Missing Words

Thursday, July 10, 2014 /by

Three weeks ago, as I arrived at my desk in a nearly empty Wimbledon press room, I thought I heard a voice coming from the row behind me. It lasted for just a split-second, but I still got up on my toes and craned my neck to see who might be making it. No one was there, but now I understood where I thought the sound had come from: the desk where my colleague and friend Matt Cronin has always sat in the past.

For the first time in many years, Matt wasn’t at Wimbledon. Shortly after the Australian Open, he was diagnosed with a brain tumor. The good news is that he’s had surgery and is recovering, and is planning to rejoin us on tour as soon as he can. I wasn’t surprised that his voice was in my head at Wimbledon. I had the same experience in March at Indian Wells, where I’ve sat next to Matt for half a dozen years. The place didn’t sound the same without him.

More than one reporter echoed that thought at Wimbledon this year—it felt “weird” without Matt. It was weird not to hear him narrating matches from his desk. Weird not to hear him engaging with players in the interview room. Weird not to see him slam his hands down when he couldn’t type any more and announce, “Time for a cigarette.” Weird not to hear him, in the middle of a typically hectic, I-have-10-things-to-do-at-once kind of day at a Grand Slam, take a minute to call his son in California and remind him that he needed to sign up for his water polo team. Weird not to hear his raspy laugh at a midnight dinner when the day was done. Weird, most of all, not to see Matt sitting high in his press-room seat, up on his toes, with his back straight, punching away at his laptop. I never realized how much I slouched until I sat next to Matt.

It’s a feeling that a lot of us in tennis journalism know: Matt, who seems to be on the job 24/7, can make us all look a little slouchy at times. Chris Clarey of the New York Times calls him “the hardest working man in tennis,” and the title is apt. Matt writes for more outlets than I can count, while putting in many hours on the radio each day at the majors. Twenty years after he began in tennis, he's still happy to go through the often-laborious task of getting to know the players as well as he can. None are too obscure for him to cultivate, and he covers the women’s and men’s games with equal interest and respect. Matt’s knowledge of their personalities and their games, which he brings to his radio broadcasts, puts most other commentators to shame. Yet he also sees the humor in taking any sport so seriously. Three years ago, we were at Indian Wells when news broke about the meltdown at a nuclear reactor in Japan. “And I thought my Dinara Safina interview was huge,” Matt joked.

What I’ve learned most from seeing Matt do his job over the years is that journalism is work—work that’s necessary, and that we should be proud to do. The media never has a good reputation, and people are right to criticize us for various shortcomings, but there’s no questioning the dedication of the best reporters; they’ll work any day of the week, until any hour, to do the job. It’s fashionable now for sportswriters to deny that they're "journos" in the first place; Matt, a former president of the International Tennis Writers’ Association, has always stood against that attitude, and has always defended the profession. Like any reporter, he’s competitive about getting interviews and stories, but he’s also been a mentor to many of us. He wants to succeed as a journalist, but he also wants tennis journalism to succeed as a whole. Matt sticks up for his colleagues in the media, in part because he knows that few others outside of our profession will. 

In that sense, among U.S. tennis journalists, Matt is our leader. And maybe that’s what was so weird about not having him at Wimbledon. In past years, Doug Robson of USA Today and I have shared a flat with Matt during the tournament. A father of three at home, Matt naturally took over the house-management duties during our two-week stays, making the coffee, watering the apartment-owner's plants, taking out the recycling, organizing late-night dinners at restaurants, and even ordering for us if we were still stuck back at our desks, trying to make a deadline. Over the years, sitting in an empty, late-night Wimbledon press room, I’ve gotten many texts from Matt in which he listed items on the menu and asked which one I wanted. 

This year we were on our own; in the flat and in the press room, we missed Matt’s voice, his humor, his laugh, his enthusiasm, his example. His voice isn't one you can forget, and it has obviously stayed in my head on the road this year. I’m looking forward to hearing it again, for real, very soon.

*****

From a writer who was missed, to one who soon will be.

I was stunned, like most people, to find out that Simon Barnes, the Chief Sports Writer for the Times of London, and thus the de facto Chief Sports Writer for Great Britain, had been let go by the paper—“sacked,” as they say so tenderly over there. Barnes had spent 32 years at the paper, which claimed it could no longer afford his salary.

A few of my U.S. colleagues have said they won’t be reading a Barnes-less Times during future Wimbledons. I won’t go that far; the paper’s tennis coverage, led by Neil Harman, will still be essential. But I understand the sentiment. The tournament experience won’t be the same without a Barnes column to start the day.

The best compliment I’ve ever heard anyone give a writer came from a fan of Frank DeFord’s. The reader, whose name I can’t remember, said that when a DeFord feature came out in Sports Illustrated in the 1970s and 80s, he would pick up the magazine, sit down, and “prepare to forget everything and enjoy life for the next hour.” That’s pretty much how I felt this year when, each morning at a café in the village of Southfields near the All England Club, I opened the back of the Times and saw Barnes’ byline. A sunny morning, a sky with flying clouds, a cup of coffee, and his column combined to make me relax and forget, for a few minutes, the work that waited for me.

This isn’t because Barnes is a perfect writer. The pleasure of reading one of his columns, preferably out loud to someone else, comes from how imperfect—how head-shakingly overwrought—they can be, while at the same time still giving us a fresh perspective on the sporting event in question. Barnes’s style, mocked as “pseudo-intellectual” in his own country, make him more human to this fellow writer and fellow sports lover. 

Here are a couple of paragraphs from Barnes' Monday column, on the Wimbledon men’s final:

“Reader, have you ever yielded to the temptation of putting something altogether inappropriate on an open fire? Something rather too flammable, paper, say, or straw? And you watch it get warm—and all at once you have a blaze big enough to roast Joan of Arc?

That’s what it was like in that fourth set. It wasn’t that the match caught alight, it was already lit and burning well, but suddenly it became a blast furnace, a heretic-consuming inferno that fizzed and crackled to the sound of demented prayerful cheering as the finest arena in sport felt the heat and went into spontaneous combustion.”

Overdone? You might say that. But you might also say: Why not overdo it a little after such a match? Why not describe it as a “heretic-consuming inferno”? What true tennis fan who watched the match would say those words went too far? Not this one.

But Barnes isn’t all about pushing the verbal limits. He usually hits the right note, with the right words, and the right emotions, in the end. Here are his last lines from his Wimbledon final article, on Federer’s popularity in Britain:

“We admire genius without hope of emulation, and identify heart and soul with the possessor of genius without for a moment fancying that we have it, too....Federer has enriched us again and again. Everybody who watches tennis knows this, but we know it better because he did it right here, in this country, at out tournament, at Wimbledon. In some ways Federer is an honorary Brit, but in truth he comes from the nation of incomparable excellence. We have been privileged to get a tourist visa to visit that place thanks to him."

Barnes is the best-known teller of sports tales because he’s the one who has best understood the importance of sports in our lives. He believes, rightly, that they are the mythology of the modern day, and thus crucial to our understanding of ourselves. He has been derided for trying to put an intellectual’s spin on popular games. But to me, no one has been as good at telling us why they matter. 

Wimbledon won’t be the same without Barnes, because it won't mean as much without him. I can’t think of a better compliment to give a writer.

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