Naomi Osaka’s revolutionary move, Rafael Nadal's work ethic and Italian 'derby' wows fans - Rome diary
In Reem Abulleil's latest diary from the Italian Open, there's big off-court news from Naomi Osaka and the atmosphere in Foro Italico is at fever pitch, not least because of an 'Italian derby' between hometown favourites Jannick Sinner and Fabio Fognini. Elsewhere, it was deja vu for Stefanos Tsitsipas and Grigor Dimitrov.
Naomi Osaka of Japan attends her press conference during the Mutua Madrid Open 2022 at La Caja Magica on May 01, 2022, in Madrid, Spain. (Photo By Oscar J. Barroso/Europa Press via Getty Images)
Big news broke on Wednesday as Sportico’s Kurt Badenhausen reported that Naomi Osaka has left IMG to set up her own sports agency, EVOLVE, alongside her long-time agent Stuart Duguid.
Osaka, who landed at No. 20 on Sportico’s 2022 list of highest-earning athletes in the world, is the highest-paid sportswoman on the planet and according to the publication has made $53.2 million over the past 12 months.
“Going out on her own and doing her own agency with her long-time agent Stu Duguid is a natural progression; because we’ve seen it before with guys like LeBron (James) and Roger Federer. You reach the point where the big agency kind of outlives its usefulness because you are your own business,” said Badenhausen in a conversation on Twitter Spaces on Wednesday, after breaking the story.
“It’s ownership. Everything will stay in-house; as these athletes get bigger and bigger, they’re writing bigger and bigger cheques, in terms of the percentage, the commission on their endorsement deals.
“She and Stuart I think will look to add a couple of clients. But this is not going to grow into something big. But it just gives them some flexibility in terms of what they can do, in terms of the kind of deals they can do.”
Four-time major champion Osaka is following in the footsteps of Federer, who split from IMG to start his own agency with his agent Tony Godsick back in 2013. The difference is Federer launched Team8 when he was 32 years old whereas Osaka has made the aged just 24.
“You look at what Team8 is with Roger Federer and Tony Godsick, I think that is kind of a prototype for what they’ve done. Because the agency and Roger are both investors in ON Running, the popular running shoe that had an IPO last year and is worth more than $6 billion,” continued Badenhausen.
“In terms of Team8 investing in tennis tournaments, they own and operate the Laver Cup. I’ve been told they’re looking at the Cincinnati event, which is a Masters 1000 tournament – there are only nine of those in the world.
“Those are the kind of things that you can start to think about, which is challenging to do as just a cog within a big agency.”
Back to on-court news, Rafael Nadal and Coco Gauff claimed comfortable straight-sets victories in Rome on Wednesday then went straight to the practice court to work on their respective games before they even came to press.
Nadal, who beat John Isner 6-3 6-1 to set up a rematch of his Rome last-16 clash with Denis Shapovalov from last year, said he is trying to get in as much court time as possible, having just returned from an injury lay-off last week in Madrid.
Rafael Nadal crushes John Isner 6-3, 6-1 to reach Italian Open third round in Rome
“I am a little bit in a rush, that I have to find as soon as possible the best feelings. I need to recover things that I missed because of the injury,” said the defending champion.
“I need to work as much as I can to be ready for (Roland Garros) in a couple of weeks. Of course, tomorrow is the priority today. But at the same time, the medium term, long term, I need to keep going.
“The only way for me to give myself a chance to recover the level that I want to recover, or I want to reach, is to work.
"The match today was not that strong physically or demanding physically, so I felt myself a little bit more can keep helping, no? That's it.”
In an interview with Eurosport last week, Gauff’s father and coach Corey, spoke about fostering a winning mentality and how hitting the practice court after a match is something they’ve been doing more off lately.
The idea is to not treat tournaments and matches as the destination, but rather a stop along the way.
“Honestly, it's a work in progress. I feel like even now, I get wrapped up in results. I try to remember that we're pretty much playing a tournament every week; you can't win them all,” said Gauff about trying to adopt her father’s mentality.
“I think I just have to understand that even if the match didn't go my way, try to take the good things and positive things out of each match.”
Cori Gauff of the United States celebrates a point against Madison Brengle of the United States in her second round match during Day 4 of the Internazionali BNL D'Italia at Foro Italico on May 11, 2022 in Rome, Italy (Photo by Robert Prange/Getty Images)
Image credit: Getty Images
Just like Nadal, Gauff gets a rematch from her Rome run last year, against Greece’s Maria Sakkari.
Gauff claimed a big win over Sakkari at the Foro Italico 12 months ago en route to the semi-finals and explained why she went to hit some balls after her victory against Madison Brengle on Wednesday.
“It's just because I'm playing Sakkari tomorrow. They hit the ball completely different so I needed some more pace,” said the 18-year-old Gauff.
“Also sometimes I just like hitting some balls after the match because not every match, even though you might win, you might not always feel good. I try to end on something that makes you feel good.”
Tennis fever at the Foro
Bianca Andreescu said it best when she described the incredible tennis fans that flood the grounds every day here at the Foro Italico in Rome.
“This is my first time at the tournament. It's a different atmosphere. The people here are crazy, but in the best way. They love their tennis,” said the Canadian, who advanced to the second round when her opponent Emma Raducanu retired while trailing 2-6, 1-2.
“I love that kind of atmosphere. I also do see some Canadians, some Romanians here, which I love. I appreciate all the support.”
Stefanos Tsitsipas says he felt like a gladiator fighting for his life during his tight victory over Grigor Dimitrov on the Grandstand Arena on Wednesday.
“It’s like playing in the Colosseum. There’s so much energy coming from the crowd. I think the people today that came and watched the match were so into it, more than us I think. And it made for a great atmosphere and a great kind of gladiator environment on the court,” said the Greek fourth seed.
There aren’t that many venues around the world where you can get a full capacity crowd at each and every outside court, on any given day of the tournament; for Rome however, that degree of dedication from the fans is a given.
It took me 30 minutes of queuing the other day to try and squeeze through the crowd and find a spot to sit at Court 2 to catch a glimpse of rising Argentine Sebastian Baez against Dutchman Tallon Griekspoor.
It was an opening round between two qualifiers and there wasn’t an empty seat in sight, not to mention the hundreds of people who were waiting in line, hoping to get in.
There were Dutch chants, Argentinian chants, and random cheers from the neutrals in the house and it’s just great to experience it all firsthand.
The crowd in Rome can get wild, and may get under a player’s skin if they’re against them (we see you, Denis Shapovalov). But ask any player and they’ll tell you they’d take this kind of atmosphere any day over a less engaged audience.
An Italian derby
With the Coppa Italia final between Juventus and Inter Milan taking place just a few hundred metres away, another fierce all-Italian battle was taking place at the Foro as Jannik Sinner squeezed past his countryman Fabio Fognini 6-2 3-6 6-3 to reach the last-16.
After the win, Sinner wrote, “Forza Milan” and drew a little heart, on the camera lens, in reference to his favourite football team, AC Milan, who are closing in on the Serie A title, but are just two points ahead of their bitter rivals Inter Milan in the standings.
Sinner acted on instinct before quickly realising that Fognini is an avid Inter fan and may have taken it personally.
“I went immediately to apologise to Fabio because I was not thinking about that. But we had a little chat. Everything is fine. We had a little laugh,” Sinner told me after the match.
“Yeah, it was just instinct because I know Sunday we have important matches. But it was nothing personal. It was just my instinct. Then after I felt, yeah, a little bit guilty. I went straight to Fabio to tell him it was nothing personal. It's all fine.”
Sinner overcomes Fognini in Rome thriller between Italians to reach last 16
Back from the brink
On Wednesday, Stefanos Tsitsipas played Grigor Dimitrov for a third straight tournament and a second time in seven days. The Greek fourth seed won their clashes in Barcelona and Madrid in straight sets, and looked on his way to complete another routine win over Dimitrov in Rome when he led the Bulgarian 6-3 5-3.
But Dimitrov had other ideas and broke Tsitsipas as he was serving for the match and forced a decider.
Things got trickier for Tsitsipas in the final set as he was forced to save two match points before edging Dimitrov in the deciding tiebreak.
Asked how he got through that roller coaster of a match, Tsitsipas told Eurosport: “I don’t know. I don’t know.
“I’m not used to it, I’m not used to having so many back-to-back battles against the same players. For sure there are a lot of psychological factors involved in it.
“Obviously the player that you’ve played always wants to do better and tries to find different ways that he can manipulate your game.
“I knew he’s going to be different every single time I play against him, it’s not going to be the same. He’s someone who looks like he wants to improve all the time and made it a bit more difficult today. I followed the same procedure that I had to, but it became tougher than I was seeing it coming.”
Stat of the day
Stan Wawrinka is currently ranked No.361 in the world – the lowest he’s been since he was No.363 on July 7, 2003.
With his win over Laslo Djere on Wednesday, he has become the lowest-ranked player to reach the Rome third round since No.411 Corrado Borroni in 1995.