complete player so that’s all I can say.

Scanagatta: How important is it for you to make the Finals, the ATP Finals in Turin? Which would give you another chance to come back to Italy and eat some pasta…

Auger-Aliassime: Yeah that’s why I want to do it. That’s why it’s important because it’s in Turin and it would be great of course. You know like I said earlier this week, I love to play in Italy and not only it’s in Italy but it’s one of the best tournaments in the year. It would be a privilege to be in that group of eight players. Of course my position now, like everybody on your sheet, we’re fighting hard to make it but the competition is tough so I mean it starts at the start of the year so at the end of the day it’s not like, all the results I had throughout the year some wins, some losses it has an impact now. Of course now I’m still in a good position, so I will try to push through the last tournaments of the year and to qualify will be great.

Scanagatta: OK last question, Why you always wear black, these days I always see you wear black. Does Adidas asking is it because you like to play at night because it’s more elegant or you choose one or the other?

Auger-Aliassime: No I have a collection from New York and I change the collection there. I have black and I have purple and I thought I like the black with colourful shoes so I’m interested in my style, so it needs to work. The collection that I have I have for the rest of the year, I like it that way with colourful shoes and very neutral colours.

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EXCLUSIVE: Felix Auger-Aliassime Eyes Improvement In Florence, Opens Up About Friendship With Berrettini

Canada’s top player sheds some light on his current game during an exclusive interview with Ubaldo Scanagatta.

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Felix Auger-Aliassime - (Ben Solomon/Kosmos)

Top seed Felix Auger-Aliassime kicked off his bid for a second Tour title at the UniCredit Firenze Open on Thursday with a roller-coaster win. 

 

The Canadian world No.12 outlasted Germany’s Oscar Otte 6-4, 6-7(2), 6-2, in a match that lasted two-and-a-half hours. Auger-Aliassime’s triumph moves him into his 13th Tour-level quarter-final of 2022 and improves his win-loss record to 41-24. 

This season has seen Auger-Aliassime achieve new milestones in his career, including winning his first Tour title at the Rotterdam Open, reaching a ranking-high of No.8 in August and defeating a top three player for the first time (No.3 Alexander Zverev at the ATP Cup). 

Following his latest win in Florence, the 22-year-old spoke exclusively to Ubitennis. Giving a frank assessment of his current form and his chances of winning a second Tour trophy this week in Italy. 

Ubaldo Scanagatta: You won what was a very difficult match in three sets. I expected you to win in two, what about you?

Auger-Aliassime: You never know before the match. When the match was underway I won the first set 6-4 and then I was playing great in the second, I had an early break. I was serving good. 

So I didn’t play so bad but he played some good points. I got a bit tight. Then the tiebreak was terrible for me. That was very difficult to accept but after it was good to come back and finish the match in a good way. 

Ubaldo Scanagatta: It was quite strange to see you lose two serves in a row (in the second set) and then you were serving a lot towards his backhand sometimes which was a surprise because he plays much better with his backhand than the forehand. Was that a tactical approach?

Auger-Aliassime: It depends. I was serving more to the forehand with my first serve and then I tried to mix it up with my second serve. Sometimes when you’re on the court you have to make a decision and you don’t know how your opponent is going to react. 

I think in the third set, in the games I was directing more towards his forehand side, making him move there and getting some short balls. After that, I was playing better tactically. 

Ubaldo Scanagatta: You will next play Nakashima who is a player making great progress on the Tour. This year he has made a lot of improvements. Have you ever played him before?

Auger-Aliassime: I’ve never played him. We have only practiced together but he is a great player who has improved a lot. He’s consistent and very precise. He has a good serve and a good return. He has a complete game for a young player who I think will improve more and become a top player to play against. 

Ubaldo Scanagatta: Your best ranking was No.8 and you have won one tournament in Rotterdam. Also, you have lost quite a few finals but how do you find this surface in Florence? How do you rate your chances of winning? 

Auger-Aliassime: It’s always a good challenge. Today (Thursday) I played three sets but I know I have to play better in order to win the tournament. I have to take it match-by-match. 

It’s a good challenge because it is where I want to be as a player. I want to be at the top, fighting for this spot (the title). To be at the top of the draw and try to win. It starts at these tournaments, I have to be able to step up to the challenge. 

It’s also a good opportunity for me to try and prove myself, and become a better player. 

Ubaldo Scanagatta: Matteo Berrettini said that you are his best friend on the Tour. Do you still see him as much as before as he was dating somebody that you may know….? (tennis player Ajla Tomljanovic who is also cousins with Aliassime’s girlfriend Nina Ghaibi). 

Auger-Aliassime: He’s a good guy and I get along well with him. We have played a few doubles in the past years but now it is a bit less as he plays more with his brother. 

We also practice together and train in Monaco.

Ubaldo Scanagatta: Were you surprised that Matteo lost in Florence? He was complaining a bit about the slow surface. 

Auger-Aliassime: We practiced together (in Florence earlier this week), and it was a good set – 7-6 like every time we play. He won it, I had a set point but I lost. Of course, I was surprised, I think he had opportunities in the second set. So it’s tough. I saw him at breakfast, it is tough to lose when you’re at home. Everybody has come to see you. 

I know how he feels. I played in Montreal this year, had a tough loss and it is never easy to go out like this. But there are still a few tournaments this year and hopefully, he can bounce back. 

Ubaldo Scanagatta: Finally, what is your general impression about playing in Italy?

Auger-Aliassime: I used to come here when I was under 12. I remember going to Trieste, they had this tournament in Porto San Giorgio. I also played here many times in Challengers. It’s a country that loves tennis. As a player, you come here and on the first day of practice, everybody is there (to watch you). In the city, people say hello and wish you good luck, so it’s really lovely when you’re playing in Rome. Hopefully, if I play in Turn (at the ATP Finals) it will be the same or maybe even better. 

It is really nice that they (the ATP) were able to organize a tournament here (in Florence) and I love everything about it. I felt good from the moment I came, the city is great and the people have given me amazing support. 

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EXCLUSIVE: Mackenzie McDonald Reveals Minor Italian Connection After Reaching Florence Quarter-Finals

In an exclusive interview with UbiTennis, Mackenzie McDonald reveals his love for Italian culture.

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Mackenzie McDonald (@thenet_m - Twitter)

Mackenzie McDonald revealed his love for Italian culture in an exclusive interview after beating Francesca Passaro 6-4 7-5 to reach the Florence quarter-finals.

 

The American beat the Italian wildcard in straight sets to seal his place in the Florence quarter-finals where he will face another Italian in the form of third seed Lorenzo Musetti.

McDonald has suffered a number of injuries but has returned to the tour in fine fashion and is now a consistent top 100 player.

In an exclusive interview with UbiTennis director Ubaldo Scanagatta, McDonald revealed what it’s like to face an Italian player in Italy and why he loves the European country so much.

Scanagatta: First of all Congratulations, secondly tell us something about this match and you had to play an Italian and do you remember other matches played against Italians in Italy where you had all the crowd against you?

McDonald: I haven’t played in Italy a lot. Besides Challengers, I think this is my first ATP, well besides Rome, playing an Italian in Italy is definitely a tough feat and the crowd’s all for him, it was pretty difficult to deal with that but I think the next match too against maybe Musetti? It will be even crazier so we’ll see what happens.

Scanagatta: But the linesman and everything was fine, you didn’t have any problem with the umpiring and nothing else? Because 20-30 years ago, it was much more difficult to beat an Italian in Italy and what happened in Rome? Who did you play with? Do you remember?

McDonald: I think I lost to Sousa, the Portuguese player.

Scanagatta: How do you find this court and can you tell me if you saw anything of Florence, I mean is it the first time for you in your life? Do you have any impression about the city?

McDonald: Yeah, I mean I went out the other night, the first night I got in, which was nice went to downtown and walked along the river, across the bridge to the church and the cathedral in the middle. So I got to see the main basic things in Florence, there’s definitely more things I want to see. My sister actually spent a lot of time in Italy, it’s one of her favourite countries, she actually named her son Rome. So there’s definitely more I want to see and I’m going to Naples next week too so I’m enjoying the food and I’m going to be in Italy for at least another week so it will be fun.

Scanagatta: What about the next round? Say something about the two players you may have to play?

McDonald: I haven’t played either one. So not too sure what to expect I mean their both very good players, both in form. I mean everyone wants to do well here in the quarters, so it will be a tough match for sure. I think I’m just going to enjoy this one today and then I’ll focus on that one maybe later tonight or tomorrow but definitely will be a challenge tomorrow.

Scanagatta: There were five Americans here in this tournament, you were one of the five, quite a lot for a tournament in Italy. What do you expect about United States playing Italy in Davis Cup even if maybe you will not be in the team but Fritz and Tiafoe are playing very very well, how do you explain the comeback of the American Tennis after few years which were so-so?

McDonald: I think we got a lot of depth right now. We have a lot of guys in the top 200, just like you guys, and a lot of guys in the top 100. All different types of players too, we’re all competing and pushing each other at the top too. We’ve got Fritz who is top ten now, one of my best friends. We have a lot of talent so I think we have a good chance against Italy, it will be an exciting match for sure.

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