INTERVIEW: Brandon Nakashima Poised for A Productive Year in 2023 - UBITENNIS
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INTERVIEW: Brandon Nakashima Poised for A Productive Year in 2023

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Image via https://twitter.com/nextgenfinals/

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.”

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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.”

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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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EXCLUSIVE: Ex-No.1 Ana Ivanovic Backs Jannik Sinner To Wins More Slams

The former tennis star shares her thoughts about Italy’s new sporting sensation with Ubitennis.

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Image via https://twitter.com/anaivanovic/

Jannik Sinner’s triumph at the Australian Open was ‘incredible’ in the eyes of fellow Grand Slam winner Ana Ivanovic. 

At Melbourne Park Sinner became the first Italian player to win the tournament after staging an epic fightback against Daniil Medvedev in the final where he clawed his way back from two sets down to win. Something that has only been achieved in a title match at the Australian Open once before by Rafael Nadal. Earlier in the tournament, he also scored wins over fifth seed Andrey Rublev before ending Novak Djokovic’s 33-match winning streak in the semi-finals. 

The triumph of the 22-year-old has been hailed by Ivanovic who was two years younger than Sinner when she won the 2008 French Open. Ivanovic was one of the stars of women’s tennis during her playing days, winning 15 Tour-level titles and spending 12 weeks as world No.1. She was also runner-up at the 2007 French Open and 2008 Australian Open. 

It was incredible,” Ivanovic tells Ubitennis of Sinner’s latest achievement. “The way he played the whole tournament. He really showed mental strength and endurance. The way he strikes the ball with such a sweet spot was great to watch.”

One of those guiding Sinner on the Tour is experienced coach Darren Cahill who has also coached Ivanovic as part of the Adidas Player Development Program. Cahill has worked with some of the biggest names of the sport with his past clients also including Andy Murray, Lleyton Hewitt and Simona Halep. 

While the Australian is known by many in the sport, what is it like to work alongside him?

I always enjoyed working with Darren because he is so knowledgeable about tennis,” Ivanovic explained. 
“He was always giving me the best advice in the moments when you are the most under pressure. He always found words to calm me down and to point me in the right direction. 
“I was very happy when I saw him in Jannik’s box.”

Besides Cahill, Sinner’s team also includes co-coach Simone Vagnozzi, physio Giacomo Naldi and fitness trainer Umberto Ferrara.

Fame and the future 

Sinner was already a popular figure in his native Italy with thousands cheering on his run to the final of the ATP Finals in Turin last November. Shortly afterwards, he led his country to the Davis Cup title which was celebrated by a visit to the Quirinale Palace (residence of the Italian president) where he and his team mates were greeted by President Sergio Mattarella. 

However, his popularity has surged following his Australian Open win with his Instagram following reportedly increasing by around 800,000 to a total of 2.4M. To put that into context, the only active ATP players to have a larger following than him are Rafael Nadal, Djokovic, Carlos Alcaraz and Nick Kyrgios. 

He has held a one-to-one meeting with the Prime Minister of Italy, received congratulations from the Pope and visited the historic Rome Colosseum alongside two government ministers (Gennaro Sangiuliano and Daniela Santanché). 

It is fair to say that the tennis star’s profile is exploding which itself could pose a new challenge. Fortunately, Ivanovic has some advice for Sinner to follow in the coming months.  

“Now it is a different time with much more assent on social media vs in 2008 (when Ivanovic won the French Open),” she said. 
“I think the most important is to follow his path and his training, but I am sure he is doing that. He has a good team and support system behind him, so he can focus on his goals and rhythm.”

Should he stay on his path, the question remains how good could he become in the future? He is only the fifth Italian player to win a major singles title and the first man to do so since 1976. He also has 10 other ATP titles to his name and reached the semi-finals at Wimbledon last year. 

“He has a really good overall game style. He is mentally and physically super strong,” Ivanovic commented.
“If he just keeps doing what he is doing there are many more Grand Slam titles for him. I really enjoy watching him. He seems like a very nice person, which is very beautiful to see.”

Ivanovic, who married former football player Bastian Schweinsteiger and has three children, attended the Linz Open in Austria last week as a guest of honor. She recently announced a partnership with haircare company Schwarzkopf and has served as a National Ambassador for UNICEF Serbia since 2007. 

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EXCLUSIVE: The ATP, Tennis Data And It’s Growing Demand

Ubitennis speaks to the Head of Product at TDI. An independent joint venture between ATP and ATP Media that was formed in 2020 to manage and commercialise data across a variety of global markets

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By Federico Bertelli

Another Grand Slam is over. As customary, the days following the event is a good time to catch our breath. 

Ubitennis brings to our readers an interview with Anthony Taylor, Head of Product at Tennis Data Innovation (TDI). TDI is a branch of the ATP Tour. In our exclusive Q&A we discuss what Tennis Data Innovation is and why it is becoming a key component for every player. 

UBITENNIS: First of all, thank you for your time, Anthony. Let’s start with a brief overview about TDI and your role there. 

AT: It’s a pleasure to discuss TDI’s role in the tennis world with Ubitennis. I am the head of product at TDI, a role that encompasses promotion and development of initiatives by TDI. TDI, a joint venture between the ATP Tour and ATP Media created in 2020, is responsible for collecting, managing & commercialising data & streaming across all ATP events from Challengers to Masters 1000s.  As for data, we collect it from various sources, including chair umpire data and optical tracking (like Hawk-Eye data). We aggregate all available ATP-level data points and derive informative products for the market from them, operating in the realms of betting, media, and player performance.

UBITENNIS: You’ve given us a great overview of your operations. Speaking of data analysis, just to be clear: Can we say TDI is now the sole official entry point for ATP level data point registration? 

AT: Yes, TDI is the single source of truth for ATP event data. We collect data point by point from the chair umpire, what we call “level 1” data. But we don’t stop there. We collect deeper data to create advanced, easily understandable metrics that can enhance fan engagement and be used for player analysis. This approach is already established in other sports, like the NBA or Premier League football. We use various data sources beyond chair umpire data, including optical detections like Hawkeye and other providers. These provide spatial tracking of ball movement, player positioning, and shot physics (speed, spin, net height, etc.). With this comprehensive data, we fuel a range of metrics like winners, unforced errors, shot distribution (forehand/backhand, rally length, net points won), and even game pattern analysis (offensive and defensive shots, counterattack exchanges). 

We also focus on synthesizing these metrics into significant, easily interpreted numbers that reflect shot quality. We’re showcasing infographics on our X and Instagram accounts that do just this: offering comparative indices and ratings for shots on a scale of 0 to 10. The aim? To quantify how well a player is performing in a match compared to themselves, their opponent, and the tour average. 

Another interesting metric is on-court attitude: is a player predominantly offensive or defensive? Here too, we offer a condensed representation based on speed, spin, and shot depth. And we assess how well a player exploits offensive situations or manages defense. These insights are distributed through ATP media, enabling ATP TV commentators to provide advanced insights during broadcasts. We also make these metrics available to players via ATP TennisIQ, our player performance portal. 

UBITENNIS: You mentioned an analytics platform available to players, Tennis IQ. I’m curious to know more about what it offers to players and how they’re using it. 

AT: We have staff at tournaments providing support and guidance on using the platform, and the feedback has been positive. For instance, data expert Mike James, who works with Holger Rune, has utilized it. The idea is to democratize data analysis access, which often involves high costs. Now, players can download raw Hawkeye data for their data analysis teams or directly use the metrics and insights we provide on Tennis IQ. This opens access to certain types of information for everyone. There are service providers who continue to offer more refined analyses, but in any case, we’ve freed access to ATP data for player performance purposes. Our next step is to link game footage tags to shots, allowing coaches to recall video of each shot type.

UBITENNIS: Speaking of data’s role in engaging the public, what do you think is in store for the media? Do you have a strategy to standardize the use of new metrics, like expected goals in football? 

AT: Certainly, this is something we’re very aware of. Looking at American professional sports (like the NBA, NFL, MLB) and European football, statistics flow through media and betting spaces and are easily consumed by the public. It’s part of the storytelling. You can’t flood people with statistics, but a few targeted metrics can lay the foundation for a narrative that highlights new aspects or objectively explains trends. After all, our name signifies our ambition; we’re TENNIS Data Innovation, not just ATP Innovation. 

We want to help elevate the use of data & analytics across the sport. ATP Media commentators can also request on-demand statistics on dimensions they deem relevant; for example, analyzing Djokovic’s return performance across sets. We think it’s important to make these tools available to other broadcasters to elevate the entire experience. From an editorial perspective, it’s useful to provide these insights for constructing stories across the media ecosystem. Here too, we’re thinking not just about making tools available, but also about their ease of use and flexibility, possibly allowing for ad-hoc information requests through parametric query interfaces. The idea is to enable journalists to validate their story about a particular match and add depth to the narrative by highlighting and quantifying game patterns that are difficult to discern and quantify by eye. For example, we’ve presented analyses on social media about Sinner’s serve improvement in the second half of 2023 through succinct infographics.

Immagine

Source: X account ATP_insights

The goal is to move beyond elementary statistics like break points and first serves. We want to show the real reasons why a player performs a certain way or why a match has gone in a particular direction.

UBITENNIS: The objectives are clear, but what would you say is the strategy for implementing this ambitious plan? 

AT: At TDI, as you mentioned, we have social media accounts where we develop our analyses, which serve as laboratories to experiment with new ideas and gauge reactions to new metrics we propose. This testing ground helps us introduce these new ideas to ATP media, incorporating these nuances and perspectives into the content of ATP and ATP TV accounts. These aren’t for everyone; the idea is that we reach the public through commentaries, regardless of the platform (pay TV, free-to-air TV, OTT, etc.). The goal is to work closely with ATP media, where we have a significant fan base. It’s an organic strategy that touches on all points of contact, aiming to incorporate our insights into the narrative.

UBITENNIS: Moving to the betting space, what developments do you foresee and what metrics might bettors be looking at in the coming years? What could be the killer analytic in tennis? 

AT: We work closely with our partner in this space, Sportradar, to surface additional statistics for betting clients. We’re developing new products to provide more in-depth insights. In my opinion, performance rating, which synthesizes overall player performance into a single number, could stand out. For instance, in the Turin final between Sinner and Djokovic, Djokovic played an outstanding match: according to our performance rating, which ranges from 0 to 10, he recorded the highest value ever in an ATP match since we began our measurements. 

This validates the quality of the match and demonstrates that Djokovic’s victory was more due to his own merits than his opponent’s underperformance. Another example: Rune versus Djokovic in Turin. Rune played a high-level first set, and Djokovic was slightly below his level. However, when Djokovic raised the bar, Rune’s level began to drop, indicating his level was dropping. Finally, “momentum” could be another valuable metric for betting, as it provides immediate trend indicators for live betting.

UBITENNIS: Lastly, I’ve noticed that for some tournaments, ATP live scores provide richer statistics than others, particularly for ATP 250 and 500 clay tournaments where Hawkeye might not always be implemented. Can you confirm this? 

AT: We work closely with ATP tournaments. Historically, ATP data was presented by Infosys, and where Hawkeye was present, the statistics are complete. Any event where Hawkeye wasn’t present, Infosys were unable to present full statistics. However, I can say that we are now collecting richer data across all ATP tournaments.  In 2024, we aim to achieve uniformity in data collection and analysis for all ATP events.

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EXCLUSIVE: Ukrainian Tennis Chief On Historic Australian Open Run, Russian Flag Incident And Exhibition Controversy

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Marta Kostyuk - Roland Garros 2023 (foto Roberto dell'Olivo)

The performances by a group of Ukrainian players at this year’s Australian Open have been hailed as a ‘fantastic example’ for future generations but a senior tennis official from the country. 

The executive director of the Ukrainian Tennis Federation (UTF), Evgeniy Zukin, has praised the historic breakthrough at Melbourne Park where three female players from his country have reached the fourth round of the same major for the first time in history. Marta Kostyuk, Elina Svitolina and Dayana Yastremska have all made it through to the last 16 of the tournament. Lesia Tsurenko also made it through to the third round before losing 6-0, 6-0, to Aryna Sabalenka. 

“We are incredibly happy and proud as this is an example of the fighting spirit and a fantastic example for future generations of Ukrainian players,” Zukin told Ubitennis.

The triumphs come during what is a difficult period in Ukraine’s history due to their ongoing war with Russia which has resulted in the deaths of at least 10,191 civilians, according to figures provided by the United Nations Human Rights Monitoring Mission in Ukraine (HRMMU). As the Russian invasion approaches its second anniversary next month, Kostyuk and her peers continue to use their platform to ensure that the world is not forgetting what is happening in their homeland. 

“If there was never a war in my life, I don’t think I would be able to grow this much as I grew in the last two years.” the world No.35 said after beating Maria Timofeeva on Sunday.

“I think it’s about the perspective, how you take it, because there are different things that are happening. But I think if you take them as a burden or, like, ‘Oh, why is it happening to me and it’s not happening to other people,’ or if you victimise yourself, which I think is normal. I think every person goes through this kind of feeling from time to time… I think the more you can minimise this feeling of being a victim, I think the easier it is to get through life.”

It isn’t just Kostyuk who has spoken out. Svitolina serves as an ambassador for the United24 campaign that aims to continue to bring awareness—and donations—to Ukraine’s ongoing war. Meanwhile, Yastremska spoke about the conflict during her on-court interview after beating Marketa Vondrousova. She revealed that earlier this year a rocket hit her grandmother’s house but she wasn’t hurt in the incident. They all also continue the practice of not shaking hands with Russian or Belarussian players following their match as a sign of respect to their army. 

Like his players, Zukin hopes the conversation around tennis and the war will continue to happen in the coming weeks. 

“Our girls try hard not only to win their matches but to send the World a message regarding the continuous war in Ukraine,” he said. “The UTF appreciates these efforts by the professional players a lot.”

The US Open flag argument

After her latest win, Kostyuk hit out at the US Open after its social media account published a post featuring her and the Russian flag of her opponent. Under current rules set out by the governing bodies, Russian and Belarussian payers are allowed to compete on the Tour but only under a neutral status. The tennis star accused the US Open of promoting ‘a murderous country and a country that uses its athletes as part of its propaganda.’ In a lengthy statement, she urged her sport to stop ‘promoting Russian peace.’ 

The United States Tennis Association, which runs the US Open, has not publically commented on the incident but the post has since been removed. Furthermore, in other posts featuring Russian and Belarusian players, they have not used their flags. Suggesting that human error could have been a reason behind the presence of the Russian flag. 

“I believe it is a human factor or the social media manager wanted to show that Ukraine beat Russia in particular,” Zukin commented.

“All Grand Slams, pro tours and the ITF continue no flag policy and no official teams policy.” He added.

Criticism should be towards those who play in Russia

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Zukin is less understanding when it comes to a controversial event that was held last month during the off-season. In St Petersburg, the Northern Palmyra Trophies exhibition was held which features two teams facing each other. The event was sponsored by Gazprom which is an energy giant that is majority-owned by the Russian government. 

Among the participants was a group of non-Russian players which included Adrian Mannarino who has since defended his decision to play in the event. Other players included Spain’s Roberto Bautista Agut and Serbia’s Laslo Djere. Whilst Tour events are suspended in Russia, players are allowed to play exhibition events there if they wish to as they are independent contractors. 

“I’m a professional tennis player. I’m not into politics or anything. I just went there. I did my job. That’s what I did.” Mannarino recently stated. 

“I’m not supporting anything. That was a private event. That was not anything about political support. There’s nothing to talk about.”

However, Zukin believes players such as Mannarino have ‘something wrong with their ethics and morals‘ for choosing to play there. 

“When pro players are coming to play an exhibition event in a country which started an absolutely unnecessary war that lightened up into the biggest war in Europe since WWII, there is something wrong with their ethics and morals,” he said.

“This country (Russia) is responsible for the death of hundreds of thousands of people* and wiped out cities from the face of the Earth. And these guys are running after the big buck. They are putting a big stain on their reputation and show disrespect to all that has been affected by this terrible war.”

*NOTE: The exact death toll for the ongoing war is unclear. Besides the UN records of civilian casualties, reports claim that over 40,000 Russian soldiers and almost 9000 Ukrainian soldiers have been killed. Although these numbers have not been officially verified.  

Ukraine’s journey at the Australian Open continues on Monday with Svitolina taking on Linda Noskova and Yastremska playing two-time champion Victoria Azarenka. 

Meanwhile, Kostyuk has already booked her place in the quarter-finals and will play fourth seed Coco Gauff.

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