The IX: Tennis Tuesday with Joey Dillon, March 9, 2021
Remember the WTA Rising Stars Invitational? It's time for a relaunch — Interview with Kate Okiomah — Must-click women's tennis links
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Danish teen Clara Tauson stormed to her first WTA title at the Open 6ème Sens – Métropole de Lyon, qualifying and winning without the loss of a set. As a result, the 18-year-old launched her ranking into the Top 100 for the first time. With another young star on the rise, had me thinking about the WTA Rising Stars Invitational the tour had in Singapore from 2014-2015 and set the stage for the ATP to deliver with their Next Gen tournament.
For those who don’t know, I worked for the WTA and was fortunate to be a project coordinator on the WTA Rising Stars initiative under The IX Advisory Board superstar Megan Rose. It was a fan-voted tournament for players 21 and under and honestly, the players have gone on to do some amazing things:
2014: Monica Puig defeated Zheng Saisai, 6-4, 6-3, to win with Shelby Rogers and Zarina Diyas the other players to participate. In 2016, Puig shocked the world by winning the Rio Olympic Games, while Saisai has been a mainstay in the Top 100 since 2014 and capturing the Premier event in San Jose in 2019. Rogers has reached two Grand Slam quarterfinals since, while Diyas captured her first WTA title in 2017.
2015: Naomi Osaka defeated Caroline Garcia, 3-5, 5-4(6), 4-1, saving match points to win the final WTA Rising Stars Invitational. Ons Jabeur and Zhu Lin rounded out the player field in Singapore. Obviously, Osaka has gone on to win four Grand Slams and attain the No. 1 ranking, but Garcia has captured seven WTA titles and a Roland Garros doubles title — reaching No. 2 on the doubles side. Jabeur is playing some of her best tennis currently and reached the quarterfinals of the Australian Open last year. Lin currently sits in the Top 100 and has peaked at No. 69 just before COVID-19 shut down the tour.
Now, let’s say we revamp the WTA Rising Stars Invitational and use the parameters the ATP uses for the Next Gen Finals. Though Next Gen is held in a separate city from the Nitto ATP Finals, this is what the event would look like if held in conjunction with the WTA Finals Shenzhen:
No. 9 Bianca Andreescu
No. 15 Iga Swiatek
No. 20 Marketa Vondrousova
No. 23 Elena Rybakina
No. 30 Dayana Yastremska
No. 32 Amanda Anisimova
No. 40 Coco Gauff
(WC) No. 131 Xiyu Wang
— Alternates in the Top 100 —
No. 72 Ann Li
No. 81 Marta Kostyuk
No. 87 Leylah Fernandez
No. 88 Anastasia Potapova
No. 91 Kaja Juvan
No. 94 Varvara Gracheva
Point blank — the WTA is stacked with loaded talent from the younger generation. This may be the perfect time for the WTA to relaunch and learn from what went right — and wrong. Some possible changes, for me:
Let it be by WTA ranking instead of a fan vote. It legitimizes the event versus having one popular player or perhaps a crazy fan base attempting to overtake polls for their countrywoman. I would also say make it a 20 and under age guideline or put a threshold on when they first started on the WTA Tour.
What about collegiate players? Possibly bend the eligibility so there’s a maximum of WTA Main Draw attempts/wins so the player field is truly a “next gen?” College alums are just as new to the tour as juniors, they just went down a different road. If nothing can be figured out, I’d say to have the WTA collaborate with the Intercollegiate Tennis Association to have their own tournament or pathway towards more recognition. There hasn’t been an updated singles ranking since the college season started, but Ashley Lahey (career-high No.449, 21yo), Estela Perez-Somarriba (career-high No.838, 22yo), Alexa Graham (career-high No.474, 22yo), Sara Daavettila (career-high No. 966, 23yo) and Anna Turati (career-high No. 547, 23yo) are the current Top 5.
A true partnership is desperately needed for the ITF World Tour and the WTA. The ITF is a perfect feeder system into WTA tournaments, but both sides want to diminish opportunities for players to build their rankings. I say include players from the ITF’s singles rankings or only ones that are 21 and under. The Top 5 ITF players are Oana Georgeta Simion (No. 413, 25yo), Seone Mendez (No. 289, 21yo), Thaisa Grana Pedretti (No. 406, 21yo), Anastasia Kulikova (No. 530, 21yo) and Anna Turati.
Maybe take a page from the ATP’s side with the Laver Cup and do teams? How dope would it be to have Team Martina Navratilova take on Team Chris Evert? I’m not the biggest fan of Europe vs. Rest of the World, but North America does represent a large portion of the top talent coming up the ranks. Idea: 6 players, 2 WTA, 2 NCAA and 2 ITF players on each team.
Now, some things that the WTA should take from the ATP:
Playing lets on the serve
Players being allowed to wear technology (heart rate monitor, Apple Watch, etc.)
Coaches talking to players through headsets (LOVE this).
Public can move around on sides — though not baselines.
No ranking points, only money awarded. The WTA did this and should continue. I’m not a fan of only some players being awarded points because of something out of their control (example: Laver Cup).
Court lines without the doubles alley. I find those courts pretty cool and if there’s no doubles, why not?
Let’s be real for a second — the WTA Rising Stars Invitational was a fantastic idea, but many stakeholders didn’t see the value in the talent at the time. The ATP noticed and used the foundation to deliver their Next Gen Finals. The event was simply ahead of its time and now that we’re entering a new Golden Era with players like Osaka, Andreescu and Swiatek, it’s time to bring it back. These three alone will be changing the shift of women’s tennis and their fan bases will be quite large. Mix in players like Gauff and Anisimova, you have some stellar framework.
The tennis world knows that the next few years when Serena, Roger, Rafa and Novak retire, the WTA is best set up for longevity. It’s time to put it on the map for the viewers to engage with.
This Week in Women’s Tennis
Yesterday was International Women’s Day and the WTA participated in the #ChooseToChallenge, with players such as Five at The IX alums Sloane Stephens and Leslie Allen speaking up about the challenges they’ve had to overcome.
The ITF also announced yesterday that they will be releasing a new Leadership Development Program as part of their Advantage All strategy. The program aims to support more than 100 women from various national tennis federations with opportunities to network and mentor to eventually set up more board and executive positions in the future.
Petra Kvitova claimed her 28th WTA singles title at Qatar Total Open with a 6-2, 6-1 rout over Garbine Muguruza. WTA Insider sat down for a Champion’s Corner chat with Kvitova, who also defeated Muguruza in the 2018 Doha final.
In doubles news, Nicole Melichar and Demi Schuurs won their first doubles title as a duo with a 6-2, 2-6, [10-8] win over Monica Niculescu and Jelena Ostapenko. In Lyon, Viktoria Kuzmova and Arantxa Rus also left with their first team crown, coming from behind to defeat Genie Bouchard and Olga Danilovic, 3-6, 7-5, [10-7].
The Middle East swing continues with the Dubai Duty Free Tennis Championships. Learn more about the storylines entering the 21st edition.
David Kane made my week by tracking down Mirjana Lucic-Baroni, who was hoping to come back from a shoulder injury last year before COVID-19 — and then her new baby girl — kept her on the sidelines. The Croat still hopes to finish her career on her terms and if anyone can weather a storm, it’s the Notorious MLB.
Serena Williams and daughter Olympia Ohanian are beyond the cutest twins in their ad for Stuart Weitzman:
WTA Future Stars participants Oliva Gadecki, Charlotte Kempenaers-Pocz and Pranjala Yadlapalli made their presence to the world known with strong performances in the Australian swing and credit their memories in Singapore as a catapult.
Liz Roscher profiled Li Na for Women’s History Month, discussing how the Roland Garros champion truly paved the way for Naomi Osaka to thrive as an Asian player.
Kim Clijsters had been silent about her return following her 2020 comeback, but the Hall of Famer accepted wildcards into the Miami Open and Volvo Car Open. Last year, she was due to play doubles with Venus Williams in Indian Wells and Sloane Stephens in Charleston, so I’m hoping we’ll see her pair up with some forces.
Conchita Martinez is sidelined with COVID-19, but still made sure she kept an eye on pupil Garbine Muguruza in Dubai:
The ATP announced revisions to their ranking system, which will help players down in the rankings have a chance to move up. Tara Moore, an ITF Player Council rep, continues to use her voice and platform to help her colleagues struggling on the ITF Pro Circuit:
Former Doubles World No. 87 Louise Pleming stays involved in the sport as a coach and commentator, but she’s also been instrumental with her non-profit RALLY4EVER, which gives homeless and other Australians dealing with mental health issues an outlet through tennis.
A name you may have to keep an eye out on? Indonesia’s Priska Madelyn Nugroho, who won the 2020 Australian Open girl’s doubles title and currently sits at No.11 in the ITF Junior Rankings.
Good on you, Iga Swiatek:
Mary Carter Reitano, a three-time Grand Slam winner in the 1950s, was inducted into the Australian Tennis Hall of Fame during the Australian Open.
Victoria Azarenka speaks with neurosurgeon and neuroscientist Dr. Rahul Jandial about brain performance in the latest edition of Think About It.
In ITF action, Five at the IX alum Danielle Lao won her first professional title in six years at the $25k event in Newport Beach, California. Vania King returned to the tour — albeit as the start of her farewell tour — to capture the doubles title with Maegan Manasse.
The singles shot of the month and doubles shot of the month for February are up for voting on wtatennis.com. I love that the WTA has started a doubles shot of the month to help get that side of the tour out there.
I’m always here for a good troll from player to player:
Tennis.com’s My Tennis Life’s newest season stars Cici Bellis, who caught us up with her training on court at the USTA National Campus and shows off her bomb mushroom risotto.
Tweet of the Week
I’m still shooketh by Oprah’s interview with Prince Harry and Meghan Markle and Serena Williams, a longtime friend of Markle’s, penned to social media to give her thoughts. A must-read:
Five at The IX: Kate Okiomah
Kate (Goff) Okiomah is a graduate of the University of Kansas, where she was a member of the women’s tennis team. She graduated and spent the beginning of her career in the Arizona Diamondbacks organization and LPGA before becoming a Communications Manager at the WTA. She now runs KO Comms, a sports communications company that has worked with numerous tennis tournaments, as well as the Special Olympics USA Games. You can follow KO Comms on Twitter and Instagram, or Kate herself on Twitter and Instagram.
Joey: Can you give our readers a bit of your background and how you’ve come to lead your own communications firm? Do you have any specific highlights of your career thus far?
Kate: Growing up I was always surrounded by sports. My Dad played basketball at Texas A&M and I don’t really remember a time that sports weren’t around our family or we weren’t involved in sports leagues. Originally, the plan was to do Sports Broadcasting, and that is what I ended up going to school for. Once I graduated, college plans altered a little, but I made sure to stay within sports – from the Arizona Diamondbacks, Ladies Professional Golf Association, and Women’s Tennis Association, and now starting my own Sports Comms agency. I have a lot of special moments and highlights from my career thus far, but I would say being able to work Grand Slams. I grew up watching the Slams, so it was always special being part of those events. In addition, when I was with the D-backs, a group of us flew to the Dominican Republic to help restore baseball fields in Boca Chica Baseball City, which was very rewarding.
Joey: You did a few years at the WTA as a Communications Manager before branching on your own. What have been some of the strengths and struggles you’ve noticed since you created KO Comms?
Kate: After creating KO Comms, the biggest struggle for me was trying to learn balance. You have to juggle a lot! Between new business, current clients, accounting, networking, and more, you realize that there are only so many hours of the day and setting priorities for yourself is key. On the same account, you have to balance work and ‘real world’. You are your own boss, so whether the work gets done or not, it’s on you. One of the biggest strengths I realize is relationships. For me, relationships and references have been my biggest blessings. I value relationships and my reputation working with different clients and have been fortunate to gain many clients through referrals.
Joey: The IX is an ode to Title IX and you played collegiate tennis. How did your experience in college help shape your professional journey? Can you talk about what Title IX means to you not only as an athlete, but as a businesswoman as well?
Kate: I am a very big advocate for playing collegiate sports! For me, it played a very large role into who I am today. The skills you learn through collegiate athletics off the court/field carry over to so many aspects of your life; time management, hard work, dedication, team work, and more. Title IX is so important for our world today, it gives women the opportunity to grow in so many ways. To feel included in a space or industry that used to be the “boys club,” to have confidence in who you are — whether walking on the court, or in the conference room, these are only a couple of reasons why Title IX is so important.
Joey: 2020 brought not only the COVID-19 pandemic, but you also welcomed your first child. How have both impacted you and your career?
Kate: 2020 was quite the year! We welcomed our daughter (Kaiya) in June of 2020 and to be honest, it has been an adjustment. A lot of my work involved travel before and with the pandemic, travel was pretty much out of the question. But with an infant at home, it was actually really nice. Overall I think the pandemic and my new daughter just amplified why I started my own agency — to be in the driver’s seat. I may not have control of all the moving parts around me, but I have control of who I work with, when I work, and when it’s time to take a break for family time.
Joey: What’s next on the horizon for KO Comms? Where would you like the firm to be in 5 years? Are there any specific athletes, events, teams that are on your bucket list?
Kate: In the next 5 years, the plan is to keep growing KO Comms. Some big events I would like to have KO Comms involved in would be the Super Bowl, Olympics, and within the NBA. We have big goals, but I think there is a lot of opportunity out there and its just finding the right fit.
Bonus: What was the best piece of advice you’ve ever received and who gave it? If you could go back in time, what would you tell 18-year-old Kate?
Kate: This one is a tough one! One piece of advice my Dad told me was, “you can always make your own version of work, you just gotta make it happen!” I remember this often because it just reaffirms that you can be successful by making your own path, putting together a career and workforce that doesn’t always follow the old fashion “9-5, 30 years with one company that you don’t really care about.” But if you do choose that path, make sure to put the foot on the pedal and make it happen.