Rally II: The Chorus Replaces the Voice
On Saturday and Sunday, I’m Rallying with Kamakshi Tandon, former editor of Tennis.com, who has just taken the plunge and started a digital magazine with a few of her fellow writers, called Tennis Journal. Here's Part II of our discussion. You can see Part I here.
You've probably realized, with your choice of cover topic, how tricky—impossible, really—it is to calculate what the hot topic is going to be at the moment an issue comes out. You have Federer on the cover, which is never a bad choice. But as of, say, Wednesday, you might have wished that you had Djokovic and Nadal on there together, butting heads—there hadn't been a Federer sighting in weeks. Then, lo and behold, on Thursday he puts on a scarf, goes to a soccer game, blows up on Twitter, and makes your story, about his popularity and international profile, look perfectly timed.
I remember your doping article for ESPN.com, and I may have even joked to you about its length and thoroughness. Looking back, I think it seemed especially long because of the medium; i.e., because of the switch from print to digital. If that piece had appeared in, say, Tennis Week, a decade ago, I would have eaten it up and never have thought about its length. But online I'm used to 800 words, and scrolling more than once makes an article feel exceptionally lengthy to me. Speaking of Tennis Week, now that I mention it, your magazine does a good job of filling its old pro-tennis-coverage niche. I know that a lot of people miss that magazine; hopefully they'll find yours. I'm sure fans will love the player analysis and interviews, Joel Drucker's historical scope, Ernie on his roller-coaster, and Tom Tebbutt trying to keep Novak Djokovic from bouncing the ball more than six times before he serves.
As for following tennis in 2013, I find myself torn between really liking being able to see any match I want, and feeling oppressed by it. This past week I've enjoyed watching early rounds from Stuttgart and Barcelona that I would never have seen even five years ago. But then I also know there's another slate of matches tomorrow, and another the day after that, and another the day after that, every single day until December. It's enough to induce an overdose, isn’t it? (Not that I can complain personally; it's my job.)
When I think about the difference in the tennis-following experience between now and 20 or 30 years ago, when I followed as a fan, the big change is that it has become much more direct and un-mediated. Now I can watch any match, I can read every quote straight from the transcript, I can see 20 comments on that quote on Tennis.com, I can hear 20 ironic tweets about a player's horrible choke, and I can top it off by watching a GIF of some blunderous moment 50 times. And then I can do it all again an hour later with a different match and player. Hell, as I write this, I’m watching a Challenger match from Florida between Ryan Harrison and Wayne Odesnik. Yes, I am.
Before the Internet made all of this possible, the experience of tennis was more likely to come to me in the voice of one writer. With Curry Kirkpatrick of SI, the tour seemed like a gossipy prep school for grown-ups. With Frank DeFord and Peter Bodo, it was populated by flawed literary heroes. With Rex Bellamy, you went to the heart of a player through Bellamy's words and observations. With Richard Evans, the sport of the 70s seemed like a world that was equally starchy and rebellious, in tune with the times. They were the voices in your head, and the only ones you heard on tennis. Wimbledon was on TV for a few hours each year; that meant your connection to the pro sport came mostly through magazines and their writers. I can still remember lying face forward on the couch as a kid, happily opening an issue of Sports Illustrated to a French Open round-up by Kirkpatrick. Aside from the results of the finals, I wouldn't have seen or heard anything about what happened during those two weeks until that moment.
Maybe that's the product of being a young fan; there are obviously still writers out there giving us their views—including you and I, we hope—and creating their own versions of the tennis universe for us. But now we don't need them as much. A chorus of voices has replaced the Voice.
How about you, Kamakshi? What has changed for you since you read Evans on Bologna, or Bodo on Roma as a kid?
Covers, covers—is there a more delicate task when it comes to a magazine? Watching you guys at the magazine work out covers was always one of the most intriguing aspects of observing the process. It teaches you a lot about thinking ahead in what is, as we've been talking about, very much a day-to-day, match-to-match environment otherwise. And then after that, you've just got to roll with whatever happens.
The timing of the Federer cover turns out to be somewhat apt, in a way—sort of breaking into the Rafa and Nole show and saying hey, let's talk about Federer. What’s up with him earning more in endorsements than Nadal and Djokovic's combined? Not only that but excluding Tiger Woods's equipment royalties, seemingly more than any other athlete playing today? (And the same as J Lo, if you can believe it?) What's up with the Aussie crowd cheering for him when he played Bernard Tomic, or the French when he played Gael Monfils, or as I mentioned, the British when he played Murray at the O2? (Even in the Wimbledon final, it wasn't that clear who the crowd was for.) What's up with Ronaldo showing up to watch him play, or Woods tweeting about how he's the GOAT? What's up with the players giving him eight Sportsmanship awards, including last year after all those complaints about not being pro-player enough?
You see? What's up with that? Isn't it supposed to be the Nole and Rafa (and Andy) show now? And yet so much is still about him. One particularly interesting comment was Jose Luis Clerc telling the New York Times last year that he'd never seen a reaction to a player like Federer got in South America during his exhibitions—not with John McEnroe, Bjorn Borg, or anyone. And Nadal seems to be going the same way—we saw the reaction in South America this February as well, with people hanging off railings to watch him play. Federer talked last fall about the two of them, and how he saw them taking tennis places it otherwise wouldn't reach.
As for our relationship with tennis writing, one different aspect of my experience growing up was moving to North American from England, and the complete change in coverage that came with it. From Richard Evans and John Barrett to Bud Collins and Pete Bodo, an interesting if not easy to describe contrast. But here's what I kept from it—how tennis is covered (and televised, for that matter), has a fundamental impact in our experience and perception of it.
And you've described exactly the transformation in the way we get information -- now it's like pressing your nose up against the window yourself, while before it was like someone telling you stories about a faraway world of tennis that only occasionally came into view before your eyes. The advantage was, though, that you learned about the game (and how to write about it) from experienced voices.
Now you're on the other side of it—writing for others to read. But I still think people seek those voices out—that's why so many gravitate to the Tennis.com blogs. I still read a lot, from all over, and get a lot from it. It's not so much fewer voices but even more of them, and a lot more of everything else too. There's just more room, and I'm looking forward to seeing what keeps getting done with it.