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

Grand Slam

EXCLUSIVE: Ana Ivanovic’s 2024 French Open Picks

The former world No.1 tells Ubitennis her favourites for this year’s title, what underdogs to look out for and speaks about Dominic Thiem’s farewell.

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Ana Ivanovic pictured with the 2008 French Open trophy (image via https://x.com/anaivanovic)

16 years have passed since Ana Ivanovic was the player lifting the French Open trophy. 

In 2008, the Serbian socred back-to-back wins over Jelena Jankovic and Dinara Safina en route to the first and only Grand Slam title of her career. At the French Open, Ivanovic won more matches (37) than at any other major event and was also runner-up in 2007 to Justine Henin. 

Now retired from the sport, the 36-year-old continues to keep an eye on what is happening on the Tour in both the men’s and women’s events. So what does she think about this year’s French Open? 

The women’s draw – Is the title Swiatek’s to lose?

Iga Swiatek is targeting a fourth title in Paris which would make her only the fourth female player to achieve this milestone in the Open Era. The Pole is currently on a 12-match winning streak after claiming titles in Madrid and Rome. As for those who are the biggest threat to her, Ivanovic has two names in her mind. 

“I think the biggest threat is Ayna Sabalenka – they (her and Swiatek) played an amazing match in Madrid. It was a very tight one. And Elena Rybakina even though clay is probably not her favourite surface,” Ivanovic tells Ubitennis via email. 

Another player Ivanovic tips as a dark horse is Danielle Collins, who is playing the last season of her career. Since January she already rocketed up the rankings from 54th position to 12th, winning the biggest trophy of her career in Miami. On clay, she won the Charleston Open and more recently reached the semi-finals in Rome. 

“Danielle Collins had an amazing tournament winning back-to-back Miami and Charleston and also playing well in Rome again. I think she is a dark horse for the French Open.” She said.
“She seems to play very freely and enjoy herself out there. She has been in very good form this year, winning a lot of matches. She has a big chance to come far into the second week of the French Open.”

The last player ranked outside the top 10 to win Paris was Barbora Krejcikova in 2021 and the last American to do so was Serena Williams in 2015. 

As for other contenders, Ivanovic hopes a rising star of the sport will perform well. 

“I think now in women’s tennis we see more similar faces in the semifinals and finals. But I would really like to see Mirra Andreeva go far.” She commented about the Russian 17-year-old, who is currently ranked 38th in the world. 

The men’s draw – will Djokovic regain his form in time?

It can be argued with good reason that the men’s draw is the most open it has been in recent editions. Defending champion Novak Djokovic is still to win a title this year and experienced a turbulent time in Rome where he received a blow to the head during a freak accident. Meanwhile, Jannik Sinner and Carlos Alcaraz have been hindered by injury setbacks in recent weeks with both of them missing the last Masters event. 

“There have been a lot of new players in the last few weeks reaching far in the tournaments and beating some top players,” Ivanovic said about the state of men’s tennis.
So we are going to see many new faces on the men’s side. Of course Novak is still the strongest contestant for the title, but also Alcaraz and Sinner.”
“Novak had a little bit tougher clay court season so far than usual, but I think he is for sure peaking his full form for the French Open.”

As for the ‘strongest contestant’, the former world No.1 picks Djokovic and Alcaraz. Although there is a chance of a new Grand Slam champion. So who would Ivanovic pick for glory out of Alexander Zverev, Stefanos Tsitsipas and Casper Ruud?

“Out of the other 3, I would pick Zverev as the highest chance to win the French Open.” She replied.

Thiem’s Paris Swamsong 

Beside chasing for glory, one of the storylines of this year’s event will be the depature of Dominic Thiem who will play in Roland Garros for the last time before retiring later this year. The two-time finalist is playing in the qualifying draw after being controversially denied a wildcard. Whilst some ruled the decision as unfair, Thiem later said he has no hard feelings. 

“Honestly I had a long time to be in a good ranking,” he told reporters earlier this week. “I had enough tournaments and enough time to climb up the ranking and I didn’t do it, so I kind of didn’t deserve it and that’s fine. I had 10 main draw appearances in the last years so that’s more than enough.”

The former US Open champion has been praised by Ivanovic who says it is ‘always great’ to watch him play. Ivanovic played her last Tour-level match in 2016 which was the same year Thiem reached his first of four French Open semi-finals. 

“Dominic had a great career and it’s been always great to watch him play,” she said. 
“It has been very unfortunate with his injuries the last years so it has been tough years for him. I really hope he can do well at the French Open and has a nice farewell.”

During her career, Ivanovic played in 48 Grand Slam main draws and won 15 WTA titles. She held the No.1 ranking for 12 weeks during 2008. 

The French Open main draw will get underway on Sunday. 

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EXCLUSIVE: Interview with Marian Vajda, Djokovic’s longtime coach: “Sinner is the strongest, but Novak isn’t done winning yet”

Marian Vajda gives an exclusive to Ubitennis about the current state of tennis and his role at the Mouratoglou Tennis Academy.

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Novak Djokovic and Marian Vajda - Rolex Paris Masters 2018 (photo @Sport Vision, Chryslène Caillaud)

“After 15 years with Djokovic I lost my motivation, now I’m less involved when I watch him” Vajda tells us at the Mouratoglou Tennis Academy: “I don’t miss the life I had before, I’ve found serenity with my non-profit organization. His split-up with Ivanisevic? I read about it in the papers, I didn’t expect it.”

by Margherita Sciaulino

Marian Vajda and Novak Djokovic, together, won 85 titles in 15 years, including 20 Grand Slams and 37 Masters 1000, and with the Slovak coach by his side, Djokovic was on the throne as world No. 1 for 361 weeks. When Goran Ivanisevic joined the team in June 2019, Vajda had taken a step back, saying he wanted to spend more time close to his family, then eventually quit the Serbian’s team for good in February 2022. He was starting to lack the energy required by such a demanding job and, still today, he does not regret his decision.

Vajda is currently at the Mouratoglou Tennis Academy where he is following some of the talented young players mentored by his non-profit organization: “HRAJME TENIS SLOVENSKO”.

He is keen to point out that it is not an academy but an organization whose mission consists in financing and supporting children aged 10 to 15 who are interested in the world of tennis. It’s not just about talented kids, it’s also about less talented players. The second, but not least goal of the organization is to train new teachers to become all-round coaches. This project had kicked off when Vajda was still at Djokovic’s side, but today represents his life.

Through this mission, Marian Vajda has found peace: he continues doing what he most loves, without stress and close to his family. Just as the Monte-Carlo Masters is about to get under way, just a few kilometres away from our table, we had a talk about what is happening among today’s top players.

Ubitennis: There’s quite a difference between coaching the world No. 1 and young guys. Do you miss being the coach of a top player?

Vajda:Yes, the difference is really huge. I had already started working with this non-profit organization while I was still working with Novak four years ago. So it’s not a novelty of the last year, I had been thinking about it for a long time. The 15 years together with Djokovic were very intense, I spent a lot of energy, when I parted ways with him I tried to continue for a year with Alex Molcan (top 50) but I realized that something was missing. I was less motivated, I wanted to be closer to my family and I preferred to help young boys enter the world of tennis in Slovakia, in Bratislava. With this organization I found my serenity. So today I can say that I don’t miss it. But I always enjoy following Novak, I stay up to date with all the news about him and I continue watching him. But obviously I’m not as involved as I was before.”

Ubitennis: Which was the hardest aspect of being Djokovic’s coach?

Vajda:We were always on the move, from one continent to another. I always had to say goodbye to my family without knowing how long I would be away and the pressure in tournaments was very strong, even for me. You know, in tennis, the coach is constantly under scrutiny. The pressure of this sport is exhausting even for the coach. In football when a team loses, it’s never the fault of a single individual, you don’t go and look at how the coach worked every time to prepare for that game. Whereas when a tennis player loses, the coach is immediately questioned.”

Ubitennis: How did you manage to find the right stimuli to start something so different?

Vajda:It happened in a very natural way. Seeing these guys get more and more committed and passionate made me so happy… the stimulus was simply that.”

Ubitennis: In your opinion, who is the strongest player today?

Vajda:I would say Jannik Sinner. In the last year he has played some really impressive tennis and he’s continuing to improve, keeping the level high. I think he’s the clear favorite to become No. 1 in the world. I also find Alcaraz is very strong, but Sinner at the moment is definitely the most likely to get to the top.”

Ubitennis: At first, everyone thought that Djokovic would find new motivation from players like Sinner and Alcaraz to keep winning, but in the last period the general impression has changed. Do you think Djokovic is taking a step back?

Vajda:I think Novak is trying to adapt and find the right balance. He can’t imagine playing all the tournaments like he used to. The ATP calendar is too intense, he has to make choices. The greatest motivation for him is the Slams and the Olympics. So he has to find the time to prepare, to train well, but he can’t put the same focus on the other tournaments as well. The real question, I think, is whether this new method will still succeed in making him win. Because if you play fewer tournaments, you may arrive less trained than those who have played more than you. But Novak knows how to do it, he’s very smart and none of the new top players have his experience, simply because of his age. Also last year he missed several tournaments such as Indian Wells and Miami but then he won Roland Garros, made the final at Wimbledon and won the US Open. So I don’t think he’s done winning and this year he’s going to prove it once again.”

Ubitennis: And what do you think about his split with Ivanisevic? Did you expect it?

Vajda:Well, no, I didn’t expect that. I read about it in the newspapers like everyone else, so my opinion is based only on what I have read in the last few days. I was quite surprised because in the last few years Novak has always been comfortable with him, he was totally part of the team. Maybe the pressure that coaches have to endure, which I mentioned before, has become too tiring for Ivanisevic as well. But I’m not sure about it.”

Ubitennis: At the level of the young guys you coach today, what do you think is the greatest difficulty for a tennis player in general?Vajda:It’s very important for a tennis player to be mentally relaxed, otherwise he can’t play his best tennis. But you have to find the right balance between being calm and working hard. Every day the training program is very intense, but it must be respected and carried out seriously. Finding a balance between working well, without getting stressed, is difficultin tennis, but fundamental.”

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EXCLUSIVE: Q&A With Simona Halep’s New Coach Carlos Martinez

After working with the likes of Daria Kasatkina and Svetlana Kuznetsova, Martinez reveals details to Ubitennis about his new role.

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SIMONA HALEP OF ROMANIA - PHOTO: MATEO VILLALBA / MMO

Earlier this week at the Miami Open Simona Halep marked her return to professional tennis with a well-fought battle against Paula Badosa which she lost in three sets.

The encounter was the first time Halep has played on the Tour since successfully appealing against her doping ban. She was initially issued with a four-year suspension after testing positive for Roxadustat and having irregularities in her Athlete Biological Passport (ABP). Then the sentence was slashed to nine months following an appeal to the Court of Arbitration for Sport (CAS) which concluded on the balance of probabilities that Halep had unintentionally consumed a contaminated substance and dismissed her ABP charge. 

Mentoring the former world No.1 now is Carlos Martinez who has spoken to Ubitennis about their new collaboration. The Spaniard is a former player himself who was ranked inside the top 200 in doubles and the top 500 in singles. As a coach, he has trained top players such as Svetlana Kuznetsova, Daria Kasatkina, Clara Tauson, Marc Lopez and Feliciano Lopez. 

So how did the two join forces and does Martinez believe Halep has what it takes to return to the pinnacle of women’s tennis after an 18-month absence? 

UBITENNIS: How did you and Simona come about working together?

MARTINEZ: She (Halep) texted me and asked me about my situation. If I would be interested in working with her. Of course, I said yes that I would be open to working with her. 

Then Darren Cahill, who is one of the past coaches of Simona, contacted me and asked me if I would like to work with her. Of course, I said yes. This was my first contact with Simona. 

UBITENNIS: Simona played her first match against Badosa earlier this week. For somebody who hasn’t played on the Tour for over a year, what impressed you most about her performance? 

MARTINEZ: I watched her full match and I was impressed because she had no time to prepare. The level that she was showing was very good and she had this same champion gem, as I describe it. She was competing very well but didn’t have a lot of gasoline (at the end of the match) because she couldn’t work (on her game) the last couple of weeks. That’s why she was very tired at the end and Badosa was playing well. It was a good beginning for her because she could be on the court, happy and enjoying the process. 

UBITENNIS: Did you see any specific areas in her game that she needs to improve on? 

MARTINEZ: It is too soon to talk about what I want to work with her on. Simona has good experience and we need to get to know each other well. Talk about how we are going to build her career again which is her second opportunity. 

Then we will see what kind of things (to work on). Of course, I have an idea but I need to talk with her and agree on everything. I am a person who likes to listen and talk with the players. During the process, I will see what I have to do and it’s going to be very nice. 

UBITENNIS: After her first round loss in Miami, Simona told reporters that it was too early to set out any plans or goals for the future. As a coach, is it more of a challenge to train somebody in this situation? 

MARTINEZ: I agree with Simona that the most important thing right now is to be healthy and to recover her shape. Work well on her tennis and fitness area. Then after a few weeks, we will see what the main goals are going to be. At the beginning of her comeback, the most important thing is to be on the court, prepare well and to recover her level. Once she recovers her level I am one hundred percent sure that she is going to get the goals that she wants. 

UBITENNIS: 18 months is a lot of time to be out of the sport. Do you think Simona can return to the top of the women’s Tour if she avoids any injury problems?

MARTINEZ: I am sure when Simona gets back into her best shape she will compete with the best players on the best courts. She will be one of the players who will have chances to win big events. 

Now she needs time and we have to be patient. But with this kind of player when they are that good, you have to be ready for any result. The ambition Simona has is going to be very important for her to get the goals that she wants. 

UBITENNIS: You have worked with Kasatkina, Kuznetsova, Tauson etc. Is there anything about Simona that makes her different? 

MARTINEZ: All of those players have good things and these things make them different. Simona is also similar but at the same time different. 

Kuznetsova is a Grand Slam champion, and Simona is a double Grand Slam champion. Both of them are very good players. It is a pleasure for me to work with Simona because in my opinion she can return to the top level and this is what we are going to fight for together. 

UBNITENNIS: Simona’s return has gained mass media interest. Similar to when Maria Sharapova returned after her doping suspension. Is there a concern that this could have a negative impact on her and do you have a plan in place to deal with this? 

MARTINEZ: Simona is a very smart girl. She knows she is innocent and it shows (Martinez makes references to the CAS verdict). This is going to be a good motivation for her and this is why she has been fighting to prove her innocence all this time. 

I always thought she was innocent and in my opinion, this will be a good motivation for her. She’s going to try to do her best again and she knows how difficult it is to be back at the top level but she going to fight for this. Hopefully, soon she will be fighting for the big titles. 

UBITENNIS: Finally, How has the women’s Tour changed over the past 18 months during Halep’s absence? 

MARTINEZ: The Tour keeps improving because there are young players who are in better condition. They are bigger and stronger. But it is not just about power. It is not just about running super fast. 

The knowledge of tennis is very important and Simona is one of the smartest players on the Tour. She has the ability to beat these kinds of game styles with her knowledge. She is a fighter which is a big difference between the young and older players. She has more experience, is mentally stronger and this is going to be good for her. Oh course the Tour has changed but Simona will adapt. She showed against Badosa, who can hit strong shots, that she could manage her game well. I think it’s going to be fine. 

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