More stories

  • in

    What the Italian Open Is Foretelling About the French Open

    Though at opposite poles of their careers, the top singles players, Iga Swiatek and Novak Djokovic, both cruised to titles in Rome and are looking strong heading into Paris.ROME — We will soon find out how much of what happened Sunday at the Italian Open was foreshadowing.The main draw for the French Open, the only Grand Slam tournament played on clay courts, begins in a week. But Iga Swiatek’s and Novak Djokovic’s decisive victories in Rome certainly solidified two key themes heading into Paris.Swiatek continues to look irresistible, and Djokovic now looks fully revitalized.Both are ranked No. 1 in singles and playing like it. Neither dropped a set on the way to their Italian Open titles, and both polished off their runs convincingly against top-10 players in Sunday’s finals. Swiatek defeated Ons Jabeur, 6-2, 6-2, to stop Jabeur’s 11-match winning streak and extend her own to 28. Djokovic followed her lead, defeating Stefanos Tsitsipas, 6-0, 7-6 (5).Swiatek and Djokovic are at opposite poles of their careers.Swiatek, 20, is just now harnessing the full force of her hard-charging power game, grasping that she can be not only a serial champion but also an intimidator as she crowds the opposition with her heavy-topspin forehand and acrobatic, tight-to-the-baseline defense.Djokovic, who will turn 35 on the opening day of Roland Garros, established himself years ago as one of the game’s greatest players. He is the oldest man to win the Italian Open in singles in the Open era: slightly older than his longtime rival Rafael Nadal was when he beat Djokovic to win the title at 34 last year.Djokovic has endured long enough that he was not the only Djokovic playing for a title on Sunday. While he was prevailing in Rome, his 7-year-old son, Stefan, was winning the title at his debut tournament at a club in the Serbian capital of Belgrade.“I just received that news: a sunshine double today,” Djokovic said with one of his biggest smiles of the week.I mentioned to Djokovic that it has been said that the only thing more mentally challenging than being a tennis player is being a tennis parent.“Not a single day have I told him you have to do this; it’s really purely his own desire to step on the court,” Djokovic said. “He’s really in love with the sport. Last night, when I spoke to him, he was up till late. He was showing me forehand and backhands, how he’s going to move tomorrow, kind of shadowing, playing shadow tennis without a racket. It was so funny to see that. I used to do that when I was a kid. I could see the joy in him, the pure emotion and love for the game.”Djokovic, like his career-long reference points Nadal and Roger Federer, has underscored his passion with long-running excellence and by persistently ignoring the hints that his peak years might be behind him.For Djokovic, this has been a season and a challenge like no other: His decision to remain unvaccinated against the coronavirus led to a standoff with Australian authorities that ended with his deportation on the eve of this year’s Australian Open, and it kept him out of the Masters 1000 events in Indian Wells, Calif., and Miami Gardens, Fla., in March.But with the health protocols now relaxed in Europe, Djokovic returned to regular action on clay last month. Though he struggled in his initial matches with his timing and his endurance, he has slowly but convincingly resumed hitting his targets, and he has gathered momentum just in time for Roland Garros.“I always try to use these kinds of situations and adversity in my favor to fuel me for the next challenge,” he said of Australia. “As much as I’ve felt pressure in my life and my career, that was something really on a whole different level. But I feel it’s already behind me. I feel great on the court. Mentally as well, I’m fresh. I’m sharp.”Against Tsitsipas, the hirsute Greek star who pushed Djokovic to five sets before losing last year’s French Open final, Djokovic controlled most of the baseline rallies with as much patience as panache. When Tsitsipas failed to serve out the second set, Djokovic proved the more reliable force in the tiebreaker, perfectly content, it seemed, to wait for Tsitsipas to crack.“To some extent, it’s a relief because after everything that happened at the beginning of the year, it was important for me to win a big title,” Djokovic said.Stefanos Tsitsipas, who lost to Novak Djokovic in the final in Rome, considered Djokovic a favorite at Roland Garros.Andreas Solaro/Agence France-Presse — Getty ImagesIt might have been even more reassuring if his title had come against a full-strength field. But Carlos Alcaraz, the 19-year-old from Spain who has been the revelation of the season, chose to rest and skip the Italian Open after beating Nadal and Djokovic to win the title in Madrid. Nadal, the greatest clay-court player in history, lost in the quarterfinals, limping and wincing in the final set of his defeat against Denis Shapovalov of Canada as he struggled anew with the chronic pain in his left foot that threatened his career in his teens and imperils it again now at age 35.Nadal has won the French Open a mind-boggling 13 times; Djokovic a more terrestrial two. But as counterintuitive as it is to count Nadal out in Paris, it seems right to bump him down the list of favorites this year, all the more because he might not even compete.“Right now, Carlos Alcaraz or Novak Djokovic,” said Tsitsipas, who lost to both men this month. “They both play great, great tennis. I would put them as favorites.”It is tempting to lean toward Djokovic considering that Alcaraz has so little experience in the best-of-five-set format and no experience in managing the stress that can come with being placed on a Grand Slam shortlist. But he held up astoundingly well in Madrid despite all the pressure from Djokovic’s groundstrokes and timely first serves down the stretch.Alcaraz is undoubtedly special. The question is just how special, which seems a fine line of inquiry for Swiatek, as well. She was on a roll even before Ashleigh Barty retired suddenly in March while holding the No. 1 ranking. But Swiatek has filled the role with true swagger, solving all manner of riddles by lopsided margins.Since her winning streak began in February, she has lost just five sets and came genuinely close to losing a set only once in Rome, prevailing over the 2019 U.S. Open champion Bianca Andreescu in a first-set tiebreaker in the quarterfinals before closing her out, 6-0.Jabeur, a tactic-shuffling Tunisian, won the title in Madrid on clay this month in Swiatek’s absence. But Sunday represented a big step up as Swiatek not only hunted down most of Jabeur’s trademark drop shots but also dealt firmly with most of Jabeur’s full-force bolts into the corners.There was not much genuine danger, but when it surfaced Swiatek was prepared. Up, 4-2, in the second set but down, 0-40, on her serve, Swiatek saved three break points with winners, and then saved a fourth with a backhand drop volley to cap a full-court exchange.She was soon sobbing on the clay behind the baseline after securing her fifth straight title. Clearly, winning is more taxing than Swiatek is making it look, but after wiping away the tears, she was back to grinning in the Roman sunshine and holding up yet another trophy to go with those won in Doha, Qatar; Indian Wells; Miami Gardens, and Stuttgart, Germany.“Today, I’m going to celebrate with a lot of tiramisù, no regrets,” she said, suddenly much more relatable than when she was pounding the opposition into clay dust.It will come as no surprise if another sweet finish awaits in Paris. More

  • in

    Bianca Andreescu’s Extended Break From Tennis Has Served Her Well

    Despite losing to Iga Swiatek, the top women’s player, at the Italian Open, Andreescu is heading to the French Open in a healthier place, mentally and physically.ROME — Bianca Andreescu’s first Italian Open had just come to an understandable halt in the quarterfinals against Iga Swiatek, a steamroller disguised as a tennis star.But even after failing to prevent the top-ranked Swiatek from extending her winning streak to 26 matches, Andreescu still took a seat in the Roman sunshine with a broad smile on her face.Defeat at this stage does not have the same hard edge that defeat has had in other phases of her career.“Honestly, I’m just fired up to get back out there and play her again,” Andreescu said in an interview after her loss, 7-6 (2), 6-0, on Friday. “If I look at myself a year ago, there’s just been so much progress in the way I’m handling being back on tour and my wins and my losses. I’m just super motivated. I want to go back on court right now and work on being more aggressive or whatnot.”Andreescu, a 21-year-old Canadian from the Toronto suburbs, remains one of the great talents in tennis, which she made abundantly clear in 2019 by winning the U.S. Open women’s singles title in her first attempt, defeating Serena Williams in straight sets.Ranked a career-high No. 4 in the month that followed, she will be No. 72 on Monday but still has that beguiling blend of finesse and punch and a rare ability to shift gears and spins. She also has powerful legs reminiscent of her role model Kim Clijsters that help her cover the court explosively and generate big-time pace despite lacking the leverage of taller players (she is 5-foot-6).“There’s no shot she cannot hit,” said Daniela Hantuchová, an analyst and former top five player who was commentating courtside on Friday as Andreescu and Swiatek played on tour for the first time.“In that first set, Bianca was not far from her top level at all,” Hantuchová said. “For me, that was the best set of tennis in the women’s tournament so far. In a way, it almost feels like a mirror against a mirror. They have different technique, but they have their routines between the points mentally, and tactically they know exactly what they are trying to do out there. Both are great athletes, and I kept saying during the match that I hope we see this matchup more often. It would be a wonderful rivalry to have.”But until now, Andreescu, unlike the 20-year-old Swiatek, has been only a part-time threat. There have been a series of injuries, a career-long concern, and more recently the malaise that moved her to take her most-recent extended break after the BNP Paribas Open in Indian Wells, Calif., in October 2021, before returning for a tournament in Stuttgart last month.She used her time off tour to do community service, volunteering in a children’s hospital and a shelter for victims of domestic violence. She went to a wellness retreat in Costa Rica and focused on developing more mental tools to complement the visualization and meditation work that she, like Swiatek, started during her junior career and has cited as one of the keys to her precocious, if intermittent, success.Andreescu after defeating Serena Williams to win the U.S. Open women’s singles title in 2019.Jason Szenes/EPA, via Shutterstock“After Indian Wells, I legit, like, didn’t want to play anymore,” she said. “I don’t know if I was being dramatic, but that’s just how I was feeling in the moment. But now, I’m just super happy that I didn’t stop, because having that time off really made me appreciate my time on court more now, because that was a decision that came from me. It wasn’t anything external like injuries or an illness or whatever. It was my call, and so I felt very empowered, and that was a big step in me taking more control over my life and just not putting pressure on myself and just enjoying myself.“During that break, I did basically everything I love to do, and I told myself if I do come back, I want to be in that same mind-set. Obviously, I want to be competitive and upset if I lose for instance, but I want to also feel that I enjoy myself on court and that I’m more motivated after a loss instead of just like crawling in my bed and just like crying all night, which I was doing last year.”Andreescu, like her fellow tennis star Naomi Osaka and some other prominent athletes of their generation, has been open about the mental-health challenges she faces. Three tournaments into her latest comeback, Andreescu is clearly in a better place and will head into the French Open with momentum on the red clay that suits her varied game. She arrived at Friday’s interview with no tape on her body or ice packs in tow.“Nothing,” she said. “I’m just super grateful for my body especially, because that’s been a huge problem. But I do see myself being a great clay-court player if I just continue doing well and working hard in practice and believing in myself.”The challenge on tour — a 10-month test of endurance and resilience — is to maintain the health and enthusiasm.Her team, headed by the veteran coach Sven Groeneveld, is focused on keeping her fresh and, according to Andreescu, also on calling her bluffs.“They can call me out without me becoming defensive, and I think that really helps,” she said.Groeneveld, whose highest-profile pupil in recent years was the now-retired Maria Sharapova, declined to comment on Andreescu because they are “still early” in their relationship. But he has a systematic approach to his work, sitting courtside during matches and noting the score point by point along with the key patterns of play and other details, including a player’s lapses in concentration.“He could write like 10 books with all the notes he’s taking. It’s hilarious,” Andreescu said.Swiatek, right, meeting Andreescu at the net after winning their quarterfinal match.Alex Pantling/Getty ImagesAndreescu, as Canada’s first and only Grand Slam singles champion, has already had a book written about her called “Bianca Andreescu: She the North,” published in 2019, and has written one herself, a picture book published last year titled “Bibi’s Got Game: A Story about Tennis, Meditation and a Dog Named Coco.”But with the surprise retirement of the reigning Wimbledon and Australian Open champion Ashleigh Barty earlier this season, the leaders of the women’s game can only hope that Andreescu’s tennis story is just beginning.She has an incandescent game as was clear to Hantuchová and anyone else who watched the opening set on Friday before Swiatek kicked into a gear that Andreescu was not ready to match, at least not yet.“She clearly gained some confidence from that first set,” Andreescu said. “I was trying to be more aggressive, but at least in the second set I was missing by inches. But she’s on a 25-match streak, well make that 26 now, for a reason.” More

  • in

    Rafael Nadal Falls Apart on Clay, Just in Time for the French Open

    Nadal, playing in pain in a loss to Denis Shapovalov at the Italian Open, came away downbeat and pensive with the year’s second Grand Slam event less than two weeks away.ROME — Quick and dominant in the first set against Denis Shapovalov, Rafael Nadal was quite the opposite down the stretch at the Italian Open on Thursday night.Late to the ball. Limping between points. Grimacing and wincing even on changeovers. His distress was so visible as the double faults and unforced errors piled up late in the final set that even the Canadian fans sitting high in the center court stands were offering up sympathetic applause for Nadal as their compatriot Shapovalov put the final touches on his victory, 1-6, 7-5, 6-2, in the round of 16.Shapovalov, an elastic and explosive left-hander ranked No. 16, has the tools to trouble even a healthy Nadal. He beat him in their first match in 2017 when Shapovalov was still a teenager, and should have beaten him in last year’s round of 16 at the Italian Open when he failed to convert two match points. He also pushed Nadal to five sets at this year’s Australian Open.But this was far from a healthy Nadal, with his chronic left foot problem, known as Müller-Weiss disease, resurfacing on his favorite surface. With the French Open looming, his mood in the aftermath was as downbeat and pensive as I can recall in nearly 20 years of following his career.“I imagine there will come a time when my head will say ‘Enough,’” Nadal, a 10-time Italian Open champion, said in Spanish, pursing his lips and shaking his head. “Pain takes away your happiness, not only in tennis but in life. And my problem is that many days I live with too much pain.”Nadal said he also had to live with taking “a ton of anti-inflammatories daily to give myself the ability to train.”“That is my reality,” he said. “And there have been many days, like today, when the moment comes that I can’t do it.”Nadal struggling in the third set against Shapovalov.Fabio Frustaci/EPA, via ShutterstockHe finished with 34 unforced errors and just 13 winners on Thursday, and the question now is whether the most successful clay-courter in history will even be able to play at the French Open, the Grand Slam tournament he has won a record 13 times.“I’m going to keep dreaming about that goal,” Nadal said of the tournament. “The negative thing is today it’s not possible to play for me, but maybe in two days things are better. That’s the thing with what I have on my foot.”The French Open will begin in nine days on May 22, although Nadal might not have to play until May 24 because the French Open, which starts on a Sunday, stages its first round over three days.Though Nadal, who will turn 36 next month, has often shown astonishing fighting spirit and recuperative powers, this will be a challenge like no other for him in Paris in the springtime.“Definitely tough to see him in pain there at the end; I never want to see that, especially with a great legend like Rafa,” said Shapovalov, who still had to produce bold tennis and big serves to win on Thursday. “Hopefully he’s OK. He brings so much to our sport. Hopefully he’s fit and ready to go for the French.”The only time Nadal has triumphed at Roland Garros without winning a clay-court tournament earlier in the year was in 2020, the pandemic-shortened season when the start of the French Open was moved to October and nearly the entire clay-court season was canceled.This year, the schedule has been back to normal but not for Nadal. After a torrid start to the season, with 20 straight victories and a record 21st Grand Slam singles title at the Australian Open, his clay-court campaign was delayed by a stress fracture in his ribs that kept him from competing or practicing normally for six weeks.He returned for the Madrid Open this month and was upset by the 19-year-old Spanish sensation Carlos Alcaraz in the quarterfinals and has now experienced his earliest defeat at the Italian Open since 2008, when Juan Carlos Ferrero, a former No. 1 who is now Alcaraz’s coach, surprised Nadal in the second round.Nadal went on to win the 2008 French Open anyway, overwhelming his archrival Roger Federer in the final, but Nadal had already won the titles in Monte Carlo, Barcelona and Hamburg that year.This season, he is short on matches and victories on clay while established threats like Novak Djokovic and Stefanos Tsitsipas, and new ones like Alcaraz, have established firmer footing.Shapovalov, left, chatting with Nadal at the end of their match. “Definitely tough to see him in pain there at the end,” Shapovalov said.Alessandra Tarantino/Associated Press“Ultimately even the greatest players can’t beat Father Time,” said Brad Stine, the veteran American coach now working with Tommy Paul. “It’s getting to that point for Rafa. What he did in Australia was beyond exceptional, but I think we have been seeing the collateral damage of his great start to the season. If healthy, he is still a favorite week in and week out, but that if is a big one. ‘If the body breaks down’ is not included in Kipling’s poem.”That is a reference to “If,” an excerpt from which is posted at the players’ entrance to Wimbledon’s Centre Court.It is difficult after 15 years of watching Nadal nearly always prevail over adversity and the opposition at Roland Garros to imagine that he truly won’t find a way to pose a challenge.“I will fight for it,” he said grimly. “I will continue to believe during this week and a half.”What is clear is that, for a change, he should not be the favorite. “No way,” said Mark Petchey, the veteran coach and analyst. “Lots of co-favorites and players with genuine chances to win.”His longer list includes the defending champion, Djokovic; last year’s other finalist, Tsitsipas; Alcaraz; Alexander Zverev; Casper Ruud; and the young Italian Jannik Sinner.Nadal, since losing to Djokovic in a four-set semifinal in Paris last June, has played just five matches on clay, losing two of them.Watching him struggle, then eventually hobble on Thursday, was a reminder that nothing is eternal, not even Nadal on the surface that he has made his own. More

  • in

    Naomi Osaka Leaves IMG to Start Her Own Agency, Evolve

    Already the world’s top-earning female athlete, Osaka is leaving IMG to start a sports representation company with her longtime agent, Stuart Duguid.The tennis career of Naomi Osaka, one of the biggest sports celebrities in the world, has taken on certain familiar characteristics during the past 16 months.Her achievements have been limited on the court because of a series of self-imposed layoffs to manage her struggles with mental health, motivation challenges and the occasional physical ailment, but she has enjoyed wild success off the court, solidifying her status as one of the world’s highest-paid athletes and by far the highest-paid female athlete.As she sits out the Italian Open to nurse an Achilles’ injury and prepare for the year’s second Grand Slam event, the French Open, set for later this month, Osaka announced that she would be starting a representation agency to take further control of her mounting business portfolio. Osaka and her longtime agent, Stuart Duguid, have left IMG, the sports and entertainment conglomerate, to begin Evolve, which will manage Osaka’s business interests and potentially those of other clients the agency may sign.News of Osaka’s decision to start Evolve was first reported by Sportico.A four-time Grand Slam singles champion, Osaka, 24, earned roughly $60 million last year, according to Forbes, with an estimated $55 million coming from more than a dozen corporate sponsors. She was tied for 12th on the Forbes list of top-earning athletes with Tiger Woods. Conor McGregor, the mixed martial artist, held the top spot on the list, earning $180 million.In an interview Wednesday, Duguid said Osaka’s main priority remained winning tennis matches and tournaments. He said her typical day involves training and treatments with her physiotherapist in the morning followed by lunch, but once that is over, she almost always wants to engage in her cultural or business interests.“She’s not someone who likes to play video games and binge Netflix all day,” said Duguid, who has worked closely with Osaka since she was a teenager.Osaka’s ranking has tumbled in the past year and a half, largely because she has played so little. She was ranked second in the world at the beginning of 2021, but dropped to 85th this year. She made the finals of the Miami Open in April, and is up to 38th, and she hopes to climb back into the top 10 by the end of the year.“I’d be lying if I said I didn’t want to be No. 1 again,” she said at the tournament in Miami.A spokesman for IMG declined to comment.Osaka during the women’s singles final at the Miami Open in April.Wilfredo Lee/Associated PressLosing a star of Osaka’s magnitude is a significant loss for the company, though it will most likely continue to earn money on existing endorsement deals that it negotiated on her behalf. She is one of a handful of transcendent tennis stars IMG has represented in the past two decades. Roger Federer and Rafael Nadal left the IMG fold in recent years to start businesses with their agents, Tony Godsick and Carlos Costa.For Osaka, the goal of Evolve is not simply to save money on paying commissions to a third party, but also to grow her business portfolio to $150 million annually in the coming years, from roughly $50 million today, but not by signing deals that put more company logos on her tennis outfits.Duguid said Osaka might actually pare down her endorsement portfolio. The model for Evolve is similar to businesses set up by several of Osaka’s role models in the sports industry, many of whom have become close friends, including LeBron James and Stephen Curry. Osaka was also close with Kobe Bryant, who died in 2020 in a helicopter crash and who was an early mentor to her.She has been weighing a venture like Evolve since the Tokyo Olympics, where she lit the Olympic cauldron and was the face of the Games in Japan, her home country. Osaka has wanted more leeway to invest in businesses, have an ownership stake in them and grow her own. She started Kinlò, a skin care products company focused on people with melanated, or darker, skin tones, last year.That announcement came days after Osaka exited the U.S. Open after being upset by Leylah Fernandez, an unseeded Canadian, in the third round. She announced in a teary news conference after the match that she planned to take an indefinite break from tennis. She had previously taken seven weeks off after she dropped out of the French Open last spring following a conflict with tournament organizers. Osaka had stated that she would not participate in mandatory news conferences after matches. Organizers had threatened to throw her out of the tournament if she did not fulfill her news media obligations, so Osaka withdrew.Neither the breaks nor her drop in the rankings appears to have affected her ability to grow her business off the court. Now, Duguid said, she will try to retain her leading position off the court as she tries to regain the one she once had on it.“This is something that scratches an itch on the side for her,” he said. More

  • in

    Are the Next Global Tennis Stars Among These ’Tweens?

    ACHARNES, Greece — Behold Dominik Defoe. Ten years old and barely taller than the net. Golden brown shoulder-length curls bouncing in the air as he chases and crushes tennis balls, which he does better than just about any kid his age.Defoe loves to fiddle with the GPS in his mother’s car, so in the morning when they head to school, the phone directs them to Roland Garros, site of the French Open. He does it so often that his mother knows Roland Garros is 2 hours 47 minutes away from their home in Belgium.Defoe was nearly in tears earlier this year when he received one of the 48 invitations from IMG, the sports and entertainment conglomerate, to attend the first Future Stars Invitational Tournament at the posh Tatoi Club in the northern suburbs of Athens. The event, for boys and girls aged 12 and under, is both a tournament and a weeklong education in the life that might await Defoe and his rarefied peers, complete with seminars led by executives at Nike and the men’s and women’s pro tours, the ATP and the WTA.The race to find the sport’s next stars has come to this: With eight-figure fortunes potentially at stake, agents and scouts are evaluating and cultivating players even younger than 10 who are just getting started in serious competition. Future Stars is the newest and most extravagant recruitment effort for IMG, the company that essentially invented the sports representation business and dominated tennis for years.“Nobody wants to have a tournament for 11- and 12-year-olds,” said Max Eisenbud, who leads the company’s tennis division. “I’d rather wait, but the competition forced us into this situation.”For years, IMG’s agents collected future stars in two ways: Tweens and young teens (Maria Sharapova for example) either showed up at its academy in Bradenton, Fla., once the premier training ground in the sport, looking for one of the plentiful scholarships; or the agents showed up in Tarbes, France, for Les Petit As, the world’s premier tournament for players younger than 14. There, they often had something close to the pick of the litter.Max Eisenbud, onetime agent to Maria Sharapova and today a senior vice president of IMG Tennis, poses for a portrait on an indoor court at the Tatoi Club.Myrto Papadopoulos for The New York TimesDuring the past decade though, rival academies opened across Europe and IMG’s academy focused more on profiting from families paying tuition rather than making long-shot bets on teenagers. Also, in recent years, when Eisenbud and his colleagues made their annual trips to Les Petit As, they found that nearly all the most promising players had already signed contracts with other management companies, many of them well-funded boutique operations that were offering generous financial guarantees, sometimes stretching well beyond covering the roughly $50,000 annual cost for coaching and travel on the junior circuit.And so, in a sign of cutthroat times in tennis, IMG is aiming younger, even if prospecting preteen talent can be nearly impossible and highly fraught, risking increasing the pressure on children who already put plenty on themselves and, in some cases, carry the financial responsibilities for their struggling families.If stars like Naomi Osaka and Bianca Andreescu, Grand Slam tournament champions who are in their 20s, have had to take breaks from tennis to care for their mental health, it’s not a stretch to consider the risks of raising expectations so explicitly for prepubescent children. During a talk for the girls on how to stay physically and mentally healthy, Saga Shermis, an athlete development specialist with the WTA, said she expected to see them on the tour in the coming years. It can be a lot.“At this age they are still learning,” said Adam Molenda, a youth coach with Poland’s tennis federation, after watching two of his players, Antonina Snochowska and Maja Schweika, rally for an hour on Monday. “You never can say who will make it. Life is full of surprises.”And decisions.Grace Bernstein, a young Swedish standout, floated across the court and blasted balls against a boy as her mother watched from the fence. Whether she plays tennis or cards, Bernstein competes relentlessly, said her mother, Catharina, a former player whose singles ranking peaked at 286 in 1991. She plays at an academy run by Magnus Norman, once the world’s second-ranked men’s singles player. She is also a top soccer player.“She goes back and forth, but for now it’s tennis, so she plays tennis,” Catharina Bernstein said.Dominik Defoe, far right, participated in outdoor games organized on the sidelines of the event; these games aim to provide the children with an opportunity to decompress and bond.Myrto Papadopoulos for The New York TimesFor some, fame and fortune really can seem inevitable. Eisenbud famously signed Sharapova when she was 11 years old after watching her hit for 45 minutes with an intensity and flawlessness he had never before seen. Carlos Alcaraz, who turns 19 on Thursday and is already the hottest young player in the men’s game, was deemed worthy of investment as a can’t-miss 11-year-old, too. Then again, Eisenbud was sure the first player he signed, Horia Tecau of Romania, was destined for greatness. Tecau became a top doubles specialist but never cracked the top 300 in singles.Eisenbud hatched his plan 18 months ago for a lavish competition with most expenses covered and all the perks of a professional event — ball kids, chair umpires, immaculate red clay courts, Beats headphones and swag from Nike for all the kids.“We want to treat them like professional athletes,” said Elli Vizantiou, the chief executive of the Tatoi Club.Not entirely forgetting they are kids, there was also a treasure hunt, group dinners each night and a tour of the Parthenon. IMG brought in Alcaraz, fresh off his win in the Barcelona Open final, to play an exhibition against Hubert Hurkacz, the 14th-ranked men’s singles player.Assembling the Future Stars field required months of interviews with coaches and tennis federation officials all over the world, evaluating resumes and tournament results, and scouring videos, looking for the magical combination of athleticism and skill. Creating a globally representative field was important, too. Finding a future top 50 player from a country or a demographic group that has never produced a tennis star could be groundbreaking and incredibly lucrative. Players had to come with a chaperone, which in most cases was a parent, and a coach, giving IMG the chance to build relationships..Maria Sharapova at age 11 at the Bollettieri Sports Academy in Bradenton, Fla., in 1998. Gary I. Rothstein for The New York TimesEisenbud encouraged the coaches to pepper the Italian coach Riccardo Piatti, who led a coaching seminar, with questions, describing him as the “best” in the world.Piatti spent Tuesday morning with an eye on Tyson Grant, a top under-12 player whose family he has been working with for nearly seven years. Piatti also oversees the coaching for Tyson’s 14-year-old sister, Tyra, who is already an IMG client. Tyson and Tyra’s father, Tyrone Grant, is nearly 6-foot-8 and played basketball professionally for a decade in Europe. With good genes, an early start and guidance from a renowned coach, Tyson Grant could be a decent bet.A few courts over, Haniya Minhas was ripping one of the great young backhands, which she begins with the nub of her racket handle just about resting on her back hip.“My favorite shot,” she said. “Everyone tells me to extend my arms, but I like the way I do it.”Minhas, 11, is Pakistani and Muslim. She plays in a hijab, long sleeves and tights, and already looks like a billboard in the making. She has been winning tournaments since she was 5 years old. Her search for suitable competition has taken her from Pakistan, where there is little support for girls’ sports and where she competed against and beat all of the boys her age, to Turkey. Her mother, Annie, said she and her daughter want to prove that someone who looks and dresses differently from most players and is from a country that has never had a tennis star can beat anyone. They expect to sign with an agent when Haniya turns 12.“We are trying to change the thinking,” Annie Minhas said.Sevil Parviz, 12 and from Great Britain, rested after practicing on one of the Tatoi Club’s indoor courts.Myrto Papadopoulos for The New York TimesTeo Davidov has a neat trick. Davidov, arguably the top boys’ player under 12, lives in Florida. His parents moved from Bulgaria to Colorado a decade ago when his father won the green card lottery. Born right-handed, he hits forehands on both sides and can serve with either hand, too. His father and coach, Kalin, started trying to make Teo ambidextrous in tennis when he was 8 years old because he was hyperactive. Kalin thought that stimulating the right hemisphere of his brain, which controls attention and memory, and the left side of the body, with left-handed exercises, would make him calmer.“Hopefully it also helps his game,” said Kalin Davidov. The technique is devastating for now, but a top player has never succeeded by playing that way.The Davidovs first got to know Eisenbud and IMG three years ago, after Kalin posted a video of his son’s double-forehand game on Facebook. Soon, the phone rang. Babolat, the French racket maker, is a sponsor.Michael Chang, who won the French Open in 1989 at 17, came with his daughter, Lani, who displayed an awfully familiar-looking drop shot and buried her nose in a Rick Riordan novel on the shuttle bus between the courts and the hotel. Chang said the circuit for young juniors has transformed since his childhood, with far more travel and international competition.“They’re getting a taste of what it’s like,” he said.In 1989 Michael Chang won the French Open at age 17. Now, Chang watches his daughter Lani play at the Tatoi Club.From left: Associated Press; Matthew FuttermanGunther Darkey, a former middling pro from Britain, brought his son, Denzell, a top prospect and one of the few Black elite juniors for the Lawn Tennis Association. Alcaraz has a 10-year-old brother, Jaime, who was good enough to receive an invitation. So was Meghan Knight, the daughter of a well-known cricketer from England.“You’ve got to be the kind of person who from 9 years old can improve consistently while taking losses every week for 10 or 15 years,” said Seb Lavie, who brought two players from his academy in Auckland, New Zealand.Dominik Defoe insisted he is prepared for whatever it takes to make it. He was just about the smallest of the two dozen boys. He still plays with a junior-size racket and struggled to keep up with Grant in his first match. His opponents all try to hit with heavy topspin to bury him in the backcourt. He swats the ball back on a short hop before it kicks above his head.Young players at the IMG tennis camp.Matthew FuttermanDefoe, who is fluent in four languages, promised himself as a toddler that he would win the French Open. He has built his existence around giving himself the best chance to make that happen.He attends school in the morning for math and language lessons, but he works independently on the rest of his studies to free up more hours for tennis. Studying the pros closely, he decided not to have one favorite but built a composite player who has Dominic Thiem’s forehand, Nick Kyrgios’s serve, Novak Djokovic’s backhand, Rafael Nadal’s attitude, Roger Federer’s net game and Felix Auger-Aliassime’s footwork. He practices mindfulness by writing in a journal.“He told me when we were coming here that this journey was like a train ride,” said his mother, Rachel, who was his first coach. “This is just one stop, one station. Then the train goes on.” More

  • in

    Boris Becker Sentenced to Two and a Half Years for Hiding Assets in Bankruptcy

    The former tennis champion was found guilty by a London court on charges related to his 2017 insolvency.LONDON — Boris Becker, the six-time Grand Slam tennis champion, was sentenced to two and a half years in prison on Friday in his bankruptcy case, after he was found guilty by a London court of hiding millions of dollars’ worth of assets and loans to avoid paying his debts.The sentence punctuated a startling fall from grace for Mr. Becker, 54, who parlayed his tennis skill, ebullient personality and business ambitions into a personal fortune before he was found guilty this month at Southwark Crown Court of four charges related to his June 2017 bankruptcy.The bankruptcy case meant Mr. Becker was legally obliged to disclose all of his assets so that they could be used to pay his creditors, but the court found several instances in which he failed to meet his obligations for disclosure.Mr. Becker failed to disclose a property he owned in his home country of Germany, concealed a loan of €825,000 (around $872,000) and assets valued at €426,930.90, and did not disclose shares owned in a gambling tech firm, according to Britain’s Insolvency Service. He was acquitted of 20 other counts relating to his bankruptcy.Mr. Becker made tennis history in 1985 when at age 17, he became the youngest champion in the history of men’s singles at Wimbledon. He went on to win there two more times, in 1986 and 1989, and took three other Grand Slam singles titles: the U.S. Open in 1989 and the Australian Open in 1991 and 1996. He retired from professional tennis in 1999.The tennis star was the subject of enormous attention not just for his success on the court. The tabloids also kept a close watch on his tumultuous love life, including a divorce and a fleeting affair with a Russian woman with whom he fathered a child.The precarious financial situation of Mr. Becker has been under scrutiny for several years.In 2017, a private bank in London, Arbuthnot Latham, made an application for bankruptcy proceedings against Mr. Becker, claiming that payment of a large debt owed by him was nearly two years overdue. He was soon declared officially bankrupt by a London court, which found that he could not repay his debts.That same year, a Swiss court rejected a claim by a former Swiss business partner, who claimed Mr. Becker owed him more than $40 million.As he fended off his creditors, in 2018, Mr. Becker sought to claim diplomatic immunity, because the Central African Republic had named him as its attaché to the European Union for sports, culture and humanitarian affairs.If that claim had been granted, any action against Mr. Becker would have required the approval of the foreign secretary, who at the time was Boris Johnson, the current prime minister. But Mr. Becker eventually dropped the claim.In 2002, Mr. Becker was convicted in Germany of income tax evasion, given two years’ probation and fined nearly $300,000. The verdict came six years after German tax investigators raided Mr. Becker’s home in Munich.Mr. Becker is said to have won millions of dollars in prize money and sponsorship deals. He has had several business ventures over the years, including a line of branded tennis gear. He has often appeared as a television commentator for the BBC at Wimbledon, and he coached Novak Djokovic, the world’s top-ranked men’s singles player, for a few years. More

  • in

    Wimbledon Will Bar Russian and Belarusian Players

    Wimbledon officials have confirmed that they intend to bar Russian and Belarusian players from playing in this year’s tournament because of Russia’s invasion of Ukraine and Belarus’s support of the war.The ban would make Wimbledon the first Grand Slam tennis event to restrict individual Russian and Belarusian athletes from competing. In a statement Wednesday afternoon, Wimbledon confirmed that other tennis tournaments to be held this year in the United Kingdom plan to take the same approach.“Given the profile of The Championships in the United Kingdom and around the world, it is our responsibility to play our part in the widespread efforts of government, industry, sporting and creative institutions to limit Russia’s global influence through the strongest means possible,” the statement read.“In the circumstances of such unjustified and unprecedented military aggression, it would be unacceptable for the Russian regime to derive any benefits from the involvement of Russian or Belarusian players with The Championships.”Wimbledon, one of the four Grand Slam tournaments, is scheduled to begin in late June. The tournament, in its statement, left open the possibility of revising its position, stating that “if circumstances change materially between now and June, we will consider and respond accordingly.”The decision would exclude a number of highly ranked players. Four Russian men are ranked in the top 30 on the ATP Tour, including No. 2 Daniil Medvedev, who is the reigning U.S. Open men’s singles champion, although he is recovering from a hernia operation. Russia has five women in the top 40 of the WTA Tour rankings, led by No. 15 Anastasia Pavlyuchenkova. Aryna Sabalenka of Belarus is ranked No. 4 and was a Wimbledon semifinalist last year. Her compatriot Victoria Azarenka, a former No. 1, is ranked No. 18.After the war began in February, professional tennis organizers were quick to bar the Russians and their Belarusian allies from team events like the Davis Cup and the Billie Jean King Cup, both of which were won by Russian teams in 2021. The sport’s seven governing bodies announced that ban collectively on March 1.And the men’s and women’s tour events in Moscow later this season were canceled, as were a number of lower-tier events in Russia and Belarus. The International Tennis Federation also announced the suspension of the Russian Tennis Federation and Belarusian Tennis Federation from I.T.F. membership.But Russian and Belarusian players have been permitted to continue competing on the professional tours as individuals albeit without any national identification. There are no longer flags or countries listed next to their names on scoreboards, in draws or in the published computer rankings.Russia’s Daniil Medvedev during the 2021 Wimbledon tournament. He is currently ranked No. 2 in men’s singles.Adrian Dennis/Agence France-Presse — Getty ImagesBut there have been calls for a full ban from several former and current Ukrainian players, including the rising women’s star Marta Kostyuk and the former player Olga Savchuk, the captain of Ukraine’s Billie Jean King Cup team, which competed against the United States in Asheville, N.C., last week.“I think it’s just a matter of time,” Savchuk said in an interview. “It’s not me who’s making the decision, but I think they should also be banned from playing as individuals. It cannot just be a sanction against 90 percent of the Russian people and 10 percent not.”“It has to be even,” Savchuk added. “And I think it’s collective guilt.”But while some other international sports, including track and field and figure skating, have barred individual Russian and Belarusian athletes from some competitions, professional tennis had adopted a more conservative approach.Russia-Ukraine War: Key DevelopmentsCard 1 of 3A new phase of the war. More

  • in

    Ukraine Team Finds Escape, and Almost an Upset, Against U.S.

    A supportive tennis crowd in Asheville, N.C., watched the Ukrainians nearly pull off an upset of the United States in a Billie Jean King Cup qualifier.ASHEVILLE, N.C. — The Ukrainian comeback attempt had come up just short, and Dayana Yastremska and her four teammates were preparing to pose for their final formal photograph at this Billie Jean King Cup qualifier.The blue and yellow ribbon representing Ukraine that had been stenciled onto the tennis court by special permission was no longer visible, obscured by the red, white and blue streamers that had fallen to the ground as part of the Americans’ celebration after their 3-2 victory Saturday night.The Ukrainians, with some help from the United States’ team captain, Kathy Rinaldi, cleared away some of the streamers. But as another official began removing them altogether, Yastremska insisted that they remained next to the ribbon for the photograph.“They were in the colors of U.S.A., and I wanted to leave this near the Ukrainian colors,” she said in an interview. “Because I think it’s a good sign of the support we got here and a sign for peace. I wanted it to stay.”It was that kind of week in Asheville: The symbolic gestures were more indelible than the results, and the usual rules of engagement were rewritten in an attempt to dull the edges of a national team competition.“It’s been hard not to cry,” said Billie Jean King, 78, the American who once starred in this competition, which was formerly known as the Fed Cup long before it was renamed for her in 2020. She visited both teams on Friday shortly before play began. “I just hope the Ukrainians had a moment of escapism.”After Russia invaded Ukraine in February, United States Tennis Association officials offered to postpone this qualifying-round match. The Ukrainians demurred, but when it came time to book hotels in Asheville, they conceded they no longer had the money for the usual visiting team expenses.“We said, ‘No problem, we will cover all your local costs,’” said Stacey Allaster, the chief executive for professional tennis at the U.S.T.A., which also provided support staff to the delegation. “With the war, it’s so horrifying what’s going on. What can any individual do? But we can all do little things, and what we can do is provide a platform for the Ukrainians to demonstrate that they are strong and fighting and are not going to quit.”The posters around this city in the Blue Ridge Mountains did not read, “U.S.A. vs. Ukraine.” They read, “U.S.A. hosts Ukraine.” On changeovers, the scoreboard flashed information on how to donate to the Ukraine Crisis Relief Fund, and about $225,000 was raised in connection with the matches. The American cheering squad supported individual players instead of chanting, “Go U.S.A.!”“We were just trying to find the proper tone and balance,” Allaster said.The Ukrainian players, all of whom still have family members in their embattled country, felt the job was done right: from the informal dinner for the teams at an Asheville restaurant on Tuesday night to the stirring a cappella rendition of the Ukrainian national anthem by Julia Kashirets that left members of both teams in tears minutes before the matches began.Julia Kashirets sang the Ukrainian national anthem at the Billie Jean King Cup qualifier on Saturday.Eakin Howard/Getty Images“We came here to play not against the U.S.A. but with the U.S.A. for Ukraine, and that’s how it felt to me,” Katarina Zavatska said. That was in part because of the numerous fans with Ukrainian connections and flags. Christina Dyakiv, 15, from William Floyd High School in Mastic Beach on Long Island, traveled to Asheville with her Ukrainian-born parents. Juliia Sherrod, a Ukrainian former leading junior player who now lives in Knoxville, Tenn., made the two-hour drive on short notice.“Every little win counts in any field for Ukraine right now,” said Sherrod, 35, who also goes by Yulia. “In the big scheme of things, a tennis match is no big deal, but it still means a lot.”In that supportive atmosphere, the Ukrainians nearly managed the upset. After falling behind, 0-2, on Friday, they won both singles matches on Saturday in straight sets. Yastremska, a former top-25 player now ranked 93rd on the WTA Tour, often overwhelmed No. 14 Jessica Pegula. More surprisingly, the 201st-ranked Zavatska defeated No. 46 Shelby Rogers.That meant the concluding doubles match would be decisive, and Pegula and Asia Muhammad, making her King Cup debut, earned a 7-6 (5), 6-3 victory over Yastremska and Lyudmyla Kichenok.“All day we just really felt that fighting spirit of Ukraine,” Rogers said. “It was really special to see, but really tough to go against. I’m just so proud of my team for stepping up to that, having nerves of steel.”Asia Muhammad, left, celebrated with Jessica Pegula after winning the concluding doubles match that qualified the U.S. team for the Billie Jean King Cup finals.Susan Mullane/USA Today Sports, via ReutersThe first set of the doubles match came down to very little. With Muhammad serving at 5-6, 30-30, the Americans had to scramble to win the longest, most spectacular rally of the match, and at 5-5 in the tiebreaker, Kichenok’s full-cut passing shot struck the very top of the tape.“She wanted to take a little bit of risk,” Yastremska said, making a tiny space between her right thumb and index finger. “Just like this, in the net!”The victory qualified the Americans for the 12-team King Cup finals in November, but the Ukrainians are not necessarily eliminated. One wild-card slot is available, and depending on which nation is selected to host the finals, it might be available to Ukraine.A full-strength Ukrainian team could be formidable: No. 25 Elina Svitolina and No. 53 Marta Kostyuk, the country’s two highest-ranked singles players, missed this match because of injuries and personal issues.“I don’t want to be arrogant, but maybe we deserve this,” Zavatska said.Russia won the King Cup last year before being barred from this year’s competition because of the invasion. Olga Savchuk, the Ukrainian team captain in Asheville, believes tennis needs to take the next step and bar Russian players from individual events as well, something Wimbledon is considering.“Why is somebody who works in McDonald’s in Russia losing their job because of sanctions and the tennis players are exceptions?” Savchuk said.Zavatska, 22, who is based in southern France, believes the Russians need to take responsibility and “feel discomfort too, as long as people and children are dying in Ukraine.” She said some Russian and Belarusian players had told her the news of atrocities coming out of Ukraine was “fake.” The guilt some of the players felt in the first month at being safe while other Ukrainians were in so much peril has been superseded by the belief that they can be sporting ambassadors.“With people watching us back home on TV, you want them just to take a couple of hours to enjoy the tennis and to see that some Ukrainian girls are fighting for the country as well,” Yastremska said.Katarina Zavatska of Ukraine celebrated her win against Shelby Rogers of the United States on Saturday, which put the countries in a 2-2 tie.Susan Mullane/USA Today Sports, via ReutersSusan Mullane/USA Today Sports, via ReutersThe arena in Asheville, in scale and design, reminded Savchuk and Yastremska of where the Ukrainian team played home matches in Kharkiv, which has been heavily damaged by Russian bombardments.Savchuk, now based in London, was born and raised in Donetsk in the disputed Donbas region and her father remains in Donetsk. “He decided to stay because it’s home,” said Savchuk, who said her relatives have spent long stretches in bomb shelters.Kichenok fled the country after the war started and needed 31 hours to get from Kyiv to Moldova with her parents. Her twin, Nadiia, also part of Ukraine’s team, left Kyiv just before Russia invaded, traveling to California with her husband.“It was two days of hell for me until they got to a safe place,” Nadiia said of her family. “I had constant panic attacks. I never experienced anything like that, like 40 minutes your body is shaking, and you don’t know what to do besides deep breaths.”The Kichenoks’ father, who is 64, has since returned to Ukraine and tried to volunteer for the military despite exceeding the age limit.“They told him, ‘Grandfather, go back home,’” Nadiia Kichenok said. “‘We have too many people here. We will call you when we need you.’”Yastremska, 21, fled Odesa, her home city, with her 15-year-old sister, Ivanna, crossing into Romania after saying goodbye to their parents on the Ukrainian side of the Danube River. The sisters have been traveling on tour together for nearly two months while their parents remain in Odesa, where one of their tasks has been organizing relief efforts through Yastremska’s charitable foundation.Unable to return home, the Yastremska sisters remain without a fixed training base, but they will head next to Madrid to prepare for the clay-court season. The Kichenok twins will travel to Stuttgart, Germany, for a tournament, and Zavatska will return to Cannes, France, where she is sharing her small apartment with her mother and other relations who fled Ukraine.After a week of togetherness and a final night of karaoke with the Americans on Saturday, the Ukrainians will move on, but with the hope that Asheville and the wider world do not move on too quickly.“I don’t want people to get used to this grief that we are experiencing,” Nadiia Kichenok said. “We don’t want people to be sorry for us. We want them to stay strong with us, fighting for freedom and humanity.” More