US Open memory bittersweet for Osaka

It’s been a whirlwind since Naomi Osaka won the US Open in dramatic fashion.

Now, she says the memory feels like … green tea ice cream.

“When you bite into it, it’s, like, sweet but also very strong,” Osaka said. “Like right after, the day after, I really didn’t want to think about it because it wasn’t necessarily the happiest memory for me. … I just sort of wanted to move on at that point.”

The deep run in Tokyo took her mind off it. And Osaka hopes another run in Beijing will do likewise.

Racism accusations rock French ITF event

An ITF tournament in France last week is under the microscope after Omani player Fatma Al-Nabhani went on Instagram with a list of instances of unfair treatment she attributed to racism.

The situation came to a head last Thursday, in the second round of the Engie Open against French player Myrtille Georges.

It’s a tournament in the French central city of Clermont-Ferrand, an indoor event with a $25,000 total purse.

Al-Nabhani, 27, is ranked No. 438. Other than wild cards into the Doha and Dubai events, she mostly plays ITF events at the $15,000 and $25,000 levels.

So she’s no stranger to poor line calls, spartan conditions and challenging circumstances.

But what Al-Nabhani said she experienced last week – on court as well as off – put together, was quite the package.

Here’s her Instagram post.

 

 
 
 
 
 
View this post on Instagram
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 

 

Part 1 I never thought or imagined I could ever experience the real meaning of racism and unfairness 👎🏼👎🏼👎🏼 I am sorry I know this is a very sensitive topic but I have to stand up for my self. I Am Muslim, I Am Arab and I’ll always be proud of it. @itf__tennis @wta 1- in the first round wanting me to remove my leggings and threatening me by not able to compete my match if I didn’t while it’s approved by the ITF in the end they made me pull it up higher a bit because that 2 inch extra of skin was a big deal for them. 2- second round not giving me my right as a player inside the match chair umpire against me since beginning of the match and stealing 5 match points from me and giving me a code violation for complaining while my opponent should get it for swearing and bad language and miss behaving 3- chair umpire having conversation in French in each change over and laughing with the opponent 4- a very bad treatment from some of the staff in the tournament

A post shared by Fatma Al Nabhani (@falnabhani) on

Email to the ITF

Al-Nabhani sent an email to the International Tennis Federation.

She forwarded that to the Dubai-based website Sports 360, providing additional details.

Al-Nabhani said she’s been playing the Pro Circuit since 2007. And she had never had an issue with the leggings she always wears, to “respect her religion” and still feel comfortable playing tennis.

Until last week.

“Day 1, first round match against Elsa Jacquemot from France, the French chair umpire before doing the toss looked at me and said you need to remove your leggings. I told him that I won’t remove it and I have been playing like this since 12 years. He said then you can’t play. I told him please check with the tournament director before saying anything,” she wrote in the letter.

“The tournament director told him rules can allow her to play with leggings under the knee. So the chair umpire asked me to pull my leggings higher two inches so I can play. Because those two inches for him was a big deal. I pulled my leggings and didn’t say anything and played my match.”  

 

Other issues Al-Nabhani refers to are some of the things that occur regularly in competitive tennis matches with no electronic review system – and no ballkids.

Her reaction to them no doubt was heightened by the treatment she said she received in the first round match (also against a French player). As well, the match featured tiebreaks in the first two sets. And it was clocking in at three hours by the time things began to come to a head.

But a lot of little things added up to quite a bit.

A local newspaper report referenced Al-Nabhani’s protestations to the umpire, and the fact that Al-Nabhani called the trainer for a “diplomatic pain” before retiring. It quoted Georges as saying her opponent felt she had been robbed.

Al-Nabhani’s allegations

*Al-Nabhani said Georges would leave the ball inside the court (we’re assuming when she missed first serves). Al-Nabhani asked for the balls to be removed. But she said the umpire replied that “it’s her side and her right”. She also said the chair umpire wouldn’t even ask Georges to respect Al-Nabhani’s wishes, as a courtesy.

*Georges served to stay in the match at 5-7, 5-6 – clearly having realized the stray balls were distracting her opponent, Al-Nabhani alleges Georges would take the three balls in play. She would then keep two, and hit the third to land near the net – deliberately. After the second time it occurred, Al-Nabhani asked the chair umpire to speak to Georges again. Or, alternatively, to have the supervisor come out. He wouldn’t do either.

*There were linespeople on the match. But Al-Nabhani claims she had seven match points in the second set, and the chair umpire kept overruling balls – all against her. She said at on at least five of those match points, he overruled incorrectly. And when she went to him to tell him he needed to be fair, and focus, and that it wasn’t acceptable … he issued her a code violation. That, even though her opponent had been using bad language in French throughout the match, without consequence.

*There were additional issues both on and off the court. Those included a charge that the chair umpire conversed with her opponent in French during the changeovers, and laughed. She clearly felt they were laughing at her.

Discouraged, feeling everything was against her Al-Nabhani retired down 0-3 (just one break of serve) in the deciding set.

The ITF said, in a message to Sports 360, that it would investigate.

“The ITF takes any allegation of racism very seriously. In accordance with our regulations we will conduct an investigation into the matter, gathering information from all relevant parties. We will respond to the player and proceed with the matter promptly,” was the statement.

Views from the other side

The Sports360 story hasn’t been updated. But the French sports newspaper l’Équipe spoke to the tournament officials and opponent Georges..

The French player Myrtille Georges, ranked No. 266 and the same age as Al-Nabhani at 27, says racism had nothing to do with that occurred during their match last week.

Tournament supervisor Nicolas Peigné told L’Équipe that Al-Nabhani’s criticisms were improper and didn’t make much sense.

“She felt dismissed because she’s Muslim. But there are three other Muslims in the draw, and we have a Turkish umpire officiating here who is Muslim,” he told L’Équipe.

Peigné said the chair umpire asked him for a confirmation “to be certain”.

And that after he confirmed the leggings were regulation, she played on.

But he didn’t address Al-Nabhani’s contention that before it got to that point, the chair umpire had insisted she remove them and refused to allow her to play.

No ballkids on the court

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The Clermont-Ferrand ITF last week took place in rather modest surroundings. (Google Maps)

Peigné also said that without ballkids, each player is responsible for the balls on her side of the court. But he didn’t address whether or not that player should clear the stray balls if asked by the opponent.

(We reached out to an experienced official to clarify this. And that official said a ball that is stationary cannot be considered as a hindrance. They would only instruct a player to clear a ball if they thought it was in a position potentially dangerous to one of the players. But they would have nipped that “hitting the third ball at the net” initiative in the bud.)

Peigné said that the white badge umpire, Maxime Frèche-Thibaud, is an experienced official. He added that because the tournament was played on an (indoor) hard court, there unfortunately were no marks to check.

“The match was close; she had match points that didn’t go her way,” Peigné told L’Équipe. “It was nothing against her. She felt persecuted for no reason.”

Peigné also added that Al-Nabhani’s mother Hadia argued the line calls from the stands. At that point Peigné escorted her out of the area for a discussion about the fact that she wasn’t do that.

Witness said racism not a factor

French player Julie Gervais said the story was nonsense. “All the players got umpiring errors and we didn’t cry racism,” she Tweeted. “They also (ticked us off) about the long leggings. And we didn’t have any water for practice, either. But we didn’t create a scandal.”

racism

She did confirm (in between some rather offensive replies to her Tweet), that Georges did, indeed leave stray balls on the court.

Big deal over nothing

L’Équipe also published an interview with Georges, who defeated another Muslim player, Ayla Aksu of Turkey, before losing in the semifinals. 

“The story is starting to take on huge proportions for no reason. For two days, I’ve been receiving insulting messages because of a girl who just wasn’t able to finish her match. It’s a shame,” Georges said. “I’m a bit surprised about her message on social media. In no way was it racism.”

Georges said to err is human, and all the players had to deal with erroneous line calls. But she said that the chair umpire did not overrule five match points against Al-Nabhani, as the opponent claimed. Georges said Al-Nabhani only protested one call on match point, which Georges said wasn’t close (Gervais concurred).

“She knows it, deep down. Her coach was on that line. He knew it, but he chose to push her,” said Georges. She added that no one had water for practice and that the generally challenging conditions are something you expect and accept at the $25,000 level. So you adapt. “Her mother and her coach would have done better to try to calm things. Instead, they added fuel to the fire.”

Georges also made a very good point: had Nabhani converted ANY of those multiple match points, this would never have been a story at all.

What’s next

We’ll see what the ITF’s investigation turns up.

(We already know they rarely work weekends, so it might take a bit of time).

But you’d expect they’ll speak to the same parties L’Équipe spoke to – the supervisor, the opponent. And you’d expect the chair umpire will no doubt defend himself vigorously.

So it’s unlikely they will come to a different conclusion. It’s a situation that even when it occurs, it highly difficult to prove and comes down to a “she said, they said’ situation.

But one thing is certain: the French need to get off the women’s case for wearing leggings.

The most notorious example, of course, was French Tennis Federation president Bernard Giudicelli’s sortie against Serena Williams’s French Open outfit, long after the fact. His “argument” was based on these imaginary legging-limit rules.

We present, as evidence, (male) doubles specialist James Cerretani, during the French Open this year.

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Svitolina addresses major weight loss

Elina Svitolina responded to questions in Cincinnati last weekend about the significant  – and rapid – weight loss that has more than a few people concerned.

It seems her team is experimenting.

“I know there has been a huge difference between the beginning of the year and now. We try to learn from each step we do and I think it’s up to me and my team to see and decide what’s next,” she told the media, via Sport360.

“Some people think it’s better to have maybe more muscle … We’re trying and learning.”

Wawrinka returns, out in Rome 1st round

The main thing for Stan Wawrinka is that he’s back on the court.

After a brief return earlier in the season following knee surgery, and a few setbacks, he finally took the court Sunday in Rome.

Wawrinka lost to Steve Johnson, 6-4, 6-4. But at least the machine is running again.

“We can see with other players coming back from long and tough injuries, it’s never easy. … It’s not only about physical or tennis, but also mentally to find confidence. I need to patient. But I’m positive because my level is really high,” he told the media in Rome.

Azarenka feeling at home in Europe

When Europeans make their home in the U.S., it’s easy to forget that no matter how long it’s been, it remains a foreign country in many ways.

“You have no idea how happy I was to just have fresh European air, European food, everything. I’m so happy to be out of the United States for now,” Victoria Azarenka said after her first-round win in Madrid

Because of her custody situation, the Belarussian likely hadn’t left the U.S. since last summer.

The case is ongoing. But Azarenka has son Leo in Europe through Wimbledon, with strict conditions.

No. 617 Ouahab upsets Kohlschreiber

That Philipp Kohschreiber would lose his first match in Marrakech after that heartbreaking Davis Cup loss Sunday wasn’t a shock.

But to a player ranked No. 617, a local wild card?

But every tennis player has a story and 33-year-old Lamine Ouahab, the author of the upset, certainly does.

Ouahab’s career high of No. 114 came in 2009. The native Algerian’s only ATP appearances since 2014 have come at this event, from 2014-16.

But he’s a former No. 4 junior (2002 Wimbledon junior finalist, beating some kid named Nadal in the semis). His challenging road was well-told in this Sports 360 piece.

Galo Blanco joins Team Thiem

Dominic Thiem has added the experienced Galo Blanco to his coaching team.

Blanco previously coached a young Milos Raonic and then, Karen Khachanov. He’s considered a go-to coach for young players transitioning to the pro tour.

Thiem is long past that stage. But he’ll get a fresh perspective to add to that of his current coach, Günter Bresnik.

The Austrian said in Abu Dhabi that Blanco will be at every tournament through April. At the big ones – the Australian Open, Indian Wells, Miami – he’ll have both.

Blanco also was with Thiem during the offseason in Tenerife.

Rusty but game, Serena is back

Dressed all in black (with glitter-accessorized Nikes), Serena Williams returned to the court Saturday in Abu Dhabi.

It was an exhibition against reigning French Open champ Jelena Ostapenko, arranged late as a huge value-added feature to an event beleaguered by high-profile withdrawals.

While Williams bowed, 6-2, 3-6, 10-5 in the match tiebreak to her 20-year-old rival. But the victory was in being there less than four months after giving birth to daughter Alexis Olympia.

“First matches back are always super incredibly hard, especially after having a baby, but it was great. I’m glad I could do it here,” she said in a post-match interview.

Slow but steady in return

Williams was tentative at first, not fully testing her post-baby core muscles by ratcheting up her powerful serve. Her movement also was tentative. But by the second set, she had already picked it up.

rustyAnd she was, as the Williams sisters love to say, “seeeeerious” about the enterprise.

But she was smiling, too. And rueful when she missed what, in full form, would be a routine shot.

Mostly, she looked happy being out there, doing what she does best (at least off the court).

“It was definitely a new experience. It played out pretty well. In the middle of the match I looked over and I was like ‘is Olympia okay?’ Because usually I’m always with her,” Williams told Sport360 and the other media in Abu Dhabi.

“So I don’t know how I’m going to be able to manage that, but maybe I’ll just always look over in the middle of a Grand Slam and be like ‘is Olympia okay?’ But when she gets older she’ll be able to actually come out to the matches.”

Here’s a link to a post-match interview video.

Is Melbourne the next stop?

Will Williams travel to Melbourne for the start of the Australian Open, which begins in just over two weeks was?

It’s hard to know whether her performance against Ostapenko was any kind of a determining factor. Just getting on court against a much younger rival, after such a long layoff, was a risky proposition. 

She could have, in theory, gotten crushed. You wouldn’t expect that to happen, just because she’s so good. But there was no way for her to know ahead of time how her body would respond. It’s all new territory.

rusty

“I don’t know. I’m going to go and just assess what I want, and what I want to do and figure that out,” she said. “I’m taking it one day at a time. I’m going to assess everything with Patrick (coach Mouratoglou) and my team and go from there.”

The voracious competitor in Williams might have had its fuse lit by the match conditions and the big crowd. But everything has changed for the new mother now.

But it seems clear she intends to return and fight to add more to her historic career. The only question is when, precisely, that will happen.

Djokovic still aiming for Slams, No. 1

As former No. 1 Novak Djokovic returns to action this week in Abu Dhabi after a six-month absence, he says his goals remain the same.

“I would lie to you and I would not be honest, not to you, to myself, if I tell you anything less than being No. 1 and winning Slams,” he told Sport360

“I know that I’ve done it in the past, I’ve proven to myself that I can do it and why not aim for it again? Because I feel that, first of all, I have the willpower. Which is the most important thing.” 

Godsick: Laver Cup adding, not competing

In an interview with Sport 360 at the Laver Cup, Roger Federer’s agent Tony Godsick said the new event is not competing with anyone. 

“Everyone always gets upset in tennis when things happen … Everybody in tennis gets along, but everyone in tennis seems to compete. And I hope that our event can actually in the future be the event that the sport of tennis owns together,” he said.

Godsick said they were careful to not go to a city where the ATP already has an event. (This year, Prague. Next year, Chicago).