Those who have ever looked into how to get accurate information about world No.1 Novak Djokovic would have come across Sasa Ozmo.
Based in Belgrade, Ozmo has professionally covered tennis for more than a decade and is a journalist for Sport Klub. He has spoken to Djokovic on multiple occasions, whether that is through press conferences or in one-to-one interviews. He has also written a book called “Sports Journalism”, which aims to help young students/journalists in the profession. During the ATP Finals last November he presented Djokovic with a copy of his book as a token of his gratitude for his role in helping him achieve his childhood dreams.
In recent days Ozmo’s name has gone around the world following the controversial decision to refuse Djokovic entry into Australia. He has either conducted interviews or written columns with Sky News, BBC Radio 5 live, Diario AS (Spain), ABC Radio Australia and The Daily Mail within the past week.
The 20-time Grand Slam champion is currently residing at the Park Hotel which is a quarantine facility in Melbourne. According to legal files submitted by Djokovic’s defence team, they say the tennis star was granted a medical exemption to play the Australian Open and had assurances that he could enter the country. The exemption is that he had Covid-19 within the past six months (he took a PCR test on December 16th) and therefore couldn’t receive a vaccination. However, Federal authorities are arguing that being unvaccinated isn’t a legitimate reason to enter the country and denies giving such assurances.
Djokovic’s Australian Open dreams now hang on the outcome of a court hearing which will take place on Monday. In the meantime, there is anger in his home country with protests taking place and political figures have thrown their support behind him. But what it is the situation really like in Serbia through the eyes of somebody who is experiencing it minute-by-minute?
Ozmo has been in Belgrade where he has witnessed the fiasco unfold. In an interview with UbiTennis he discusses how Serbians are reacting, if there is a fear of a surge in anti-Western views and the possibility that Djokovic might have attended some events after testing positive for COVID-19.
UBITENNIS: It has been four days since the news of Djokovic’s visa refusal broke. How has the reaction been to this in Serbia?
OZMO: Serbian society has reacted with a mixture of disappointment and anger. I think many of Novak’s fans, not only in Serbia, but millions around the world made their peace that Novak might not play the Australian Open this year. Then that exemption came and that got their hopes up. Only for things to go south very quickly.
I think people are mostly outraged by the way he was treated. Just imagine a different situation. If it was an Australian citizen in Serbia treated like this no matter the circumstances, what would the Australian media write and how would the western society react?
For eight hours he was promised rest (whilst in detention at the airport) but he was woken up after two hours. Almost being forced to sign that cancellation (of his visa). He was without his phone for three hours and then in the detention centre. People call it a hotel but it is a euphemism, it’s not a hotel.
It’s normal that people are outraged about it. Especially considering that he is the greatest tennis player their country has ever produced.
UBITENNIS: In the past, there has been various comments from the Serbian press that Novak is treated unfairly due to where he comes from. Now this has happened, is there a concern that there could be a rise in anti-western views in the country which far-right groups might capitalise on?
OZMO: I wouldn’t go that far as to make this so much political. This will eventually blow over and I personally can’t wait to go back and talk tennis. As far as the far right groups and political parties here go, I am glad that unlike many of the European countries there is no far far-right that has so many members in politics like in countries such as France. I don’t think this (Djokovic’s situation) will increase the level of anti-western sentiment (in Serbia) any more than it currently is.
UBITENNIS: In his legal files submitted to the Melbourne Court, Djokovic took a PCR test on December 16th. The following day and on the 18th he is reported to have participated in events or photo shoots. If it is proven that he did attend those events knowing he was positive, what would the reaction be?
OZMO: Novak is not obligated to share anything from his medical files and his brother said that he will never do that. I think it is in his best interest when it comes to his reputation is to clear this up. What was actually the timeline? When did he test positive?
They (Djokovic’s team) won’t speak up until the trial is adjourned but after that I can only assume that some explanation will be given.
UBITENNIS: It appears that Novak isn’t vaccinated and he has his views on this. Whilst some in the western world might be taken back by this stance, there may be a different perspective on this issue in Serbia. Do you think these cultural differences are playing a factor in the fallout?
OZMO: From what I can tell watching the news, this vaccine has had society polarised all over the world. There have been anti-vaccine protests almost all over the world. It is true that the vaccine rate isn’t as high as we hoped for Serbia. It’s about 50 percent but I don’t think it’s cultural differences. Sometimes when the Western world writes about Serbia they don’t understand the atmosphere in the society or the ambiance everything is happening in. For example, the Adria Tour. It looked scandalous from abroad but here simultaneously Serbia had a football match with 30,000/40,000 spectators. The measures were really lost back then. Sometimes people from the West can’t see what’s actually going on in Serbia.
UBITENNIS: Novak is regarded as one of the most mentally strongest players on the men’s Tour. How easy do you think it will be for him to recover from this?
OZMO: I don’t think this will have any negative long-term effect. Of course now he’s pi**ed and emotional. But in the long run, you know, he hasn’t always been a millionaire with a world No.1 in tennis. Once he was a kid and he didn’t have the easiest of childhoods in Serbia with the bombing, poverty and general atmosphere in society. He will be ok, as you said he’s one of the strongest athletes mentally ever.
Sasa Ozmo can be followed on Twitter at https://twitter.com/ozmo_sasa
EXCLUSIVE: Yoshihito Nishioka’s Coach On Injury Setback, US Open Showdown With Wawrinka
The road to Yoshihito Nishioka’s first round match at this year’s US Open has been a frustrating one.
In June the 27-year-old looked to be on the verge of reaching his best tennis at the French Open where he made the fourth round for the first time in his career. Nishioka’s run in Paris was not a one-off with the Japanese player also making the last 16 of the Australian Open in January. However, since the French Open, he has only been able to register one win on the Tour.
In recent months he has struggled with a stress fracture on his femur that cut short his grass-court campaign and resulted in him missing four weeks of crucial training. After losing his opening match at Wimbledon, he played four tournaments across North America with his sole triumph being against Gregoire Barrere in Cincinnati.
Guiding Nishioka on the Tour is his coach Christian Zahalka who has previously worked with the likes of Marina Erakovic, Nadia Petrova, Kimiko Date and Misaki Doi. The two began working together last year.
“Yoshi injured himself at Roland Garros that pretty much cost us the whole grass court season and we could not practice for a month,” Zahalka told Ubitennis on the first day of the US Open.
“So honestly we are playing a bit catch up to regain form the last few events. But we are getting close.”
Nishioka faces a tricky first round encounter at Flushing Meadows where he will play Stan Wawrinka, who won the tournament in 2016. Their only previous meeting saw the Swiss veteran prevail in three sets but that was six years ago in Indian Wells.
“Wawrinka is a highly motivated player at the moment,” said Zahalka. “It will be a difficult first round match with a big fight needed from Yoshi.”
Nishioka is currently ranked five places higher than his upcoming opponent at 44th in the ATP Pepperstone rankings. However, he is yet to shine at the US Open where he will be making his ninth main draw appearance this year. He has lost in the first round six times and the second round twice. The only players he has beaten at the event were Paul-Henri Mathieu in 2015 and Feliciano Lopez in 2019.
Despite the disappointing results, Zahalka is staying upbeat about Nishioka’s chances in New York.
“This is my first US Open with Japanese Rock so I cannot comment on what happened in the past here,” he said.
“But I see no reason why he cannot have success at the US Open.”
Nishioka’s clash with Wawrinka is scheduled to take place on Tuesday. He is one of four Japanese players in the men’s main draw this year.
EXCLUSIVE: Saudi Arabia’s Plans For Hosting The Next Gen Finals
Tennis is heading to the country following weeks of speculation. Although there is likely to be some criticism coming amid the intention of organisers to hold the event during the offseason in December from 2024 onwards.
Sources have confirmed to Ubitennis that the ATP Next Gen Finals will be moved to Saudi Arabia from this year onwards with the inaugural event taking place immediately after the Davis Cup Finals.
Jeddah will be the event’s host city which features the eight highest-ranked players under the age of 21. According to those familiar with the situation, the 2023 edition had initially been planned to take place in December but had to be brought forward due to the FIFA Club World Cup tournament which will be hosted at the same venue. It wasn’t confirmed until last month that the football tournament will be played in Jeddah in what was described to Ubitennis as a ‘last-minute change.’
The prospect of hosting the tournament immediately after the Davis Cup finals could be problematic at the end of a long season. However, this situation is trying to be played down as a one-off.
It will be held on at the King Abdullah Sports City where the venue has six tennis courts just outside the main stadium, as well as another indoor arena that can hold up to 12,000 people. Other events to have been hosted there include the 2021 International Handball Federation Men’s Super Globe tournament, as well as a boxing match between Oleksandr Usyk and Anthony Joshua.
What is the most striking aspect of the plans is the report that from 2024 the Next Gen finals will take place over a week during the second part of December which is in the middle of the off-season. It is unclear why the ATP have pushed for such a thing to occur and why they have agreed to this. During the bidding process for a host city, they said the following in March:-
‘This year’s tournament is expected to take place in December, with the exact dates to be determined with the successful bidder.’
One explanation for such a date might be the number of exhibition events that take place in the Middle East during this time. So instead of players participating in them, they would play this event. However, the idea of expanding an already long Tour calendar is one that will attract criticism. Plus there is yet to be any public response from players who might influence the current plans.
ATP CEO Andrea Gaudenzi recently told The Financial Times that ‘positive’ talks have taken place with officials from Saudi Arabia. Meanwhile, WTA boss Steve Simon visited the country earlier this year and was said to be highly impressed. It appears that both governing bodies are interested in investment from the country as long as it doesn’t have significant implications on the Tour’s structure which has happened in other sports.
Saudi Arabia’s Public Investment Fund has invested heavily in sports, including the £300M takeover of football team Newcastle United. In golf, they funded the LIV Tour which split the sport before a shock merger between the Tour’s was announced a few weeks ago.
Critics have accused the Middle Eastern nation of using sport to help improve its image which has been marred by allegations of human rights violations. This is commonly known as sportswashing.
One of those concerns is related to LGBT players playing in the country. A Saudi official told Ubitennis that gay players or media members would be welcome with their partners as long as they respect local culture. Basically, public displays of homosexuality will not be encouraged and could prompt a backlash from locals.
“I think the WTA is going to make sure that we are in a safe environment,” openly gay player Greet Minnen told Ubitennis. “All the LGBT players are wise enough to not provoke anything or hold hands when we are not at the (tennis) club.’
“I think we have to respect the culture there but it’s not going to be an issue as the WTA will make sure it is a safe environment for us.”
The Next Gen finals began in 2017 and had been hosted in Milan until now. Previous winners include Jannik Sinner, Carlos Alcaraz and Brandon Nakashima.
It is understood that a contract confirming the relocation of the event to Saudi Arabia will be signed next month.
Conchita Martinez: How Acaraz Can Improve, Muguruza’s Future And Advice For Andreeva
Almost 30 years have passed since Conchita Martinez won the biggest title of her career at Wimbledon.
In 1994 she battled to a three-set win over nine-time champion Martina Navratilova to become the first-ever Spanish woman to claim the title. The triumph occurred in just her third main draw appearance at the Grand Slam. Since then only one other player from Martinez’s country has managed to emulate her in the women’s tournament. That was Garbine Muguruza in 2017 who has been mentored by the former champion in recent years.
Martinez is in action again this year at The All England Club where she is taking part in the women’s invitational doubles tournament. On Tuesday morning Ubitennis caught up with the former world No.2 during an hour-long media session that featured a series of former champions.
In her home country, the talking point of the sport concerns the rapid rise of Carlos Alcaraz who at 20 has already won one Grand Slam trophy, four Masters 1000 events, and has spent almost 30 weeks as world No.1.
“I think he is already doing an amazing job but, of course, there is still a lot of room for improvement,” Martinez tells Ubitennis.
As to what these improvements are, the 51-year-old believes Alcaraz needs to explore coming to the net more often, especially when playing on the grass. According to Wimbledon’s official statistics, in his first four matches played this year, the top seed has come to the net on 83 occasions and won the point 56 times. This equates to a winning percentage of 67.5%.
“I would like to see him, especially on the grass, go to the net a little bit more sometimes,” she said.
“He does this on other surfaces and is very brave. When he’s down a break point and then does a serve and volley to win the point, this is great for his confidence.’
“He needs to work on everything. His slice and going to the net. From the back, he is doing amazing and is very aggressive. He can hold the point when he wants to, so he needs to work on that to become an even better player.”
The current status of Mugurza
Martinez speaks about Alcaraz from the perspective of both a player and a coach. After winning 33 WTA titles before retiring, she went into the world of coaching. Her work with Muguruza was recognised in 2021 when she was named WTA Coach of the Year. She has also had stints mentoring former world No.1 Karolina Pliskova and was captain of her country’s Billie Jean King Cup team.
Martinez’s work with Muguruza has been put on ice for the foreseeable future after the tennis star opted to take an extended break from the sport. She confirmed that Muguruza will not be playing again this year on the Tour and a return date is still to be decided.
“She is taking her time and will not be playing again this year. We will see when she is going to start practising for next year,” Martinez explained.
“Every week we chat and see how she’s doing. She’s enjoying her time off right now.”
Even when Muguruza does come back to action there is no guarantee that this successful partnership will resume.
“We have to see. We stopped as she was going to take a longer time off than expected so we parted ways but you never say no to what may happen in the future,” she commented.
Muguruza’s decision to step away from tennis followed a series of disappointing results. In a social media post earlier this year, the two-time Grand Slam champion said she wanted to spend more time with her friends and family which has been ‘healthy’ for her.
Advice for Andreeva
It is not the first time a player has had to step away from the limelight due to the demands of playing tennis. Trying to deal with Tour life is far from easy, especially for younger players.
One of those rising stars is 16-year-old Mirra Adreeva who reached the fourth round of Wimbledon as a qualifier on her debut. She almost booked a place in the quarter-finals after leading Madrid Keys by a set and 4-1 but lost. If she had won, Andreeva would have been the youngest Wimbledon quarter-finalist since 1997.
So what advice would Martinez, who also reached the fourth round of a major at the age of 16, give to a rising star such as Andreeva?
“You have to have a very good group of people around you that are going to keep you humble and fit,” she said.
“I think she does that. She’s winning matches, going far in Grand Slams, and beating great players.’
“You have to see next year how she will cope with defending points. The most important thing is that she keeps practising and focusing on what she has to do to get better. It’s great what she is doing now but she has to maintain it.”
Martinez won more than 700 matches during her time on the Tour.
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(VIDEO EXCLUSIVE) Steve Flink, Ubaldo Scanagatta Review The 2023 Wimbledon Men’s Final
(VIDEO EXCLUSIVE) Steve Flink, Ubaldo Scanagatta Review The 2023 Wimbledon Women’s Final
(VIDEO): Novak Djokovic Faces Sinner Test, Women’s Semis Take Centre Stage
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