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.

ATP

(EXCLUSIVE) Ricardas Berankis’ Coach On Wimbledon Showdown With Rafael Nadal

Dirk Hordorff speaks to UbiTennis about the world No.106 and his chances against the second seed.

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Ricarcas Berankis at Wimbledon (image via http://www.yonex.co.uk/_assets/)

Ricardas Berankis is no stranger to Wimbledon as he marks the 12th anniversary of his first-ever main draw win at the tournament after coming through three rounds of qualifying.

 

A stand-out player in his younger years, the Lithuanian topped the world junior rankings and won the US Open boys title back in 2007 when he defeated Jerzy Janowicz in the final. Transitioning to the pro level was never straightforward for Berankis who is now 32-year-old. Nevertheless, he has made his impression on the Tour with runs to two ATP Tour finals in 2012 (Los Angeles) and 2017 (Moscow). He also won the 2015 US Men’s Clay Court doubles title in Houston alongside Teymuraz Gabashvili.

Today Berankis is ranked 106th in the world, which is 56 places below his career-high. His best performance on the ATP Tour so far this season was in Abu Dubai when he came through qualifying to reach the quarter-finals before losing to Denis Shapovalov. He also reached the final of a Challenger event in Lille.

At Wimbledon this year he started his campaign with a straight-sets win over former semifinalist Sam Querrey. Making it only the fourth time in his career he has won a main draw match at the tournament. His reward is a showdown on Thursday with the formidable Rafael Nadal who is seeking a historic 23rd major title and his third in a row. Nadal defeated Francisco Cerundolo in his opening match.

So can Berankis trouble Nadal on the grass?

The best person to ask is Germany’s Dirk Hordorff who coaches Berankis. The veteran coach has also previously collaborated with the likes of Rainer Schuettler, Lars Burgsmüller, Yen-Hsun Lu, Kristian Pless, Sergiy Stakhovsky, and Vasek Pospisil.

During an email exchange with UbiTennis, Hordorff shared his thoughts about Berankis’ upcoming clash with Nadal.

UBITENNIS: It wasn’t until Melbourne this year that Ricardas played Nadal on the Tour for the first time. He lost the match 6-2, 7-5. What did his team learn from that experience?

HIRDORFF: I was not in Melbourne, but I coached unsuccessfully in a lot of matches against Rafa. He is next to Novak (Djokovic) over so many years as a true champion and a great person outside the court. You learn every match against him and Ricardas is ready for this match.

UBITENNIS: When it comes to playing a member of the Big Three, how do you as a coach go about dealing with Berankis’ mentality?

HIRDORFF: Ricardas played a good first round against Sam Querrey. Nevertheless, to play Rafa is a different issue. You need to concentrate on your abilities and not worry about history.

UBITENNIS: Nadal was sternly tested during his opening match. Does this in any way give a confidence boost towards Berankis or do you think it is irrelevant?

HIRDORFF: Every match starts at zero. What Rafa played yesterday doesn’t affect Ricardas’ match. Anyway, Rafa won his first round quite solidly against a good upcoming player.

UBITENNIS: Whilst the odds might be against Ricardas, it isn’t impossible that he could defeat Nadal. What will the key areas be for him to focus on during their match? (e.g. return position, use of slice etc).

HIRDORFF: Ricardas needs to focus on his abilities and take his fine form from the first round in this match. Rafa is a complete player, so you need to perform well in all aspects of the game.

UBITENNIS: What is the most difficult thing about playing Nadal on the tour?

HORDORFF: He is a complete player with a lot of special strengths. Strong serve, good backhand, fast, perfect coordinate and no weak parts in his game.

UBITENNIS: Ricardas might be 32 but he has shown some good results on the Tour (runner-up at a Challenger event in Lille and QF in Dubai). Given the trend of players playing later into their careers, is his best yet to come?

HIRDORFF: Ricardas had to deal with a lot of health problems. I am sure that the best part of his career is yet to come for him.

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Interviews

EXCLUSIVE: Ana Ivanovic On Wimbledon Memories, Players To Watch And Her Admiration For Williams

The former world No.1 takes part in a special Q&A with UbiTennis ahead of the Wimbledon Championships.

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Former world No.1 Ana Ivanovic (image via https://twitter.com/anaivanovic)

This year marks the 15th anniversary of Ana Ivanović’s best-ever run at the Wimbledon Championships.

 

Just weeks after reaching her first major final at the French Open, Ivanović scored back-to-back wins over Nadia Petrova and Nicole Vaidišová (who she saved three match points against) to reach the semi-finals. She was eventually knocked out of the tournament by Venus Williams who went on to clinch the title. In total she played in the Wimbledon main draw 12 times and achieved a win-loss record of 24-12.  

Throughout her career Ivanović won 15 WTA titles, including the 2008 French Open. She also reached the final of another eight events. She holds the honors of being the first woman in history to win a major title whilst representing Serbia and the only player from her country to have held the No.1 position on the WTA Tour. Ivanović’s period of 12 weeks at the top is a longer streak than Williams, Garbine Mugurza and Karolina Pliskova.

This December marks the sixth anniversary of when Ivanović announced her retirement from tennis at the age of 29 following a series of physical issues. At the time WTA CEO Steve Simon hailed her as a “true champion and a great ambassador for the sport of women’s tennis.”

Leading up to this year’s Wimbledon Championships, UbiTennis managed to catch up with the former world No.1 who is married to former football star Bastian Schweinsteiger and has two young children. Through an email exchange, she speaks about life as an ex-player and gives her views on the upcoming Wimbledon Championships. She also reveals her desire to remain connected with tennis in the future but would she consider a coaching role on the Tour?

UBITENNIS: This December will mark six years since you announced your retirement. What do you miss the most about playing on the Tour?

IVANOVIĆ: To be honest the most I miss is the excitement of playing at the big courts in front of the fans and crowds. I have many special and unforgettable memories. I miss a lot that feeling. Besides that, the traveling and competing in different countries was always something I enjoyed.

UBITENNIS: Since retiring, how closely do you follow the sport now?

IVANOVIĆ: I still follow – obviously not as close as when I was playing – but I still have some friends on tour, so I like to see how they are doing, and I like to see new faces and to see new exciting players.

UBITENNIS: Wimbledon begins on Monday and you played in the main draw 12 times during your career. What are your happiest memories of the tournament?

IVANOVIĆ: Of course, my happiest memory of Wimbledon is reaching semifinal there, that was definitely a very special year for me. But also, I do remember one very special match for me, I played against Nadia Petrova, we had 7 rain delays, and we played from 11 in the morning until 7pm, and we manage to finish just before another rainstorm. That was definitely a unique experience and something I will always remember.

UBITENNIS: What was the biggest difficulty for you when it came to switching from playing on the clay to grass within such a relatively short time?

IVANOVIĆ: The biggest difficulty for me personally when it comes to switching from clay court to grass court were the movements. Clay court was always my favorite. I have enjoyed moving on clay and sliding which let me feel free. On the grass you sometimes feel like you didn’t have as good grip – at least me personally, so I think that kind of adjustment of timing of the movement was for me the most difficult.

UBITENNIS: This year’s women’s draw is headed by Iga Swiatek who is currently on a 35-match winning streak. How impressed are you by Swiatek and who do you think is her biggest threat at Wimbledon?

IVANOVIĆ: I think Iga has been playing really well, and she is also very composed, I think she handles her nerves well. As we all know, Tennis – or actually every sport – is becoming more and more mental game next to the physical and talent game.

I think maybe Serena has a chance, Ons also, because she uses lots of drop shots, on the grass, that can be tough to play against. As well as Angelique Kerber she loves to play on grass, she won Wimbledon before, so I hope she does well.

UBITENNIS: Wimbledon will see the return of Serena Williams to the tournament. How impressed are you that she continues to play at the age of 40? Has this ever given you the temptation to return to competitive action as you are six years younger than Serena?

IVANOVIĆ: It is amazing to see Serena back, I know she loves to play on the grass. I really admire her for everything she achieved and to still compete at the high level of sport at the age of 40 – it is incredible. I am really looking forward to see how she will do this year. For me personally to come back to competitive sport I don’t see myself in that direction. I have other visions and dreams and something that I want to do, to also give something back to society.

UBITENNIS:  As for the men’s draw, who are you most excited about watching? Do you think anybody other than Rafael Nadal and Novak Djokovic could win?

IVANOVIĆ: Novak and Rafa are both playing really well. I think Novak enjoys playing on grass more than Rafa does, and he is defending his title. Obviously, it is always exciting to watch them as they already have so many Grand Slams, and competing for more.

Others than them, there are many interesting players at the moment and I always say that new upcoming players can surprise the top players in early rounds while they are still kind of warming up. Players like Novak and Rafa gain more confidence and strength when they come further and further in the tournament, so it is more difficult for younger players to take them out in the semis or finals especially when it is played best of five sets at the Grand Slams.

UBITENNIS: You had such an impressive career as a tennis player, are you ever tempted to pass on what you learnt to others in the future as either a coach or advisor on the Tour?

IVANOVIĆ: I don’t really see myself as a coach on tour, but I do want to stay involved, because Tennis has been my life. I have been playing since I was five. I am happy to share my experience and give advise but definitely not as a coach.

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Exclusive

EXCLUSIVE: Daria Kasatkina’s Coach – Swiatek Will Lose One Day, So Why Not At The French Open?

Following the Kasatkina’s milestone win at Roland Garros, her mentor Carlos Martinez speaks exclusively to Ubitennis.

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Carlos Martinez

At the age of 25 Daria Kasatkina is relishing in her best-ever run at a Grand Slam tournament after reaching the semi-finals of the French Open without dropping a set.

 

Kasatkina, who has been ranked as high as 10th in the world, has been in impressive form throughout the tournament so far after dropping a total of just 14 games in her first four matches. To put that into perspective, only three players have conceded fewer games in the women’s draw to reach the last eight of the French Open since 2000. She encountered a slightly trickier test in Wednesday’s quarter-final where she ousted compatriot Veronika Kudermetova 6-4, 7-6(5). A player who earlier in the clay season was runner-up at the Istanbul Open before going on to win the women’s doubles title in Rome.

The world No.20 is now through to the last four of a major for the first time on her 26th attempt. Overseeing her performance is Spanish Coach Carlos Martinez who has been a fixture in her team for three years. Martinez has a wealth of experience in the sport. Besides being a former professional player himself, he has also guided the likes of Svetlana Kuznetsova, Marc Lopez, Kateryna Kozlova and Feliciano Lopez.

“Dasha is generally doing well in this tournament. She’s managing her emotions very good because it is not easy,” Martinez replied when asked about Kasatkina’s French Open run so far.
“At the beginning of the week she had a very good draw because she played against a lucky loser and then in the second round she played against a qualified ranked 200th in the world. She knew she had to win these two matches and that it is not easy to manage her nerves.’
“From that point she started playing much better. Against (Shelby) Rogers she played a very smart match and the exact same against (Camila) Giorgi. Today (in the quarter-finals) was very emotional for her because she played against a fellow Russian.”

According to data from Flashscore, Kasakina has won between 57% and 76% of her first service points during her five matches played at the French Open. Furthermore, she has managed to save 10 out of 19 break points she has faced so far. Whilst they are not flawless statistics, it is the consistency that is bringing her success.

“She is managing very well. She is not playing unbelievable but she’s making very good decisions,” Martinez explains. “This is the work she has been doing in the last couple of weeks during her clay court preparation. We are very happy with the result.”
“(But) we want more. As I told her the train doesn’t come many times and once it passes you have to then catch it.”

Seeking her place in a Grand Slam final for the first time, Kasatkina next takes on Iga Swiatek. A player who has been her nemesis in recent months. She has already played the world No.1 three times in 2022 and lost all of them in straight sets. On the other hand, Kasatkina did beat the Pole in three sets last year on the grass at Eastbourne.

Undoubtedly she will be the underdog in the semi-final given the dominance by her upcoming opponent in recent weeks. Since 2000, only the Williams sisters have won more matches in a row than Swiatek on the WTA Tour.

“Iga is the player who is in the best shape at the moment. She has won her past 33 matches so it won’t be easy. But the thing I said to Dasha is that one day she has to lose, so why not tomorrow? (semi-finals day),” Martinez said of the upcoming match.
“Dasha has the game to try to win. I think it is going to be a good battle. We have nothing to lose and a lot of things to win. So I think it will be an interesting match and I hope that it is going to be a tough battle.’

There is also an extra incentive for Kasakina to win. Should she progress to the final she will enter the top 10 once again for the first time since January 2019.

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