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Beach tennis is different and there’s still a novelty to it even though the sport has been around for over 30 years. I think it represents a very attractive lifestyle of beach, fitness and friendship in addition to competition.Alex Querna
In commemoration of the 10-year anniversary of BEACHCLUB2010®, we wanted to give a voice to our friends and faithful companions who have been by our side throughout our journey. We spoke to players, organizers and commentators about their beach tennis stories. You can find them in the following interviews.
Alex Querna lives in California/USA and is conected to beach tennis since 2005. He works at the Aruba Beach Tennis Open as Live Event Emcee and Play by Play Announcer, so he is responsible for the athmosphere around the center court. Alex is a former Executive Director of Beach Tennis USA, he helped launch the sport of beach tennis in the United States and build the first professional tour in the USA. He also is a former Host of Beach Tennis on The Tennis Channel and Fox SportsNet in the USA, he has emceed beach tennis tournaments in USA, Mexico, Puerto Rico, Bermuda, Spain and Italy. "I am so proud to see you celebrating your ten-year anniversary in 2020! I remember meeting Max and some of the German players for the first time in Ravenna, Italy in 2008 and it is amazing to see the tournament growth in Germany and to see many of the same, great people, still involved with the sport today!"
In our interview he talkes about his job in Aruba, the development of beach tennis in the US and his connection to Germany.
How is your voice, Alex?
My voice is fine, thank you for asking!
When people see and hear you as the speaker at the beach tennis tournament in Aruba in November, they might think that it takes you some time to recover. What exactly is your job, your challenge there?
My key responsibility in Aruba is to try and enhance the excitement of what is happening in the sand at the event. Aruba is a huge tournament held over many days with many matches taking place on center court. My job is to help the audience in the stands, and also those watching at home, to feel more engaged with what is happening in the moment. I do this not only with unique, “play by play” coverage as the points are actually being played but also with color commentary, player facts, statistics, tournament announcements and maybe the occasional joke thrown in there when the moment is right.
It’s a thin line between a professional sports event and a show event. Why is it working so well in Aruba, and can this be an example for other places?
Well I think what Aruba has done well is that they have made a conscious decision to focus on the “show” and entertainment side of the event first and that is the magic of why Aruba is so fun and regarded by so many as the best tournament in the world. Center Court in Aruba is like no other beach tennis experience anywhere on the planet! The music, the dancing, the contests for the fans, the overall atmosphere is catered to entertaining. Sjoerd de Vries and the Beach Tennis Aruba team made sure to put that aspect first and let that festive mood co-exist with the world class play that you see there. To me, the Aruba tournament personifies the culture of beach tennis and I’d like to see a similar model at other big events around the world. That’s not to say that I think all tournaments have to look exactly like Aruba, but I think adopting the model of providing a festive and fun fan experience around the professional tournament is a good thing. I’ve been involved with world-class sports outside of beach tennis, even working on the Sport Production Team for the Winter Olympics and can tell you that the model works.
Sjoerd de Vries and Jochem Ros, the two organizers of the event, started in 2003 with BT in Aruba, the next year they planned the first tournament. Now they have more than 30 courts, more than 1000 participants. What makes the event in Aruba so special beside the show?
Sjoerd de Vries and Jochem Ros started something great in Aruba back in 2003 with just a couple of courts at a beach bar. I met those guys in 2005 and I remember how small things were in the beginning. Although small, they stayed dedicated to growing the sport of beach tennis on the island through a number of fun events. They key is fun, and it seemed anyone who played their events got hooked. Sjoerd and Jochem not only focused on growing the game in Aruba but they were significantly involved in helping Beach Tennis USA launch the sport in the United States. Sjoerd and Jochem stayed dedicated to scaling the event, not fearing growth but embracing it and that’s what allowed them to hit huge milestones such as taking the International Tournament to Eagle Beach, establishing a permanent beach tennis facility at Tropicana (now Eagle Aruba Resort) and relocating their biggest event to an even larger event space at Bushiri Beach. They’ve invested in resources, including people such as Marc Kiezenbrink, who does tremendous work for Beach Tennis Aruba behind the scenes on the business and tournament end.
Aruba does have some unique advantages that I think has contributed to their success. They are a relatively small island nation with a very captive audience and little competition in the way of beach sports. They have mostly positive support from the government, although that can be a tricky relationship, that allows them to run events without suffocating regulation and oversight. And the shear nature of living on a small island means that everybody knows one another, so relationships with vendors such as bleacher companies, audio-visual vendors or even the local beer distributors are easier to navigate than in larger markets with more fierce competition from other events. Regardless of these advantages, the accomplishments of Beach Tennis Aruba are incredibly impressive and their continued devotion to growing the game and the hard work that goes into producing year-round beach tennis programming on the island should not be overlooked. They are a great group of guys and I’m so thankful to know them and be able to call them my friends.
Now it seems that they did not get along with the ITF and want to start their own tour. What do you think about this development?
I have heard some rumors but I am not on the front lines of whatever issues BTA has with the ITF so I am not the best one to comment on it. What I can say is that beach tennis is still a tiny sport in the global arena and many people around the world still do not even know what the sport is. That is changing, slowly, but we as a BT community need to recognize that the only way our sport can grow and gain legitimate recognition is to work together. We are too small to be divided. So while I understand there may be frustrations or disagreements between tournament organizers and the governing bodies, I think we all need one another in order to scale our sport properly so it’s in all of our best interest to try and find compromise and solutions to support one another in the best interest of the sport. There will be much more financial opportunities for governing bodies like the ITF, tournament organizers, players, coaches and, heck, even emcees and entertainers if the sport grows. So, we all need to do what we can now to help provide the best launching pad for which our sport can scale faster than it has over the past 30 years.
Why is it so difficult to make all the BT lovers work together to promote this sport worldwide?
I think this is representative of a larger, human nature characteristic. Not everyone agrees what is best for the common good or perhaps doesn’t care or can even agree what the common good actually is. In any business, there are opportunists, control freaks, greed and rampant differences of opinion that hinder collective progress. Beach Tennis is no different although I will say that, having worked in other more established sports in my career, beach tennis still seems to have a tighter, more cooperative community than almost any other sport out there. Still, as in any family, there will always be disagreements and fighting. I think filling the void and providing global leadership to bring all of the independent BT organizations together is where the ITF has a great opportunity. The game needs a force at the top to provide that leadership and, currently, the ITF seems to be in the best position to do so. However, the beach tennis division of the ITF will need more support in the form of budget, staff and shared resources from the larger federation (the tennis side) in order to push forward a truly global beach tennis growth initiative.
When did you first come in contact with beach tennis?
I first came in contact with BT in April of 2005. I was finishing the management of a national marketing tour when I saw a job advertisement for tour manager of a tennis related beach tour. I jumped on the application as I was a tennis player, I loved the beach and I was already an experienced tour manager so it seemed like a great fit. It turns out the job was for a brand new company called Beach Tennis USA and they were assembling their core team to launch the sport in the United States. I was hired as Tour Manager within 48 hours and in May of 2005 we launched the first ever beach tennis tour in the USA. It wasn’t a professional tour during that first year but more of a marketing experiential tour to introduce the sport to Americans and see what the response was like. During this first tour I met Sjoerd de Vries and Jochem Ros and that’s where the Aruba connection started. They were a huge help in assisting the BTUSA team with the sport. Having worked on other experiential tours, and often times working the microphone as an announcer, I naturally started emceeing our tour events in addition to being the tour manager.
After the first two years, in 2007 I was able to visit the Aruba tournament at Moomba Beach for the first time and I remember Sjoerd asked me to get on the microphone and announce the way I did in the USA. This was something new to Aruba, but the crowd responded to it and thought it was fun and made the matches more exciting to watch. I guess that’s where the seed was planted for me to announce in Aruba a few years later. In the USA I hosted a television show for beach tennis and had been announcing other BT tournaments in the USA and abroad. I believe it was 2012 when Sjoerd saw a post from an event I was emceeing somewhere and asked if I would come to Aruba to be an announcer. I did, and I’ve been back every year since! I love emceeing the Aruba tournament and I believe that if I’m fortunate enough to go back later this year, it will be my tenth year announcing in Aruba!
You are from the United States, BT has a special history there. Can you tell us how the sport developed in the US from the beginning? BT was huge from 2007 to 2009 in LA, Miami and NY. What happened since then?
In 2003, Marc Altheim (a real estate developer from New York), was on vacation in Aruba with his wife. While walking along the beach he noticed some type of racquet sport being played. It was one of the early tournaments hosted by Sjoerd de Fries and Jochem Ros. Marc played in the event, he loved it so much he went back the next year to play and had such a great time he decided he wanted to launch the sport in the USA. In 2005, with the guidance of Sjoerd and Jochem, Marc formed Beach Tennis USA and built a core team to launch the game in the United States. I was fortunate to be a part of that core team. The first event was held in Charleston, SC in May of 2005 and that began a tour that included stops all along the East Coast of the US, introducing Americans to the sport. That first year was aimed at introducing and measuring people’s enthusiasm for the sport. Once we determined that people loved BT, we decided that we would keep the Beach Tennis machine moving forward. I was elevated to Executive Director of Beach Tennis USA in late 2005 and was part of that team with Marc Altheim, Jim Lorenzo and more that decided to push forward and take the sport on a real national tour starting in 2006. We went to new destinations in Florida and California and started putting emphasis on actual tournament play in addition to just having people try the game. In 2007 we expanded the competitive tour, increased prize money, introduced a points system and also launched the BT television show on Tennis Channel and Fox Sports regional sports networks around the nation. During this year we started seeing outreach from Italy and the IFBT which was the lone governing body at the time. Great players such as Alex Mingozzi, Matteo Marighella, Gianluca Chirico, Massimo Mattei and Bertrand Coulet came to the USA to compete and provided lots of legitimacy to our tournaments.
In 2008, our events continued to grow and be more connected by our points system. The television show continued and we started helping other countries such as Bermuda, Costa Rica and South Africa get into the beach tennis game. It is important to mention that the sport in Aruba and also in the United States was played with tennis racquets during this time. It wasn’t until 2010 that the USA officially switched from racquets to paddles. In addition to Beach Tennis USA, other regional BT organizations had formed, cultivating a community within their respective regions. Some of these locations included Fort Lauderdale, Florida, Hermosa Beach, California, Miami, St. Louis, Missouri, New York and other locations. Beach Tennis USA continued producing tournaments in the US until 2014 when the organization ceased operations. The sport did continue, though, being promoted and grown by the independent regional organizations such as IFBT-USA in Fort Lauderdale, Florida and Beach Tennis Association in Hermosa Beach, California along with others that came along later. Presently, local organizations mostly in California, Florida and New York continue to provide opportunities for their communities to play and compete in tournaments. Unfortunately, the United States Tennis Association has not supported the sport or shown any interest in helping beach tennis grow in the USA. Without their support, it will be difficult to scale the game in the USA. We are hoping that this position by the USTA changes in the future. The good news is that new people continue to be introduced to the game and the same phenomenon that we noticed in 2005 still exists today, when people try the game for the first time they fall in love with it!
As you mentioned in the US you still have IFBT, ITF and BTUSA. How do they work together?
Beach Tennis USA (BTUSA) ceased operations in 2014 so they aren’t a part of the current BT landscape in the USA. There are independent, regional organizations that run tournaments. Some of these tournaments are sanctioned by the ITF and others by the IFBT. Some tournaments are independent and not sanctioned by either of those entities. It really just depends on who the tournament organizers have relationships with. Beach Tennis Association in Hermosa Beach, California produces tournaments for both. Some of the tournaments on their calendar are ITF and the others are IFBT. It’s not always practical for independent organizers to only produce tournaments that are sanctioned by just one governing body. However, organizations like Michelle Bos’ in Del Rey Beach, Florida have an exclusive agreement with IFBT. So it really just depends. To the players, it doesn’t matter so much what organization is sanctioning the tournament with the exception of the higher caliber professional players who may only travel to a tournament if there are ITF points available. But that does not represent the majority of the local players who are participating in these events.
You are also an actor and a host to different television projects. Is it true that BT will only grow once it will be on TV and why is BT not on TV yet?
I don’t necessarily agree that the growth of beach tennis relies solely on television. In the USA, Beach Tennis was on television in 2007 and 2008. It certainly helps spread the message of the game but it’s not the “end all be all” component that will guarantee growth. I think significant growth of the game requires funding and organized management at the local, national and international level. These organizations need to work in tandem to help take the message of beach tennis to the world. For instance, in the United States, if the USTA would be willing to promote the game to the millions of active tennis players in the country it could result in an immediate influx of thousands of players who would be willing to try beach tennis. Thousands of new players to the game would be a gigantic growth curve for beach tennis. Yes, it requires places to play but, more importantly, the masses need to be made aware of the sport. I’ve been involved with beach tennis for 15 years and, still, most of the people I meet have never heard of the game. We need resources to change that. With such robust means of digital marketing these days, I think campaigns to spread the message of beach tennis would do wonders for growing the game. Television would be great, but it cannot grow the sport alone. The game needs a multi-channel marketing effort to educate the public on our great sport.
What do you think about the new rules in BT, with the net height at 1,80 meters, the non-blocking-zone and many more? Is this the right way to go?
I think it’s good that the game is trying to evolve to become more spectator friendly. There has been a lot of debate about the different rules changes and what makes sense and what doesn’t. Personally, I think the no blocking 3m zone was a good rules change. Servers should have a legitimate chance of getting the serve in without being smashed right away. I don’t know that the net height being raised to 1.8 meters just for men is a great choice. I think this will put unnecessary burden on tournament organizers who have to provide different net heights for men’s and women’s matches and I don’t think it will slow the men’s game down significantly enough to make a big difference to the spectator. I say this having experience with the racquet version of beach tennis which used a much higher net. Men are still able to serve with great speed and rally aggressively. I think the easiest way to slow the game down enough to encourage more rallies and decrease service aces is to slow the ball down. There wouldn’t need to be any other equipment changes to paddles or the court if the ball was slowed down. Look at badminton. The shuttlecock is not designed for speed and that sport essentially takes the service ace completely out of the game, yet badminton at the highest level has some of the most exciting points of any racquet sport. I don’t think the beach tennis ball needs to slow down like a badminton shuttlecock, but a slower ball will take less emphasis off the serve and will encourage many more exciting rallies.
Why is beach tennis a sport to watch, what makes it so interesting?
I think it’s different and there’s still a novelty to it even though the sport has been around for over 30 years. I think it represents a very attractive lifestyle of beach, fitness and friendship in addition to competition. A lot of that spectator appeal is similar to beach volleyball which is another pro tour that I have worked with. I am a supporter of letting our professional players showcase their attractiveness and should be allowed to show off those sexy bodies. I say that strictly from a marketing perspective and it’s one of the rules of the ITF that I don’t agree with. I think a Gerard Rodriguez should be allowed to play shirtless and show his chiseled abs or a Giulia Gasparri allowed to wear a bikini when she plays. There are a number of very attractive beach tennis players out there and the sexual appeal is a great marketing tool that will draw in an audience. It did wonders for beach volleyball and it can work for beach tennis as well. That’s just one example but one that I think will make a strong impact on drawing a television audience once the sport gets there.
During the last couple of years, you got to know a lot of players. Who impressed you most and why?
It would be impossible to narrow it down to just one but I can give you a few examples. I have a great respect for Alex Mingozzi. I’ve known Alex for probably 13 years and met him when he was the world champion and at the top of his game. He’s such a gentleman and has been a great ambassador for the game. I remember watching him play in the final of the 2008 World Championship in Ravenna just a few weeks after his brother was tragically killed in a car accident. Alex handled the situation with such grace, even as he was playing with such emotional pain. I love seeing him at tournaments around the world, still playing at a high level even though he’s a little older now. And I really admire what he’s done in Brazil. Being an Italian BT superstar and then becoming the national team coach of Brazil and leading them to team world championships. He’s a true champion and one of the great guys of beach tennis.
Alessandro Calbucci is another great ambassador for the game and one I respect very much. He’s been around for a long time as well but has amazingly maintained top form and continues to be one of the best players on the planet. He is a great guy, is super charismatic and loved by so many. He is always one of the most recognized players at any tournament and he graciously accepts his fame and is good with interacting with all of the fans and fellow BT players that want time with him. His personality makes him a near perfect poster boy for the game. He looks the part and has the playfulness and personality to always help promote the game. Even though our sport is still relatively new, Alessandro is one of the sports’ legends.
No-matter what tournament I’m at, I always love watching Patti Diaz play. The spunky Venezuelan has always been one of the most exciting women’s players and I love it when I can call matches that she’s playing. Patti is very small in stature but she is fast as a panther and is not afraid to dive for every ball. She is also not afraid to show emotion on the court and I think she embodies everything that is exciting to watch in a beach tennis player. She’s adorable, can be fiery at times, she gives it her all in every match and leaves nothing on the court when it’s over. She’s also very sweet and friendly and has been one of my favorites over the years. There are other great players that admire but would probably take the whole interview just talking about that so, unfortunately, I can’t list them all here.
In Italy, the home of BT, the movement seems to be slowing down a bit. Sponsors are not willing to pay the players a lot of money. What has BT in general been missing to become a bigger sport?
Well it is important to distinguish whether the “movement slowing down” is measured by the amount of players playing the game or the amount of sponsorship money flowing into the sport. These can be very different numbers and completely independent from each other. I’ll address the sponsorship issue. Sponsorship is a business decision, an investment with the expectation of a positive return on that investment. For sponsors to invest in beach tennis events or players, they must believe that investment will provide a return in the form of exposure for their brand and increased revenue as a result of that exposure. Unfortunately, beach tennis does not have enough of a consistent audience across various channels to interest a lot of brands to invest serious sponsorship money into the game. I think when the day comes where the sport is getting exposure to hundreds of thousands or millions of people through digital marketing campaigns, television and print media, then those numbers may encourage more serious sponsorship. That sounds like a huge challenge but one step to instantly increase exposure is to have the national tennis organizing bodies start to promote the sport of beach tennis to the endemic tennis audience. For example, in the USA, if the USTA would allow the sport to be promoted to it’s entire member base, that would be approximately 700,000 people who could be educated about beach tennis right there. If you repeat that across all the national governing bodies for tennis, there would be millions of people who could be informed about what beach tennis is and how to get involved. That is leveraging existing channels (print, digital etc.) without having to build anything new. If just a percentage of that population of tennis players chose to try beach tennis, the sport’s numbers would start to grow incrementally.
That is just one strategy, and focusing on a very particular audience (tennis players). Think of having that effort plus methods of going after the non-tennis players and other enthusiasts who will gravitate to beach tennis. In my opinion, one of the quickest ways to scale this sport to a level that can be attractive to sponsors and generate a return on investment (ROI) is to convince the traditional tennis powers to embrace beach tennis as a nice compliment to the game of tennis and help grow it and support it. I think this is where the ITF must focus their attention if they truly want beach tennis to grow. Once the numbers start coming in, the sponsors will follow. Too many people think that the sponsors come first and then the audience comes later. It’s actually the opposite.
The ITF World Champiopnships after six years in Cervia moved to Terracina. Is it the right way to keep this big event in the home of BT or do you think it should be organized for example in Brasil?
I don’t see any harm in the WC moving locations. Many mainstream sports move their world championships around the globe. Beach Tennis shouldn’t be any different so long as the location can deliver an event worthy of a World Championship. In other words, I think the WC should only be played in locations that can draw a large local crowd. Ravenna and Cervia have a strong beach tennis legacy and the people always turn out for those events. Terracina doesn’t have that beach tennis legacy and you saw it by the amount of stands that were empty in 2019. Now it was also the first year there so you have to give Terracina a little slack and hope that the event can build up a stronger audience in years to come. Outside of Italy, I think Brazil has the best potential to successfully host a WC. They have already proven that they have the tools to host large BT events and I believe the audience there would turn out. Brazil seems very thirsty for the game of beach tennis and they’ve accomplished a lot in the sport in a relatively short amount of time. I think Aruba has shown that they have what it takes as well and so Aruba could also be considered a potential destination for a World Championship. However, I don’t think it’s important to rush in trying to relocate the WC. There are only a few locations outside of Italy right now that can do it right so I wouldn’t feel compelled to move the WC out of Italy if it risked the WC not appearing to be the biggest and most prestigious BT tournament out there.
The WC is an event that governing bodies and sponsors will look at to decide if they want to be involved in BT, so the event must always look good. I think that if Terracina doesn’t deliver a strong crowd by its third year, then there should be serious thought about moving the tournament back to Cervia or Ravenna or even giving Brazil a try. Obviously there are financial, logistical and political considerations in choosing a location as well. All of that is important. By contrast, the world team championships in Moscow never seem to deliver the attention or crowds worthy of a World Championship. I mean no disrespect to Moscow or the event organizers, but that might be an event that the ITF should consider moving if they cannot generate more “buzz” around it in Moscow and turn out a bigger crowd. Imagine the world team championships being played in Rio with all of those Brazilians cheering on their team! That atmosphere would be insane!
In Germany we are making small steps to promote BT. You have been to Germany more than once, what are your memories of our country?
When I was a child, I lived in Goppingen (not far from Stuttgart) while my father was stationed there in the US Army. I have exceptional memories of Germany and I was blessed to be able to go back and visit Germany in 2014 following my emcee work at the IFBT World Championships in Barcelona. In fact, I remember getting to visit you guys while I was there. Germany is just an amazing place and I remember the wonderful Swabian food and the beautiful countryside. I think my fondest memories are the winters there when the Christmas markets are booming and the smell of Gluehwein is in the air. The people have always been friendly as well. It is a beautiful country and I would love to go back soon.
Our BEACHCLUB2010® this year is celebrating its 10-year anniversary, the event in Saarlouis, where we are involved, might even get bigger this year. Do you follow the development in our country?
I have followed the developments off and on over the past 10 years. From your Porsche Arena tournaments and other events in the Stuttgart area. I know the weather is a challenge there, even in the summer. Germany seems like the perfect place for indoor courts. I am excited to see the success of the $35,000 event in Saarlouis. I’ve never been to that location and I hope to see a large group come from all over the world for that one. It’s a great step in the right direction and I hope to see more German players rise up the world rankings. Maraike Biglmaier has been a great champion for Germany. I know there are lots more, incredibly talented, athletes in Germany that could really create a stir in the world rankings if they decided to take up the sport of beach tennis.
What is your favorite memory in BT and what are you planning to do next?
Another nearly impossible question to answer because there have been so many great memories for me in my 15 years with the sport. I can’t just narrow it down to one but I can tell you that my first year in BT, touring up the East coast of the United States and ultimately ending up in New York for two months promoting the game was an incredibly special memory that I’ll always cherish. Everything was so new and exciting, and we got to see the joys and pains of trying to introduce America to a sport they had never heard of before. It was just so fun in so many ways! Of course, beach tennis has made it possible for me to travel around the world meeting all kinds of new friends and I’ve loved that so much. Some of the great trips that stand out are Ravenna, Italy and Bermuda in 2008, Barcelona in 2014 with a special stopover in Germany afterwards and, of course, Aruba for almost 10 years. My first Aruba beach tennis trip in 2007 was a blast as the event was still very small and I remember it was our first-time off-roading in Jeeps in the back country of Aruba. This is just a sample of the amazing times I’ve had in BT. The truth is every beach tennis trip is special in its own way. In the future, I’d like to emcee at the World Championships either in the arena or on the live stream (or both). I think I’d finally like to check out that amazing tournament in Reunion Island which I have yet to go to. And, of course, getting back to Germany would be a great thing! Maybe that can happen in the near future!
Maximilian Hamm, April 2020