by Craig Hickman
It never dawned on me that on my first experience as credentialed media to cover the first week of the Sony Ericsson Open, an event I've wanted to cover almost more than any other, I would be part of a reporting team that broke a substantial story in the English-language tennis press.
We were just doing what Karen, the editor of Tennis Panorama News, told us to do. "Bring fans along on your journey. And remember none of the first week in Miami will be televised, so you'll have a big audience if you can keep them entertained."
Color me surprised, then, that the media center was virtually empty for most of the first week. I had imagined it a bustling place, packed with writers trying to tell a set of stories with words and pictures to a global fan base annoyed by the lack of television coverage.
What an opportunity to grab some fans and hold them. Not knowing exactly how, I worked the event as if I did, fueled by curiosity and instinct. So, during the March 22 WTA All-Access hour with 8 of the Top 10, I left a micro-recorder in front of one player, videotaped an interview with another player, all the while JD, my other half, photographed everybody and listened to whatever caught his fancy. No surprise that he was all over Kim Clijsters. He's always had a soft spot for her. When Kim finished her roundtable in English, three members of the Belgian media sat down for an intimate session. My other half, who's originally from the Netherlands, sat down as well. Out of the corner of my eye, I saw this and figured Kim might get a different set of questions in Flemish so why not tape the interview. She might also be more candid speaking in her mother tongue. With so much laughter coming from all around the table, I'd want to know exactly what was so funny. I understand Dutch a bit, Flemish a bit less, but I got a feeling Kim was telling some story about radiation and Indian Wells. After JD, who's also a physical therapist, asked her the final question about her shoulder, I moved on to Victoria Azarenka, a player whose temperament I've criticized openly, who, ironically, seemed so calm that morning, I sensed she might re-ignite some good tennis and go deep in the draw. She had won here before.
(Random: Kim likes sushi most; Vika, salmon, any which way. Miss Vera is all about Thai cuisine, Francesca can't get enough pasta, and Caroline is down with chicken. Sam and Jelena agree with Kim.)
Later, when we were courtside on the Grandstand watching a rather erratic and uninspired Sorana Cirstea blowing big leads against Zheng Jie, as I was trying out the new Twitter application we downloaded for JD's mobile device, he whispered into my ear, "Oh. I forgot to tell you. I have some news. Kim said in Flemish that she wasn't going to play any tournaments in Asia this year because of radiation fears."
I didn't sit through Kim's entire interview in English. I whispered back, "Surely she said the same thing in English, right?"
"Nope. She talked about Japan and was worried for players from the country, but she didn't talk about her panic at all. Her interview was mostly about her shoulder and her game and what it's like to not have the Williams sisters around an event they've dominated -- and, oh, yeah, she said Serena is the best player ever -- and what it's like to be a mother and all that kinda stuff."
Wow. Eager, naive me, fueled by curiosity and instinct, just thought I'd tweet that little scoop on GVTennisNews, the Twitter account for Tennis Panorama News. It was, after all, the outlet that applied for our credentials.
Minutes later, Karen calls to tell me that Matt Cronin tweeted her for a direct quote. I told her it was in Flemish, but if necessary we could transcribe it later. "Soon as you can," she said firmly. I got the sense from her tone, from Cronin's direct quote request, that this was more meat than morsel. "Just tweet her quote in English."
Thank goodness I'd put my digital recorder down in front of Kim. I knew JD wouldn't make up something like that, but without a direct quote, my morsel turned meat would remain hearsay. We left the Cirstea match after the first set, grabbed some lunch -- he, a burger, Thai shrimp crepe for me -- and headed back to the media center to get working on a translation and transcription. I do as told and post the following tweets:
Later, after JD transcribed the whole passage, I posted Of War and Radiation: Kim Clijsters Speaks here and there.
Now, you would think that as fast as this meat cooked, outside of the re-tweets, which by their nature include a source, outlets who ran the story would at least attribute us. Because, well, that's what's supposed to happen, right?
Karen, who scours tennis sites meticulously, noticed that our meat was served up all over the place without attribution, even on tennis.com's ticker, which, at the time, read as follows:
Chris Chase over at Busted Racquet went above and beyond to link and include the context of the entire quote back to this blog. Super nice of him, wouldn't you say? He'd probably just say he was doing what was necessary.
In all, if memory serves, his was the only outlets that included a link to the extended post, Who knew that common sense ethics had evaporated from tennis journalism? I sure didn't. JD was most perplexed. "I did all that work to make sure...Karen said...I could be taking photos....who is it that needs the quote?.... Who? .... Are they even, like, here?.... He needed a direct quote and then doesn't even acknowledge us? What the....?"
JD's not one to get perturbed by such things. Not that he's ever been involved in such a thing before, mind you, but generally speaking, he's more forgiving than most.
We moved on. "Please be sure to get photos and videos of Federer's practice session," I said to him.
"But you don't care much for him."
"We're covering an event, not a set of players. I'm sure Fed's got a lot of fans who'd like to see him practicing."
The tennis.com ticker was sort of fixed a week or so later (sort of because the copy still doesn't provide an actual link to the tweets or the longer post), too late for anyone except someone looking for it to actually notice. Perhaps it was merely an oversight just to get the story out as quickly as possible. I didn't get a response from Cronin before I published this post, but when I do, I'll post an update. Till then, I'll give him the benefit of the doubt. Surely, he's a man of integrity who would know that journalism ethics require that he attribute his sources. Even a gossip monger provides provenance. It must have been an oversight. Journalists have been fired for stuff like this.
Whatever the case, here's what I know: tennis.com tickered a story from a lesser-known tennis site who used an even lesser-known tennis blogger to transmit a meaty little scoop. Search "Clijsters won't play Japan" and see that tennis.com is the go-to link provided in almost every story. If you didn't know any better, you'd think tennis.com had someone at the roundtable who could understand Flemish and translate it into English. In no time flat, the Clijsters story was all the buzz, popping up on forums and wires and blogs and feeds all over the globe.
The next day, the WTA released a statement from Kim:
"Most importantly, my thoughts and sympathies are with the people in Japan. It's heart-wrenching to see what they're going through right now. Of course the health and safety of anyone traveling to a potentially impacted area is my top priority as well as the WTA's, and I know that the WTA will continue to monitor the situation."With that statement, Clijsters officially withdrew from the Pan Pacific Open.
A meaty little scoop for which tennis.com took all the credit. Bethanie Mattek-Sands, Roger Federer, Andy Roddick and others were asked about their intentions of playing in Asia. They all diplomatically said they hadn't thought about it or would assess the situation when all the facts came in.
When Neil Harman, who, despite what's coming down the page, remains one of my favorite tennis writers, showed up in the media center and sat right across from my station, I introduced myself and let him know I felt he was one of the more creative writers in the industry and that I usually enjoyed his articles. He was accessible and nice and engaging. We spoke briefly about Clijsters. "We still need to get it verified, since no one in the English press heard the story, but I've heard about the news of Clijsters not playing Japan."
Well, not quite "no one." Credentialed media, no matter who or where from, are members of the press. I speak English. I told him we broke the story, and if he could understand Flemish, he could listen to the recorder that sat right on my work station a few feet away and get all the verification we needed.
The next day the story appeared in the Belgian press.
"She didn't say that," JD said upon reading one of write ups.
"What do you mean?"
"She never said she put any of those iodine foods in Jada's yogurt. I think they made that part up."
Say it isn't so. Journalists don't make up quotes, do they?
According to Sloane Stephens, sometimes they do. Right before the transcribed part of our one-on-one interview began in the main interview room -- which was right after she qualified for the main draw and found herself in an empty room with one interested writer (never mind that later in the evening, a few journalists were speculating in the media center about whether or not she was the highest-ranked African American on the WTA and I thought, Why weren't you there to ask her? -- the WTA representative who escorted her to our interview said that another journalist had also requested her. "Who was that?" Stephens asked. The rep told her about the man from a Florida paper, to which she replied, "Oh, him. He completely misquoted something I said the last time he wrote about me."
(Random: I was the only writer who showed up for Maria Sharapova's first interview as well. I mentioned that here. (Read the comments to this post. Notice the exchange I have with Arthurlevine2, a commenter who showed up for the first time on my blog here. We'll come back to Arthur a bit further down the page.) I was one of only two English-language writers who showed up at Juan Martin del Potro's news conference after his first-round victory. The two of us didn't take up much of his time for he looked exhausted. When we finished, members of Spanish-language media swarmed around him like bees. Why couldn't they give him some space and ask question from their seats? It was quite a sight.)
"Does anybody do any work around here," JD said to me on our third day in the media center. By then, more writers had arrived, but with the exception of a handful, many just hung around the media center talking with each other about top ATP players in not so complimentary ways and discussing several story lines with WTA and ATP media relations staff who are set up in the center to field interview requests, among other things. As far as JD was concerned, there was too much gossiping and not enough working. "It's beautiful outside. You'd think they'd want to get to the courts and take in some actual tennis."
"Maybe they are. It's not like we're sitting here monitoring them all day."
"True. But I haven't seen many of them anywhere but in here."
Back from a match on an outer court, I found a one-page biography of Milos Raonic on our workstation. Neither one of us had requested any information on the young man, but there it was anyway. Safe to say, Milos, who reminds many pundits of Pete Sampras, is being promoted as the next big thing. When he lost his first-round match against Somdev Devarrman a few days later, there was nary a peep from anyone about the talented Canadian with the big serve. A bit more on him later.
A professional tournament, especially the $4.5 million Sony Ericsson Open, is a gargantuan production with too many things that can go awry. It's easy to take it all for granted. The staff works hard, is well-organized, and makes the players, volunteers, media, but most of all the fans, feel right at home. If I could hand out awards, I'd give them to the entire media center cafeteria staff. Whenever I walked through those doors, they made me feel like I was the most important person there. The food was good, too. You could get mango smoothies and sushi maki in grab-and-go containers feast on a buffet featuring two proteins with several delicisous sides, as well as a vegetarian pasta and salad bar, for eating in. No surprise, then, that the official event credo reads as follows:
I was impressed to find out on the initial tour of the grounds that the facilities manager, the person responsible for constructing the entire facility was a woman.
Speaking of which, where are all the women photographers? Sure, there were some. I sat next to a great freelance photographer at Novak Djokovic's Friends for Japan Benefit dinner. Too bad I didn't think to ask her where she thought all the women behind cameras were, but it seemed that most of the photographers courtside, on the red carpet at the charity events and players party, behind the video and film cameras were men.
Shortly after returning home to Maine, I was surprised to read about a Twitter "battle" between established writers who call themselves journalists and bloggers who call themselves bloggers. Even more surprised by those waging the battle. Apparently, there were too many fan bloggers in the media center and a few journalists took issue. C Note, over at Forty Deuce, recounted the entire melodrama quite well in her post Please. Don't Let the Facts Get In The Way of Your Journalisming.
Spend a little time with this write up. And get knee-deep in the comments. Please. You will find a thou-doth-protest-too-much journalist (Arthurlevine2 from above, exposbabe and TennisFanUSA elsewhere and one can only guess what other identities this Internet Sybil uses) who seems to suggest in her own comments that she's not the sharpest knife in the drawer, who takes for fools intelligent people with access to IP addresses. If she's so secure in her profession, why does she find the need to troll bloggers and mislead and protest so much? You will also find this:
I was already back in Maine tweeting updates on a televised match when the Battle of Twitterville began. Writers quickly took sides. Journalists rallied around journalists, bloggers rallied around bloggers, with the occasional blogger kissing up to the journalists in an effort to, oh, I don't know, boost their credibility perhaps. Reminded me of high school. I tweeted that I'd chime in the matter when the event was over.
Here we are.
From where I sit, all writers given credentials to professional tennis tournaments are legitimate. This common-sense concept was shared way before the latest installment in the battle between journalists and bloggers by two journalists who write for an established print and online media outlet. A big one. Thankfully, not all journalists feel the need to underscore divisions in the cavalry of writers writing about tennis these days.
Others seem almost proud to do so. "Fans with typewriters," as Harman calls bloggers in his Twitter tirade, is an interesting construction for a few reasons. First, anyone who writes about tennis, whether they've been doing it for 40 years or 4 months, is a fan. Who on earth would cover a sport of which they weren't a fan? Second, who uses a typewriter anymore? To be fair, Harman did tweet this was something they "used to" call the lowly fan who likely spent a ton of money to cover an event merely to "gawk" at players. Because Facebook and Twitter are the "necessary evils", as one freelancer put it, that we must accept in this ever-connected social networking universe, I would imagine that old-school media is finding it needs to adapt to new "indie media" outlets, as some bloggers are wont to call them, or lose readers and subscribers and a base of fans eager to buy what it's selling.
What passes for tennis journalism has been under incessant critique by tennis fans for at least as long as this blog has existed at the end of 2006. Fans have become annoyed with sloppy reporting (some fan forums have entire threads dedicated to bad tennis journalism) and all the hype -- the propaganda -- that the sport promotes through its tools in Big Media. Not all journalists are tools, mind you, but when Jon Wertheim of Sports Illustrated (no, I wouldn't consider him a tool) uses an investment metaphor to explain what to do about Federer and Djokovic, the mindset driving many of the stories carried by the mainstream outlets remains clear as silver striking crystal.
Before I arrived in Miami, I'd taken note of Raonic. He's already made Canadian tennis history by winning his first ATP title in San Jose earlier this year. I knew he was articulate and thoughtful and intelligent with a great sense of perspective about his tennis and the game, and has been working to keep his terrible temper under control. Quite frankly, he doesn't need any more hype. Didn't need to have his one-page bio spread around the media center like a press release. Or a mutual fund prospectus. I rolled my eyes when I saw it on our work station. I like him just fine but why waste the paper and the toner to tell me he exists? And as I said, when he lost to an Indian player few journalists are writing anything about at all, all I heard was crickets. When he actually wins something of import, he'll deserve more attention. Till then, it's probably best to let him be exactly who he is: a young player with a big game and a lot of promise.
The biggest faux pas we made -- yeah, there was bound to be a significant muff up in a tennis reporter's Miami debut -- was posting video footage online of entire player interviews from the first week. Why was this a problem, especially since seeing and hearing a player versus simply reading a transcript of his or her words can bring an entirely different picture to an interview? Because the rules as stated in the media regulations said so. Basically, you can only upload up to 90 seconds per day any on-site, non-competition video or film from practice sessions or interviews. The exception to the rule? You must provide running editorial over the footage. Then, I suppose, although it's not clearly stated, you can publish as much as you like. So, if I tell you what to think and feel about a a player's interview, fine, you can see and hear the whole thing, but if I allow the player to speak for himself (show, don't tell) you can only get snippets? I actually thought the advisory said 90 minutes, which made more sense. You could easily post 90 minutes of several players' practice sessions and a few on-the-record interviews for fans to watch of their favorite players each day without ever compromising the image of a player or cutting into whatever profits the sponsors intend to make by waiting till the first weekend to sell the rights for anybody to televise anything at all. But that's not the way it is. So when the tournament's media director finally got around to asking me, the day before we departed -- he really did have bigger fish to fry -- to edit down to 90 seconds my published footage of Roddick and Djokovic and Federer interviews, I simply pulled them down. There was no single 90-second segment of any of their interviews that would stand alone. And I edit video about as well as I play tennis. Why produce a commercial-length snippet when fans might get more out of seeing the whole thing?
"We've got to keep our sponsors happy," said the media director.
This seems to be the crux of it. Corporatism summed up succinctly. How random or related was the Twitter battle waged by journalists to the largely unattributed scoop this lowly fan blogger stumbled upon on his debut in Miami? Is it at all possible Big Media outlets would be reluctant to show their readers they were sourcing news from "fans with typewriters"? Would their readers even care?
Maybe. As one fan tweeted, "I prefer to read a blogger to a journo. Real talk."
Tennis fans are savvy. And relentless. We'll go all over the Internet to find a live stream for a match some network will later air on tape delay, even if it risks Trojan viruses and other high-tech nuisances. We want to see tennis as it happens, for heaven's sake, we want to see tennis players off the court, we want to get a feel for the behind the scenes in ways that are accessible and creative.
Why aren't official event websites providing live-streaming to player-party red-carpets? I can't imagine it would be all that hard to set up. And if not that, why not put a photographer with some mobile device on the carpet to tweet photos of players as they arrive? We did it. ("Don't even bother trying to tweet descriptions. Just take a photo and tweet that," ordered the other half. Simple. Brilliant.) And what we did kept one respected journalist at one mainstream paper at his desk for another few hours before going home. He just wanted to "be there" for the "live action."
Yes. Make no mistake. All tennis writers are "fans with typewriters." For real, though. Journalists need to stop tripping.
As a friend of mine in Boston confided, "I've always loved tennis. But I follow it more now because your passion for tennis comes through so clearly on your blog. And quite frankly, I don't find that in a lot of other places."
I don't earn a living from writing about tennis. I'm an organic farmer. Small business owner. Author. Chef. So when I take the time away from my livelihood to sit down and write about something for which I'm not getting paid, you better believe I'm going to make it worth my while.
None of us are going anywhere. Not the journalists, and certainly not the bloggers. The sooner the better Big Media realizes that to partner with some of the indie bloggers could bring their readers a more well-rounded and exciting fan experience. Better coverage, too. Isn't that the goal or would that, as my mother would say, be too much like right?
In the meanwhile, I hope that the media relations directors who hand out credentials to writers and photographers from all stripes continue to do exactly what they're doing. Because if you want to grow your market, you've got to bring the sport to the people. Twitter, Facebook and live streams facilitate that. In real time, no tape delay allowed.
Passion is contagious. It takes a global army of passionate writers, whether they get paid or not, to cover practice courts and feature rank-and-file players alongside the sport's elite stars and those hyped for future greatness; to tweet red-carpet photos and fans putting on red Speedos in the half-empty stands of an outer court; to bring the atmosphere of a player party/benefit/product promotion to the screens of electronic devices, large and small.
While professional matches may still be contested at country clubs around the world, tennis is no longer a country club sport. Old-school reporting led by excellent writers, some of whom look down their noses at "fans with typewriters"; some of whom won't dare put in newsprint what they say about players in their media-center gossip sessions; some of whom bemoan the presence of bloggers in Miami even as they tweet from their homes half a continent away; some of whom troll blogs with several aliases to post sarcasm, snark and other such foolishness; some of whom don't often give credit where credit is due -- that mess simply won't cut it. Anyone who claims otherwise is simply trying to protect a turf that needs no protecting.
Don't take it personally. It's not about you. It's about the fans. And if we really want to attract and engage more fans, we must continue to meet them exactly where they are.
If you blink, you'll miss me. I'm right at the beginning of this video, and twice near the end before and after Tomas Berdych and Lucie Safarova. Was fun to see that broadcast on the big screen above Stadium Court one afternoon.
Working the Friends of Japan benefit. (Source)
Working the Cliff Drysdale benefit.
Working the WTA All-Access hour.
The Andreas Seppi fan who stripped naked in the half-empty stands and put on his red Speedos.
Interviewing Donald Young after he beat Arnaud Clement.
Courtside during Christina McHale and Jelena Dokic. Patrick McEnroe served as Christina's coach for on-court coaching purposes.
JD working a match.
In the media center.
Video: Around The Grounds At Crandon Park