Nicola Blatsiotis, a former pro-tennis player, coach, USTA player development expert and current consultant to USA Networks gives ASW Magazine the inside scoop on the US Open. From locker room chatter to endorsement deals, find out what’s behind the hype.
Q. How has your time on the tour prepared you for what you are doing now?
Nicola Blatsiotis: What I am doing now for USA involves my ability to technically and tactically evaluate a player. The evaluation is based on my judgment and there is no way I could do that without my experience on the tour. Because I have the ability to ‘make or break’ an up-and-coming player I need to know exactly what I am talking about.
Q. What qualities do you look for in a great player?
NB: Tennis requires a very specific skill, which is not solely based in athleticism. Your hands and your mental approach are so important. I look for players who do not display fear of failure on the court, especially when it comes to major points. I notice those who can close out a point, have killer instinct and have the ability to finish off a match. I also notice marketable players who can become super athletes, super models and super actors. This well roundedness represents the new wave in sports. For tennis, the first player who embodied this trend was Anna Kournikova. She famously failed to win a singles title in more than 100 WTA events but still managed to earn about five million dollars in endorsement deals. What is really more interesting about her now is that she continues to make the same amount of money without even being on the WTA tour.
Q. How do you think the recent surge in endorsements has changed tennis?
NB: Top players now lack the incentive to play in many tournaments because they do not need the prize money.
Q. Which players have the big endorsement deals this year and how has that affected the tournament?
NB: Maria Sharapova still has the biggest endorsement deals this year. She earns approximately 20 million dollars a year from deals with the likes of Canon, Motorola, Nike and Tag Heuer. There is another female star – Serbian Ana Ivanovic. At 19, she is the youngest player in the top 10. She will, in my opinion, soon take the reigns from Sharapova. In a recent CNBC poll about the world's sexiest tennis player, Ivanovic trounced Sharapova 9 to 1. Ivanovic is endorsed by Adidas, Wilson and she just signed a new deal with Verano Motors (the distributor of Peugeot in Serbia). Although the deal does not sound glamorous, it will open the door for others to come.
Roger Federer is making 15 million dollars in endorsements annually, but his new deal with Gillette is going to raise the bar. He is also endorsed by Nike and Wilson and two other Swiss companies. Andy Roddick, however, still appears to be winning the race to the bank on the men’s side with about 16 million dollars a year from deals with Lexus, American Express and Lacoste.
Q. Who should we watch for the rest of the Open?
NB: There is a famous sentence in the locker room among the male players when they have to play Roger Federer: “It is like a porno movie,” meaning that Roger can dominate every aspect of their game. I hope this phrase doesn’t hold true and we get a great show this year. Players that can demonstrate good resistance against Federer are Andy Roddick, Tommy Haas (big win against James Blake), Novak Djokovic (with potential to be the next #1 player in the world) and Rafael Nadal, though he has a big disadvantage in this tournament because of a knee problem. In terms of women, things are complicated. Because of the early elimination of Maria Sharapova, the top side of the draw is much stronger than the bottom. On the top side you have so many great players like Justine Henin, Serena Williams, Venus Williams and Jelena Jankovic. The bottom is less exciting, except for Anna Chakvetadze.
Q. Fashion is really becoming a big part of tennis. Do you think that it has gone too far? Do you think the focus on visual appeal is detracting from the skills of the athlete?
NB: People will like the fashion or not like the fashion. But if people are talking about the fashion it has to be a positive thing. The question is if tennis has become fashion fabulous or simply a fashion folly. The problem for me started when the clothing companies gave some players the ability to design their own clothes. This resulted in fashion crimes. I am not the editor of Vogue but I am assuming that if someone is great at hitting tennis balls it does not automatically make him or her a clothing designer. At the 2004 US Open Serena Williams unveiled her biker denim outfit complete with vinyl black leggings. I was there and thought she looked bad, but from the other side I liked her willingness to test the limits. So no, to answer your question, I do not think the focus on visual appeal is detracting from the skills of the athlete or tennis fashion is out of control. I just think that sometimes it is a little bit painful on the eyes.
Q. Can you tell me about John Isner and Donald Young? Do you think they represent the next wave of US Tennis champions? If not, is there anyone else we should be keeping an eye on?
NB: John Isner, 22, finished college and then entered the pro tour. Donald Young, 18, did the opposite, entering the tour two years ago. There was so much hype about him even though two weeks prior to the US Open he had never won a match on the ATP tour and held a record of 11-0 losses. He got two wild cards in the previous years for the US Open and both times lost in the first round. Then, all of a sudden, in this US Open he won his first match, his opponent retired on the second round and he ended up losing on the third round. I am still not convinced about him and I think there was too much hype too early. I think Isner is in a better state of mind. He came in with no expectations this year and he found himself facing Andy Roddick and Roger Federer in the last two tournaments he played. In my opinion, there is somebody else that we should keep an eye on and he is more than the total package as a player. His name is Sam Querrey. He just graduated from high school and has proved that he can play with the big boys.
Q. Right now there are no US players consistently in the top 5, which means that there are no major rivalries among US players like there used to be (for example, Sampras vs. Agassi, Conners vs. McEnroe). What effect does this have on big corporate money since the US Open is very much based on America viewership?
NB: Short-term, yes, it has a negative effect. There are better ratings in wrestling, for example, than in tennis and the sport is now feeling the effects of globalization. The major rivalries among US players that you mention pushed the sport worldwide and have created top-level players everywhere. There are some great American players coming up and the networks are doing a great job educating the American viewer about the foreign talents that are participating in the US Open.
Ivanovic, the new Sharapova?
Q. There are so many players with incredible talent these days. In your opinion, what is the intangible quality that separates the good from the best?
NB: I like to watch a tennis player when things are not going well for them in a match. This is when you see the determination and will of the individual. A very important quality is the ability of a player to adjust their game. That means he/she is aware of their own mistakes, their opponent’s patterns and the situation, including score and conditions.
Q. Why is it that American men play a pure power game?
NB: The main reason has to do with American courts’ fast surface on which most players practice and play tournaments. On a hard court it is easier to put the ball away so power is a key element. If you play on red clay it is more difficult to put the ball away because it is a moving surface. Naturally you develop a higher shot tolerance that demands patient point construction. Another reason is that somehow young American players train with the objective to end points quickly. On a fast surface, players can rely heavily on sheer power and athleticism, which is the preferred approach for American players.
— Sabine Heller