Tougher than expected for Andy Murray who needs 3 sets to defeat Pierre-Hugues Herbert in the second round of the Monte Carlo Masters. Murray had his best clay season last year, with wins in Munich and Madrid, as well as a semifinal in Roland Garros. How well do you think he will play on clay this year?
Interview by Vincent Cognet for l’Equipe, translation by Tennis Buzz:
Q: Are you interested in this controversy over equal prize money in tennis or does it bother you?
It annoys me, for sure! I see no reason to change that. What bothers me is the cyclical side of this controversy. Beside that, there are some valid points. The men’s tour is actually more attractive than the women’s tour. There is no debate: probably three of the six greatest players in history are playing at the same time. The women’s tour has seen a period like this, ten years ago. What I don’t understand is that money earned by women is not earned to the detriment of men… So where’s the problem? Obviously, Roger, Rafa and Novak are carrying all of tennis, including women’s tennis that is not at that level. But why shouldn’t everyone profit from it? I find this discussion very sterile.
Q: But you understand the players’ position …
If we speak of the Grand Slams, it is understandable. They play best of five, it’s not the same format … Valid argument. I understand it well because I am rather favorable that women play best of five sets in the final rounds. Ot that men play best of three in the early rounds of the tournament. There aren’t many balanced matches in the first week. At the same time, adding a third set for the women could make the semis or finals more interesting.
Q: Do you think this debate exhales reeks of machismo or sexism?
Society as a whole is still and always sexist. We have the chance to play in a sport where equality is defended. We even may be trailblazers. And I’m happy about it.
Q: Have you talked about it with Andy (Murray)?
Obviously. Given the context, it was obvious. (She smiles.) I knew very well what he was going to say to journalists. We’d talked about it before. I asked him his opinion before his press conference and we discussed. I did not dictate him anything. He has very strong opinions about it. And above all, he has very interesting arguments. He has a very broad, very Anglo-Saxon vision of things. For him a woman ranked 100th in the world must have the same opportunities as a man ranked 100th. His view is: why should a man ranked 7Oth in the world earn more than Serena, just because he has a pair of balls and is born in the same era as Djokovic, Nadal and Federer, even though he doesn’t sell a single ticket? The debate isn’t about whether the men’s tour is more attractive. It’s about equal opportunities. And Andy has understood this perfectly.
Q: Problems within the French Tennis Federation, suspicions of match-fixing, Maria Sharapova failed drug test, the debate on equal prize money: is tennis suffering?
Yes. The image conveyed is terrible. It saddens me deeply. I find it pitiful. We are talking constantly about all these cases. We never talk about performance, values, commitment, sweat, transcendence. Yet this generation is exceptional. But it’s clear that tennis is taking a hit right now. Betting fixes, doping … There’s only one thing to do: keep fighting and cleaning up.
Q: Will we have again a golden era for women’s tennis (2000-2005)?
Hard to answer … Will Bouchard replace Sharapova? Impossible to know it. Two things characterized our time. First, the density of champions. We had, at the same time, Williams, Henin, Clijsters, Sharapova, Davenport, Capriati, me, etc. It was just huge. Then, very different personalities, stories and charisms. Today, do we have both? Among the twenty-two, twenty-three years old, we have Bouchard, Keys, Muguruza … and “Caro” (Garcia) and “Kiki” (Mladenovic) in France. Do they have charisma? It’s hard to say. They would have to show it very quickly, in any case. But the problem is that it is hard to exist when you rub shoulders with Williams and Sharapova. Often,
people reveal themselves when they get rid of strong personalities that surround them and maybe stifle them.
It will be easier for young players to win, but also to position themselves, to open up, unfold and be assertive.
Q: It is important?
Essential. It’s sport after all! Values in sport are keys. What happens with Sharapova’s positive test is terrible. A champion like her involved in a doping story, it’s horrible for the image of tennis.
You have to try to be impeccable. The road is not always linear but you can also get better with time. Serena did it for example. She better takes the full measure of her role and responsibilities now than ten years ago. Young players don’t realize that. At least not yet.
Q: Are we right to worry about the women’s tour, post-Williams and post-Sharapova?
In the same way we can worry for men’s tennis! What about after-Federer, Nadal and Djokovic? These guys are legends. And it’s hard to replace legends. In fact, today, I put both circuits in the same basket.
Men’s tennis is not safe from falling out or disinterest. For now, the Kyrgios, Zverev, Coric don’t exist. There is a world between them and the “Big Four”. But this can change.
Q: Are the ATP and the WTA as consistent one than the other?
The only thing I can say, is that ATP seems much more pro-active. But the era is favourable for them. When was the WTA stronger? In my time, because there was a bunch of champions. Today, the WTA is more of a follower.
Q: Is it not also too protective? When the Sharapova case happened, the WTA gave prepared replies to all players!
I saw that. I’ll tell you something: to varying degrees, it has always existed. They are afraid. But honestly, I think the players say what they want. I think they should not do it but in my opinion, it changes nothing. I don’t have the image of girls standing to attention.
Q: In addition, it would go against what they are looking for: the expression and the development of personality…
Exact. Instead, explaining the situation to a player before a press conference can only be a plus. There, the WTA has a role to play. But they can say to a player: “It would be good to say that,” I am pretty sure it has no impact.
Q: Would you be interested in taking part to participate to a working group about the future and promotion of women’s circuit?
I should be… but no! (She bursts laughing.) I prefer to be on the court. I hope to contribute but in another way. By being Fed Cup captain in particular. I like to see this team leads people behind it. But to sit around a table meeting after meeting, is not my thing. I’m more into action. Providing direction, inculcating values, imposing respect … that’s what drives me.
Extract from Andy Murray: Tennis Ace by John Murray
The early January tournaments were warm-ups for the main event of the month, which was the first Grand Slam of the year – the Australian Open. With a ranking well inside the top 100, Andy was guaranteed entry into all the Grand Slams and didn’t have to worry about qualifying any more. But his debut appearance in Melbourne was short lived, ending in a first-round defeat to Juan Ignacio Chela. With that, his Australian adventure was over until the following year.
His next tournament took him all the way back to Europe – nearly 10,000 miles away – to Zagreb, Croatia. The draw wasn’t kind to him: he was up against wold No. 5 and local favorite Ivan Ljubicic, and lost in three sets.
It had been a long way to go for another first-round defeat, but that was part and parcel of being a professional tennis player. Sometimes things don’t go your way, sometimes they do – as Andy was to find out in his next event. After he had travelled another 6,000 miles to get there, of course!
Andy had a new travel companion for his trip to the SAP Open in San Jose, California. Normally he went to tournaments with his coach at the time, Mark Petchey, or his mum, Judy, and sometimes both. Neither had made the journey across the Atlantic this time; instead he was accompanied by his girlfriend, Kim Sears.
Kim, also 18, had first met Andy at the previous year’s US Open. A student at the University of Sussex, she had an artistic side, having studied drama, music and art for her A-levels at school. Yet while Kim might not have been a fellow tennis pofessional, she certainly had the sport in her blood. Her father Nigel was a top British tennis coach (in 2011 he became the coach of former world number one Ana Ivanovic).
This was the first time Kim had travelled with Andy to a tournament. Could she be a good-luck charm as he tried to win his fist ATP title? It cerrtainly appeared that way in the early rounds as her boyfriend beat Mardy Fish for the loss of only four games and was no less dominant against Jimmy Wang, conceding six games. Robin Soderling won the first set of their quarter-final clash, but Andy bounced back to book a spot in the last four.
He would need more than just good fortune to advance to the final, however, as he was up against a formidable foe in Andy Roddick – the player with probably the most lethal serve in the world. The top-seed was the highest-ranked opponent he had faced since Federer, but that didn’t bother Andy. he refused to wilt under pressure and won 7-5 7-5. It was the highest-profile victory of his career so far.
Admittedly, not many of Australia’s Grand Slam titles had come in the past 20 years, but one player who had taken home a couple was facing Andy on the other side of the net. In 2001, the year he had won the US Open, Hewitt had become the youngest ever world No.1, aged 21.
The Australian, who was now ranked 11, had not won a tournament since 2003. He began the final with the drive of someone who wanted to change that – fast. Hewitt took the first set 6-2. Murray then gave him some of his own medicine, winning the second set 6-1 to level the match.
The third was much closer. Hewitt showed incredible resolve at 4-5 and 5-6 to hold off two championship points, both times finding a thunderous serve when he needed it most. That took the match to a tie-break, where it was third time lucky for Andy: he grasped the opportunity on his third match point and became the youngest ever Brit to win an ATP Tour title.
After shaking hands with his opponent and the umpire, it was time to thank his biggest supporter all week. He went and gave Kim a kiss.
Extract from 25 Years of the Tennis Europe Junior Tour:
Amidst the frenetic bustle of the ‘village’ set up every year in the foyer of Tarbes’ Parc des Expositions to accompany Les Petits As, a big screen showing the second week of the Australian Open looms over the central eating area. The two tournaments on opposite sides of the globe thus progress concurrently to their respective climaxes: the superstars battling through Melbourne nights before 15,000 spectators for $40m and one of the four greatest prizes in the sport, the juniors fighting their hearts out in a cold indoor hall in the Pyrénées in front of 2,000 diehard fans and no money, but arguably the most prestigious 14 & Under trophy in the world.
It’s about as neat an encapsulation of the extremes of a tennis career as you could find – but it feels fitting to have it here. The iconic competitors whose every forehand and fist pump is magnified and replayed over us may seem larger than life, but many of them once passed through this hall in a small French town: 2015 Australian Open finalists Novak Djokovic and Andy Murray first played each other here in 2000. Fifteen years on, they serve as inspiration to the awestruck kids who dream of following in their footsteps.
“Everyone who wins here is a star!”
marvels top girls’ seed Anastasia Potapova, of Russia – the eventual champion this year.
Tarbes, a community of 50,000 in the foothills of the Pyrenees, has a proud sporting tradition – indeed, it was voted the third sportiest town in France by L’Équipe in 2010 based on the quantity and variety of sports it offered, and the financial support for them. It made sense, then, that Jean-Claude and Claudine Knaebel – a local couple with a passion for tennis – found it an accommodating site for their brainchild back in 1983.
“We knew that the 12-14 year olds were good players already – but amateurs, while the category above them had already started playing on the professional circuit,” says Claudine. “We wanted to give the youngsters experience in their own tournament.”
The local authorities immediately suggested the cavernous Parc des Expositions as a suitable venue, and – with coaches used as offices, a physio set up in a caravan and Yannick Noah, who went on to win Roland Garros that year, gracing posters – the first edition of Les Petits As welcomed competitors from four countries. By this year, that number had grown exponentially, with 32 countries represented across the singles main draws: traditional European hubs of the sport (France, Spain); recent emergent forces (Russia, Croatia), and overseas contingents travelling from as far as Asia and North America. The globalisation of tennis has been one of its most important narratives over the past two decades, and the quarter-final stage at Les Petits As proved a strong reminder of this. Over the day’s play, the diminutive fleet-footed Maltese Helene Pellicano took on the powerful Polish second seed Iga Swiatek in an absorbing match of stylistic contrasts; the ultra-aggressive strokes of Japan’s poker-faced Himari Sato, at 12 the youngest player left in either draw, thrilled spectators for a set as she pushed Russian 14th seed Kamilla Rakhimova to the brink of exit – but proved her undoing as they began to misfire throughout the deciding set. Meanwhile, though, another member of the Asian competitors, Taiwan’s Chun-Hsin Tseng, the boys’ fifth seed, was ruthlessly ending the surprise run of home favourite Adrien Gobat – and would ultimately go on to win the trophy.
Tseng is the latest example of the tournament’s pro-active approach to global expansion that has been so key to maintaining its prestige. Though he had never played in Europe before, tournament referee Michel Renaux had been impressed by the youngster’s game in an American junior event – and by his father’s devotion to his son’s nascent career, working nights so that he could coach his son during the day. Renaux extended a wild card invitation to Tseng – and it paid off, as Tseng swept to the title without the loss of a set, and indeed without the loss of any more than four games in any set, beating Europe’s top player Timofey Skatov (RUS) in the final.
There were echoes of the first time this policy paid off for the Tarbes organisers, back in its 1986 fourth edition.
“We wanted to enlarge the tournament,” recalls Claudine Knaebel. “We went to America and saw Michael Chang, spoke to his family and invited him to play. He came with his mother – it was his first time in Europe.”
The prodigious Chang also won the title – and, of course, just three years later was to become Roland Garros champion, a result that put Les Petits As on the tennis world’s radar in a huge way.
But if effective scouting is one side of the Tarbes story, the tournament’s success can also be attributed to what greets the players during their Pyrenean sojourn. Elite-level junior tennis can have something of a tough reputation: stories of temperamental, pushy or unsporting players, parents and coaches abound, and were famously the reason cited by Richard Williams for withdrawing his daughters, Venus and Serena, from junior competition. Yet at Les Petits As there is no ill behaviour on display, bar a few minor on-court grizzles.
This is a source of some pride to the organisers, who have gone to great lengths to create a ‘village’ atmosphere at the tournament. Food, clothing and equipment stalls line walkways near the courts; before and after their matches, players and coaches can be seen relaxing and socialising with each other. Indeed, Renaux states that the greatest challenge of his job – after maintaining the uniformity of the regulations – is to maintain this atmosphere.
“The aim for the players, because they are so young, is to find some conviviality in the village,” he says. “After the match, if they unfortunately lose, they are still with other players. At other tournaments, it is often just the coach and the hotel.”
This extends to supporting the children in times of real need, as well: the Knaebels recall 1995 as one of their most emotional years, when a talented 13-year-old Belgian competed the week after her mother had died. It was Justine Henin, a future legend of the game – and despite her personal trauma, she managed to make it all the way to the final that year, losing only to Croatia’s Mirjana Lucic.
It’s no wonder, then, that Tarbes holds long-lasting treasured memories for players who go on to professional careers. Renaux beams with pride as he describes Roger Federer and Kim Clijsters sending good luck text messages from Australia to the Petits As players, and 1994 champion Juan Carlos Ferrero later calling his time here his best memory as a junior. This year, one family is making a particularly special return. Way back in 1985, Canada’s Philippe Le Blanc became the first North American competitor at the tournament – again, scouted by the organisers. Two years later, his brother Sébastien followed. Both boys were coached by their father, Guy. This year, Sébastien and Guy are both back – but this time, from a different perspective, as Sébastien’s own son Alexandre is playing. Sébastien, an Olympic and Davis Cup player for Canada during his professional career, reminisces:
“This was such a boost for me, it was probably the start of everything. It hasn’t changed much – all the people, tournament directors and volunteers, are the same. They want the kids to have a good time, and the families also. The Tennis Europe Junior Tour taught me about hard work: make sure you play hard every time. We got lots of matches, met a lot of kids from all over the world. If you stay in Canada, you always play against the same kids and you never know how good you are.”
It’s to this end that Alexandre, who reaches the final of the consolation event, is now based in Barcelona.
“And in Europe you play on the red clay, which is a lot better than North American hard courts to learn the basics of the game,” notes Guy.
In fact, so impressed were the Leblancs by Les Petits As that it even inspired them to try their hand at setting up their own tournament, a 12 & Under team competition in Canada, which already counts much-touted talents such as Taylor Townsend and Françoise Abanda amongst its former players.
“We remembered how this was for us, and we tried to do the same thing,” says Sébastien.
Evidently, a successful tournament doesn’t just create the stars of tomorrow – but is key to the growth of the sport worldwide.
Interview by l’Equipe, translation by Tennis Buzz:
Q: Do yo remember exactly your route to victory here in 2006?
Ouch! (Thinking…) I start with the Chinese Sun. Right? Then Emilie (Loit), and Krajicek who retires. And in the fourth round, who was it? That’s right, Vaidisova! And then I defeat Patty (Schnyder) in the quarterfinals, Kim (Clijsters) in semis and Justine (Henin) in the final.
Q: Do you remember the score of the shortened final?
6-1 2-0 30-0.
Q: After the final, everybody critizices Henin’s attitude. Mats Wilander says “Even crawling she should have finished the match”. But you don’t say anything.
I only do realize that the next day. And suddenly I feel bad. And I say to myself: “But wait, she did that! She only had 3 or 4 more games to play. And she stopped.” Yet she was not dying. You can not do that.
Q: Have you forgiven her?
It took time. When I was still playing, not really. She stole me a moment. And moments like that are rare.
Q: Did she apologize?
Q: Your coach Loic Courteau was annoyed because all the emotion could not get out. And you?
Yes, of course, but I was so sure this tournament was for me. Withdrawal or not, in my opinion I was better.
Q: Did you have the same feeling, six months later in Wimbledon, that the tournament was for you?
Not at all. I was not playing as well at Wimbledon. The final was not good. In Melbourne, before the final, I had no doubt, no stress. Unlike the Wimbledon final, where I hardly slept the night before.
Q: From when did you feel that superiority in Melbourne?
Not immediately. But after my win against Vaidisova and my big match against Patty. Against her, even I won often, it was always tough. But that time, I did dominate her physically and tactically.
Q: Would you have won the tournament if you had not win the Masters in 2015?
It’s related. The Masters are a real trigger. I experienced these Masters a bit like my first Grand Slam. I surfed on that confidence. The winter that following, during preparation, I played like crazy. The practice sessions (lots of them with Alexandre Sidorenko who won the boys’ title the same day as Mauresmo) were amazing.
Q: Yet a few weeks before the Masters, you had reached a low point.
The match agasint Mary Pierce at the US Open had killed me (a 6-4 6-1 loss in the quarterfinals). After the match, I thought “I can’t do it against hard-hitting players. I don’t return as well as these players. I can’t do it.” Mary, Davenport, Venus, Serena, it was going too fast for me. Even Justine who could do more things chose that playing style. Was there some place for me? For change of pace, variation? I asked myself a lot of questions. We thought about it with Lolo (Courteau) and we decided to go to the net even more. But I play two disastrous tournaments, Moscow and Zurich. I win one or two games a set (she loses 6-1 6-1 to Schiavone in Moscow and 6-2 6-0 to Srebotnik in Zurich). I keep questioning myself: I’m 26 and except Novotna, there is no female player winning a first Grand Slam title at that age.
Q: You do not have always known you were a champion
That’s right. I fought against a lot of things related to our sporting culture in France, to our approach to winning or rather our non-approach.
Q: Also fight the “She has a nice game” cliché
Technically, my forehand was not really good, but people said: “She has a nice backhand, she varies her shots, she volleyes”. Efficiency is not a priority in France. I can feel the difference with Andy (Murray) and even before when I worked with Azarenka.
Q: By winning in Melbourne you also get rid of another weight, that of being labeled as the world number one who had not won a Grand Slam. Was it important?
I was eager to put an end to this discussion. But it was not a suffering.
Q: At the 2006 Australian Open, three players retire against you, but you also had big problems..
The morning of my match against Vaidisova, I wake up and I’m panicked. My neck is blocked, I’m upset. I call Michel (Franco, her physiotherapist), he massages me, he does what he can. I play suffering, serving at 130 km/h, but Vaidisova commits lots of unforced errors. That year it is very hot. In the semi finals, with Kim, we play a big match, very physical. We play indoor because it is 40 °C. She twists her ankle because she is tired; back to the hotel, I fainted. The next day I did not come to hit at the stadium.
Q: In 1999, you had also reached the final in Melbourne..
Yes, but in the game, I do not really know why. My game was very instinctive. I do not even know how I was playing back then. In 2006 my game was in place.
Q: You keep good memories of the Château d’Yquem 1937 you drank to celebrate your victory
In fact we drunk it during the summer of 2007. It was excellent.
From 25 years of the Tennis Europe Junior Tour:
You play now with a lot of people you first faced in those days. What do you remember of your current rivals from back then? Famously, you and Djokovic were born in the same week…
Yeah, Novak and I first played at Tarbes and I won 6-0 6-1, so unfortunately times have changed a little since then! We would have been 11 years old, and I can clearly remember the court that we played on and everything. It’s strange because I don’t really remember any of the other matches I played that week, apart from the final, where I remember losing to Alex Krasnoroutskiy of Russia. He’s still around, he’s working now with Svetlana Kuznetsova. But yeah, the match with Djokovic sticks out quite a lot and it’s strange because at the time, when he was eleven years old, he wasn’t yet that good. Once he got to 13, 14 he became really really good.