Nate Walroth: Who pushed you to be a great tennis player? What do you love most about tennis?
Venus Williams: My dad was our biggest champion. He had us out on the court at a young age – I first picked up a racquet when I was 4. We’d practice almost every day after school so very early on it became a major part of my life. It took a lot of work and we spent a lot of hours on the court but I’m glad I put in the work when I did because it has paid off throughout my career. That’s my favorite part of the sport – putting in the work and seeing it pay off. It’s the best feeling.
VW: My inspiration is the chic and fabulous EleVen women who wear our designs. Our newest collections go beyond the tennis court and feature comfortable, easy to wear, fashion-forward activewear staples like tanks, leggings and bralettes that make a perfect outfit for at-home workouts or hanging out. I want women to feel like they are an 11 out of 10 when they wear my collections, even if it’s just at home right now!
NW: Why the name “EleVen”?
VW: EleVen is all about going that one step further. Why be a 10 when you can be an 11? I think it is so important to provide a community of encouragement, empowerment and positivity in a world where there are so many things that can bring us down, especially as a woman. I wanted to create, not just a brand, but a lifestyle that breaks through the chaos and negativity and focuses on the fun, exciting potential that this life has to offer.
NW: You’re a very confident person & player. Do you feel like that’s part of your brand with EleVen?
VW: EleVen is built on the idea of being the best version of yourself. I wanted our EleVen community to feel fabulous, confident and empowered to take on anything both on and off the court!
NW: You famously advocated for equal prize money for women at Wimbledon and consequently for equal pay for women in sports. What motivated you to take a stance for equal prize money?
VW: For me it was simple and clear; it was about standing up for what I believed was right. Tennis has given me so much opportunity in life, including a platform, so when the opportunity came to fight for women across the sport it was an easy decision. I spoke up for both myself and people everywhere who were facing, or will face, the same kind of injustice in their lives.
I’m glad it was able to create a ripple effect and set a precedent. So much positive change has happened since then, and so much positive change is still needed, but I’m happy I was able to do my part and will continue to do so until it doesn’t need to be a conversation anymore.
The Rochester, Minnesota native turned pro in 1999, at the early age of 15. In 2008, Mattek-Sands hit her stride on tour, reaching a career-high in both singles (No. 38) and doubles (No. 24). Her big breakthrough came at the All England Club, where she defeated the 2007 Wimbledon runner-up Marion Bartoli in the fourth round, her first top-10 win of her career.
Mattek-Sands has won over 750 matches at the tour level (singles 363, doubles 388), winning nearly 60% of her contests. The five-time doubles grand slam champion and former number one doubles player in the world (currently 20th) discussed the craziness of the tour during the coronavirus crisis, how she met her husband, her clothing line, and much more.
Nate Walroth: How’s life in Phoenix?
Bethanie Mattek-Sands: It is 75 and sunny here. It’s amazing. I love Phoenix. Any time someone asks me about living in Arizona, I feel like I need to be a tourist guide. I’m always speaking of it highly. It’s an awesome place to live though. Justin (Bethanie’s husband) and I are really happy here.
NW: How did you meet you and Justin meet? Was it in Phoenix?
BMS: Justin had just got done playing college football and he was seeing a doctor named Dr. Conway, in Pennsylvania. And funny enough I had been introduced to Dr. Conway through Qadry Ismail (NFL tight end 1993-02’). He suggested to both of us that we go train in Arizona with Jay Schroeder. He just believed in his system and processes with athletes. Also, Justin was already spending his summers there.
And so Dr. Conway starts telling me about Justin and how we should connect there. Kinda workout together and what not. He was hyping him up big time, but he wasn’t wrong though (laughs).
NW: That’s awesome. Phoenix is a popular place during the spring time. Have you guys ever attended the spring training games?
BMS: I actually train with a lot of baseball players. Spring training is certainly a huge deal here. That’s all people talk about during the spring. It’s crazy. I’ve lived here twelve years and still haven’t made it to a spring training game. I was planning too (this year), but that’ll have to wait another year. I was actually looking forward to it.
NW: Your style has become such a big part of your brand and presence. What inspired you to take a stand with what you wear on tour and really be the creator behind it all?
BMS: Being around tennis this long I realized you don’t always get that behind the scenes access other sports offer. You don’t get that locker room access. I think our outfits give us a chance to show our personality. So, I really appreciate when players show their style. I like when they bring out their fashion on the court. I think it’s unique and interesting and that’s why I’ve done it and ran with it.
NW: Why do you think tennis has struggled to adapt or showcase that aspect of the sport?
BMS: There’s just some things tennis has done forever and it’s because like tennis is so attached to its history. As much as I think that’s important, it’s also important to kinda change with the times a little bit too. How do you attract new fans. How do you get causal sports fans interested in tennis? There are a lot of diehard tennis fans that will love it regardless what Roger is wearing or not wearing. It’s entertainment though. How can we bring that to the forefront? Obviously, without taking away from appreciating the skill and athleticism of these athletes. It’s worth going that route though think. Blending your history and changing with the times.
There’s plenty enough players that would look great in any of the brands lines you see on tour. It would look awesome if they each wore a different outfit. It would also look great for the brands. I feel they need to use these players as almost billboards for your products.
NW: How did you take it upon yourself to change that?
BMS: The way I went about it was I made my own clothing line (laughs). So, I stepped away from all that when I partnered up with Lucky in Love.
I remember the first time I met up with Brad Singer (Lucky in Love creator) and his team we clicked. He just knew and understood the edginess I wanted to bring to the tour.
NW: Do you think the players would’ve played a tournament (s) with no fans if it were an option?
BMS: The players would’ve played with no fans for sure. It wouldn’t have been the same, but under the circumstances I’m sure we would’ve figured it out. But it wasn’t an option for us.
NW: You’ve had great success as a doubles player on tour. What’s the most important thing about forming a good partnership/team? And what do you love about doubles?
BMS: I think having a close relationship with your partner off the court is very important. It makes the transition to the court much easier. A big part of doubles is communication and that’s why being friends with your partner helps.
The biggest difference (between singles & doubles) is you have a buddy out there. I love having someone to talk to and work a game plan with. It’s just a lot of fun.
NW: Yep, for sure. I’m a big fan of doubles. I imagine it can get a little tricky at times to stay close when you’re living across the country or globe from your partner. No?
BMS: Yes and no. For example, Lucie Safarova lived in the Czech Republic and I was in Arizona, but we were able to make our practice court time before tournaments count and had a lot of success together. Having an open line of communication is huge. And you can have that when you’re tight with someone.
NW: Today’s a match day (UK). What does the team typically do leading up to tip-off?
Danielle Wolf: Depending on when the match is…we usually get there about three hours prior. Hit once before we play. Take an hour to eat and prepare for the match with the coaches. Then we’ll go out about an hour before it starts and warm up again.
NW: Do you have any pre-match superstitions?
DW: Hmm. I don’t know if I’d call it a superstition, but I foam roll a lot on match day. Like an excessive amount (laughs). I also re-grip all my racquets before I play. Those are the two main things.
NW: You’re the only senior on this team. How has that experience been?
DW: And I’m a fifth year senior…so like a super senior (laughs). No, it’s good. A lot of the girls kinda look up to me. I get to be that sorta role model for the younger girls on the team. I like setting the example and being that go to person for them. It’s a real honor and I love this team.
NW: You’ve been around the program for a few years now. Have you helped play a role in the recruitment of some of your current teammates? If so, do you enjoy that aspect? I’ve always felt tennis coaches lean on the players a little when it comes to bringing talent in. Thoughts?
DW: I agree. It’s a very different sport in my opinion. Tennis is so much about the chemistry of the team….the environment at practice and matches is really important. Coaches ask the players for their advice and stuff, so it’s fun being able to help. Making sure we bring in girls that we think will be a good fit for us.
NW: Is this the best tennis you’ve played in your career?
DW: Yeah, I think so…I saved it for my last year. I worked a lot with my dad and former Ohio State player BJ Monroe over the winter break and that helped a lot. Also, throughout the summer I hit with my dad a ton and I was able to hit with JJ (Wolf – Danielle’s younger brother). I’ve just been trying to get everything possible out of my last college tennis year.
NW: That’s awesome. Does your Dad still hit a good ball?
DW: I mean he hit incredible. I hit with him indoors once at Camargo over break….and it was the first time he had hit since he his transplants and stuff. I didn’t know it until one of the pros walked up and asked him if he’d been hitting with us after watching. He said it was his first time. I’m like, “Are you serious?! You’ve missed 0 balls and haven’t gotten one drink in that time!” It was crazy (laughs). He’s very unique.
NW: What did you guys focus on in your practice sessions?
DW: My dad and I worked on my backhand a lot in the off-season. I think that gave me a bunch of confidence early in the year and I’ve just kinda rolled with it.
NW: What changed?
DW: I kinda just believe it (backhand) in more (than I used to). I’ve always had a grind backhand, but now if someone hits it to my backhand…I’m like, “Okay great.” It’s not, “Oh, I should try to get a forehand.” I’ve played a lot more offense this year and I’m playing on my terms. If they (opponents) can do that better…then fine, but I’m trying to move forward…get to the net…finish. I’m trying to kinda play more like my brother has been I guess (laughs). Just using my power and strength to get them on their heels.
NW: You just hit your top UTR rating ever? Was it like 10.9?
DW: (jokingly) ugh. Actually, the day after that was released I reached my highest. 11.1 That’s the highest I’ve ever been.
NW: You clinched against #5 Duke in an epic 6-1, 4-6, 7-6 (5) win. (OSU currently #5 was ranked #12 at the time) Pretty cool memory. Finishing it off with that scoreboard pressure.
DW: It was an awesome experience. Obviously, there’s a lot of pressure in that moment, so if I could pick someone to be in that position I would’ve picked myself. So I’m glad I was and able to come through. The scoreboard plays a huge role in that situation, which makes it so much harder. Our court 5 had 9 match points and it was hard for me not to look over, but finally I just zoned in on my court and tried to finish it off. And I did. It was the best feeling ever that I could do it for my team.
NW: JJ is on tour now. Traveling a bunch it seems. And played a couple Challengers in Columbus. Do you guys keep tabs on each other’s matches?
DW: Yes, for sure. We talk every day. I text him good luck before matches. Whenever he’s not playing a tournament and he can be there (in attendance), he will. He obviously travels so much, but after he or I lose we talk and try to help one another. If we win we get excited together. So, it’s a great system. He’s still based here in Columbus, so whenever we get to hang out we do…and tennis is always the main topic.
NW: Did you and JJ always wish to play at the same school in college?
DW: I actually always wanted to play at Ohio State. That was my school growing up. It didn’t work out the first time around…they had a ton of players and there wasn’t really room on the team.
NW: You left Indiana for OSU after your freshman year. What went into that decision?
DW: I always had it in the back of my head that I wanted to be closer to my family. My dad was doing his treatments at the James Hospital. Also, when I was growing up my dad coached the McCarthy brothers that played there and I always was just in love with the school since.
NW: Why did you switch racquets in college? (Head Speed to Babolat Pure Aero)
DW: The Head racquet I was using before was actually heavier than everyone’s racquet on the men and women’s team besides JJ (laughs). Our coaches hit with it and they were complaining their arms were sore after. I had some wrist issues at the time, so they made me switch. The Babolat was a lot lighter and my wrist issues just sort of went away.
NW: Did the lighter stick help add a little extra pop on the serve?
DW: My dad would say that I sort of need to do that more (laughs).
NW: Go bigger?
DW: Yessss. He’s like ya gotta pop it!
NW: How do you enjoy playing doubles in college?
DW: Omg. I love doubles. It’s so much fun. The team aspect of it is awesome. It’s such a different game than singles. I love getting hit at if that makes sense. The reflex part of it is so intense and different. You can get so into it and pump up your teammates. It’s great. A lot of athleticism is required too. You’re fighting balls off at the net and that’s like my favorite part.
NW: Have you given any thought to life after the season? Will you continue playing? Can you picture yourself not being in sports?
DW: That’s a tough question. I think I’ll play a little for sure. I’m not ready for it to be over, yet. Why let my career end when this is like the best I’ve played in my life, you know? So, we’ll see what happens. I don’t think I’ll ever be ready to be uninvolved in sports.
Midwest Tennis Showroom’s Racquet & String Specialist, since 2008.
NW: What’s your role as the specialist when a customer walks in the door?
Chico: My job is just to recommend. I don’t ever tell a customer what they need. I don’t know them. I don’t know how they play or what they like. How can I really, truly know what you need. You have to feel them out. Sometimes kids come in here reluctant, but their parents want them to get involved. I try to bring the excitement to them with a new racquet that fits them. Make sure they have the right tension too, because you want to make it as easy as possible for them to hit it over the net. If you can’t do that, you won’t have any fun playing this great game.
NW: How has the Pro Shop experience changed in your time at Midwest as the Racquet & String Specialist?
Chico: It’s different nowadays because people used to change racquets every 2 to 3 years. Now it’s more like 5 to 7 years. So, it’s become more about the different types of string and trying to upgrade the racquet that way. You have to explain how different string can enhance certain racquets and certain players playing style.
NW: That’s interesting. I normally go 5-6 years, but assumed that was abnormally long.
Chico: Yeah, not necessarily. With the technology that goes into racquets and string now….equipment can last longer if taken care of properly.
NW: When it comes to string, why do so many people play with polyester?
Chico: Truth of the matter is most people choose a polyester string because of the longevity of it….not the playability or feel of it.
NW: Is there a poly you believe is the best of the bunch?
Chico: Tecnifibre’s Black Code is the best polyester for players who play with a lot of spin, in my opinion. The string has four sides, so there’s always a sharp side up (grabbing the ball). RPM Blast supposedly has eight really small sides, making it hard to really have that same effect. It has some texture to it, but it’s more rounded. It doesn’t give you that same spin that Black has. Black Code is the softer and more receptive poly as well.
NW: What are the players on tour using?
Chico: A lot of players on tour use Luxilon. It’s as expensive as RPM, but it doesn’t lose its tension as fast. Polyester loses 20-25% of its tension in a day or two. When you stretch it out…it gives almost immediately. I just feel like 75% of people choose poly because of its durability.
NW: You grew up playing tennis all over the city. Do you think the popularity of tennis in Cincinnati has grown in recent years?
Chico: Yes, for sure. My friend from Chicago and I were talking about the popularity of tennis here vs there the other day. Tennis is much bigger here than it is there. Within 30 minutes of Midwest (Sharonville)….there are probably 10 clubs or so. Those clubs have helped make tennis popular here.
NW: Hopefully, the sport in general is shedding its old reputation as being a rich mans game.
Chico: Oh yeah. I think it has. The game has grown as it’s gotten more exposure. It’s not just for the rich anymore. The game is more at the forefront than it was. When I was young, baseball was it. There weren’t many clubs around then either. The access wasn’t there year around.
I remember when I was in my late 20s and early 30s showing up to tournaments around town…I would be the only black person in the draw almost every time. That doesn’t seem to be the case anymore for kids now, from what I’ve seen.
NW: What was that experience like?
Chico: It never bothered me a bit. It really didn’t. I was motivated to show those kids that I could play. They’d always be surprised to see the black kid playing good tennis. They expected me to be a hack and hustle player I think.
NW: Did you teach your kids how to play?
Chico: I was a self made tennis player and I thought I turned out to be a pretty nice player. So, you know….I thought I could teach my kids to be just as good as me when they were growing up. I wanted them to be like me. But as a parent, you get a little older….and you realize you just want them to be happy doing what they enjoy. I heard my voice and pitch and didn’t want to be the crazy dad pushing his kids on to something they didn’t love.
NW: I think a lot of kids can relate to that. I’m sure cutting out the friction made you guys tighter.
Chico: Oh, definitely. But they always respected my love for the game. My kids like the fact that I play tennis and always have since they were young.
NW: That’s pretty neat. I can relate.
Chico: I used to tell my kids. I’m your dad….but I’m still Chico. I need to be myself. Some people get lost in being a parent, and they lose complete focus on who they were as a person. I can be your dad and I can be me too….and I can be damn good at both.
NW: I have to ask. Is Chico your real name?
Chico: My real name is William, but I’ve gone by Chico my whole life. Even in elementary school teachers would call me Chico, even though I wrote “Willy” on all my papers. I haven’t been called Willy Williams in a long time. I’m not anti that, but I introduce myself as Chico.
NW: You got married fairly recently. How did you meet your wife?
Chico: I met my wife back in 1970 at Withrow high school. She was my high school crush. I was a senior and she was a sophomore. I hadn’t seen her for nearly 35 or 40 years. She had moved to Houston after school, then lived in Dayton for the last 21 years. We ran into each other at a wedding actually, and old sparks turned into new flames. We then got married on my 66th birthday, in 2018. It’s awesome. We still have fun like we did in high school. I knew anybody I dated or married had to be cool with me playing tennis….and she loves that I play. Tennis is what I do. You gotta have somebody to love, but you gotta have something you do too.
NW: Lastly, what are your thoughts on college tennis? You recently went to a Xavier match. For tennis fans who’ve never watched a collegiate match….how is it different?
Chico: College tennis is crazy man. I love the atmosphere there. They are yelling and clapping after every point. Getting into it. Getting into each other’s heads. I love watching that. It’s a different feel around tennis. I was really surprised by the enthusiasm around the matches. I always thought tennis as a quiet, gentleman’s game. I was hearing cheers on double faults from teams. “Let’s go X-Men!” All types of stuff.
Kelli Niehaus | Class: Freshman | From: Cincinnati, OH | HS: Mount Notre Dame | Studying: Business |
Previously trained: @ Queen City Racquet Club & Riverside Athletic Club in Cincinnati
Racquet: Wilson Ultra
Q: Why did you ultimately end up choosing the Bearcats?
KN: Honestly, I didn’t see myself staying this close to home, but then I visited….and I just really liked everything about it. The campus’ atmosphere, the people, the coaches. I saw the team as a good fit for me. It also has a good reputation academically. I really liked everything about it.
Q: How do you compare college tennis to high school (the travel, workouts, schedule, etc)? & you and your partner recently had a big win against Kentucky in doubles. I assume that environment was fun.
KN: It’s way more intense. The practices and workouts and what not. It has more of a team aspect to it than high school too. Yes, that was an exciting win for us. Beating a good team like Kentucky. It was fun.
I’m really looking forward to the spring and going on road trips with the team. Just bonding and hanging out because we went to different tournaments during the fall (season). It’s going to be fun to get closer.
Q: You grew up with older siblings who also play(ed) in college. Were you guys always competing?
KN: Yes, definitely. It was fun growing up in a tennis family. We all played a lot together as kids and as a family. I still hit with Sandy. She’s still really good (laughs). [Sandy Niehaus – OSUBuckeye 2013-2017 – 54th ranked singles player in NCAA as a senior. Andrew Niehaus – NKU Norse 2017- current ]
Q: Have you gotten a hit session in with Coach Kat (Adamovic) yet?
KN: I just hit with her like a half hour ago (laughs). Shes great. She’s been through everything we are about to go through, so she’s really good relating to us. Also, really good at tennis (laughs). (Kat is a former All-American @ Oklahoma State University)
Q: She hits a good ball and I enjoy watching her intensity as a coaching…
KN: Oh yeah. She is still very good. Yep. She does the same drills with us that she did at OSU, I think that’ll help us too. It got her to a very high level.
Q: What player(s) on tour are you a fan of?
KN: I mean I love….everybody loves Federer and Nadal. They’re awesome though. Then with the women, I am a big fan of Simona Halep. I really like how she plays.
Q: Who are you rooting for in the finals tonight?
KN: I am rooting for Thiem to win his first major. I just feel like he’s had so many chances in finals and he deserves to have his (breakthrough). He’s been playing unbelievable.
Q: Will you watch?
KN: I don’t know. Will it be worth getting up at 3AM to watch? (laughs) It might be. I just know I need sleep!
– former coach of Roger Federer, Pete Sampras, & Sloane Stephens
– currently coaches Taylor Fritz
– coach at ProTennisCoach.com & a commentator at Tennis Channel
NW: How would you evaluate Taylor’s 2019? & What are the main focuses for his game in 2020?
Paul Annacone: Good year, finishing around 30, but there’s still a lot of work to do. That’s the most encouraging thing for me. He had a really good year, but there’s a lot of improvements to be made. I think the biggest challenge is going to be getting away from the match light and work on the areas that’ll hopefully take him from a very good pro to a great one.
Our focus has been on returning…especially second serve points. How can we create more ways for him to be offensive? He has a great power game and now we’ll work on the transition area of the court. Becoming not so much just a lateral baseliner player, but having a few more options in terms of moving forward…behind big ground strokes. His net play too, because it’ll become more important finishing. When you hit ground strokes as well as he does, you should be able to move forward and pick off some nice, easy volleys.
NW: What are the objectives/tasks/responsibilities as his coach?
PA: My job is to process what aspects of his game need work…so I can address the changes we have to make in a positive and meaningful way. Also, balancing and managing the schedule, so that he’s competing consistently, but blocking off time to get in the “classroom” to work on things. A tough balance, because if it were up to Taylor, he would play a tournament every week.
Also, working to help manage expectations and the emotions this career entails. Be happy about a win and it’s fine to be upset and disappointed if you lose. That’s healthy. But find that balance. Don’t let your losses drown you in this business.
NW: How was the transition, from being purely a coach to being in the booth commentating (Tennis Channel)? Was it a natural/comfortable adjustment?
PA: No, it wasn’t a natural transition. Luckily, I have great producers and great fellow commentators around me. As a coach, a lot of the stuff we do is close to the vest. It’s not about externalizing it for the public to hear. It’s about delivering the message in a meaningful way to the player…and generally that’s a private conversation.
I feel comfortable with my MO in the coaching arena. Confident in my ability to develop players. When I’m commentating…I am trying to build stories and also explain to the audience, not what is happening, but why it’s happening. There’s stuff happening mentally with players who experience the pressure you feel out there. Fans see a guy miss a routine ball, but it’s my job to explain what’s going on in that players head. That’s kinda what I feel the job of the analyst is.
NW: Are you in favor of the ATP allowing coaching?
PA: I love tennis, because I love problem solving…and in tennis there’s nowhere to hide. It’s just you. You have to make the adjustments. I don’t want to see coaching allowed. I think we should celebrate tennis for what it is. One vs one. Trying to figure out how to problem solve under pressure is amazing. When you walk onto center court at one of the majors and feel the spotlight and all that it entails…it’s what makes these athletes so impressive. They’re able to figure things out by themselves. I don’t want to see someone like me run out there at 4-5 in the final set.
I want to celebrate the players ability to figure the puzzle out, under duress. To me, that’s exciting. If you’re on a team…you can rely on other players to step up. No matter how great LeBron James is, he has teammates helping. If you step out on Centre Court at Wimbledon, you better be able to figure some stuff out. That’s quite a task, and the reason I have so much admiration for the top guys that do it consistently. It’s fun watching the young guys try to figure it out.
NW: The ball striking nowadays seems to be at a different level across the tours. Are people swinging differently (lol)?
PA: There’s a lot of great champions in tennis that didn’t hit the ball perfectly, or have the best technique. They understood what worked for them.
One of my favorite players of all time is Jim Courier. He dominated for a couple years and no one is going to coach a player to hit the ball how he did. He worked his backside off though and knew exactly what worked for his game and his style.
I’m a huge fan of him. He’s a poster child for a great professional tennis player, as far as working with what you’ve been given and getting the most out of it. I’ve also had the fortune of working with him for a few years at the Tennis Channel, and in my opinion, he’s the best analyst in the business. It’s fun to be on his team so to speak.
NW: Who else do you enjoy listening to talk tennis?
PA: Mary Carrillo is really boisterous and out there. She just wears her heart on her sleeve and it’s amazing. Steve Weissman is a younger guy that does NFL and tennis. He’s an amazing color analyst, but he has a different style. Brett Haber has been doing this forever and he’s really good. He’s a facts machine. He knows everything. Tracy Austin, Lindsay Davenport, Martina Navratilova. I love working and listening to all them.
NW: What are the storylines that interest you in 2020?
PA: I think the biggest story is, will one of these young guys finally break through (at a major). When will Roger, Novak, and Rafa slip up? We’ve sort of lost a generation of players in the mix. Not necessarily lost, but the Dimitrov, Raonic, and Nishikori group…we thought they would be able to squeeze out a couple majors…and they haven’t. That generation kind of got suffocated by the greatness of the Big 3. Now we’re in a new era where I think Tsitsipas is the closest of the young guys to winning a major. It could be this year though (someone steps up). I’ll be interested to see if someone does, who it’ll be. Is it Stefanos? Is it Shapovalov? Is it Medvedev? Do one of the young Americans make a run? That’s going to be exciting for me as well. I think this will be a year of reckoning for a lot of players on tour.
NW: What are you looking forward to from the American men this year?
PA: To see if one will one of the young American guys take a jump. Will Fritz, Tiafoe, Opelka, or Tommy Paul find that consistency and make a move into the top 15-20 in the world, or will it take a little more time? Neither would surprise me.
NW: What other player(s) do you think will have a good 2020?
PA: I’ll be shocked if Felix Auger Aliassime doesn’t get it going this year. He’s one of the more composed and thoughtful young players and I think he will get back on track, despite struggling as of late. He’s going through the sophomore re-evaluation I call it. After one big year, the external expectations rise and therefore the internal expectations rise. I don’t care what anyone says…the outside expectation affects these players. And I think that’s what’s going on with Felix right now. He’s such a terrific player and a great athlete though.
NW: What about on the women’s side? What excites you?
PA: Serena winning last week had me wondering, “Will she get that next major?” She’s amazing. If she’s healthy, there’s no reason she can’t get back to the top. No one has completely taken the reigns and claimed dominance on the WTA Tour.
NW: How many majors do you think she will win this year?
PA: I’ll be shocked if she doesn’t win one major this year, but if she won two…it would surprise me.
NW: Why do you think most players, past and present, seem to believe winning Wimbledon is the best feat in tennis?
PA: Every major has its own personality. Wimbledon is essentially the Mecca of our sport, and because of that…it has a different aura around it. It feels pristine and has the same type of feeling as The Masters does. A lot of history.
New York City is the US Open. It’s crazy, it’s loud, it’s rambunctious. Australia is the big friendly major. Everyone is there for a good time and it kicks off the year. Roland Garros is Paris. It’s culture, it’s French, it’s the food. I don’t look at any of them as better or worse. They’re all just different. I’ve begun to define things more generically.
NW: What memory do you think of first when I say Wimbledon?
PA: My first time Wimbledon I qualified for the main draw and lost to Jimmy Connors in the quarterfinals. The place will always be special to me because of that. A free tennis lesson from Jimmy Connors (6-2, 6-4, 6-2). Not everyone gets to say that. He was incredible.
NW: How did you begin coaching Federer? I read that you had a trial period with him. If so, did it feel like one?
PA: Roger and I knew each other pretty well already. Most of it was going to a few dinners and talking about his game, his philosophy, and where he wanted to go. And then telling him what I thought that journey looked like. Then spending a couple weeks on the practice court going over stuff. So, we got familiar with one another fairly quickly. I didn’t necessarily feel like it was tryouts. But everything is a trial in this business. I’ve seen so many people lose their jobs in this business, nothing is for certain.
NW: Who are you picking to win the 2020 Australian Open titles?
PA: It sounds boring, but I’m going Novak and Serena. I could’ve answered it like this for the last decade. I mean he’s won it 7 times. It’s a joke. My biggest question with Serena is always, did she get enough matches in? And she has now, playing really well.
NW: 5 years from now. Who will lead the men in majors? (2025)
PA: Oh wow. Uhm…I’ll say.
If everyone stays healthy, that’s what I think. They’re all great.
NW: What kinda defines greatness, in your opinion?
PA: One of my ultimate clichés is,” How good is your average level?” One of the biggest mistakes in coaching is too many try to coach their players to play great. That’s not what I do at all. My big thing is, how do you react when you don’t play well. That’s what defines you. You play a handful of spectacular matches a year, a handful of garbage matches, and the rest is what makes you up. So, what are you on those days? That defines your career arc. It’s what makes the all-time greats…great.
If it’s a great day, they don’t think they cured cancer….and if it’s a bad day…they don’t think they need to go work at McDonalds. Systemically work through the ups and downs…make subtle tweaks and keep their head in it.
NW: Who is the best player all time, in your opinion? (GOAT)
PA: I have people say that all the time. Talking about who the greatest of all time is. I don’t like the word (goat). People play in different times against different eras. I would say most accomplished. I’ve lived through a lot of eras so it’s hard for me to say, because a lot of things have happened. I think if Rod Laver played in today’s era, with all the advancements in technology…he would have an even better record than he did. He would be considered more in that conversation. If Rafa had to play in an era with much more differentiation in court speed and surfaces…he would’ve had to make adjustments, but being a great player…he would’ve. Roger wasn’t in his prime when Rafa and Novak were. He’s 5 years older, so it’s a little different.
It’s hard to compare eras and such. Pete Sampras’ greatest achievement…the one he was most proud of…. wasn’t winning 14 slams. It was finishing as the year-end World No. 1 for six consecutive years. No one’s ever done before. It means, each 12-month segment…he was better than everyone. He said, “It was most important to me, because I knew I only had one shot at it.”
NW: Are these guys (The Big 3) the best talents that you’ve seen?
PA: I think Andre Agassi is one of the best ball strikers of all time. I think Sampras is in the conversation as one of the most athletic of all time. His play was poetry, like Federer. I think Nadal is in the same category as Jimmy Connors. They all have different stuff that they’re excellent at. Federer is the updated version of the Sampras. Rafa is the updated version of Connors. Novak is the updated version of Andre.
Training Facility: Riverside Athletic Club (Hamilton, Ohio)
Current WTA Rankings: 524th in singles & 714 in doubles
Plans for 2020: Malibu 25K
Midland Michigan 100K – Will ask for a wild card
Lexington 100K – Will ask for a local WC
Possibly the Volvo Car Open (SC)
Q: When did you start playing tennis & why did you choose tennis over other sports growing up?
Peyton Stearns: I started playing when I was 8…I remember Mario Contardi taught me how to hit a ball at Harper’s Point. I didn’t focus solely on tennis until I was like 13. I was doing gymnastics, track, basketball, and soccer for a while. It came down to gymnastics and tennis. I really liked tennis and loved my coach. My gymnastics coach was pretty mean and that helped make the decision easier (laughs).
Q: You’ve trained primarily in Cincinnati since the beginning. Proof you can become a professional without moving south or joining an academy. That’s uncommon and big for up and coming players in the Midwest to see.
PS: Yeah, I believe you can make it anywhere you are. You just need to find the right people. People you trust and can work with. I am lucky to have had been coached by some really good pros in the area over the years. Being able to play against and learn from other good players is important. Training at Riverside, I hit with Sandy Niehaus (OSU ’17) and her sister Kelli (’23).…which is good for me.
Q: Looking back on your 2019, how do you think it went?
PS: I think 2019 went well. I recently made my first finals of a $25K in Sumter, South Carolina and reached my career high ranking of 516 this year. I started the year around 1000, so almost cutting that in half was awesome.
Q: Did you have a ranking in mind heading into the year?
PS: My goal was to be around 450….so I wasn’t too far off. I’m happy with it because some of the results I’ve had haven’t gone my way, but I’m still fine-tuning different areas of my game and it’s beginning to show in matches. Now I just need to put it all together
Q: Do you prefer one surface over another?
PS: I feel like my game translates well to any surface, but I would say hard court is my favorite because it compliments my game the best (Record 12-7). My results on clay are pretty good though (Record 12-10). I just feel like when I attack the ball on a hard court…it’s a really good ball, but on clay…you play grinders who can get to that extra ball.
Q: Tennis is a sport that demands a lot of traveling. What are some of the places tennis has taken you?
PS: I’ve played all the junior grand slams (London, Paris, Melbourne, NYC). I’ve also been to Brazil, Italy, Mexico, Canada, and done a lot of traveling in the States.
Q: That’s awesome. Not many 18-year-olds can relate to that. Which slam is your favorite?
PS: (Laughs) That’s what my Mom tells me. It’s true though. And I would say the Australian open. I’m probably a little biased because that was my first slam, but it’s a lot of fun down there. That’s for sure.
Q: What has your high school experience been like?
PS: I started online school freshman year of high school. I wanted to go to Ursuline, but they weren’t cool with me to missing more than 20 days of classes. I was kind of like, “yeah that’s not possible.”
Q: How did you do grade school?
PS: I wasn’t traveling quite as much at that time, but my eighth-grade teacher played tennis and understood the dynamics of the travel schedule. He was nice enough to help me approach other teachers about, so I could have all the class work before leaving. It wasn’t as big of a deal, because I worked ahead. I really appreciate him for that.
Q: Do you miss school at all? Is it more enjoyable having the freedom with online classes while traveling and playing?
PS: I miss it sometimes, but I’m getting to go down a path that no other kids my age are doing. I don’t really feel like I am missing out on anything. I still go to homecoming and prom. I still have friends that go to high school here. And it’s not like I don’t see other kids when I train.
Q: Is college in your plans?
PS: College is in my plans. I have actually narrowed it down to 4 or 5 schools. My parents and coach agree that unless I’m in the top 250 or 275 by the time I have to make a decision (April)…I should go to school…at least for a semester. Then I can leave and have my education paid for when I decide to comeback. I have some time to make the decision, but I want to do it in the next two to three weeks. It’ll be good to get that off my plate, so I can focus solely on tennis.
Q: Have you enjoyed the recruiting process?
PS: It’s awesome to be wanted by so many people, but it can be hard to enjoy when your phone is blowing up every other second. If you don’t respond for a little while, they all the sudden think you don’t want to go there. It can be a lot to manage (laughs).
Q: What schools have been in touch with you the most? Will you stay close to home?
YPS: All of them. But I’ve narrowed it down to Texas, Pepperdine, Florida, Ole Miss, & UVA. I’m trying to escape the Midwest. I think I need to be playing more outdoor tennis than indoor. That’s a pretty big part of the equation.
Andrew Krasny is the voice heard around many ATP and WTA tournaments all over the country, in his role as the tour renown emcee. Krasny began his career in show business, working under the late comedian Joan Rivers. Initially, he was answering fan mail for her shows until he was later brought on as a writer and producer, which he did for nearly 30 years.
How Krasny broke into the tennis stratosphere is pretty interesting. “When I was a kid, I was pretty klutzy, but in my late 20s I picked up tennis and fell in love with the game. At the time, I was working in television, hosting a dating show, and warming up audiences (for Joan Rivers).” A role that would make his professional leap a much easier adjustment.
Q: So, how’d you get your foot in the door?
“I was at a tennis tournament 18 years ago (2001) and I remember watching Andre Agassi being announced by a guy in his 80s and thinking…you know what? He’s gonna be retiring soon. I want his job.
I later approached a friend who worked for the tournament director (Bob Kramer) and Bob was nice enough to allow me to volunteer for a week on the Grandstand Court. I wound up being a volunteer emcee for three years…just in it for the free gear and thankfully it turned into a career.”
Q: What do you love most about your role as an emcee and entertainer?
“I love an audience and I always have. I love making crowds laugh. The key as a host, emcee, and announcer is to understand ….no one is there to see you, but it’s your job to make them feel welcome. You never want to make it about yourself or be bigger than the players. It’s a celebration of the event and people performing.”
Q: How has the job changed over the last decade?
“It’s changed ten fold over the last 10 years. I used to just come with an iPod and that was it. Now I have a crew of 65 to 70 people putting out high-level production elements. Technology has made this job easier. A couple additives include Hawkeye (shows ball mark) on multiple courts and more intricate graphics and clips for the big screen.”
Q: Initially, was it challenging to gain the respect of the players on tour?
“Yes, but I think they respect someone who watches, knows the game, and asks meaningful questions, because they get asked questions all day by the media. My job is to ask questions fans want to know the answers to and I think coming from a pure fan standpoint…I kind of have the advantage. Most announcers and analysts are former players. I feel like I represent the diehard fans of the game.”
Q: What’s the key to an engaging an athlete in an interview? Especially following a match.
Another key is to match the energy of the person I’m interviewing. Whether they win or lose, it changes their energy level one way or another. I need to take that into consideration when I go out there. And never anything negative.”
Q: What’s the key to an engaging an athlete in an interview? Especially one following a match.
“I’ve spent a lot of time with these players behind the scenes over the years and have developed genuine friendships with many of them. I think they realize I want to represent them in the best light because they understand our friendship is genuine. I think that helps with all my post-match interviews and such. I make sure not to be too invasive, but at the same time…I want to ask questions that are worthy. They don’t want to be asked stupid questions either.
Q: Surely some aren’t as easy to crack as others…
“Definitely. Some players are friendlier than others and easier to get to know. I would say some just understand the value of friendships more than others. They’re all professional and very decent and appreciative human beings.”
Q: I think your energy and ability to be informal but candid helps as well. It wasn’t the norm for an emcee to be a jokester/entertainer. Thoughts?
“Yes, I agree. I have a large sense of humor. Luckily, no players have ever said “I don’t want to joke around” or “I don’t like your jokes.” But you learn who to joke with and who not to. And it’s all about timing.
Before Federer goes on court at a major…I don’t tell silly jokes. I joke around a lot, but you learn the appropriate times. I would say my sense of humor has gotten me to where I am today, combined with my professional dedication to being the best host, announcer, or emcee that I can be.”
Q: Are tennis crowds in general very similar? & How do fans in Cincinnati compare?
“Actually, no. It’s interesting because every crowd I interact with is different. The commonality is they all love tennis, but there are real palpable differences.
One thing I love about Cincinnati’s crowd is they have a true respect for the history of the game in the Midwest. There’s a genuine hospitality there, and their love and appreciation for the game of tennis is real. The passion is very real and it’s what makes it one of my favorite tournaments. “
Q: Your voice has become synonymous with the Western & Southern Open. You’ve been doing the tournament for awhile.
“It’s been 11 years I believe. I love the history there. It’s a special place. I head there a few days early every year to do the draw party and it’s a ton of fun. I love a lot of things in Cincy, there’s a lot to do too. Graeter’s (Black Raspberry Chip), Skyline Chili, Rhinegeist Brewery.
Q: What makes it different?
“One thing that stands out is how they play every anthem right before the finals. (“Opera singer Berti Helmick performs! She’s been doing it for DECADES.”) The players appreciate that. They are astute and intelligent people, and know where they are appreciated. The top players seem to always choose Cincinnati. Like Roger (Federer). He doesn’t need to be there at this stage of his career, but he and his family love it there. When they say that…they mean it.
Also, shout out to John Barrett (Western & Southern CEO). He loves tennis. And if it wasn’t for John…tennis in Mason likely wouldn’t be what it is today.”
Rafael Nadal tuned pro in 2001, at the age of 15, three years after deciding to pursue tennis over soccer. A decision his father forced in order to keep his academics a priority. The young Spaniard from Mallorca quickly found his footing, and began climbing the professional ranks. By December of 2002, Nadal had cracked the top 200 and began flashing his potential. The climb to the top 50 proved to be more difficult.
A straight-sets win over long-time rival, Roger Federer, proved to be a coming out party for the 17-year-old. Little did he know that the 2004 Miami Open match would be the first of 40 plus matches between the two. On March 28, he imposed his will on the world number one and dominated the match from start to finish with his forehand. It helped Nadal inch closer to making the top 10 in the world. Which he reached in late April of 2005, and hasn’t left since.
Nadal’s talent was no longer a secret. With his muscular physique, “catlike” quickness, and mega forehand, Rafa took the tennis world by storm. And he did so with fashion, sporting sleeveless shirts, capri pants and long curly hair. With his “all-out-all-the -time” style, he was a stark contrast to the suave Swiss in every facet. He was different and fans were fascinated.
Fast forward to the end of 2019, and Nadal is the oldest player to finish year-end world number one in the history of the ATP rankings. A remarkable feat at 33 given the miles on his knees, physical playing style, and injuries over the years. Nadal won 89.2% (58-7) of his matches this year, 6.1% higher than his career winning percentage (83.1%), the best winning percentage of the Open Era. (Second-best was Federer with a winning percentage of 84.1% <53-10>) He claimed two Masters 1000s titles, the French Open (12th), the U.S. Open (4th), and led Spain to its sixth Davis Cup title with an 8-0 record.
No one knows how much longer Nadal can sustain this ridiculous level of play late in his career, but he hasn’t shown many signs of slowing down. His game is much more offensive now from the baseline, and he allows himself to miss aggressively, yet he’s still a human backboard. Nadal’s improved serving motion and seemingly forever improving volleys have been key to helping him end points and matches quicker, allowing him to stay fresher deeper into the year. As the 2020 season is just around the corner, he trails Roger Federer by just a single slam for the all-time record, a feat the King of Clay is likely salivating over.
J.J. Wolf beat fellow American Sebastian Korda 6-4, 6-7 (3), 7-6 (6) on Sunday, in the finals of the JSM Challenger of Champaign-Urbana. Winning five matches in five days, including a couple three setters, Wolf claimed his second title on the challenger circuit. The win moved him up 66 spots in the rankings, up to 189th in the world, a career high ranking.
“I grew up playing on indoor hard courts, so I felt really comfortable”, Wolf said after winning his third match. “It’s pretty cool playing in another Big Ten setting (Illinois), somewhere I’ve played before.” He was pleased with his play and his ability to execute the game plan the coaches and he had. The goal was to make a high percentage of first serves and “pound balls into the corners and get to the net.”
Wolf, who turned pro in July, forgoing his senior year at Ohio State, says he never thought much about the tour until after his breakout 35-2 junior year campaign. “After the season I was able to reflect. I thought I made nice improvements (in my game). I also think I played every college tennis player ranked in the top 15 and believed I stacked up pretty well.” Wolf was a dominant singles player and a near lock for a point every match. He took pride being done first in singles and “letting some pressure off the guys and being able to cheer them on.”
It was very tough for Wolf to leave one of the best tennis programs in the country and the school that he loved. “I love the coaches and the guys with my whole heart. Fortunately, I live in Columbus and still get to see them.” He misses playing with his teammates and for Buckeye Nation. He admits it has been an adjustment. “At first, it was a bit of a shock. The extra strength you get from playing for a team and for your school was taken away from me. Now I’m playing more for myself and my new team (coaches & family).” Life on the challenger circuit is quite different than being an All-American at OSU.
He’s beginning to get comfortable on tour though and is “finding that same joy” and passion he once had on the court. He noted his passion, “comes from wanting to make my family proud a little.” (Coming from a competitive family of tennis players and other athletes…a little proud is likely an understatement.) It’s the reason he loves the Western & Southern Open more than any tournament. “There’s no substitute for it.” Playing in the city he was born and raised, in front of his family and friends.
Growing up, Wolf stuck with tennis over other sports not because he necessarily loved tennis, but because he loved that he could control the outcome. “I loved that aspect of tennis.” He didn’t like relying on others for results, a common theme in team sports. Wolf also acknowledges, “there’s no better feeling than hitting a clean ball though,” something all tennis players can relate to.
Wolf keeps things simple. He has no ranking goals or win totals in mind for this upcoming year. His only short-term goal is to make “little jumps” in his game in order to reach his ceiling down the road. His ultimate goal. Wolf mentioned his fitness, movement, and diet as his main areas of focus right now.
As well as winning the title Sunday and reaching a career high ranking, Wolf secured a spot in the Australian Open qualifiers. He was very excited to learn he’d be starting the 2020 season Down Under. “I’m just getting my foot in the door. Won couple challenger titles…couple top 100 wins. I’m very happy overall with my 2019.”