The IX: Tennis Tuesday with Joey Dillon, February 16, 2021
Breaking down the Australian Open's first week storylines — Interview: IMG's Vickie Gunnarsson — Must-click women's tennis links
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Top Stories From Week 1 in Melbourne
How are we already a week into the Australian Open!? The quarterfinals have begun and in case you need a refresher, the amazing team at wtatennis.com broke down everything you need to know.
Now, there were a few storylines I wanted to break down while we wait for this year’s champion.
Hsieh Su-Wei Slays
I think I want to go back to school, just so I could write a dissertation on the amazingness that is Hsieh Su-Wei. Homegirl is everything. Though she lost in the quarterfinals to Naomi Osaka, this trailer for her match perfectly embodies why she is a fan — and player — favorite:
I mean — come on. She is a joy on and off of the court and WTA Insider’s feature on her coach Paul McNamee only helps enhance how much of a precious gem Hsieh is. Can you name another player that can go years without stringing a racquet, let alone wear every logo known to mankind on one outfit?
Seeing Hsieh reach her maiden Grand Slam quarterfinal at the age of 35 has been a shining moment this week when upsets, injuries and COVID-19 setbacks buzzing around the grounds. I’m here for a mega 2021 season from Hsieh because she needs to be as mainstream as possible.“I don’t really care if I win or I lose. I just try my best and play the game.” Hsieh Su-Wei is always showing up with her positive attitude, but today she can use it to celebrate her first major quarterfinal. 🙌
I’ll leave you with one more Hsieh video, in case you needed some information on taking in Taiwan.
Stars and Stripes Taking Over Melbourne
Four American women made it to the Round of 16 in Melbourne, which is something we’ve seen plenty of times, but it’s the consistency of those who are finally reaching their potential that have been a joy to see.
Specifically Jessica Pegula, Jennifer Brady and Shelby Rogers. Though Rogers fell to World No. 1 Ashleigh Barty, she deserves plenty of recognition to back up her US Open quarterfinal last year with another second week appearance at a Slam. The same can be said for Brady, who has also made consecutive second weeks on the hardcourt Slams and looks to be ready to etch her name among the upper echelon. She also deserves plenty of praise for being the lone player of the 26 WTA stars in hard quarantine to make it into the second week.
As for Pegula, she’s the American not named Serena taking the headlines. However, I’m not about them. Let’s just start with the obvious. Yes, Pegula comes from a family with plenty of money thanks to her father’s business that includes oil and owning the Buffalo Bills and Buffalo Sabres franchises. However, this Daily Mail piece basically compares her to a lazy heiress who just burns money at her every chance, while this ESPN article includes her father in the headline.*American Jessica Pegula WTA tour/professional tennis player 😉 https://t.co/D8J09Oiexr
Adam Schefter @AdamSchefterJessica Pegula, daughter of Bills owners Terry and Kim Pegula, just upset the fifth-seeded Elina Svitolina to advance to the Australian Open quarterfinals. Her run continues.
Pegula has never denied she grew up in privilege, but she’s had to pave her own way to success. Yes, she’s not had to have the financial worry in the back of her mind, but she’s had to deal with multiple career-threatening injuries. She’s peaked with a career-high ranking, only to lose nearly a year of play, only to repeat that same cycle before finally staying healthy enough to compete at the WTA level. She keeps her head low, works hard and stays in her own lane. It’s time to give her credit on her tennis merit, not anything else.
Plus, it was a delight to see her roast Brad Gilbert on live TV after he continued giving player nicknames nobody asked for.
#HerTrueSelf: Melbourne Edition
Radka’s Leitmeritz’s incredible photography of WTA stars has continued into 2021, but the fact that she did this over FaceTime is incredible.
Leirmeritz saw the shoots as a way to help the players through their quarantine, where many were confined to a full, hard 14-day isolation. The photos help capture an intimate look at each of the players, in an environment usually unspoken within the grueling tennis calendar. I adore this project and hope Radka continues it throughout the year.
You can view all of Radka’s chapters with players from Melbourne here. I highly encourage checking them out and giving them as much engagement and exposure possible.
This Week in Women’s Tennis
This week’s must-read is WTA Insider’s Doubles Dossier with Five at The IX alum Luisa Stefani. The Pepperdine Wave opens up about her road to doubles success and hopes that she continues to inspire a new wave (no pun intended) of players in her native Brazil.
The Phillip Island Trophy, the WTA 250 held in Melbourne, is underway, and there have been a few headlines. First, Sofia Kenin continued her woes with a loss to unranked wildcard Olivia Gadecki — the first time in over 20 years someone with no ranking upset a Top 5 player. On the other end of the spectrum, second seed Bianca Andreescu and Madison Brengle not only had to face each other, but plenty of bird droppings as well.
Did the hard 14-day quarantine affect the 26 WTA players in the singles draw in Melbourne? Essentially, yes.
Remember that time I dissected the reactions Serena Williams gets when she’s frustrated versus her white and/or male colleagues? Well, that conversation became relevant when Aryna Sabalenka threw her racquet in frustration and many fans called out the double standard the GOAT faces.
Speaking of Serena, Bill Connelly at ESPN expands on my discussion that the 23-time Grand Slam champion is sports’ true GOAT, but also breaks down how we’re seeing a new Serena era — with data to back it up.
Do you think the courts this year in Melbourne are quicker than years’ past? Well, you’re not wrong.
What a five days we had with fans in Melbourne. Then, in an instant, lockdown began in Melbourne and we were back to a full bubble life. Matthew Futterman at the New York Times dissects how fans — not athletes — are the ones who create sport. Hopefully the five-day lockdown the Victorian government put in place will be enough and we’ll end the tournament with a cheering crowd.
Naomi Osaka and Donna Vekic can join the list of Australian Open champions who have saved a match point in a round before winning the title.
Good news? The WTA made it on last night’s episode of Jeopardy. Bad news? The contestant guessed Anna Kournikova, who retired in 2003:
It’s been quite a year for Donna Vekic, who spoke to David Kane about her WTA Players’ Council work, the COVID-19 shutdown and her partnership with Torben Beltz folding.
Ann Li is having herself quite the last year on the court, rising from No. 145 entering last year and now sits at No. 69. The King of Prussia, PA native continued her stellar play with a third round showing, which helped quadruple her career earnings.
Congratulations to former World No. 1 Caroline Wozniacki, who announced she and husband, former NBA player David Lee, are expecting a baby girl in June:
The tennis.com podcast spoke this past week with doubles player Sharon Fichman, who retired for two years, but now sees herself in her first Grand Slam quarterfinal with Five at the IX alum Giuliana Olmos.
Coco Gauff might’ve fallen to Elina Svitolina, but she sees herself a much better player than she was 12 months ago and part of that is due to her doubles partner, Caty McNally.
The 2021 season of tennis.com’s My Tennis Life, which players vlog their year on camera, will feature American player Cici Bellis.
Tweet of the Week
World No. 172 Nicole Gibbs announced her retirement yesterday. A three-time NCAA champion, she peaked at No. 68 in the WTA singles rankings. However, as much as she was a joy to watch on the court, her candor off is what separated her from most. She was open about her mental health and was one of the few players — not only American, but players period — to denounce Donald Trump and speak out about marginalized communities.
I wish Gibbsy nothing but the best. We’ve known each other for many years throughout both the NCAA and ITF/WTA scene and have had some great conversations. I know she’s made the Cleveland area proud and I’m pumped to see where her tenacity takes her in a post-tennis life. Be sure to expect a Five at the IX from her in the near-future.
Five at the IX: Vickie Gunnarsson
Vickie Gunnarsson is currently the Director of IMG Tennis Events at IMG. She acts as the Tournament Director for both the Mubadala Silicon Valley Classic, a WTA 500 in San Jose, California, as well as the Mubadala World Tennis Championship in Abu Dhabi. She also assists in the Miami Open and exhibition events IMG hosts. She sits down to discuss her career, how Title IX helped create her journey, as well as why Scandinavian tennis is lacking even with the help of Caroline Wozniacki.
Joey: Can you help describe your journey to where you are today with IMG Tennis Events?
Vickie: Tennis has been a big part of my life since very early on. I started to play at 7yrs (my father was an eager player). I moved away all alone to a new city in Sweden to attend a dedicated tennis high school and later secured a full scholarship at University of Oregon for playing for the Ducks. During the summer breaks I went back to Sweden every year to serve as the Co-TD (with my father) for a Swedish junior tournament. After my undergrad, I went back to Sweden to do my Master in International Business. I did my Master thesis project for the Swedish Tennis Association and the Gothenburg Tourism Authority – ‘A feasibility study for hosting a WTA event in Gothenburg’. Throughout my thesis, I interviewed many WTA TDs and build my self a strong network and understanding of the Tennis event landscaped. The topic of my thesis was ‘A Stakeholders Approach to events’. I developed an event budget, researched economic consequences for the city, sponsor support, venue landscape, media interest etc. This set me up very well for my career.
After I completed my Master studies, I got a job at Gothenburg Tourism Authority to be part of the Volvo Ocean Race event organization (VOR 2005-2006). I kept in contact with the Swedish TD’s. Per Hjertquist, the TD for Stockholm Open, called me and had an opening in his team. I had to move to Stockholm for 3 months. I jumped all over it and the rest is history. After 3 years at the Stockholm Open, I was ready to gain more international experience for IMG. A door opened to be part of kicking off a new tennis event and grow IMG’s tennis business in the UAE/Abu Dhabi. I jumped all over that and ended up in the UAE for nearly 8 years. Throughout my time in the UAE (in addition to working on growing the business in the Middle East), I worked across many events for IMG including the Miami Open and Bank of the West Classic. This set me up for an eventual move to the US. I had already gotten great relations within IMG US and been part of their event team. So the move to the US (early 2017) was fairly smooth. I am now TD for our event in San Jose, in Abu Dhabi and overseeing two exhibitions for IMG Tennis.
Joey: You were a student-athlete that graduated from the University of Oregon. The IX is an ode to Title IX, which helped open the door for women’s collegiate athletics. Can you talk about the impact your time in college tennis and the role Title IX had on you throughout your life/career?
Vickie: Partly thanks to equal rights and Title IX, I personally had the opportunity to get a full scholarship at University of Oregon. This amazing experience opened up so many doors for me: access to top education, being able to compete in tennis at a very high level, being taught high discipline, courage, strategy, efficiency and business manners. The athletic program at University of Oregon and the resources they committed were truly amazing. We had access to mental trainers, physiologists, physios, tennis coaches and tutors. This helped me immensely in my career both mentally, and physically. And the disciple taught me that hard work pays off, and there was no time to waste in between tennis and study breaks. Plus, the friendships and network I got created friends for life, and business contacts for life.
Tennis is an amazing sport, it has so many benefits, and the people that play and work with the sports are truly a pleasure to deal with. I’m very fortunate to have a key role in a sport that I love, and a tournament which has played such an important role in history. Co-founded by BJK the Mubadala Silicon Valley Classic is now the longest standing women’s only tennis tournament in the world and is celebrating its 50th anniversary this summer. And if I can also be an inspiration to younger girls who want to succeed in a career similar to mine, or any career, and to show them that dreams can come true than I am very lucky.
Joey: You hold a few different hats for IMG Tennis Events. Can you describe how a normal day pans out for you? How have you been able to navigate COVID-19 pandemic where 2020 saw many cancellations and still so much uncertainty in 2021?
Vickie: I have a very varied role for IMG tennis events. I manage event budgets, stakeholder/tour relationships, a team, oversee PR/Marketing plans, and ultimately revenue streams (sponsorship and ticketing), so I fulfil many hats in the events that I’m involved in. I have to focus where I am most needed and where the biggest gaps are at the moment. Part of my role is also developing new events and business opportunities. So no one day is like the other – which is very exciting. The Covid times have been challenging for our industry. I am very thankful for my broad skill set, international vast experiences and diverse relationships which has set me up very well for handling these types of challenging situations. I adopt very quickly to new situations and can add value where its most needed.
Joey: You hail from Sweden, which has produced plenty of top juniors recently and has consistently hosted a WTA event, but only has one Top 300 player in No. 55 Rebecca Peterson. Do you see any particular reason why Scandinavia lacks depth compared to other regions?
Vickie: I think there is generally a bit of a lack of elite focus in Sweden at an early age: especially if you are not from a bigger city or come from a wealthy family. I also think that the Swedish ‘lagom’ mentality tells you that being ‘average’ is a very good thing. We have it generally very well in Sweden and there is too little incentive to ‘struggle’ in order to get the rewards. People are very comfortable in general. But it will change with time. There are really great academies with elite focus for youths popping up in Sweden. Magnus Norman’s – Good to Great is a great example.
Joey: Where do you hope to see yourself in five years? Are there things in the tennis industry you would like to dip your toes into? Do you see yourself staying in tennis for the rest of your career?
Vickie: I very much enjoy learning and developing, and would enjoy working for a rights holder at some point in time. I would also like to try working in another sport or with a brand or athletes. But for now I love what I do, IMG is an amazing company to work for and am focused on contributing to IMG tennis.
Joey: 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 Vickie?
Vickie: I have always made sure to advocate for myself and be honest and clear with my bosses about what I want to achieve in the future. I have kept pushing for what I want and this has payed off. I have always gotten what I wanted sooner or later. It has taken time, and as a women I have had to prove my self and deliver over and over again in order to move ahead and get the next opportunity, but eventually what you want comes to those who work hard for it, and deliver.
As a woman, I have had to work very hard to prove my self and get ahead and have sacrificed a lot on the way. I don’t regret it, but I have not had time for family for example. Going back, I would pursue my passions again. It is very rewarding. Two bosses I had early on in my career that really set me up for success and believed in me were: Leif Johansson with Goteborg and Co and Per Hjertquist at IMG Sweden/Stockholm Open.
They introduced me to everyone and everything I needed to know. That was very important for my career. I believe that surrounding your self with bosses and colleagues that support you, and can coach you to the next level is very important. I am very thankful for having had great bosses and mentors around me that have believed in me and supported me to the next level. Greg Sproule in the Middle East taught me a lot about business development, Fernando Soler taught me all I need to know about the tennis industry, and now Gavin Forbes is instrumental in coaching me to be a better manager. They have all fulfilled very important pieces in the puzzle, and come into my life at the right time.