EXCLUSIVE: Aryna Sabalenka And Those Who Dare To Challenge Her Country’s Government - UBITENNIS
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EXCLUSIVE: Aryna Sabalenka And Those Who Dare To Challenge Her Country’s Government



Dzmitry Navosha is a well-known journalist in Eastern Europe who founded the Belarussian sports publication Tribuna and co-founded the popular Russian website sports.ru. He is also viewed as a security threat by his government and has been sentenced in absentia to 12 years in prison. 


According to The Russian Free Press, Navosha was deemed to be guilty of inciting social hatred and illegal disclosure of personal data regarding his alleged connection with the Black Book of Belarus Telegram account. The social media channel published information about security forces who violated the law and used violence against protesters during the controversial re-election of Alexander Lukashenko in 2020 which many have described as a sham. A report published by the Organization for Security and Co-operation in Europe (OSCE) said voting was ‘not transparent, free or fair’ and said human rights abuses “were found to be massive and systematic and proven beyond doubt”.

Those at the time who tried to criticize the Lukashenko regime faced a huge crackdown by authorities. One organization created at the time of the unrest was the Belarusian Sport Solidarity Fund (BSSF) which includes Navosha among its members. It aims to give financial and legal support to athletes who oppose or are under threat from the Belarusian government. Their most high-profile case involved sprinter Krystsina Tsimanouskaya who travelled to the Tokyo Olympics and was set to take part in the women’s 200M heats but was taken to the airport against her will after criticizing her national coaches. She subsequently went into exile and the BSSF found themselves to be deemed as an enemy of its homeland. Both of its founders, three-time Olympic medalist Aliaksandra Herasimenia and Aliaksandr Apei, have also been sentenced in absentia to 12 years in prison for the alleged crime of ‘actions aimed at harming Belarus’ national security.’

In the world of tennis, Lukashenko’s name has been brought up a few times in recent months due to Aryna Sabalenka, the reigning Australian Open champion who could potentially become world No.1 in the coming months. It was after her second round match at the French Open that she was quizzed about her support for her country’s president amid the war in Ukraine. Lukashenko is an ally of Russia and is accused of supporting the conflict. At the time she declined to speak about the topic and subsequently decided to make her subsequent two press conferences behind closed doors due to ‘mental health reasons.’ Then following her quarter-final win over Elina Svitolina, she finally gave her answer. 

I’m not supporting the war. I don’t want my country to be involved in any conflict.” She said.
It’s a tough question. I mean, I don’t support the war, meaning I don’t support Lukashenko right now.”

But why is it this year that Sabalenka has come under such scrutiny for her ties to the president? It was back in 2020 when her name appeared on a pro-government letter critical of athletes who protested the election. At the time high-profile names such as WNBA finalist Elena Levchenko, decathlete Andrei Kravchenko and Herasimenya were among those who were detained by authorities. 

“More than 40,000 Belarusians (including a dozen athletes) have gone through arrests and, in many cases, beatings in 2020. More than a dozen of those died whilst in the suppression or in prison,” Navosha tells Ubitennis.
There are over 1,500 political prisoners in Lukashenka’s prisons now – politicians, journalists, human rights activists, businessmen, athletes, and Nobel laureates. Often they are in a critical condition. Lawyers and relatives can’t get access to them for months, and we don’t even know if some of them are still alive.”

Sabalenka has repeatedly said that she doesn’t want to get involved in politics and that her principal focus is on being a tennis player. Some have to wonder if her reluctance to speak out is linked to what others have had to endure in recent times. Although Navosha doesn’t see it this way. 

“We do not know what Sabalenka is afraid of. She is living in Miami and is the richest athlete in Belarus. She has the means and the opportunity to live anywhere in the world.” He said. 
“What we do know is the appalling conditions, comparable to Nazi concentration camps, thousands of Belarusians who have been jailed for political reasons are living in. And what a barbaric war Russia is continuing in Ukraine, with the support of the Belarusian dictator.”

Due to her sporting achievements, Sabalenka is one of her country’s most prestigious athletes. So far in her career, she has won 13 WTA titles and was runner-up at 10 other events. She has won more than 300 matches on the Tour and earned over $16M in prize money alone. 

Whether she wanted to or not, it was always an inevitability that the 25-year-old would get caught out in politics due to her status. In April she told reporters in Stuttgart that remarks from Lukashenko about her in his speeches were ‘not helping.’ 

“We regularly see this in Belarus. The government’s narrative is: ‘The whole world is against Belarus and Russia, but we are strong and we are winning. So let’s rally around our leader Alexander Lukashenko and even more actively deal with the enemies of the state.’ Sabalenka’s victories are actively used by the Belarusian dictator to legitimize himself and justify his heavy repressions.” Navosha commented. 
Can Sabalenka stop herself from being used in government propaganda? I would say that yes, of course, she can. She can do so by condemning either the dictatorship of Lukashenka or the war he supports in Ukraine. As the experience of other numerous Belarusian sports stars who opposed the war and dictatorship shows, this instantly deprives the opportunity to use such an athlete as propaganda.”

Due to the ongoing war in Ukraine, it is easy to forget that Sabalenka’s relationship with her country is far more complex. This has unfortunately affected her mental health due to the questions she has faced from journalists. However, she will not always be able to avoid such scrutiny. 

“Any person, in general, should be allowed to not have a public opinion about the war or a specific dictator,” Navosha said.
“But Sabalenka never used this right – and has regularly, repeatedly participated in propaganda events with Lukashenko, meeting with him, including, allegedly, on her own initiative. Or signing the letter in support of Lukashenko during the 2020 protests.”
“We understand that all this is not on the agenda in the Western world, especially with the start of a big war in Ukraine. Those tennis journalists who are satisfied with Sabalenka’s indirect answers at a press conference, do not know or have forgotten about this (the current political climate in Belarus). But this determines the attitude towards Sabalenka of the majority of Belarusians who are still against the dictatorship.”

In March this year, the United Nations Commissioner for Human Rights called for Belarus to stop theirsystematic repression of perceived critics and immediately release all detainees held on political grounds.’ A report based on interviews with 207 victims and witnesses, as well as 2500 additional items of evidence, concluded that the beatings of those protesting the 2020 elections were approved by the government. Up to February 2023, 797 non-government organisations were shut down and another 432 chose to close amid fear of persecution. Most independent media outlets have also had to shut down.

On the court, Sabalenka will return to action at the French Open on Thursday when she will play Czech Republic’s Karolína Muchová in the semi-finals.


EXCLUSIVE: Yoshihito Nishioka’s Coach On Injury Setback, US Open Showdown With Wawrinka



Yoshihito Nishioka at the 2023 Italian Open (photo by Ubitennis)

The road to Yoshihito Nishioka’s first round match at this year’s US Open has been a frustrating one. 


In June the 27-year-old looked to be on the verge of reaching his best tennis at the French Open where he made the fourth round for the first time in his career. Nishioka’s run in Paris was not a one-off with the Japanese player also making the last 16 of the Australian Open in January. However, since the French Open, he has only been able to register one win on the Tour. 

In recent months he has struggled with a stress fracture on his femur that cut short his grass-court campaign and resulted in him missing four weeks of crucial training. After losing his opening match at Wimbledon, he played four tournaments across North America with his sole triumph being against Gregoire Barrere in Cincinnati. 

Guiding Nishioka on the Tour is his coach Christian Zahalka who has previously worked with the likes of Marina Erakovic, Nadia Petrova, Kimiko Date and Misaki Doi. The two began working together last year. 

“Yoshi injured himself at Roland Garros that pretty much cost us the whole grass court season and we could not practice for a month,” Zahalka told Ubitennis on the first day of the US Open.
“So honestly we are playing a bit catch up to regain form the last few events. But we are getting close.”

Nishioka faces a tricky first round encounter at Flushing Meadows where he will play Stan Wawrinka, who won the tournament in 2016. Their only previous meeting saw the Swiss veteran prevail in three sets but that was six years ago in Indian Wells.                     

“Wawrinka is a highly motivated player at the moment,” said Zahalka. “It will be a difficult first round match with a big fight needed from Yoshi.”

Nishioka is currently ranked five places higher than his upcoming opponent at 44th in the ATP Pepperstone rankings. However, he is yet to shine at the US Open where he will be making his ninth main draw appearance this year. He has lost in the first round six times and the second round twice. The only players he has beaten at the event were Paul-Henri Mathieu in 2015 and Feliciano Lopez in 2019. 

Despite the disappointing results, Zahalka is staying upbeat about Nishioka’s chances in New York. 

This is my first US Open with Japanese Rock so I cannot comment on what happened in the past here,” he said.
“But I see no reason why he cannot have success at the US Open.”

Nishioka’s clash with Wawrinka is scheduled to take place on Tuesday. He is one of four Japanese players in the men’s main draw this year. 

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EXCLUSIVE: Saudi Arabia’s Plans For Hosting The Next Gen Finals

Tennis is heading to the country following weeks of speculation. Although there is likely to be some criticism coming amid the intention of organisers to hold the event during the offseason in December from 2024 onwards.



Sources have confirmed to Ubitennis that the ATP Next Gen Finals will be moved to Saudi Arabia from this year onwards with the inaugural event taking place immediately after the Davis Cup Finals.


Jeddah will be the event’s host city which features the eight highest-ranked players under the age of 21. According to those familiar with the situation, the 2023 edition had initially been planned to take place in December but had to be brought forward due to the FIFA Club World Cup tournament which will be hosted at the same venue. It wasn’t confirmed until last month that the football tournament will be played in Jeddah in what was described to Ubitennis as a ‘last-minute change.’  

The prospect of hosting the tournament immediately after the Davis Cup finals could be problematic at the end of a long season. However, this situation is trying to be played down as a one-off. 

It will be held on at the King Abdullah Sports City where the venue has six tennis courts just outside the main stadium, as well as another indoor arena that can hold up to 12,000 people. Other events to have been hosted there include the 2021 International Handball Federation Men’s Super Globe tournament, as well as a boxing match between Oleksandr Usyk and Anthony Joshua.

What is the most striking aspect of the plans is the report that from 2024 the Next Gen finals will take place over a week during the second part of December which is in the middle of the off-season. It is unclear why the ATP have pushed for such a thing to occur and why they have agreed to this. During the bidding process for a host city, they said the following in March:-

This year’s tournament is expected to take place in December, with the exact dates to be determined with the successful bidder.’ 

One explanation for such a date might be the number of exhibition events that take place in the Middle East during this time. So instead of players participating in them, they would play this event. However, the idea of expanding an already long Tour calendar is one that will attract criticism. Plus there is yet to be any public response from players who might influence the current plans. 

ATP CEO Andrea Gaudenzi recently told The Financial Times that ‘positive’ talks have taken place with officials from Saudi Arabia. Meanwhile, WTA boss Steve Simon visited the country earlier this year and was said to be highly impressed. It appears that both governing bodies are interested in investment from the country as long as it doesn’t have significant implications on the Tour’s structure which has happened in other sports. 

Saudi Arabia’s Public Investment Fund has invested heavily in sports, including the £300M takeover of football team Newcastle United. In golf, they funded the LIV Tour which split the sport before a shock merger between the Tour’s was announced a few weeks ago.

Critics have accused the Middle Eastern nation of using sport to help improve its image which has been marred by allegations of human rights violations. This is commonly known as sportswashing. 

One of those concerns is related to LGBT players playing in the country. A Saudi official told Ubitennis that gay players or media members would be welcome with their partners as long as they respect local culture. Basically, public displays of homosexuality will not be encouraged and could prompt a backlash from locals. 

“I think the WTA is going to make sure that we are in a safe environment,” openly gay player Greet Minnen told Ubitennis“All the LGBT players are wise enough to not provoke anything or hold hands when we are not at the (tennis) club.’
“I think we have to respect the culture there but it’s not going to be an issue as the WTA will make sure it is a safe environment for us.”

The Next Gen finals began in 2017 and had been hosted in Milan until now. Previous winners include Jannik Sinner, Carlos Alcaraz and Brandon Nakashima.  

It is understood that a contract confirming the relocation of the event to Saudi Arabia will be signed next month. 

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Grand Slam

Conchita Martinez: How Acaraz Can Improve, Muguruza’s Future And Advice For Andreeva



Conchita Martinez - Wimbledon 2017 (photo Art Seitz c2017)

Almost 30 years have passed since Conchita Martinez won the biggest title of her career at Wimbledon. 


In 1994 she battled to a three-set win over nine-time champion Martina Navratilova to become the first-ever Spanish woman to claim the title. The triumph occurred in just her third main draw appearance at the Grand Slam. Since then only one other player from Martinez’s country has managed to emulate her in the women’s tournament. That was Garbine Muguruza in 2017 who has been mentored by the former champion in recent years. 

Martinez is in action again this year at The All England Club where she is taking part in the women’s invitational doubles tournament. On Tuesday morning Ubitennis caught up with the former world No.2 during an hour-long media session that featured a series of former champions. 

In her home country, the talking point of the sport concerns the rapid rise of Carlos Alcaraz who at 20 has already won one Grand Slam trophy, four Masters 1000 events, and has spent almost 30 weeks as world No.1. 

“I think he is already doing an amazing job but, of course, there is still a lot of room for improvement,” Martinez tells Ubitennis.

As to what these improvements are, the 51-year-old believes Alcaraz needs to explore coming to the net more often, especially when playing on the grass. According to Wimbledon’s official statistics, in his first four matches played this year, the top seed has come to the net on 83 occasions and won the point 56 times. This equates to a winning percentage of 67.5%. 

“I would like to see him, especially on the grass, go to the net a little bit more sometimes,” she said.
“He does this on other surfaces and is very brave. When he’s down a break point and then does a serve and volley to win the point, this is great for his confidence.’
“He needs to work on everything. His slice and going to the net. From the back, he is doing amazing and is very aggressive. He can hold the point when he wants to, so he needs to work on that to become an even better player.”

The current status of Mugurza

Martinez speaks about Alcaraz from the perspective of both a player and a coach. After winning 33 WTA titles before retiring, she went into the world of coaching. Her work with Muguruza was recognised in 2021 when she was named WTA Coach of the Year. She has also had stints mentoring former world No.1 Karolina Pliskova and was captain of her country’s Billie Jean King Cup team. 

Martinez’s work with Muguruza has been put on ice for the foreseeable future after the tennis star opted to take an extended break from the sport. She confirmed that Muguruza will not be playing again this year on the Tour and a return date is still to be decided. 

“She is taking her time and will not be playing again this year. We will see when she is going to start practising for next year,” Martinez explained. 
“Every week we chat and see how she’s doing. She’s enjoying her time off right now.”

Even when Muguruza does come back to action there is no guarantee that this successful partnership will resume.

“We have to see. We stopped as she was going to take a longer time off than expected so we parted ways but you never say no to what may happen in the future,” she commented. 

Muguruza’s decision to step away from tennis followed a series of disappointing results. In a social media post earlier this year, the two-time Grand Slam champion said she wanted to spend more time with her friends and family which has been ‘healthy’ for her.

Advice for Andreeva

It is not the first time a player has had to step away from the limelight due to the demands of playing tennis. Trying to deal with Tour life is far from easy, especially for younger players. 

One of those rising stars is 16-year-old Mirra Adreeva who reached the fourth round of Wimbledon as a qualifier on her debut. She almost booked a place in the quarter-finals after leading Madrid Keys by a set and 4-1 but lost. If she had won, Andreeva would have been the youngest Wimbledon quarter-finalist since 1997.

So what advice would Martinez, who also reached the fourth round of a major at the age of 16, give to a rising star such as Andreeva?

“You have to have a very good group of people around you that are going to keep you humble and fit,” she said. 
“I think she does that. She’s winning matches, going far in Grand Slams, and beating great players.’
“You have to see next year how she will cope with defending points. The most important thing is that she keeps practising and focusing on what she has to do to get better. It’s great what she is doing now but she has to maintain it.”

Martinez won more than 700 matches during her time on the Tour. 

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