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

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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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Mats Wilander tells the 2024 story: Sinner is ready to win a Slam, but probably Djokovic is going to win them all [Exclusive]

“Winning the Davis Cup and beating Djokovic triggered something in Jannik” says former world No.1 and Discovery analyst Mats Wilander on the eve of the Australian Open.

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Mats Wilander (photo: Warner Bros. Discovery)

by Luca de Gaspari

It’s never easy to be successful in a second career after retiring from competition, especially after achieving extraordinary results. Yet in the case of Mats Wilander, it can be said that his adventure as a pundit for Eurosport/Discovery has certainly been lavish with satisfaction. Of course, it is difficult to surpass yourself when you have been No. 1 in the world and have won 7 Grand Slam titles, three of which in that magical year, 1988, the first year the Australian Open was played on the courts of Melbourne Park.

In an exclusive meetup with Ubitennis the Swedish champion was willing to converse on the topic which with us Italians could only be one, first and foremost: Jannik Sinner who is ready in the starting blocks, amid all the expectations in the wake of his exceptional end of the 2023. For sure Mats appeared to be brimming with excitement for the start of a new great year of tennis.

“The Australian Open is always the most interesting Grand Slam because players have had a little bit of a break and you don’t know who had a great offseason and what kind of confidence they have from the 2023 season. There’s the confidence for Jannik Sinner: does it carry him through to the next season?  Because he had an unbelievable finish of 2023 and does that confidence stay with him 1 1/2 months later?”

But where did Sinner’s improvements stem from? Wilander believes it all started with the quality of his service.

“We knew that his game was there. We knew that he is always improving something small here and there. Now he’s improved something big because the serve in the men’s and women’s game is one of the most important shots in the game again,” he said.

“I should say again because there was a time when… For Roger Federer it was important for sure but when Rafa Nadal was winning everything with Novak right there and Andy Murray, the serve wasn’t that important. They were physically very strong, they were very clever, they had no weaknesses in everything else and I think the way the game is going the serve is becoming very very important because you have to get some free points on your service game.”

“The guys are too good at hitting balls, they’re too good at covering the court today. Jannik Sinner improved his serve and that’s one of the hardest shots to improve and he improved his serve so much that he is suddenly as dangerous as Alexander Zverev with a big serve, Daniil Medvedev with a big serve. Suddenly he has that same weapon. We know how well he hits the ball, how well he competes, how well he moves, but he didn’t serve that well and now he does.”

“Carlos Alcaraz needs to improve his serve and when he does, then suddenly he’s going to be nearly impossible to beat. But Jannik with this serve improvement is hot he’s such a great player today, yeah such a great player.”

The real question is whether the level Jannik displayed in the 2023 autumn indoor swing (as well as outdoors in Asia) can be maintained when playing not only best of five matches but also having to cope with the tough Australian summer heat. And if he were not to win here in Australia, could 2024 be the year for his first Major? The three-time AO winner has little doubt.

“This year for sure and even in Australia. He’s had great Grand Slam tournaments. He could have won the US Open when he had a match point against Carlos Alcaraz. I believe he had a good chance of beating Casper Ruud if he had got to play him in the final.” He said.

“So I think that with his win against Novak in Davis Cup and obviously with the win in Turin as well I think that there he has proof in his mind “OK, I can beat the greatest player of all time”. I think learning how to play five sets for some players takes a little bit longer than other players and I think that there are a lot of little things that have to happen along the way and two very important things have happened to him: he beat the best player in the world at home and he won Davis Cup playing for his country. I think he’s going to learn so much from those situations that it’s going to translate into the Australian Open 100% for sure.”

“For sure now Australia and the conditions are the most complicated conditions that we have most probably in any Grand Slam. At the Australian Open, you have to be a little bit lucky and unfortunately for Jannik he is name is not Novak Djokovic. Djokovic will most probably play five matches out of seven at night and it’s cooler, there’s no sun and that is a big advantage for Novak Djokovic. Now it’s not unfair because he deserves to have that advantage. He’s proven that he is the one people want to watch so let’s put Novak at night most of the time. Roger Federer had the same situation. Rafa Nadal often had the same situation, so Jannik unfortunately is still kind of early in his career so he’s going to play.”

“One day he’s going to play at 1:00 in the afternoon, and it’s going to be 40°. The next match is going to play at 7:00 at night and it’s going to be 15°. The next match he is going to play indoors because it’s 50° and they have to close the roof. You have to be very able to adjust to the conditions and that’s the part with Jannik that I’ve seen improvements: he adjusted his serve, he’s adjusted sometimes hitting drop shots with a forehand, he’s adjusted becoming a much better volleyer, he’s even adjusted to be a great doubles player so he’s done so many smaller adjustments that another adjustment for him being the conditions in Australia I think it’s just a matter of time and I think time has come.”

“I think that he is up there with the 4 favourites to win the Australian Open. The number one is Novak Djokovic 100% for sure. Number 2 for me is Carlos Alcaraz and Jannik Sinner and then at number 3 comes Zverev, Tsitsipas, Medvedev, and Holger Rune. There are a lot of players that are right behind but to me, he belongs in that second group with Carlos Alcaraz being the favourites. Novak Djokovic is the clear favourite for sure.”

Since Djokovic is his clear favourite, we asked Mats if the Serb’s form may dip in 2024, after missing once again by a hair’s breadth, as in 2021, the calendar year Grand Slam last year.

“Most probably he had a good chance of winning Wimbledon. He had a good chance of winning the US Open when he lost to Daniil Medvedev.  OK not on the day. on the day Medvedev was a human wall. (For) Novak maybe the pressure and the pressure was more in that final against them because it was the last Grand Slam they had. At Wimbledon, there was less pressure because yes, he was the favourite to win, but you never know. So I think

“And the matches that he loses on the tour, they are two out of three sets. In Grand Slams three out of five he just doesn’t lose tennis matches to the young guys because he understands how to play defence and when to play defence. Like last year he was a little bit injured in his right leg and what does he do? He hit his forehand harder last year in Australia than he’s ever hit his forehand before. So he knows how to make these adjustments on the day, in the moment, and maybe that’s what we are still waiting for Jannik Sinner to be able to: in the moment make these adjustments that work out in his favour.”

“Nobody knows how to do that so I see no reason why again I’m going to predict that he wins all four slams because I predicted it a couple of years ago, I predicted it last year. I have been wrong, but it’s been very very very close, and I think that there’s a really really really good chance that he wins all four this year. I really do.”

So, the way Mats Wilander sees it, also 2024 is not bound to be a turning point. Yet, if his predictions were to miss the mark, it may be an Italian player who shall prove him wrong…

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Lorenzo Musetti: “A Year with Few Peaks, but I’ve Improved as a Tennis Player and Physically” [Exclusive]

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Lorenzo Musetti – ATP Sofia 2023 (photo: Ivan Mrankov)

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.”

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WIMBLEDON: An immense Alcaraz, but the changing of the guard is yet to come…

Alcaraz’s merits compared with Djokovic’s demerits. Just a bad day among many so-so days for the Serbian, nonetheless No. 2 of the ATP ranking? Or is it the start of an inexorable decline? Farewell to the Grand Slam, but will he win more Majors?

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Carlos Alcaraz reacts to winning the 2023 Wimbledon men's singles title (image via Wimbledon twitter)

NOTE: This article was written in Italian and has been Translated by Carla Montaruli

Carlitos Alcaraz triumphed, cheers for Carlitos Alcaraz. The feat he accomplished at only 20 years of age and in his fourth tournament on grass is remarkable, remarkable indeed. He is the third youngest champion ever after 17-year-old Becker and 20-year-old Borg, as well as the third Spaniard after Santana and Nadal to win the trophy. Being able to beat a player in the fifth set after 4 hours and 43 minutes who is the king of marathons, a seven-time champion and had won 45 straight matches over the last 10 years on Centre Court, can only be considered a great exploit.

Credit where credit is due. Alcaraz played beautiful tennis, complete in all aspects, bold forehands and backhands, powerful and hit on the rise, drop-shots, acrobatic and diving volleys, hanging smashes, aces and winning serves. All this with great mental solidity displayed throughout the entire match: after losing the first set badly, enduring the tension of a second set tiebreak which had not started well for him, then dominating the third set and finally closing the encounter as a consummate veteran in the fifth with a last service game played brilliantly after tenaciously defending very well the break he had secured in the third game of the final set.

A 20-year-old young man could not be asked for more. A well-deserved applause and congratulations also for defending that first place in the world rankings that he will hold for the twenty-ninth week, hoping to keep it as long as possible.

Staying at the top for 389 weeks like the extraordinary champion he beat on Sunday would mean dominating the world stage for over seven years. Over seven years! And…as I write this I wonder if we have paid enough attention to such a feat in all that time! 

Yes, because you write 310 weeks, Federer’s weeks as world No.1, then you write 389, that is Djokovic’s weeks spent in the same spot:  there and then they seem like just numbers…but only when you divide them by 52, the weeks in a year, do you realize the immensity of these extended dominances within a sport whose growing competitiveness and many booming young guns are emphasized almost every day.

Crazy.

Crazy in the case of both Federer and Djokovic with the ATP scepter in their hands, because each of them – as the fourth part of the Fab Four – had to confront at least with the other three. All four have been world number one. Still, for 699 weeks, almost 13 years and a half, Roger and Nole were number one, Nadal was king for 209 weeks and Murray for 41. Add them up and that’s another five years—eighteen years of reign for four kings. Written so many times off the top of my head…but upon reflection this is impressive stuff. It never remotely happened before.

So here it is… the idea that Carlitos Alcaraz could one day – but we are talking about seven years! – reach Djokovic’s 389-week reign today may seem unreal, absolutely far-fetched.

But…are there perhaps three more champions on the horizon who can recreate a quartet of phenomena like the Fab Four? I don’t see them at all. Will Alcaraz be alone in the driver’s seat for the next few years? 

In seven years, 10 or 18 – 18 years was the reign of the Fab Four — phenoms could sprout up almost like mushrooms! Speculating on what will happen in such a long and far away period is a mindless divertissement and I don’t know why it dawned on me…. Except perhaps Holger Rune today – though greatly downgraded by the last duel here at Wimbledon – there doesn’t seem to be a rival of Alcaraz’s caliber right now. Our compatriots may see our Sinner two steps below Alcaraz and one step below Rune, but neither do they see other “prospects” ahead of him. Djokovic called Sinner one of the leaders of the new generation. His fifth place in the Race, along with eighth in ATP ranking certify such status.

But then for a year or two, or maybe even three, if Rune and Sinner don’t make giant strides, or if a new rising star doesn’t emerge, Carlitos Alcaraz could easily add a hundred or more weeks to the 29 he has already earned as No. 1.

Or am I venturing into a wild prediction?

Just not to present you with a single scenario I want to say, however, that the most obvious commonplace one could come up with today, after this final that Djokovic shall not cease to regret for at least four reasons – three missed backhands in the tiebreak and a clumsy drive volley which squandered a hard-earned break point for a 2-0 lead in the decider – is that we have witnessed the changing of the guard.

It will make so many headlines, sure. I may have uttered it too, in one of the many videos I did for Ubi Instagram, for Ubitennis, and the IntesaSanPaolo website. But in my opinion, it’s not true yet.

Djokovic is not ready to retire. He is not going to quit, even if the dream of achieving a Grand Slam has vanished, maybe forever. Farewell to Grand Slam, but will he win more Majors? I think so. He is still world No. 2, isn’t he?

I had written throughout the tournament – you may check – that I didn’t think I had seen the best Djokovic. He had not been at his best against Hurkacz or even Rublev. And, as much as many readers disagreed, neither had he dominated Sinner as he had last year in the last three sets when he had been truly unplayable. Demerit to him and credit to Sinner, as often happens simultaneously.

I wrote that Hurkacz had thrown the first set out of the window and when leading 5-4 in the tiebreak of the second with two serves at disposal to put it away he had not been faultless but had shown a lack of personality. I also wrote that Rublev had been unlucky in the fourth set on the occasion of some break points he had failed to convert.

We did not see the best Djokovic, in my opinion, even in the final against Alcaraz. Otherwise, he would have been two sets up.

Oh yes, come on: the three backhand errors he made in the first tiebreak he lost after 15 won were not errors from Djokovic, the champion who has always played the crucial pointsbetter than anyone else, certainly better than Federer and Murray, perhaps equal to Nadal.. In particular, match points aside – what about that, dear Roger? – those tiebreaks that are said to be worth double.

Those three backhands, a drop shot at 3-2 when he was a minibreak ahead, the one at 6-5 and setpoint after he had deftly returned Carlitos’ serve, the one at 6-6 were errors worthy of a Hurkacz, a Norrie or a Shapovalov, not a Djokovic!

I recall – just quoting from memory because I haven’t time to engage in dutiful and thorough research – that Nole’s record in best-of-five matches after winning the first set is monstrous. Imagine after winning the first two sets.

Here, a Nole in ordinary form, even against that very inspired Alcaraz, would have started the third set with a two-set lead. 

I know that with ifs and buts, you don’t go anywhere. But I’m pretty sure – and I think Nole is too – that if the two sets lead never came into being, it was more because of Nole’s demerit than Carlitos’ merit.

But is this a random demerit, due to a bad day and a series of bad days as it appeared to me throughout the tournament, or is it a sign of the slow inexorable decline of the Serbian who is beginning to come to terms with his age? That drive volley with which he dissipated the all-important break point and the chance to rise 2-0 in the fifth set was another topical moment. Yet, it was not Novak to succeed in a decisive breakthrough, but Carlos three minutes later.

The fury with which, at the changeover, Nole smashed his racket on the net post is revealing. Nole had missed the train to victory and, experienced as he is, he understood it.

I would say that this casual contingent demerit or signal of inexorable decline is the discriminating point of our debate.

Bravo, bravo to Alcaraz for taking advantage of it with precocious maturity, but did Djokovic stumble over a mediocre day by chance, because it can happen to everyone, even to younger tennis players, or because even he – an extraordinary phenomenon – is on that rickety path where age starts taking its toll?

If the most plausible answer we believe in is the first one – and that is the one I believe in – we cannot yet speak of a changing of the guard. 

Djokovic can safely return to the throne of tennis, perhaps win the US Open and/or the next ATP Finals in Turin as well as an 11th Australian Open. Push the undoubtedly great Alcaraz back to second place.

If, on the other hand, the right answer is the second, this Wimbledon definitely enshrines the changing of the guard. But, even in this scenario, only the changing of the guard at the top and the handover between Djokovic and Alcaraz. Not a generational changing of the guard though, at least for now and the very near future, because even a subdued and slightly tarnished Djokovic is stronger than Rune, Sinner, and Tsitsipas on almost any surface. At worst he would be the second-best tennis player in the world. The others, Sinner included, would do anything to stand where he stands.

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