Tennis Channel. TENNIS Magazine. Tennis Industry. TENNIS.com. It doesn’t take a racquet scientist to see that, while each of these media outlets occupies a different space, they are all doing the same thing: promoting the sport of tennis.
And so it only makes sense that, as of last month, these broadcast, print and digital voices of the game converged under one umbrella. They joined forces in order to tell more compelling stories, better inform you about what’s important in the sport, and report on the players and places that matter—including those players and places that don’t have a voice. You have probably noticed various elements of the Tennis Channel appearing on TENNIS.com, and vice versa. Think of these early collaborations as formations that a newly formed doubles team practices. Some will work, others will need tinkering. But we know one thing for sure: we’ve found the perfect partner.
I’ve been an editor of TENNIS.com in some capacity since 2008. Before that—to borrow a phrase from the late, great Troy McClure—you might remember me from such tennis blogs as “Peter Bodo’s TennisWorld” and “Gasquet & Racquet.” As I was writing for these blogs and trying desperately to find my way into tennis journalism, the arrival of Tennis Channel on my cable provider was a seminal moment. It let me watch the game on red clay before Roland Garros each spring, and gave me my first extended look at the indoor circuit each fall—sights I had never seen in this pre-streaming, pre-YouTube era. But the niche network went beyond just matches. It did so in ways that have evolved over time—you don’t see daily doses of racquetball and squash on Tennis Channel any longer, but you continue to see tennis explored from new and exciting perspectives. That’s where Andre Agassi comes in.
Growing up, I had never been much of an Agassi fan; I was more of a Pete Sampras guy. I liked Pistol Pete’s no-nonsense comportment, his unbreakable serve, his annual excellence at Wimbledon. Agassi was erratic, his signature shot was a return and, at least on the surface, he seemed like everything that I wasn’t. At least that’s what I thought before I watched a Tennis Channel documentary about him, Agassi: Between the Lines. It told Agassi’s story in a way no other network, movie or program had done before, with rich footage, intimate interviews and artful production. It gave Agassi the respect he deserved, which in turn allowed me to give him the respect he deserved. But above all, the network gave tennis the respect it deserved. Tennis Channel was still a small voice in a loud, crowded arena of sports media, but, like TENNIS.com, it was a voice that would not go away.
In the years since the Agassi documentary debuted, Tennis Channel has continued to refine its storytelling voice, while TENNIS.com has become the world’s top online destination for tennis content. (I know this from the numbers, but more importantly, I hope you find that true in your browsing experience.) Which leads me to another Tennis Channel documentary, one that TENNIS.com will help augment.
This week, Tennis Channel’s seasoned crew of producers, editors and reporters will travel to Havana, Cuba to chronicle a most unexpected transformation: the rebirth of the country’s National Tennis Center by a group of Americans. Originally built for the 1992 Pan-American Games, the NTC’s courts had fallen into utter disrepair, a playing surface in name only. The nets sagged, the fences rusted—it was a dismal scene. The playing conditions were both unsafe and unacceptable by any reasonable standard. You can see hi-res photography of what the NTC once looked like over at Baseline.
Neglect had taken the life out of these courts—but not the game out of the players, as Jake Agna discovered. A tennis pro from Burlington, Vermont and co-founder of the Kids on the Ball youth tennis program, Agna began making regular visits to Havana after watching a CBS Sunday Morning episode that highlighted a musician’s cultural journey to Cuba. Inspired by the piece, Agna made his first trip to a nation seemingly off-limits to Americans for decades. He saw the value of his own cultural connection, through tennis, and the potential of the Cuban children—as well the unsuitable conditions they played in.
Needing the right equipment and facilities to bring their tennis dreams to life, Agna coordinated an effort with Hinding Tennis, a court-construction company from Connecticut, to undertake the first on-the-ground U.S. work project in Cuba in over 60 years. What they have achieved, and what they still wish to achieve, is the subject of Tennis Channel’s latest documentary project.
To this day, I will stop and watch the Agassi documentary whenever it appears on Tennis Channel. I have a feeling you’ll say the same thing about this forthcoming documentary. As it is being filmed this week—which I discussed with Havana-bound tennis writer Jon Wertheim on the TENNIS.com Podcast—we’ll highlight this unique story from a variety of angles, examine the past, present and future of Cuban tennis, and assess what this enterprise says about the sport as a whole.
In rebuilding Cuba’s National Tennis Center, two governments came together to create something powerful, that will resonate with all who enjoy tennis. I can think of no more appropriate story to tell that better exemplifies another exciting union, between TENNIS.com and Tennis Channel.
Senior Editor, TENNIS.com