People’s attention at the 32nd Upper Austria Ladies Linz on Sunday was divided up between the qualifying action in the Design Center and the tournament draw – presented by LINZ AG – at a special ceremony in the Ars Electronica Center - the “Museum of the Future”. The draw, which was attended not only by Tournament Director Sandra Reichel and Tournament Ambassador Barbara Schett but also by the players Maria Sakkari (Greece), Jule Niemeier (Germany) and the Olympic Doubles Champion Katerina Siniakova (Czech Republic), has thrown up some highly interesting first round matches.
Nachdem beim Upper Austria Ladies Linz jedes Jahr, gemeinsam mit der LINZ AG, ganz spezielle Auslosungen anstehen, war es auch in diesem Jahr wieder ein kreatives Spektakel im Ars Electronica Center, dem „Museum der Zukunft“ – mitsamt 3D-Videoshow zur globalen Erwärmung und der menschlichen Verantwortung mit unserem Planeten. „Es war sehr einzigartig und interessant. Es ist immer nett, etwas außerhalb des Tenniscourts zu erleben und sich ein bisschen abzulenken“, sagte Sakkari, die Weltranglistensiebte, nachdem sie ihre 3D-Brille wieder abgenommen hatte. Die Lose für die Draw-Zeremonie waren in den Mäulern vieler kleiner müllfressender Monster-Maskottchen mit dem Namen „Mampfi“ versteckt. An der Auslosung nahmen auch die Tschechin Katerina Siniakova und Jule Niemeier teil.
Top seed Maria Sakkari from Greece will kick off her campaign in Linz against Spain’s Nuria Parrizas Diaz. The world No. 7 has no expectations and will be taking "one step at a time" saying, “Even though I’m the No. 1 seed, all the players are playing very good. The draw is really tough.” First round matches are never easy and her encounter with the world No. 71 is no exception. Dr.in Jutta Rinner, Vorstandsdirektorin der LINZ AG.
The match of the round however has to be the one between the 23-year-old Jule Niemeier and USA’s Sofia Kenin, who is on the comeback trail after a number of setbacks since winning the 2020 Australian Open.
Their only previous head-to-head came in the first round of the 2022 US Open and was won by the 23-year-old German in two straight sets. With a recent semifinal appearance in Hobart behind her, the American will be looking to turn the tables.
Austrian interest will most likely center on the 26-year-old wild card holder Julia Grabher. The world No. 89 will face Madison Brengle (USA) who is ranked 9 places above her. It will be the first time they have played each other.
Interview with Barbara Schett-Eagle
Spectators at the Design Center venue can look forward to exciting matches on each of the seven main draw days of the 32nd Upper Austria Ladies Linz. But not only they as the Tournament Ambassador and former world No. 7 Barbara Schett is also eagerly awaiting the action on and off court at the long-standing event. In an interview conducted just before play started in earnest, the popular Austrian, who now works as a reporter and television presenter for amongst others Eurosport, spoke about this year’s tournament and its long history.
What do you think about this year’s tournament? Barbara Schett: “There’s a lot of depth once again, like every year. The cut-off is in the 70s and there’s a great mixture of players. Obviously, I’m a big fan of Maria Sakkari, I think she’s one of the nicest girls on the Tour, who happens to play great tennis as well. I’m also really excited to watch Linda Noskova because I’ve never seen her play and I heard a lot about her last year when people were raving about how good she is. She’s already played the finals in Adelaide, so I’m looking forward to watching her. And we have former champions. There’s Anastasia Pavlyuchenkova and Camila Giorgi. She’s been on the Tour a while now. So, it’s a good mixture of young exciting players and players who love to return like Ekaterina Alexandrova. She’s been around so many times. And there’s Donna Vekic, she recently played the quarters at the Australian Open. I think that’s a lot of different personalities. I love that and I think it keeps the draw exciting and we will see some surprises as well. I think the move back to the Design Center is great. We played there for three years about 20 years ago. It’s adding a lot more class to the tournament and a lot of modern innovation. You always try to progress the tournament and make it better, come up with something new and I think it also keeps the players and spectators curious, which is good.”
Why are small tournaments needed on the Tour? Schett: “We’re needed because we make everybody, every single one of them, feel special. The big events don’t have that as there are many players there. Most of the time they are combined events as well. That’s fine, they’re doing their thing. And then you have the small events which are very individual. You are a little bit more relaxed. You can do more things as a player as well. You feel the charm of the city, you have more contact with the staff, with the tournament director, myself and everything. When the tournaments get so big like the Grand Slams, it’s very hard to have that personal contact. That’s definitely happening at the Upper Austria Ladies Linz.”
Why has the Upper Austria Ladies Linz such a long history? Schett: “The tournament is the second oldest indoor tournament on the WTA Tour, so it has a lot of history. When the Reichel family started it, they didn’t know they were going to be around for another 32 years. I think that the significant thing about the tournament is that it feels very warm, very familiar to the players because there are a lot of people that have been here for many years. We always try, Sandra Reichel and the team, to make everybody feel welcome and make sure there’s lots of other things on offer. Not just for the spectators but also for the players. They can bake cakes, they can go on tours, do handiwork, lots of different things.”
You go back a long way at the tournament. You must have lots of memories… Schett: “I obviously have very fond memories of the tournament. I reached the semis once when I had a wild card. I can’t quite remember when, I think it was before my breakthrough and it kind of started it because I beat Katerina Maleeva. It was pretty big and very special for me because it was the beginning of my career. Players at the Upper Austria Ladies Linz always embraced it and I loved it too. I didn’t have great results, no more semis, finals or never won it. It was a big tournament, so everybody played it like Justine Henin, Lindsay Davenport, Venus Williams, Serena too. They were all there, as was Maria Sharapova. It was really hard to win the title. It would have been great but one thing I will not forget is my goodbye. There was a surprise ceremony in 2004 when I announced I was going to retire. I actually had no idea that something big was planned. It was an emotional day, but a good day and Sandra just nailed it. All my friends were there. People who have been with me for many years, working together, friendships. She did everything for me and I get goose bumps when I think about it still.” The tournament has hosted 18 of the 28 world No. 1s. What are the highlights in your mind? Schett: “I think everybody is special. The latest one was 'Coco' Gauff where she actually lost in the qualies and got in as a lucky loser. She will always remember it. It was special to be there. Like definitely when Justine Henin won the title, Lindsay Davenport won it too, and Ana Ivanovic. Every single one of the players is a different personality and leave a different footprint in Linz. It makes it really special to have a tournament with such a long tradition. The players love it when they are here.”
What does your role as tournament ambassador entail? And how did it happen? Schett: “It pretty much happened quickly after my last tournament as a player. Sandra Reichel and I go back a long way. We used to play doubles together and we’ve known each other for a long time. I always had an interest in how to put together a tournament and to work in a tournament office. Sandra said, 'Would you like to do something with me?' I will never forget that because the initiative came from her, and I loved it. I said yes for sure and everything else is history. This is my 19th year being the tournament ambassador. And I love to support her. My job is to promote the tournament during the year, to have a great relationship with the players. They know me. At the tournament itself, I am not sitting in the office. It takes a long time to prepare a tournament and that’s what Sandra does with her team. When I’m there, I do a lot with the sponsors, again promotion of the tournament, all the side events. On-court interviews. I just mingle with the people and the players, so it’s a lot of socialising in a work way. It is a part of my playing history and now I feel responsibility to be around.”