EXCLUSIVE INTERVIEW: The Story Of Functional Tennis’ Rise To The Main Stage
Founder Fabio Molle is no stranger to hard work. In fact, most of the tasks with Functional Tennis is done by himself and he doesn’t even have an advertising budget. Yet, he has managed to establish one of the most popular tennis-related Instagram accounts in the world and his products has been used by the likes of Novak Djokovic.
What does a tennis instagram account with over 500,000 followers and a Christmas jumper website have in common? They were both founded by Irish-based Fabio Molle.
Molle is the brain behind Functional Tennis which has branched out into multiple areas within the sport. Besides having a highly successful social media account, he has created his own products without any investors supporting him. The Functional Tennis Saber has proven to be a hit with many top players trying it out, including 21-time Grand Slam champion Novak Djokovic. On top of that, Molle also runs a well known podcast which has included guests such as Goran Ivanisevic, Robin Soderling, Casper Ruud and Alex de Minaur.
In a fascinating interview with Ubitennis, Molle speaks extensively about his work in tennis, provided some exclusive information about four special versions of his Saber rackets that will go on sale next year and goes into detail about all the work has done over the past six years.
How it all started
UBITENNIS: What drove you to create Functional Tennis?
MOLLE: In 2016 I was in my 30s and your body starts to break down a bit more when you’re in your 30s. I saw a lot of great videos on Instagram and I thought that there must be somebody who is the same as me with the same issues. So I started sharing these great videos I found online. That was how it started. It was just the right place, right time… I got traction quite quickly. It was just an Instagram account and since then we have grown.
UBITENNIS: So what was it that made you want to venture into the world of tennis?
MOLLE: I played football as a kid and then I started to play tennis a bit later than most people. I was 10 when I started to play at a local tennis club which I pestered my mother to let me join. I also grew up at the national academy, so I used to be in and out of there at times. As I got older I used it a bit more. It was good to be surrounded by tennis.
Then in my late 20s, I didn’t play again until the age of 29. I was in a good place with some good tennis players around me. So I took it more seriously again.
UBITENNIS: So you have an online store, a podcast, you do webinars and manage a successful social media account. How do you balance everything?
MOLLE: The first question people ask me is what else do I do? I have the website, customer support, I ship stuff out myself, we have the podcast and the social accounts. It is a proper full-time job. It’s great but it is tough at times.
For the social stuff, we want to stay ahead and try to find great videos. Also working with great people to make those videos. Life in social (media) is quite tough because it is always on. There is never really a rest period.
We need the web store which pays the bills for us. Then the podcast is great for marketing. I am taking a bit of a break from that until early next year. So we are going to revamp that a little bit. We have done over 170 episodes – three years in a row we published an episode every week.
With webinars, we haven’t done many – maybe 12 or 13. We are just trying to get out there as much as possible. We love a proper YouTube channel but I don’t have the bandwidth to do that. A lot is going on.
The power of Instagram
UBITENNIS: Speaking more specifically about your Instagram account, you currently have more than 500,000 followers. Did you ever expect it to be as successful as it is?
MOLLE: No. This started as a place for me to collect good videos online and it grew organically. Obviously, as it starts to do, so do your expectations. I didn’t expect to hit half a million followers by now.
We do also lose followers. Let’s say if we get 100 followers, we lose 40. That is the way it tends to go but there is a long way to go. I’m going to keep trying to grow and create great content.
UBITENNIS: One previous publication went as far as describing you as a tennis influencer. Is that how you see yourself?
MOLLE: I do and I don’t. I’m not like some accounts. It’s not my name behind the accounts, it’s more of a brand. We have gone down that route. But I definitely like to pair (my account with Functional tennis) and I have been told that I should have paired a lot more. Maybe I should have set up a separate account for myself earlier on.
I don’t think I am an influencer but we do have some influence in the tennis world. A lot of brands want to work with us. I know we find good products and put them out there. We do have influence over people but I think it is a bit different to other accounts that have a name behind them.
I am not a coach so it is not that I am putting up my own tennis training videos. Sometimes we work with coaches, do their drills and I publish videos of that. Although I am not out there every day showing my face.
I don’t like categorizing myself as an influencer but we work with brands and our job is as an influencer when we work with them. Also with the connection we have with coaches, we are more of a place for exposure. That is what we are pretty big at.
The Saber racket and exclusive details of new range
UBITENNIS: You don’t just sell rackets, you also design them. How did the idea behind the Saber come about? The product has proved to be quite a hit with Novak Djokovic seen using it at Wimbledon this year.
MOLLE: The Saber came about from issues I had with other products we used to sell. We started off selling our practice journals and then we came across the wooden spoon which we used to post videos of Jonas Forejtek who as a 12-year-old went on to become a world No.1 junior and is now making his way into the Pro Tour.
The wooden spoon tennis pointer worked well with us but the issue we found was that it was heavily copied everywhere. There is a lot of quality in the product, they last for such a long time and the other products were republicating that but people were just driven by price.
We really couldn’t compete with the price so I knew six, or seven months into selling the pointer that we were going to have issues with it. I started to think that I needed something else.
The technical side of designing the (Saber) racket was tough. In early 2021 I finally found somebody to work with and I thought I would be able to tell this person what I need and they would do everything. But no, for two weeks I measured rackets to see what I liked and then I built my prototypes with cardboard. When I was happy with all of my measurements I went to the technical guy. He put it together, added some stuff and we used his contacts to build a model.
When we had the final prototype, I had the job of getting a designer. Then we had some challenges along the way with the manufacturer not wanting to string our rackets. We knew the product wouldn’t be viable to sell to people if it wasn’t strung. We eventually got over the line, then had some paintwork issues before getting that over the line. It was an interesting project that took longer than I thought.
It started in January 2021 and they arrived for practice week during Wimbledon that year. We then got the first batch out (to the public) five months ago and ever since then, the feedback has been incredible. We have seen top 10 players use it from both the WTA and ATP Tours. It is used at academies by players of all ages. We are probably going to sell out of the item again this weekend.
(Editor’s note: In an exclusive comment Molle goes on to say) We are going to have four limited edition products next year which are based around each slam. There will be four new colors coming out but there will only be 50 of each which will be numbered. The first is probably going to launch in early January. They are all designed and ready to go.
One man, big ambitions
UBITENNIS: Just to clarify, has the entire process of creating the Saber been funded by yourself?
MOLLE: It has all been financed by myself – the product cost, research and development and prototype. We don’t have any investors. It’s a one-man team. To employ somebody else costs a lot of money, plus as we are covering so many areas I would need to be careful of thinking who I would need to employ for what area.
UBITENNIS: That is a lot of work. So how do you stay motivated to keep going?
MOLLE: I love e-commerce and I love tennis. My background is that I have a degree in software engineering and I worked in my family business. Then in 2008, I set up an e-commerce business selling Christmas jumpers.
My experience is in e-commerce and I love tennis so it is a dream combination. My challenge is to grow and that is what keeps me motivated. It’s great to be so tightly connected with the tennis world and that has always been a dream for me. It is not always easy but there are some great parts to enjoy.
UBITENNIS: We are now at the end of the season, what are your plans for 2023?
MOLLE: One goal is to keep growing our social accounts and another is to revamp our podcast. I think there is a lot of room for growth there. I’m going to work with a production company for the podcast and I am going to change up the questions I ask to make it more interesting. I hope to have a live podcasting event later in the year. Growing sales is another target.
Ideally, we need to launch more versions of the saber. There is a lighter version coming out next year for younger children to use.
We don’t have an advertising budget. So I’m going to have to try and get more write-ups (to help promote the brand). I always think about how I can be of more value to the tennis community.
UBITENNIS: You have half a million Instagram followers even though you don’t advertise?
MOLLE: I have spent 10, 20, 50 euros messing around with stuff but I have to manage everything.
(EXCLUSIVE) Ukrainian Journalist Reacts To Controversial Booing Of Marta Kostyuk At French Open
The first day of the French Open saw Aryna Sabalenka breeze into the second round but the talking point of the match occurred just seconds after it had finished.
Approaching the net her opponent, Marta Kostyuk, refused to shake hands with the world No.2. Her decision to do so was because of Sabalenka’s home country supporting Russia in their war against Ukraine. It is not the first time that a Ukranian player has done this on the Tour but the crowd reception was something that has rarely occurred before. Kostyuk was booed off the court as a result of her gesture, even though it was widely expected that she would do this before the match.
The situation adds to the frustration of Ukrainian players with some of them previously calling for tougher penalties to be implemented on Russian players due to the conflict. Something the governing bodies of tennis refused to do this as they argue that players shouldn’t be punished for the actions of their governments. The only exception was Wimbledon and the Lawn Tennis Association who last year banned Russian and Belarussian players from their events amid fear of those athletes being used for propaganda by the Russian regime.
One of those watching Kostyuk’s match was journalist Sergey Kontorchik who is the founder of the Ukranian tennis website BTU. As somebody who follows the actions of his compatriots on the Tour every week, he admits the reception given to fans at Roland Garros to Kostyuk caught him off guard.
“This is quite surprising to me. I think Marta and our players have explained quite clearly the reasons why this is happening,” Kontorchik tells Ubitennis.
“If somebody still doesn’t understand why Ukrainian players don’t shake hands with players from countries that kill Ukrainians and wage an invasive war, they won’t understand it anymore.”
Kontorchik lives in Dnipro, a city located in the centre of the Dnipropetrovsk Region which borders Donetsk. On Friday two people were killed and 30 injured following a Russian missile strike on a outpatient clinic in Kontorchik’s city.
The situation involving Kostyuk is even more surprising given the recent support that was shown towards one of her peers, Elina Svitolina, who won the Lyon Open title on Sunday.
“Not really, maybe somewhere in smaller tournaments,” Kontorchik replied when asked if he remembers any other players from his country going through a similar scenario to that of Kostyuk.
“Even in yesterday’s final (of the Lyon Open), the public was quite on the side of the Ukranian.”
Quizzed about the incident during her press conference, Sabalenka said she understood her rival’s decision to not shake hands with her. Adding that Kostyuk shouldn’t have exited the court in the way that she did. Sabalenka has previously said players are entitled to hate her if they wanted to and has called for politics to be kept out of the sport.
“I understand why they are not shaking hands with us. I can imagine if they gonna shake hands with us, and then what’s gonna happen to them from the Ukrainian side. So I understand that. And I understand that this is not kind of like personally, you know,” she said.
“I think she didn’t deserve to leave the court that way.”
Sabalenka also adds that she believes that ‘normal people’ would not support the ongoing war. This a rare statement from an athlete from either Russia or Belarus to make about the current situation.
“I said it many, many times: Nobody in this world, Russian athletes or Belarusian athletes, support the war. Nobody. How can we support the war? Nobody, normal people will never support it.” She said.
“Of course, we don’t support war. If it could affect anyhow the war, if it could stop it, we would do it. But unfortunately, it’s not in our hands.”
However, that comment has been met with scepticism from Kostyuk who has publically called for the Australian Open champion to clarify her view about who she backs in the war and why.
“She never says that she personally doesn’t support this war,” Kostyuk replied during her press conference.
“I feel like you (the media) should ask these players who would they want the war to win because if you ask this question, I’m not so sure these people will say that they want Ukraine to win.”
(EXCLUSIVE) Clara Tauson: The Other Danish Rising Star Competing At The French Open
When it comes to Denmark and tennis in 2023, the name of Holger Rune comes to the mind of many given his rapid rise in the sport which includes nine wins over top 10 players within a six-and-a-half month period.
However, the Nordic country also has a promising player on the women’s Tour who has already experienced her fair share of ups and downs. 20-year-old Clara Tauson has been constantly compared to Caroline Wozniacki whilst growing up given her impressive junior career. In 2019 she claimed the Australian Open girls title at the age of 16 which elevated her to the top of the ITF junior rankings. During that same year, she rose by over 130 places in the WTA standings to inside the top 300.
Transitioning to the women’s Tour from junior competition is always a challenge but Tauson impressed early on. A breakout 2021 season saw her claim two WTA titles in Lyon and Luxembourg. She also won a WTA 125K event in Chicago. Then last year she reached a ranking high of No.33 before injury derailed her rise in the sport.
The person in charge of trying to get Tauson back to the top of her game is Carlos Martinez who joined her team just weeks before the start of the French Open. Martinez is a veteran of tennis coaching and previously worked with Daria Kasatkina. He has also guided Svetlana Kuznetsova, Marc Lopez, Fabio Fognini and Feliciano Lopez in the past.
“She called me two or three months ago when I stopped working with Dasha (Daria Kasatkina). We have been in contact for a long time because we talked a few years ago as well,” Martinez told Ubitennis about his latest coaching role.
“She is a girl who has very good potential, really nice and kind. She also wanted to come to my academy. We started a one-week trial and then very fast we started to form a very good connection. In the beginning, we started without any conditions. Then we both felt good (about the collaboration) and started working (together).”
Martinez’s academy, CMC Competition, is located 20 km outside of Barcelona in CT Mollet. The facility has six clay courts, a fully equipped gym and even an outdoor swimming pool. Making it an appealing place to train at this time of the year for players such as Tauson who impressed her new coach at a young age.
“I first saw her when she was 16 and playing at a Fed Cup tie in Poland,” he remembers. “At that time I liked how she was doing. She won the Australian Open (girls) title and was No.1 in the juniors.’
“When I saw her practice at my academy I was not surprised (by her game) because I know she is a really good player. The only thing is that she has to be healthy and work on some aspects. I believe she has a very good future.”
Whilst there is a lot of optimism for the future, it depends a lot on how the Dane’s body holds up. A back injury ruled her out of last year’s French Open and hampered her preparation for Wimbledon where she retired from her opening match. The setbacks continued into this season with a foot injury forcing her out of the Australian Open.
It is always a concern when a player is blighted by injuries at a young age but she isn’t the only person to have experienced this. Another notable case is Emma Raducanu who is currently sidelined from the sport after undergoing three ‘minor’ procedures on both of her hands and ankle.
“I think because she is tall and it was at that time when she was growing, she was affected by a few injuries. We need to prepare her body to be healthy and be one hundred per cent confident that she can compete,” Martinez explains.
“We are not rushing in any aspect such as talking about her ranking because for me the most important thing is to recover her level and then make it better than before. The focus is to build her game, make her understand how to play tennis and believe that she can go back towards the top of the rankings.”
The work between Martinez and Tauson appears to be paying off. As a result of her drop in the rankings, the Dane competed in the qualifying rounds of the French Open. In her opening two matches, she breezed her way past Katie Swan (No.161) and Petra Marcinko (No.257). Then in the final round, she edged out Sweden’s Mirjam Bjorklund 7-5, 6-7(3), 6-2, after almost three hours of play.
Roland Garros was where Tauson made her Grand Slam debut back in 2020. On that occasion, she also had to come through qualifying before stunning 21st seed Jennifer Brady in the first round.
“We are happy that she has qualified here at Roland Garros. My speech to her every day is that we have one more way to improve. There is no pressure at all because she is out of the top 100. This is just the beginning and little by little I am seeing nice things that we are doing in practice she is using on the court for matches.”Carlos Martinez
The trio of victories is undoubtedly a massive boost but back home her achievements have been overshadowed by her friend and former doubles partner Rune. Together they won the Danish Under-12s mixed doubles tournament. They will reunite later this year to play in the Hopman Cup which is taking place after Wimbledon.
“The fact Rune is doing so well is a good motivation for her,” Martinez believes. “They are different players and personalities but they can both become very, very good. It’s good for her to have a friend on the Tour who she can share experiences with.”
“She’s the kind of player who can do everything when it comes to attack. She has a huge forehand, one of the best that I have ever seen. She serves good and has a good backhand.” He added.
Regardless of how Tauson performs in her first round match against Aliaksandra Sasnovich in Paris, her new coach admits she needs to work on improving her defensive game. Should this and a few other adjustments be made, the sky’s the limit in Matinez’s eyes.
“Her level for sure one day can be top 20. She is very young and has very good weapons. I’m sure she can be very good. As for when I have no idea because I am not magic. I hope I’m going to be with her for a very long time and see how successful she will become.” He concluded.
Tauson will play her first round match on Sunday.
EXCLUSIVE: Monte Carlo Tournament Director David Massey On Attendance Figures And The Rise Of Italian Tennis
This year’s Monte Carlo Masters marked the start of a new era for the tournament.
Overseeing the running of the event for the first time was David Massey who is no stranger to working in the world of men’s tennis. Massey, who has been a resident of Monte Carlo since 2001, has previously served as the ATP’s vice president for Europe and has worked for the organisation in some capacity for 20 years. He also speaks fluently in English, Spanish and French.
Ubitennis spoke with Massey on the final day of this year’s tournament which concluded with Andrey Rublev winning his first Masters 1000 title by outlasting Holger Rune in three sets. He reflects on his first year in charge of one of the most prestigious clay court events outside of the French Open, provides some insights into this year’s attendance figures and speaks highly about the rise of Italian tennis.
SCANAGATTA: I would like to know what has brought you a better experience and what have you learned this year as tournament director? Also, what did you enjoy the most about this year’s tournament?
MASSEY: May I start by thanking Zeljko Franulovic (former tournament director) because it is always easier to build on an existing event. He ran it extremely well for so many years. I also know him, we worked together on the ATP Tour prior to 2004. It was a great privilege for me to take over from him.
In terms of what I have learnt this year, I think my 20 years of experience on the ATP Tour has served me well. Plus I also had one year (2022) where I was the deputy Tour director so I felt I came here (to Monte Carlo) prepared. I think I will always learn every single year. There are always things to improve but we are very satisfied with how we have built up the site this year. We were prepared to receive every sector, whether it would be the media, players, fans etc. We were really satisfied with the results there. Unlucky with the weather a couple of times but overall I am really satisfied with the week.
SCANAGATTA: Can you give us some numbers regarding spectators and the success of this tournament? As an Italian, I would have liked to see Jannik Sinner in the final but still, there was a great final with two great top 10 players.
MASSEY: We had 140,000 spectators which is a number that we have surpassed for the first time in the tournament’s history. That was a result of the real eagerness of our fans to come to sporting events. It has been a great effort from our ticketing department to sell those tickets and market the event.
We have a capacity on the site which can hold 15,644 people at one stage. It is very important for us to keep this in mind. So we are at capacity basically and it is hard to imagine that number increasing in the future but we want to maintain it at least. That is our goal.
We always have Easter Monday during the tournament which helps us and makes a big difference because people can enjoy that Monday of the tournament which is usually a work day.
In terms of the Italian market. We are just 11km away from the Italian border, so it is also like having a tournament which is played in Italy. We had so many Italian fans here and the depth of Italian players these days is exceptional. We saw fine tennis from all of the players. I think Matteo Berrettini was unlucky to have injured himself because he was really in good form before that. We saw how far Sonego went, Musetti’s upset against Djokovic and Jannik Sinner’s extremely good form.
Sinner is one of the few players who have got to the semi-finals of Indian Wells, Miami and Monte Carlo in the same year. I think only Roger Federer, Rafael Nadal, Novak Djokovic and Andy Murray are the only other players to have done this as well. So Sinner is in great form and I hope to see him go further in the future.
SCANAGATTA: Do you have any idea about the percentage of foreign visitors to Monte Carlo? We saw a match between an Italian and French player on Court 2 and there were more Italian supporters.
MASSEY: Roughly speaking, about 40% of ticket holders are Italian, around 50% are French and then 10% are international.
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