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: ‘A Bit Worried’ – Daria Kasatkina’s Coach On Her Australian Open Exit
Carlos Martinez reveals what exactly happened to Kasatkina’s form during her shock first round exit at Melbourne Park.
The mentor of Daria Kasatkina admits that he is ‘a bit worried’ about her most recent performances on the Tour but is maintaining a positive outlook for the weeks ahead.
Kasatkina, who was seeded eight at the Australian Open, suffered one of the heaviest defeats of her career in the first round where she lost 6-1, 6-1, to Varvara Gracheva who is ranked almost 90 places lower than her. The world No.8 only managed to win two points behind her second serve and hit a costly 23 unforced errors against three winners. Overall, she was on the court for less than an hour.
The performance was not easy viewing for Kasatkina’s coach Carlos Martinez. A Spanish-based former player who has also previously worked with Svetlana Kuznetsova, Marc Lopez, Kateryna Kozlova and Feliciano Lopez. Speaking to Ubitennis shortly after arriving back in his home country, Martinez provided some insight into what went wrong at Melbourne Park.
“It was not the best. The truth is she was managing very badly because we expected to play on Tuesday. Then at the end, she played on Wednesday evening,” he said.
“We spent Tuesday waiting a lot of hours at the club. The first day was ok but the second day for her was tough. It’s not an excuse, this is what it was.”
Kasatkina’s match was among those affected by mother nature. Earlier this week, there was a three-hour delay to play due to the blistering heat. Then showers disrupted matches on the outside courts multiple times.
Although the encounter against Gracheva wasn’t the only disappointing result the Russian has experienced this year. At the Adelaide International 2, she looked to be in top form after reaching the final before losing 6-0, 6-2, to Belinda Bencic. In an unfortunate coincidence, last year Kasatkina also reached a tournament final (winning a title) a week before the US Open and then lost in the first round of the Grand Slam.
“There was zero energy, it was windy and the court was very fast. She didn’t do so well, she played not good. This is the truth because to lose 6-1, 6-1…..in her position now it’s very tough,” Martinez admits.
“Especially after the last week when she was doing well (In Adelaide) against Barbora Krejčíková and Petra Kvitova where she played two very good matches. The final against Bencic wasn’t good. So that’s why I’m a bit worried because the last two matches were very easy scores (against Kasatkina).”
In the eyes of her coach, Kasatkina’s biggest problem during matches doesn’t involve the upper part of her body. It is another part of her body which is biggest factor.
“Physically when she doesn’t have this energy in her legs it is more difficult for her because she doesn’t have as impressive strokes and depends a lot more on her legs.” He commented.
Although there is still no reason to panic just yet given the credentials of the 25-year-old. So far in her career, she has won six Tour titles and reached the semi-finals of the French Open last year. She has also recorded 19 wins over top 10 players with six of those victories occurring during 2022.
“I am not worried because I know that it is just the beginning of the season and we have to keep working,” Martinez states. “We will adjust a few things but not change her preparation a lot because in my opinion every day we are working one hundred percent.’
“I’m expecting better results when we are in Abu Dhabi. There are three super tough tournaments (coming) but we are going to prepare well to get ready to compete and to try to win matches. We will see how it goes.”
Kasatkina is the only top 10 player to not win a match at this year’s Australian Open.
EXCLUSIVE: Tennys Sandgren On Humility and Music To Get Back To The Top
“Political correctness is everywhere, not just in tennis. But it’s impossible to try to live without offending anyone”. Tennys Sandgren, one of the most outspoken players on the tour, in an exclusive interview with Ubitennis, speaks about his ambitions to work his way back into the top 50, his first music album and his views on “politically correct”
By Marco Lorenzoni
2022 has been tough for Tennys Sandgren, a former world No.41. Just three years ago he had seven match points against Federer and was ever so close to reaching the semifinal at the Australian Open, his first in a Slam. Due to injuries, he missed most of the last season and his ranking has dropped. A few weeks ago he won a Challenger event in Las Vegas and he is still eager to compete and succeed in a comeback to the top.
With 2022 being your first year in a while since you played only challenger events, what are the main differences in the level between the challenger tour and the ATP tour?
I feel that when I was playing the ATP tour the draws were a little bit more unpredictable because you could play guys like Felix (Auger-Aliassime), Holger (Rune), or Shapovalov that out class you, but at the same time you can face players that are not particularly motivated that day because they are not trying to feed their family with that tournament. I feel that the guys that are ranked generally between 40 and 80 are very consistent in their results week after week and they wait until there is a hole in the draw to get in and make a semi-final or a very good result. Challengers are hard, but even if the top guys are not present there are a lot of good players and you have to bring a mental level. If you don’t you are not going to be able to win. Every match is a dog fight.
In the last few years, you’ve played a lot on the ATP tour. You’ve reached two quarterfinals at the Australian Open and the fourth round at Wimbledon. Is it difficult for you to find motivation in these challenger events when there can be five spectators during a match and the prize money is a lot lower?
Sometimes it is hard, but I feel it is more difficult when you are ranked around 100 and you are going back and forth between challengers and ATP events. One week you are playing for $10,000 and 30/40 points per match, while the week after you’re playing for $500 and seven points. For me right now this is where I am and so I have to be hungry, and there is no way around going back to the place I want to be. I have to play well in these types of events and progress and get my ranking back up, otherwise if I am not motivated and not humble enough I should just retire. I can say I had two careers, for years I played futures and challengers and for years I was able to play in the biggest tournaments. Even if I made some good runs in slams I am used to playing in this context and I know that this is part of the sport.
I know that you like to drive from one Challenger to the other when you play in the US, so I wonder if you enjoy the more intimate atmosphere of these smaller events?
When you go to the US Open for example, you have to plan for a lot more time. The strings are over here, practice courts are in a different area and everything is spread out. It is awesome because playing grand slams is one of the best parts of the sport, but it is a different atmosphere to come here. I am able to park right out here, I walk to the practice court, the nice lady is giving me balls and water to go on the court with and it definitely feels more intimate. It is a more personal version of the sport. Actually some challengers can get a decent amount of people, 4-5 hundred, but most get an average of 10-100 people per night. The intimate atmosphere is pretty cool, I am from Tennessee and like to drive to Columbus, Charleston, etc. It reminds me of when I used to play Junior tournaments and you have to drive a lot around the entire country. When you become a professional you drive way less, even if in Europe the distances seem closer. There you drive two hours and here you drive 7 because everything is a lot more spread out here. But at the end it is so easy. You grab a cup of coffee, listen to some nice music and enjoy the scenery.
A few months ago you and Mikael Torpegaard (former ATP 166) released a music album called “dystopian melancholy”. How do two professional tennis players get the idea of making an album and which were your musical inspirations?
He is a really good guitarist and he was part of a death metal band. We were living together for the first six months of the year and travelling a lot. We wrote lyrics inspired by life on the road, for how fun it can be it is also very tough with all the losses and the other difficulties. Normally when we had a little bit of time we would grab a pack of “TRULIS” and then you can really start to write. We put in the album the five or six songs that we usually liked to play and being in Nashville there are so many places where you can record. We both agreed on putting it out, it was a lot of fun. One of the songs that I wrote was “shadow theatre”, it was during the pandemic when people were forcing others to do things without an apparent reason. What stuff the government can make you do, at what point you say no to live in modern society. There were places like in Australia that if you didn’t get vaccinated you would have lost your job. In fact, I wasn’t able to play the Australian Open but luckily where I lived things were more normal. The songs that we wrote were a good outlet to express what we were going through. Right now it is harder to make more music because Mikael is not on the road right now but we are still working on some stuff.
I appreciate that you are a player who is more outspoken about your ideas. Do you think there is too much political correctness in modern-day tennis, especially with the top-ranking players?
It’s not just in tennis but it’s everywhere. If you say the wrong thing or you offend somebody, sponsors don’t want to touch you because they are trying to sell their products. At the end of the day it’s only a small percentage of people that get upset about this political correctness. Everyone else doesn’t really care because they have jobs, families and lives. It’s impossible to try to live without saying anything offensive because someone somehow would always disagree. It’s not a fun way to live, you can’t live controlling every word that you say. At the end of the day, if people spoke their mind more there wouldn’t be so much of this culture. I have heard a top player saying that it would be nice if other top players would speak their mind more. When I heard that I just laughed, it would be nice but it would be tough if a top player couldn’t get sponsors or make money out of their career. Also during a press conference if you misstep people are ready to twist your words. When you talk sometimes you may have something else in your mind, you are trying to formulate your thoughts but nobody is perfect. I don’t blame anyone for not trying to go out of the normal because if you play a tough match and you go to a press conference it’s so easy to just say the normal things because you know what they are. As soon as you start talking about how you feel or controversial stuff you need to be careful. If I had contracts worth millions I don’t know if I would be that outspoken, I was never in that position so I don’t know how I would act.
What are your goals for 2023?
I would really like to play again in the main draw of grand slams, I would love to have that opportunity again. That means that I have to have a good stretch of wins in Challenger events so I can get my ranking back up. After that it would be interesting to see if I can make it again into the top 50. If that should happen I’d be impressed with myself because I know how much it takes to fight every week in these types of small events. I feel that the general level of players is higher.
INTERVIEW: Brandon Nakashima Poised for A Productive Year in 2023
As the curtain closed on the ATP Tour season in 2022, the youngest American competitor among the top 50 in the world was proud about where he stood, but determined to keep moving up the international ladder across the next couple of years.
He was appreciative of his many accomplishments, yet eager to explore new horizons in 2023. He seemed poised to achieve on an even wider scale in the year ahead, quietly confident about the player he has become, and secure with who he is and where he might be headed.
I spoke on the telephone not too many days ago with 21-year-old Brandon Nakashima. This was not the first time I had interviewed the appealing Californian over the past couple of years but, even in his understated way, it struck me that this young man has now become surer of himself, more aware of his capabilities, and better able to understand what it will take for him to make deeper inroads in the sport he plays so passionately for a living.
We started the conversation, of course, with his recent season-ending triumph at the Intesa Sanpaolo Next Gen ATP Finals in Milan. That eight man event is reserved exclusively for the top 21-and-under players, showcasing their current status in the sport, signaling the prominent role many of them will play in the future shaping of tennis. This round robin tournament experiments with the rules significantly. Rather than the standard six games to win a set, a player needs only four to succeed. Tie-breaks were contested with the game score locked at 3-3 rather than 6-6. Best of five set matches were played for the entire tournament as always has been the case. Time limits between points were reduced from 25 seconds down to 15 after an ace, a double fault or a missed return of serve.
Nakashima felt he handled the difficulty of a demanding format well in Milan. He told me, “With these shorter sets it can go either way. You get down a break and you are pretty much moving on to the next set. It takes away the element of trying to come back when you are down because it is so difficult to do. This was a good experience for me to win with this format. Personally I prefer the normal scoring format for tournaments, but it is a good concept to try it out for the Next Gen Finals. The shorter sets are more entertaining for the fans.”
Nakashima dealt with it all exceedingly well, and surely benefitted from playing the Next Gen Finals a year ago and reaching the semifinals.
As he told me, “I think it definitely helped to have played it the year before. I got used to the format a little bit. But I was still nervous coming into my first match this year. I didn’t know what it was going to be like with these new players. It was still kind of new to me. I knew I had a good chance of doing well there and I had high expectations going into the event. I was happy with my level the whole tournament. It was a fun event for me to play.”
Nakashima endured some stressful moments in his opening round Robin clash before overcoming the Italian Matteo Arnaldi in five sets. He took the second and third set in tie-breaks, lost a tie-break in the fourth, but prevailed 4-2 in the fifth.
Asked if he felt that hard fought and tense skirmish did him some good going forward, he replied, “I think so. The first match of any tournament is always going to be tough as you get used to the conditions out there. I was a little nervous coming out there and he was an Italian who had the crowd behind him, so it definitely wasn’t easy. It helped me for the later stages of the tournament in terms of my mindset on the crucial points.”
Next on the agenda for Nakashima in the round robin was world No. 74 Jiri Lehecka of the Czech Republic. He took that match in straight sets and then concluded his round robin assignments by taking apart the Italian Francesco Passaro (ranked No. 119 in the world) 4-3 (6), 4-2, 4-1.
Now Nakashima had advanced to the semifinals, and in that penultimate round he stopped the formidable left-handed British player Jack Draper 4-3 (6), 1-4, 4-2, 4-3 (5), winning both the first and fourth set tie-breaks with characteristic poise under pressure. Nakashima was happy with his own performance and impressed with his opponent.
He explained, “Jack played a really good match against me. Both of us played high quality tennis and had great rallies from the beginning to the end of the match. He has a very big game with a good lefty serve that is tricky with the different spins he can get. He is very solid from the baseline as well. He has a good all around game to be at the top level of tennis, so I am sure this is not going to be the last time I play against him on the tour. We will be pushing each other far into the future.”
Having reached the Milan final, Nakashima found himself up against Lehecka for the second time in one week, with this meeting mattering much more than the initial contest. Nakashima was the better player on the biggest points in a high quality meeting. He came through 4-3 (5), 4-3 (6), 4-2 to take the title deservedly.
“It is definitely not easy playing the same guy twice in the same tournament,” admits Nakashima. “I kind of knew the first match against him didn’t mean much going into the final. Obviously we knew more about each other’s games. I knew he would want to get revenge and he got off to a pretty good start from the back of the court. I had to weather the storm. Both of us played well. A couple of points at the end of both tie-breaks made the difference. It could have gone either way. I was fortunate to pull it out.”
Asked about the significance of closing his 2022 season on such a high note, Nakashima responds, “It definitely means a lot ending this year with a title. It was a great year for me all around. I learned a lot and grew as a player. Finishing the year with a title against the best young and up and coming players is a great achievement. This tournament will be a good stepping stone for me.”
The Next Gen ATP Finals was not the only important prize that Nakashima added to his collection in 2022. In late September, he realized a longtime dream by capturing his first ATP Tour title, taking the 250 event in his hometown of San Diego, defeating countryman Marcos Giron in the final. That was a reward he will relish forever.
Nakashima says, “At the beginning of the year it was always a goal of mine to try and win my first ATP Tour title some time during the year. I always knew I had the game to do it, but it was just about having the right opportunity at the right time. To be able to win my first title in my hometown was super special. Having all my friends and family come out there to support me was really nice. I grew up learning the game of tennis in San Diego. I will never forget winning that tournament.”
Meanwhile, Nakashima impressively displayed his court craft at three of the four majors, reaching the round of 16 at Wimbledon before losing to Nick Kyrgios in five sets after ousting 2021 semifinalist Denis Shapovalov, going to the third round of Roland Garros where he lost 7-6 (2), 6-3, 7-6 (5) to Sascha Zverev, and making it to the third round at the U.S. Open with a good win over Grigor Dimitrov before he was beaten in four tough sets by Jannik Sinner.
Those showings were abundant proof that Nakashima can compete against the best players in the world. Nakashima realized after doing so well in those big tournaments that he is not far away from moving to another level of the game.
As he points out, “I had the opportunity to play against some of the top players and I played some of my best tennis against them. It gave me a lot of confidence. Playing in those big stadiums like the Centre Court at Wimbledon and Armstrong at the U.S. Open was a cool experience. Even though I lost some tough matches to Zverev, Kyrgios and Sinner, I took a lot of positives from those. Maybe my favorite moment was beating Dimitrov at the U.S. Open. He had beaten me in Rome. At the Open I had the crowd behind me. It was great to win that match there and it was one of the highlights of my year.”
Over the course of 2022, Nakashima made some changes in his coaching camp that he feels will make a significant difference in the coming year and beyond. He now has in his corner Eduardo Infantino and Franco Davin. Davin, of course, worked in the past with a number of accomplished players including 2009 U.S. Open champion Juan Martin Del Potro.
Speaking about some of the coaching expertise that has come his way, Nakashima starts with the wise council he received from 1987 Wimbledon champion Pat Cash, who was with him in a crucial period up until the end of 2020.
Nakashima says, “I had a great time with Pat. We spent a lot of time together and I learned a lot from him, especially coming forward to the net as much as possible. I am grateful for the help he gave me and we will always have a good friendship. But at the time we stopped working together, I was looking for something else. I tried a bunch of coaches. Now I have Eduardo and Franco. It has been going really well. It is such a strong team and I have a physio as well. In terms of the coaching, Eduardo and Franco share it and they collaborate and communicate a lot, so having both in my corner has been great. They both add a lot of value to my tennis game.”
Being the youngest American in the world’s top 50 (at No. 47) is an honor not lost on Nakashima. He is prideful about his rise at the age of 21 into the elite of the game, and hopeful that the coming year will provide him with a chance to accomplish on an even wider scale.
As Nakashima explains, “It is a great achievement for me to end 2022 in the top fifty. American tennis right now is being played at a super high level. You have a bunch of guys in the top 50 and the top 100 always having consistent results. American tennis is in a very good spot. So for me to be inside the top fifty is great, but I want to keep getting better. My goals for next year are to break into the top 25 or 30 and go deep at all of the Grand Slams as well. I am still pretty young at 21 so I am building up my fitness and getting stronger and faster. One of the keys next year will be lasting longer in these best of five set matches. I felt that Sinner at the U.S. Open definitely lasted longer than me in those long rallies and the really physical games. So I am working hard to get fitter and fitter. I know what a difference that can make for me.”
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