Times are hard for Evgeniy Zukin but he says it is nothing compared to what is happening in his home country of Ukraine.
I spoke with Zukin via a video call from London where he is currently residing amid the Russian invasion of his homeland which began almost 14 months ago on February 24th 2022. Despite the challenging circumstances, he continues his role as the Executive Director of the Ukranian Tennis Federation (UTF). Perhaps the most notable thing about our conversation was how composed he remained throughout despite the topics discussed. You never quite know how a person from Ukraine might react when they are asked if they have any sympathy for those from Russia given the circumstances.
Throughout our 20-minute call, Zukin expressed both disappointment and understanding regarding the decision of The All England Club to permit Russian and Belarussian players to participate in Wimbledon this year.
“Nobody supported Wimbledon and the LTA in their decision to not allow them to play (in 2022). All of the tennis world left them alone. Unfortunately, they couldn’t fight on their own against the professional Tours and all the rest. It’s unfortunate but at the same time, we understand this decision.” Zukin told Ubitennis.
It is a tough time for tennis in Ukraine. Some tournaments have been given the green light to take place under special regulations which require protocols to be in place in case an air raid siren goes off. Still, they are determined to maintain their position on the tennis map with ambitions of hosting more tournaments over the coming months depending on the war.
Financially it has been tough. The only major tennis governing body to have given a fund to the UTF is the International Tennis Federation (ITF) – $100,000 in 2022 and 2023. They have also received donations from national federations with the most recent of those coming from Italy.
“We have lost all our income from sponsorships, commercial activities, licences and from players’ tournament fees etc. All of this is no longer on our balance sheet,” Zukin said.
Another challenge has emerged from the UTF’s own government. Recently the Minister of the Cabinet of Ministers, Oleh Nemchinov, announced that his athletes would not be allowed to participate in Olympic qualifying events if Russians are taking part. A total of 262 Ukrainian athletes have been killed and 363 sports facilities destroyed since the start of the war, according to the country’s sports minister Vadym Huttsait (as of April 2nd 2023).
However, enforcing such a rule in tennis would be extremely hard, as was pointed out in an open letter by the UTF. The Olympic qualification criteria set out by the ITF states players must compete in a set number of Davis Cup or Billie Jean King Cup ties unless they have an exemption. Although the vast majority of those to qualify will be based on their ranking right after the 2024 French Open. So in essence every tournament which awards ranking points is a qualifying event for players. At the Tokyo Olympics, Elina Svitolina became the first Ukrainian tennis player to win a medal of any kind after clinching bronze in the women’s singles tournament.
“Everybody knows that the Russian and Belarussian political regimes are using their players as a tool in their propaganda,” it is claimed by the UTF official.
In a wide-ranging interview, Ubitennis also spoke with Zukin about the ongoing criticism of the WTA’s handling of Ukranian players, Iga Swiatek’s vocal support for his country and potentially boycotting the Olympics.
UBITENNIS: How has the Ukrainian Tennis Federation (UTF) been coping with the ongoing war in your country?
ZUKIN: It is not easy. I am away from my home country and my home town of Kyiv. I’m working mostly from London but I do a lot of travelling to explain our (the Federation’s) position about what is going on in the tennis world with this war.
Of course, this is not easy but it is nothing compared to what our soldiers on the battlefields are feeling.
UBITENNIS: How have the Federation been able to look after their players given the circumstances? What support systems are in place?
ZUKIN: We started some national tournaments in Ukraine last December under the special regulations that have been provided by the government for organizing sporting events. There are shelters and special protocols in place in case of air raid sirens and threats. We are doing one or two national events a month and in most of the clubs the normal tennis process (is continuing).
We are talking about Kyiv and western Ukraine. Not the regions which are close to the battlefields. In the regions that are not so much affected, tennis players have the opportunity to practice, and play some club and national events. This is how it is being organised inside the country at the moment. We hope that during the summer period, we will find more suitable places to host national events.
UBITENNIS: A lot has been said by your players regarding the WTA and their current management of the ongoing war. What is your opinion about how the WTA is helping Ukranian players and should they do more?
ZUKIN: Of course, we think that the ATP and WTA could have done more to support Ukrainian players. I know our female players are not happy with the treatment the WTA is giving them. From our side, we are not happy that professional tours – both the WTA and ATP – have a firm stance on accepting Russians (on their Tour) under a neutral flag.
The thing is that this is a formality. Everybody knows that the Russian and Belarussian political regimes are using their players as a tool in their propaganda. We think this is not right whilst the war is ongoing.
UBITENNIS: So how often do you communicate with the WTA or ATP?
ZUKIN: We (the UTF) are members of the International Tennis Federation. We don’t have any links to the ATP or WTA. I’ve had one or two conversations with them but it is the players who are the members there. So it is mostly their prerogative to speak to the Tours.
UBITENNIS: One big event coming up in the UK is Wimbledon which decided this year to lift its ban on Russian and Belarussian players participating. What is your reaction to this decision?
ZUKIN: I’m sorry that the decision taken last year wasn’t prolonged this year. But we also understand that nobody supported Wimbledon and the LTA in their decision to not allow them to play. All of the tennis world left them alone. Unfortunately, they couldn’t fight on their own against the professional Tours and all the rest. It’s unfortunate but at the same time, we understand this decision.
UBITENNIS: You said nobody supports Wimbledon and the LTA within the tennis world regarding their 2022 ban. How did this make you as a Ukranian feel?
ZUKIN: We felt sorry but this is much bigger than this whole game. The main goal is to stop the war and stop the killing of people every day. We think, as every Ukranian does, that every tool needs to be used to stop the war.
UBITENNIS: One player who has spoken out about the situation is WTA world No.1 Iga Swiatek. Would you like to see more players follow her example?
ZUKIN: Of course, if there would be an agreement within the players’ council or their environment that players from Russia should be stopped from playing during the war that would help a lot. But unfortunately, people like Swiatek or Petra Kvitova are in the minority and not the majority. It is really bad that nobody cares enough about what is going on.
They (Swiatek and Kvitova) come from countries that are really close to Ukraine and they feel how it is affecting them because of the refugees and the threat from Russia if Ukraine falls. They know how it felt to live during the Soviet Union era and they have a much better feel about what is going on. We are thankful that they provided this position to the public that the war shouldn’t be normalised.
UBITENNIS: Players from Russia and Belarus argue that they shouldn’t be punished for the actions of their governments. Do you in any way have any sympathy towards the situation that they are currently in?
ZUKIN: I have sympathy towards players such as Daria Kasatkina who has openly said that she is against the war. Everybody who is trying to somehow not get involved or stay silent (about the war)… I understand that there are threats for them but these threats are nothing in comparison to what is going on in Ukraine.
UBITENNIS: Recently your federation wrote an open letter in response to calls from some cabinet ministers for Ukrainian athletes not to compete against Russian athletes in tournaments. In the world of tennis, this would be almost impossible. Have you received a response to this letter?
ZUKIN: Obviously, everybody in Ukraine is emotional and driven by hurt. Everybody has close ones and loved ones who have been killed in the war. We know this decision has been announced publically but we haven’t received any documents regarding the path to providing this. We are waiting for the next steps and are in constant talks with our government, as well as the National Olympic Committee. We have publically raised our concerns that such a move would be very bad for the sport. We can’t stop players from playing in tournaments. We need to continue competing and hopefully, we can come to a wise solution.
UBITENNIS: There have been talks about potentially boycotting the Olympics if Russia is allowed to take part, even under a neutral status. Would you support such a move?
ZUKIN: Boycotting the Olympics is something that has been widely discussed. The thing is that for tennis it is much easier to boycott the Olympics as it is one tournament. We think that in case the war isn’t going to stop, we see no chance for them to participate. The Olympics were made to stop the wars and this is another tool (boycotting) that must be used to stop the war and get Russian troops back to their territory. We are going to do everything we can for them not to participate in the Olympics in case the war goes on.
UBITENNIS: So looking ahead to the future, what is your federation’s plan for the next 6-12 months?
ZUKIN: We have the Billie Jean King Cup tie against the Czech Republic coming up which is being organised on neutral ground in Turkey. Then we are going to get ready for all the age groups’ summer cups. We are continuing to find new hosts for the national events. We are managing players individually, if they need advice or support in their life abroad as refugees. I can assure you I wake up with tennis in my head and I go to sleep with the same. A lot of work is going on but unfortunately, there are not as many people in our office as before the war. We are doing everything we can to help players, coaches and refugees to continue being in tennis.
UBITENNIS: Finally, how is the UTF managing to function financially? Are you receiving funding from elsewhere?
ZUKIN: Financial problems are something we are experiencing. We have lost all our income from sponsorships, commercial activities, licences and from players’ tournament fees etc. All of this is no longer on our balance sheet.
We have some reserves. We have been making the most of the money earned from the Billie Jean King Cup and Davis Cup. The ITF is the only tennis organisation that has established a fund for us. One hundred thousand dollars were spent last year through this fund which was mostly on Ukrainian players’ travels and junior teams. This year this fund awarded us another $100,000.
Other donations have come from Nordic countries such as Denmark, Sweden, Finland and Iceland at around $20,000 which haven’t been used yet.
Now we have incredible news that the Italian tennis federation has donated $170,000 from their profit from the Italian Masters.
So far nothing from these donations has gone to administration costs. It has all been given to players, teams and events. Last year we held four ITF junior tournaments in Poland and it is something we want to do to show that our Federation still exists in the tennis world and that the Ukrainian flag is flying high.
EDITOR’S NOTE: According to the latest report from the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights (OHCHR), 8,451 civilians have been killed and another 14,156 injured since the start of the war. This doesn’t include military deaths which one BBC report says could be in the region of over 60,000 based on information from ‘most US and European officials’, although this has not been verified.
Lorenzo Musetti: “A Year with Few Peaks, but I’ve Improved as a Tennis Player and Physically” [Exclusive]
Our correspondent in Sofia interviewed Italian talent Lorenzo Musetti, who is taking on Jack Draper this afternoon
Lorenzo Musetti is the top seed in the ATP 250 that together with Metz closes the season of “regular” tournaments, just before the ATP Finals in Turin. Exempted from the first round, he’s waiting to make his debut in the Bulgarian capital where last year at the beginning of October he was halted in the semifinals by Marc-Andrea Huesler, the future winner of the tournament. With our correspondent in Sofia, Ivan Mrankov, he compared this season with 2022, but also about the Davis Cup, and Jannik Sinner.
“Greetings from Ubaldo. It’s the last tournament, how do you rate your season? Was it maybe less positive than last year when you won two tournaments? But there are improvements in all areas of your game and it’s also normal for younger players to have a less rewarding year after their first breakthrough. Do you feel improved, do you think it was a positive season?”
“It’s not been an easy season, but as you said, it’s also been a season in which I have been settling in. In the middle part I was able to find a very good continuity in terms of results. Of course, it started off a bit badly. As I had played so much at the end of last season, it was perhaps more complicated to start the new year in high gear. So it took me a while to get going, I played very well from Monte Carlo. Let’s say it was a season with few peaks. Last year, the weeks in Hamburg, Naples, Paris-Bercy were very high in terms of level.”
“For sure I feel improved in terms of tennis and physically, I’m working hard, even if people sometimes only see the results but not what’s behind them. It was a season of firsts. Even if we consider the example of Jannik, last year he had a season of adaptation, different from the standards he has displayed on court this year. And I also hope next year to be more focused, more concrete in terms of results, attitude and everything.”
“You’re part of the Davis Cup team again this year, so your season will end pretty late. Do you think you’ll be able to prepare better than last year as you have the same amount of time to rest and train? And last question, what do you think your chances for Davis are? Since the USA, Russia, Spain are missing… Our editor wrote that Italy is the favourite along with Djokovic’s Serbia.”
“I think other teams as well, like Australia and Canada who won last year. The Davis Cup is a unique event, not always the team with the best ranked players comes out the winner. And the doubles rubber is fundamental. Having Jannik in our team gives us a great hand. I think he’s playing his best tennis right now. I wish him all the best in Turin and that he can join us as late as possible. It’s a huge boost for us.
“In terms of preparation, almost all the players have a month, December, to prepare for Australia. Unfortunately, when we all play so much, we have to adapt. We could do with more days off and obviously more weeks to load, work and prepare for the season. But you have to be good at making do with what we’ve got. And also, during the year, we have to specially focus on maintaining injury prevention.”
EXCLUSIVE: Coach Gilles Cervara On Medvedev’s Vienna Defeat, Sinner’s Rise And The Future
By Federico Bertelli
At the end of the final, once the confetti had settled and the staff began to dismantle the court, Ubitennis exchanged a few words with Gilles Cervara, the coach of Daniil Medvedev, following the conclusion of the Vienna Open. Medvedev was ousted 7-6(7), 4-6, 6-3, by Jannik Sinner in a thrilling final.
QUESTION: It was an incredible match, one of the best of the year, what are your immediate feelings?
CERVARA: I’m really disappointed and somewhat angry. However, Sinner played an incredible match. I mean, to score a point against him today was very difficult because at any moment he could hit a winner with one of his “laser shots” as I call them; and even when Daniil managed to hit well and make him run, you got the feeling that he could send the ball back; he managed to defend very quickly and deeply and then turn the momentum of the exchange. And even when Daniil managed to serve good first serves, Sinner responded very well. Daniil was very brave to come back into the match and he also had his chances to win and he really pushed Jannik to the limit; unfortunately, though, in the end, the match went in Jannik’s direction.
QUESTION: It could have really ended with either Jannik or Daniil’s victory; if you had to say, were you more impressed by Jannik’s improvement in the offensive phase or the defensive phase?
CERVARA: I would say that there have been improvements in every aspect of his game. I’m really happy for him and his team. It’s always a nice thing when you see someone who manages to improve so much and works so seriously. I see them every week for many months and to see the level they are reaching is remarkable. In general, it is rewarding and significant to see the results when one has worked so hard. Then in general, Jannik is good both in defense and in attack. He manages to put so much speed to his shots effortlessly and now he is playing without making the mistakes he did before (the same observation was also made by Medvedev in the press conference). Playing against him now is really a great challenge and even his first serve now is faster. He’s playing better and better in every aspect and winning finals gives great confidence for the future. And in general, it’s good for tennis that there are so many players capable of reaching such a high level.
QUESTION: Can we say then that Jannik has now reached the same level as Daniil, Novak, and Carlos?
CERVARA: Yes, definitely, he’s just started to reach these levels and to win consistently, in big events against top players; the challenge for him will be to confirm himself at this level and in the Grand Slam tournaments; I just hope it doesn’t happen against us (smiling).
QUESTION: This year has been excellent for Daniil, even though there have been some difficulties at the beginning; for example, in Australia, he lost to Korda and for a few weeks even dropped out of the top ten; but then what changed? Was there something that clicked?
CERVARA: That period was difficult; after the Australian Open, it was complicated as a coach; I told Daniil at the time that it was not a disgrace to lose to Korda, who was playing well and perhaps Daniil at the same time was not at 100% and was not able to beat that day’s version of Korda; but in any case, there was nothing to be ashamed of, the important thing was to remain calm and analyze why we had lost against that type of player, what had put Daniil in difficulty and work on it to rebuild confidence. But it’s not automatic, otherwise, it would be easy. At those times the challenge for a coach is precisely to rebuild the player’s confidence; this is something you do day by day, and every day was a challenge and it was not easy. You need to maintain a fighting spirit, look for solutions, and accept the moments of difficulty. I am happy to have remained strong, to have maintained trust and inner calm to try to be the best version of myself and the best possible coach at that time. Daniil is someone who wants to fight, find solutions and win, even when he goes crazy on the court. We both tried to do our best and since he has great talent and has the ability to reach a high level, so in the end he found the way back to winning and to being “on fire,” a bit like Sinner now who is putting together a series of victories.
QUESTION: One last question, from a physical standpoint Daniil this year has had an extraordinary season and will end up playing more than 80 matches; in the coming years do you think he will reduce his commitments (curiously, this was also an aspect touched upon by Medvedev in the press conference)?
CERVARA: It’s a good question, and it’s a question that only top players when they have more experience can afford to ask themselves. A bit like Novak who now does not play all the tournaments and focuses only on the most important ones. But you can afford to make these considerations only if you win and it’s a question we will start to ask ourselves also with Daniil; he is now 27 years old, runs a lot, has a taxing tennis game. He has already won the most important tournaments and consequently, he will have to focus on those and perhaps set aside some lesser ones.
(EXCLUSIVE) Bryan Shelton, Father And Coach Of Ben: “A Break After Tokyo? He Didn’t Even Consider It”
“A win gives you confidence. A loss teaches you something more about yourself,” says the father-coach of the young American. “Sinner? A genuine and smiling person.”
by Federico Bertelli
If Carlos Alcaraz and Jannik Sinner are increasingly establishing themselves as the present of men’s tennis, there are already those who are eager to challenge them. And the name on everyone’s lips right now is Ben Shelton. The 21-year-old American, fresh from winning his first tournament in Tokyo, has risen to the world’s number 15 spot with a powerful and effervescent game, and he recently also had the satisfaction of beating the Italian number 1 Jannik Sinner (in Shanghai).
Earlier this week at the Vienna Open Ubitennis had an exclusive interview with Bryan Shelton, Ben’s father and coach.
Bryan, 57 years old and a native of Florida, has an impressive past as a professional tennis player, with two ATP singles titles under his belt (both on the grass of Newport in the two-year period 1991-92), a best ranking of world number 55, and even a mixed doubles final at the 1992 French Open, partnering with Lori McNeil. His best Grand Slam placement is the fourth round of Wimbledon in 1994, where he was defeated by the Swede Christian Bergström.
UBITENNIS: First of all, we appreciate your time and patience, Mr. Shelton. Well, I have many questions, but the first that comes to mind is this: For the first time, Ben played against a great player like Ruud on the clay in Barcelona, he showed a great attitude. He wasn’t afraid at all to face a Roland Garros finalist. What’s your perspective on his attitude? What has changed?
BRYAN: “I think he’s a great competitor; he loves to compete regardless of the level. Whether it’s a Challenger, ATP, or a Grand Slam tournament, he sees it as an opportunity to showcase his talent, his personality, and to have fun. And to challenge himself and get the chance to play against the best like Casper, Jannik, and others. He’s always excited. We left Tokyo yesterday (Monday), and we’ve just arrived here (Vienna). I must say he’s eager to play now. Many players, after a tournament, might think about taking a week off, but he never even considered a break. He wants to play again, you know? He loves the challenge. I like that he has that attitude because I think it’s special. Even when he’s not feeling 100%, he doesn’t look for excuses; he wants to compete. He wants to train; he wants to push. We just have to make sure he doesn’t push too hard”.
UBITENNIS: So, in terms of competitive spirit, you’ve never seen him be scared. For example, when he started college in the USA, did you ever see him be scared of some big player, or was he always like “Ok, go for it and let’s do our best”?
BRYAN: “I think he’s unique in that sense because he looks forward to those moments. Especially the more people watching, the better he plays. For me, it was the opposite. I’d see the big stadium and play a bit scared. One thing’s for sure; I know he’s very different from me. So my goal is not to set limits on him. To say everything is possible. And you just have to keep working hard. You need to keep learning from every experience, whether you win or lose. Both are positives. A win gives you confidence. A loss lets you learn more about yourself and your game and what you need to do to keep improving. So everything is positive, nothing is negative, I think that’s the mindset I want him to have every day; it’s like he always has something to gain. And if you think you have something to gain, then you’re not scared. For sure”.
UBITENNIS: Talking perhaps about the most important match of his career so far, the one against Djokovic at the US Open. After that game, how did he feel? Was it like, “I’m sorry I lost. I’m sorry I didn’t do this or that” or was it more like “I stuck to my plan. I did my best, and next time will be better”?
BRYAN: “I think it was the latter. He felt really good about the tournament. He accomplished some things there. Especially after a season where he wasn’t winning many matches. Coming there and winning all those matches (five) gave him confidence. And playing against Djokovic with confidence, I think was fantastic. He lost the match against a great champion. So I think he just learned from the match, went back to watch the video, really took time after the US Open to reflect on what he needs to do to keep improving so he can someday win that kind of match. Identifying things he can do better. And then get back to work.”
UBITENNIS: What do you think of Sinner this year? Because in my opinion, he’s really improving, starting to put something different in his game. He’s not just a big hitter, but sometimes he comes to the net, varies with drop shots, and is showing various new solutions.
BRYAN: “Yes, I think he’s an extraordinary player. An extraordinary person, you know, genuine. When you see him off the court, he’s always ready to greet you, to smile at you, and you have to admire his kindness, so we appreciate that. And then the tennis, for me, he’s definitely one of the top 5 in the world. He’s serving well, playing well from the baseline, returning well, and now he’s starting to come forward and execute at the net. I love seeing this in players because I want the same for Ben. I want him to continue developing to become a complete player. He’s a good example for Ben, someone young who’s also working to become complete. It’s a great opportunity, again, to play against one of the best.”
UBITENNIS: Last question: in a sport as competitive and individualistic as tennis, it’s hard to get along with other players and have friends. Because once you step onto the court, that’s your enemy. Which players does Ben get along best with? Does he have friends here? He’s relatively new on the circuit. He’s like a freshman.
BRYAN: “Oh, it’s funny. He has friends everywhere, you know. And I think his closest friends are the ones he knows best, like Maki McDonald, Tommy Paul, Taylor Fritz. These guys have really welcomed him into the American tennis fraternity, and also Francis Tiafoe. All these guys have been very, very kind to him, welcoming him. So it’s been nice to see; then he has friends like Dan Evans, who treat him a bit like a little brother, you know. They put him in his place sometimes, but you know, in a playful and fun way. We’ve also met some nice coaches out here. For us, it’s essential to enjoy the time off the court as well as on it. It’s important to wear a smile, greet people, get to know them and learn more about them. I want him to go beyond just tennis.”
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