EXCLUSIVE: The Reality Of Life As A Tennis Journalist Living In War-Torn Ukraine - UBITENNIS
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EXCLUSIVE: The Reality Of Life As A Tennis Journalist Living In War-Torn Ukraine

UbiTennis is the first media outlet to speak with Sergey Kontorchik about his experiences of the war and the reaction of the tennis community.

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Sometimes I had to write news while sitting in a shelter, especially during the first months. The alarm sirens were buzzing very, very often. Often there are also sounds of aircrafts, fighting jets, ambulances or fire trucks’ sirens, sounds of explosions, whether a missile hits something or the air defense systems working.”

Sergey Kontorchik is like any other tennis journalist around the world. He follows the sport religiously to keep up to date with the latest developments. The Ukrainian is the founder of website Великий теніс України or as it is commonly known in English BTU. In 2012 he decided to set up a Facebook page to promote tennis in his country. Three years later a website was launched and last year it received more than a million unique visitors for the first time.

I was inspired by tennis itself and also had this desire to be closer to the tennis world and maybe to attract more Ukrainians into the sport I love,” he tells UbiTennis.

At first the website was quite small, because I didn’t have any sponsors or team and paid for everything from my own pocket.’

I began to communicate more with our players, whenever there was a chance, I tried to visit (Davis Cup/Billie Jean King Cup) ties of the national team and other tournaments, take photos and talk to players, to look more into the history of Ukrainian tennis. Since 2015 two more people, as enthusiastic as I am, joined me and BTU. I am very lucky with the team, because without them it wouldn’t be possible to run this project so actively.”

It is hard to fault Kontorcvhik’s commitment as he covers the latest developments occurring at the French Open from his war-stricken homeland. Ukraine has been engaged in a military conflict with Russia since February 24th after they launched a so-called ‘special operation.’ As of May 24th the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights has been able to verify that 3,942 civilians have been killed and another 4,591 injured. Although it is feared that the toll is significantly higher and the tally doesn’t take into account army deaths.

Kontorchik lives in Dnipro, a city located in the center of the Dnipropetrovsk Region which borders Donetsk. One of the two areas controlled by Moscow-backed separatists and goes by the name Donetsk People’s Republic. According to international law the region is part of Ukraine but Russia recognizes it as an independent nation. It is one of the areas which triggered the war.

I woke up at 6 am because of the terrible crash sounds – our airport was hit with several missiles. I checked my phone and already saw dozens of messages about Putin launching a war and Russian troops moving into our country from multiple directions, that Kyiv and north of Ukraine were attacked from the Belarus’ side. It was terrifying,” Kontorchik said of the moment he found out the war had begun.

Dnipro was always close to the frontline in Ukraine’s southeast. It has become a hub for war efforts – both humanitarian and military. Dnipro has become a place where the wounded and injured arrive from the front lines, and displaced people come as they flee the war. The same is happening now, only on a much larger scale.” He added.

UbiTennis is the first outlet to give Kontorchik a platform for him to speak about his experiences as a tennis journalist living in a war zone. Due to language barriers we interacted via a translator in order to get accurate accounts. In total more than 6000 words were spoken by him during our interview which covered a whole range of subjects.

In a way tennis has created a small sense of escapism for BTU’s writers and their owner. They have participated in various fundraising events to help support those affected by the war. One of their readers based in Italy sent ‘several pallets’ of medicine to them.

It takes away time from focusing on this horror going all around. It’s not a relaxation. Yes, it’s a distraction and it reminds you that life must go on, but it’s wrong to view it as a “now I can enjoy my time and get all excited because of tennis” mood,” Kontorchik explains.

We found out it’s really tough to watch tennis matches for us. You can’t keep your focus or interest. I’ve tried to follow some big matches and couldn’t watch for long. I was losing attention quickly. Imagine when you were so interested in something your whole life and the war makes you almost indifferent to it. Many Ukrainians say it’s tough to watch movies or read books right now. Like your brain resisted it. But it’s important to do something to not lose your head totally.”

Trying to promote tennis in a country stricken by conflict is a tough task. According to one recent report, Russian forces are said to have destroyed at least 130 educational facilities and damaged a further 1500 in Ukraine. Inevitably this will also have an impact on access to sports facilities. As for BTU they have lost all their income from advertisements. Now they rely on donations from their readers to survive.

Dealing with a new reality

Sergey has been to Roland Garros six times but not this year

Ever since the conflict started, BTU felt the need to give a voice to those in the sport who may not be able to speak with international media. One example is that of Viacheslav Bielinskyi. A 18-year-old who reached a ranking high of No.5 in the juniors last December who says players from Russia have spoken with him about their opposition to the war but they are scared to do so publicly. Those conversations were between players playing on the ITF circuit.

We have been in touch with our tennis players since the first day of the war,” Kontorchik replied when asked about his bond with his country’s tennis stars.

Right now we also try to collect their stories on dealing with a new reality, maybe to talk to those, who didn’t have a chance to talk to international media, but want to share their story with us. There are those who want to open up, there are those who want to move forward and maybe leave some horror incidents in the past.”

It seems bizarre in 2022 that some of these interviews were conducted whilst tennis players were hiding in bomb shelters. Those who managed to escape the conflict continue to voice their stance whilst playing. Elina Svitolina has previously spoken about the mental toll the war is taking on her and has raised money for her homeland. Dayana Yastremska donated her prize money won from claiming the Lyon Open title. Meanwhile, former players Alexandr Dolgopolov and Sergiy Stakhovsky have joined their country’s armed forces.

As for the Russian and Belarussian players, some have voiced anti-war messages but none has gone as far as criticizing their own governments. The main reason for this is likely to be linked to their country’s strict laws which potentially punishes those who criticize the conflict. This is why Wimbledon has decided against putting in place a document players would have to sign condemning their governments in order to play.

However, this argument is one that strikes a nerve with Kontorchik who points out that Russia annexed Crimea back in 2014 but the anti-war laws in Russia didn’t come to publication until March 2022.

There was a very limited reaction from the famous Russian or Belorussian people in general. Even from those who spend most of their time abroad, even from those who live there with their families. Many tried to speak out only after the sanctions started to prevent them from leading their usual luxurious lifestyle,” he explains.

So for the Ukrainian players it is like a double-fault: first “out” is you don’t get the response you naturally expect from the friends or colleagues; second “out” is you feel like the entire community of tennis fans, media and authorities don’t get your point at all. If these guys remain silent, Ukranian players obviously keep wondering what they think: maybe they support Putin, maybe they think it’s all Ukraine’s fault, maybe they can’t see the difference between good and evil. It’s crazy. It’s really hard to keep playing and try to build your career, even if you consider solely those factors, not even mentioning about not having a home.”

Wimbledon

Wimbledon. Day 7 Monday 05/07/2021. Credit: AELTC/Joe Toth

The conflict has triggered action from the sporting world but in tennis it is also a very divisive subject. The ATP, WTA and ITF have all suspended Russian and Belarussian players from playing under their flag, as well as removing their national federations from team events. Wimbledon has gone a step further by banning them all together which has angered other governing bodies of the sport. Resulting in this year’s Grand Slam taking place without the awarding of ranking points for the first time since the ranking system was implemented nearly 50 years ago.

This ban was an unexpected, but a very important sign of support to Ukraine, even though some people keep reminding us, they did it solely for the public image,” Kontorchik commented. “But it was also a message to other big tournaments. Wimbledon is the biggest tennis event in history, people outside of tennis know about it and they pay attention to it. Tennis, like any other sport, is an important tool of Russian propaganda and they are milking from their sporting success to the maximum.”

If we look at it from the point of view of tennis leadership, it seems incomprehensible if they are seriously pushing for the stripping the points from everybody. Under the pretext of protecting the rights of all tennis players, essentially all of them will be punished, with nobody at all to have an opportunity to earn points at Wimbledon. And this is what we called protection of the rights?”

Given the fallout over Wimbledon it is likely the other tournaments will not follow the same precedent unless they are forced to do so.

Which raises the question as to what else could be done? Kontorchik pays tribute to those who have helped raise awareness of the crises, including world No.1 Iga Swiatek who has spoken out about the war multiple times. Andy Murray and Roger Federer are among the players who have made donations to humanitarian efforts. The Swiss tennis federation has hosted Ukrainian players. Finally, former French Open champion Francesca Schiavone held a charity event in aid of Svitolina’s foundation.

On the other hand, there is also a degree of disappointment. When fears emerged that Peng Shuai could be under censorship by Chinese authorities, the WTA was swift and decisive in their response by suspending all of their events in China which has cost them millions.

The actions of the tennis world, of the top players, of the management, have been extremely disappointing in general. Many Ukrainians left comments, they are losing or they’ve already lost a desire to follow this sport if this is its sincere reaction,” Kontorchik believes.

The war in Ukraine is a “No war” or “Stand for peace” slogans (used in the sport) – but let’s be honest – how can anyone, any sane person, to ever be pro-war and against peace in general?“

Kontorcvhik‘s account of what it is like living in Ukraine during these times really places things into perspective. Like millions of his compatriots, he is inevitably affected by the war. Yet, he still continues to dedicate his time to tennis. Although nobody knows how long for in a country with an uncertain future.

Let’s be clear, the future of tennis in Ukraine is very, very uncertain. Nobody will care about tennis, when people in Ukraine will not have where to live and what to eat. The UN says prolonged war will push 9 of 10 Ukrainians into poverty or near poverty. 50% of business were shut down already, the other 50% are struggling right now. Our new modern tennis center is destroyed, courts are in no condition for players to train. It’s just the tip of the iceberg.” He concludes.

BTU has set up their own fundraiser to support those who have been displaced in the Dnipropetrovsk Region as a result of the war. You can donate to their appeal by clinching HERE.

Grand Slam

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

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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.

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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.

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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

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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.

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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. 

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